Beyond the Books: Unveiling the Mental Health Challenges of University Life

“These will be the best years of your life”

we commonly hear before embarking on the new and exciting university journey. While this statement might be true for some, the reality is, that for many, it can be one of the most challenging. It’s no secret that university life can take its toll on a student’s mental health. A 2022 study conducted by Student Minds found that 57% of university students reported having a current mental health issue. 1 in 3 students also said that their mental health had gotten worse since beginning university. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, we have also observed a sharp increase in eating disorders amongst university students. The scale of the numbers is truly overwhelming to think that over half of university students are struggling with their own mental wellbeing. University can be an amazing opportunity to gain experience, develop knowledge, and meet new people. So why might mental health problems be such a big issue amongst university students?

Challenges faced by Students:

Academic Pressure – university can feel like a huge jump after your years at school and college/sixth form. Suddenly you’re sitting in large lecture halls being fed new information. You are expected to reference, research, and compile a myriad of complex essays without prior experience, and all whilst feeling the stems of pressure from parents, teachers, peers, societal expectation, and of course yourself. Students feeling the effects of academic pressure may start to experience anxiety and stress related symptoms, depression, and even academic burnout. Often, as students learn to adjust to the new academic routine and expectations, these feelings can become more manageable. Other times, it can become all-consuming and predispose the person to a range of mental health conditions.

Financial StressJuggling finances as a student is one of the biggest learning curves in many students’ university journeys. Managing student loans, rent, and part-time jobs all whilst trying to succeed academically and live out your “best years” feels like an impossible expectation. For many, this is the first time that they have lived independently with responsibility for their own finances. However, the current cost of living crisis means that at present, students are also experiencing intense concern over money. In the same survey by Student Minds, 83% of participants were concerned about the cost-of-living situation. In a separate survey by Save the Student, 82% were worried about making ends meet. This survey also found that the average students maintenance loan falls short of covering their living cost by £439 every month. Unsurprisingly, this additional anxiety is in turn, having a knock-on negative impact on mental health.

Social isolationPerhaps not spoken about enough, university, for many, can be a very isolating experience. For some, making friends can be challenging, subsequently, going to lectures and events can feel extremely daunting when you feel as though everyone else has made friends except you. This can lead to a vicious cycle of low attendance and confining yourself to your room further feeding the isolation. But even those who have made friends can still feel the effects of loneliness. Being in a room full of people but still feeling lonely is a common experience for many students. The transition away from school friends and family and time spent studying and contemplating future decisions is enough to make you feel isolated and homesick. This can lead to depression, social anxiety, panic attacks and other mental health issues including eating disorders which thrive off of isolation.

Social pressures and body image idealsalthough we are coming to realise that eating disorders come from much more than body image dissatisfaction alone, it can be a predisposing factor leading to a downward path of eating disorder destruction. By the time you’re 18 you can feel this pressure to feel your best, look your best and essentially be in your ‘glow-up’ era throughout university. This can lead to extreme self-criticism or low self-esteem predisposing you to disordered eating habits or binge-restrict cycles.

Impact on Eating Disorders:

Eating disorders are some of the biggest mental health issue for students, having a profound effect on their psychological, social, and physical functioning. The pressures associated with university life, alongside the isolation it provides, can also exacerbate an eating disorder and its symptoms during this time. Anxiety and depression also commonly co-occur alongside eating disorders; therefore, increased prevalence of these issues will exacerbate disordered eating patterns. University is a time in a person’s life in which they may feel completely out of control. Friends, academic success, finances, lifestyle and even food at university can feel completely out of a person’s control. Students may turn to rigid eating patterns or obsessive exercise routines in order to gain back some of this lost control.

A Student’s Experience:

I started university in 2019, as many first years do, I was drinking, partying, meeting new people and having fun. Despite this, I was finding the work challenging and I couldn’t help but feel as though everyone else knew more than me. I felt behind and we had only just started. 5 months in and my mental health started to drop, I started to lose motivation and feel depressed. As the COVID-19 pandemic began we were forced to isolate in halls of residence and soon after my anxiety shot up. I was experiencing panic attacks, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts. I felt trapped and completely out of control. In an attempt to, what I thought was getting my life back on track, I started exercising and eating less. I counted calories and steps and felt like I had control over the situation. As the months went by, and I started to become unwell, I quickly realised how little control I truly had. My anxiety became worse again and the depression crept back. Mental health support at university was limited due to COVID, so I decided to speak to my GP. A month later and I started hospital treatment. I left university for summer early and spent time at home with my family. I returned to university in September, and this time support was available. I built up a strong network of people that I could turn to. Having a support system that believes in you is one of the most important parts of the recovery process. Even when times got tough, my friends, family, and university staff never stopped believing that I could do it. Fast forward 3 years and I graduated with a first-class degree. While recovery comes from within, I owe so much more than just my academic success to my university and those that supported me. I owe my life. I truly believe that without whom I wouldn’t be where I am today. When I left university, I was ready, I no longer needed the support and I was able to cope with my emotions independently. That’s when you know you did it right.”

“Having a support system that believes in you is one of the most important parts of the recovery process.”

Surviving the Semester: Strategies for Coping

  • Build a support network – with university staff, or your friends and family, people that believe in you.
  • Routine – find a routine that you like to help you get enough sleep and regular meals.
  • Time management skills – invest in a calendar, whiteboard, or academic diary to help you feel organised and in control.
  • Volunteering – can be a great way to improve your self-esteem and connect with others.
  • Set achievable goals – if it all feels overwhelming, set small goals to help you cope with the day.
  • Keep your living space tidy
  • Download some apps – Headspace, Calm Harm, Student Health App, WorryTree, Stress and Anxiety Companion.
  • Seek early support – either via your university support and wellbeing team, family, friends, charities, or GP. Early screening is vital for eating disorder recovery.
  • Practice self-love and affirmations – you are perfect the way you already are.
  • Seek financial support – through your university or local charities.
  • Remove unhelpful resources – unfollow Instagram accounts, diet culture forums, weighing scales, smart watches or anything that makes you feel worse about yourself/fuels the eating disorder.

Breaking the Stigma

So, how are you feeling? Mental health issues amongst university students affect more than 1 in 2. It is important that we encourage open conversations about our mental health and eating disorders. We must normalize seeking help so that students feel comfortable and free from judgement. We must also combat stereotypes and misconceptions. Any person of any age, gender, nationality, and personal situation could be suffering from poor mental health or an eating disorder. No one is any less deserving of kindness and help. Every person suffering from an eating disorder is also capable of recovery. No matter your health status, age, length of suffering, or gender, you are still deserving of help and support without judgement. Your struggles are valid no matter what. Universities are increasingly offering resources and support systems for students, however, by promoting open conversations and breaking down stigmas we can create a university environment where mental health is prioritised and supported.


Student Minds (2023) Student Minds Research Briefing – February 2023.

Student Money Survey (2022) Student Money Survey 2022 – The results are in. Save the Student. [online]. Available from: [Accessed April 16, 2024].

 Tavolacci, M.-P., Ladner, J., Déchelotte, P. (2021) Sharp Increase in Eating Disorders among University Students since the COVID-19 Pandemic. Nutrients. 13(10), 3415.

Contributed by Adelaide Chinn