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#KnowTheSigns?: Mental Health Issues in Students & How to Be Supportive

10 Oct 2018
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With mental health problems affecting one in four people in the UK each year, it’s time to remove stigmas and get talking. While some of the talking should be left to the professionals – more on that later – one of the best ways that you can help someone is to recognise when they are suffering.

Among students, the most commonly occurring mental illnesses include depression, anxiety, addiction, and eating disorders. There’s no definite “cause” for mental illness, but stress, new environments, and separation from family and friends can act as triggers – and being able to spot when someone is having trouble coping can help you give them a much-needed lifeline.

So how can you spot when someone is suffering? Just as no two people are the same, the same goes for mental health struggles. However, there are a few symptoms – or  signs – that might raise red flags. Here are a few.



This common but serious illness affects how the sufferer feels, thinks, and acts. It’s often characterised by feelings of sadness and/or apathy, but it extends beyond feeling ‘low’. If you’re concerned that a friend might be suffering from depression, look out for…

• A lack of interest in activities they once used to love
• An increased desire to spend time alone
• A newfound tendency to cancel plans or to skip university or other commitments
• Signs of extreme sadness, hopelessness, negativity, or anger
• An increased dependence on drink or drugs


Anxiety is a feeling of worry, fear, or unease that we may all experience at some points in our lives, particularly during periods of stress and change. However, for some people, anxiety is more severe, affecting day-to-day life due to more severe or constant feelings of worry or fear. Some sufferers of anxiety may do so due to other mental health problems, such as panics disorder, phobias, PTSD, and social anxiety disorders.
While most people will encounter symptoms of anxiety on occasion, people who suffer with prolonged or severe anxiety may need some additional support. You can look out for the following symptoms in friends:

• Feelings of inadequacy and fear of failure – whether academically, socially, professionally, or otherwise
• Extreme discomfort and/or anxiety in or leading up to social situations
• Avoiding social situations, and becoming increasingly ‘flaky’
• Difficulty concentrating and seeming to have a blank mind
• Extreme feelings of guilt or stress
• Visible panic attacks

Eating Disorders

When someone develops an unhealthy attitude to food, which interferes with their daily life and/or makes them ill, it’s often down to an eating disorder. Eating disorders are often misperceived as ‘bad diets’ or unhealthy lifestyle choices, but are in fact serious mental illnesses that can cause long-term medical problems, and even fatalities. The following signs may point towards an eating disorder:

• Skipping meals or eating only small portions
• A change from their usual attitude towards food – for example, obsession with certain foods or disinterest in foods they used to enjoy
• An obsessive interest in calories or limiting meals by the number of calories they contain
• Strict eating habits
• Disappearing to the toilet immediately after eating
• A dislike or fear of eating in public or in front of others
• A fixation on their body shape, measurements, weight (and/or weight-loss), or clothing size

Drink and Drug Addiction

Addiction is defined by a lack of control over consumption of something that may cause harm. The examples here include alcohol, drugs, and gambling, but you can be addicted to anything – even work, social media, or shopping. When someone reaches the point where a habit becomes harmful to their health and is beyond their control, they may have an addiction. The following signs may point to addiction:

• Drinking to relieve stress or to suppress issues
• Drink or drugs interfering with relationships
• Withdrawal from uni, normal activities, friendships, and commitments
• A fixation on drugs or alcohol – for example, needing to know whether they’ll be available before agreeing to attend an event
• A change in personality, friends, hobbies, or academic performance
• Blacking out or having a blank memory from drug or alcohol use
• Concern from others over drug or alcohol consumption

How Can You Help Someone Who Is Suffering from Mental Ill-Health?

If you spot the above symptoms in a friend, a fellow student, a flatmate, or a family member, it’s important to remember that the most valuable thing that you can do is to be there for them. However, there are other things you can do to help their recovery (or help to initiate it) and to ensure that they feel supported.

Treat Them the Same

Suffering from a mental illness can be alienating, and it often makes people feel alone – or makes them feel that they want to be alone. If you spot signs of mental illness in a friend or loved one, you should treat them the same as you always have. Depression and anxiety in particular may be triggered by perceived changes in how others see them, so do your best to maintain consistency.

When friends become flaky, continue to invite them to take part in your usual social group’s activities – even if they choose not to come, they’ll know that you’re thinking of them.

Listen to Them

It’s the simplest thing you can do, but it may mean a lot. Being available to talk, being a shoulder to cry on, and being understanding can go a long way to helping someone to feel supported. You don’t even need to say anything!

You should be aware that your friend may not want to talk – they may not be ready, they may not feel comfortable, or they may not know how to say what they mean. Simply letting them know that you’ll be there when they’re ready can be a relief to someone who’s suffering, especially if they’re feeling isolated.

You should try to avoid saying things that are unhelpful – “cheer up” and “don’t worry” never solved anyone’s problems! – and to avoid being judgemental or too logical. Sometimes, the way your friend feels may seem irrational to you, but that doesn’t make it any less real to them.

Encourage Them to Seek Help

Professional help can sometimes speed up recovery or enable people to cope better with mental illness. You need to remember that they may not be ready to seek help, but you can plant the seed to let them know that support is out there. The best ways you can encourage them to talk to a professional are to…

• Offer to go with them to any appointments
• Visit student support together
• Share details of online support, phone lines, or groups
• Help them research charities that offer appropriate support

Help with Life-Admin

Mental health issues can be all-encompassing, leaving sufferers with very little energy or motivation to get on with the normal day-to-day stuff. Sometimes, the practical help is the most valuable…

• Help to cook dinner, tidy up, or complete an assignment
• Take out their laundry if it’s on your way
• Put on a movie that you both love
• Put on the kettle
• Plan low-key nights with fewer people and less booze
• Send them a text saying Hi/How are you?/What you up to?/Want a brew?

Do Something Wholesome

University is great fun, but it has its challenges – hard work, stress, distance from family, cheap drinks, new friends – and sometimes it can all be a bit much. Do something refreshing together: get outside for a walk; cook a healthy meal – or a big chocolate cake; leave the city for a day trip. A change of scenery can work wonders.

Be Patient

There’s no saying when your friend is going to feel ‘like themselves’ again, so just be there. Listen, relax. Try not to put pressure on your friend to get better, or on them calling a helpline, or on them coming out for dinner.

Tell Them (Again) That You’re There for Them

Just because – everybody needs somebody.

And, Finally, Look After Yourself

You might not be the one suffering, but that doesn’t mean you’re having an easy time. Supporting a friend or family member through mental illness can be tough. It’s tiring, you might feel like you’re not doing enough to help, and you might spend a lot of time worrying about them. And that’s okay. But make sure you’re taking care of yourself.
Don’t feel guilty for having a good time when your friend doesn’t want to join in. Speak to someone about how you’re feeling. Visit student support. Call your parents. Take a walk outside.

#KnowTheSigns is a student campaign to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of mental illness, to offer advice to people suffering, and to work towards removing the stigmas of mental health problems.