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Don't Forget: It's Good to Talk

29th October 2013

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It’s a familiar line: going to university is a time of opportunity - moving away from home, becoming independent, making friends that will last a lifetime, and so on. 

We are all very familiar with the ideal of a university place, and yet many students struggle in the early days. There are new experiences and friends, but the process of change can be as challenging as it is exciting, with increased levels of anxiety following disconnection from family and long-term friends, and new expectations.  However, there are lots of opportunities for help and support at university and college, and a difficult scenario can be quickly turned round to something more hopeful and exciting.

For the majority, the early struggles can be negotiated and, in doing so, a greater level of self-confidence and self-belief can be experienced in knowing that you turned things around.  What is important, however, is that you are honest with yourself when you need help from someone and that you don’t assume it is a sign of weakness, because it certainly is not.  As a counsellor who has worked in a large, busy university counselling service for many years, I have often been struck by the personal strength and determination people demonstrate in asking for help and how they can really turn things for the positive. 

There are all sorts of sources of support: wellbeing teams, university counsellors, international support teams,accommodation services, disability support teams, welfare advisers, mental health advisers, student mentors, student union and guild advisers, student support groups, academic advisers; personal tutors – the list goes on.  The nature and type of support will vary from institution to institution, but will essentially follow a similar structure and an institution’s website can be a source of information.  The student union or guild may offer a network of academic, social and personal support options, while academic departments could have advisers and tutors with a specific role of helping you manage problems.  Almost all universities also offer an integrated counselling service.

Knowing who to contact first can often be an initial hurdle.  The simple answer is anyone you feel most comfortable with.  Even if they are not the right person they will be able to signpost you to someone who is.  The rule of thumb is approaching someone will always be better than approaching no-one.  While we might want to manage things on our own, or hope our worries will magically go away, accepting that we all need a helping hand on occasion is the first step to tackling problems head on.

Each situation will require a slightly different solution, but there are some key things to keep in mind to give yourself as much opportunity as possible of making a success of your new experiences.  Here are my top five:

  1. Always set realistic expectations of yourself and others.  University or college might turn out to be a magical place of wonder and opportunity, but most people will have some worry, anxiety and stress in the early days.  We can always imagine that everyone else is doing better than ourselves, but I have never known that to be true.
  2. Don’t sit on problems and hope they will simply disappear into the ether.  The sooner you face up to problems the easier it is for them to be sorted, or at least for you to feel better about them – don’t delay in seeking out help
  3. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness.  It does not demonstrate a flawed personality.  Seeking help, at the right time, is a source of strength.  Be assertive and ask for what you need.
  4. At times of anxiety, take time to look after yourself.  Our mental health is as important as our physical health.  Eating well, sleeping well, exercise, plenty of ‘stop time’ and relaxation will all contribute to feeling both physically and emotionally stronger.
  5. And finally, you do not need to be perfect and you can be kind to yourself.  Be patient with your struggles and forgiving or your mistakes.  Getting things ‘wrong’ can be a greater opportunity for learning than getting things ‘right’.
Dr Andrew Reeves

British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy Senior Accredited Counsellor/Psychotherapist - for more information about counselling and psychotherapy.

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