Freshers' week
Many students face crippling anxiety during Freshers' week. Source: Shutterstock

Freshers’ week in the UK – generally referred to as student orientation in other countries – is the first introductory one or two weeks before the university semester begins.

It presents a chance for students to get to know their new peers and roommates, familiarise themselves with the new campus, and get settled into their student accommodation.

An article by VICE, however, recently shed light on the fact that many students find this time challenging, as it’s the first step in the transition towards adult life.

For most students, it’s their very first time living on their own, far away from the creature comforts of home. International students face the same challenge while having to acclimatise to a whole new culture.

Freshers’ week can be extremely challenging as anxieties over social issues and academic worries start to build.

For those with existing mental health conditions, it can be an overwhelming time, especially if they have not received any form of therapy before.

More are students suffering from mental health problems

The Independent reported that, “The number of first-year students arriving at university who report a mental health condition is now five times what it was 10 years ago. There’s also been a trebling in the number of students dropping out of university with mental health problems.”

While universities have been addressing the mental health crisis in the UK through various campaigns, VICE suggests that there is much more to be done.

“Terms like ‘depression’ and ‘impostor syndrome’ provide outlines for these feelings, but they must be coloured in with student voices documenting what it means to encounter these difficulties, and what strategies can help overcome them.

“After all, even with increases in mental health awareness, recent polling has indicated that levels of mental distress and illness among students at UK universities is “alarmingly high”, with half of students reporting thoughts of self-harm.

“Servicing young people with awareness campaigns becomes meaningless without real insights into what you physically or mentally encounter when you reach university.”

Rose Bretécher, who suffered from mental health issues, wrote on Grazia Daily, “I was 18 years old when I arrived at Leeds university campus with a cracking noughties mullet and a prospectus full of neuroses: OCD, bulimia, generalised anxiety disorder, depression.

“There were certain boxes that I thought needed ticking in order to be a successful fresher – making new friends, joining societies, going on dates – and they all made me incredibly anxious. In the midst of what had been hyped as the most momentous period of my short existence, the unsayable thing was that I wasn’t happy.

“I didn’t want to have casual chit chats with strangers. I didn’t want my photo to be taken. I didn’t want to step out of my comfort zone. Seeing how excited my friends were, I believed that I was the only fresher in the whole country, in the whole world, who felt like this.”

If students don’t get their mental health issues checked out, it can lead to alcoholism, chronic depression, or self-harm.

There are a number of ways students can reduce these anxieties during Freshers’ week, such as getting more sleep or visiting the counselling centre.

The problem is, not all students are equipped to handle these issues and take control of their condition. They might just chalk it up to homesickness or feel there is simply something wrong with them.

Without their support system there to help them, they may feel isolated and lonely, and refuse to seek help.

Reducing anxieties that start during Freshers’ week

So how can universities help students address these feelings of stress and anxiety during Freshers’ week? Being more proactive in offering mental health services as well as constantly evaluating their own mental health efforts could be part of the solution.

According to The Independent, “Universities need to reinforce healthy behaviours in words and in practice. So while universities might offer advice on sleep, nutrition, physical activity, stress management and coping strategies, they can also help students to act on this advice.

“This might include things like not having libraries open all night to reinforce the need for students to get sufficient sleep. Or having healthy foods in vending machines to encourage healthy eating – as well as providing plenty of opportunities on campus for low cost physical activity and exercise.”

During Freshers’ week, students can also receive psychological evaluation or seek mandatory peer support from someone they can turn to if they need help.

This can reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness and help international students adjust to their new surroundings.

The Guardian suggests that instructors can also play a huge role in helping students overcome mental health issues.

“Make sure your students know their self-worth: they have been offered a place by a university – so they belong there. They also need to grasp the importance of commitment to and engagement with their studies and university life very early on.

“You can help them achieve this not only by ensuring they understand their study programme, but also by encouraging the formation of friendships and social networks. The first step is to get the student talking to people – friends, family and members of staff – because university life shouldn’t be seen as going it alone.”

The Guardian also suggests that universities can offer training courses for staff so they can signpost mental health and wellbeing services and identify mental health problems.

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