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The academic year is about to begin; many young adults will be leaving their family homes to start a new life at university. For many, this will be the very first of them leaving home (their nest) for an extended period, spending time away from their families, and social networks.
While this is an exciting time for these young adults, and parents seeing their children transition into higher education and gain independence, it is also a very vulnerable time for many. Some students struggle with the stress, separation, and adjusting to a new life away from home, which puts them at high risk of developing mental health problems.
These difficulties can at times get quite severe necessitating them to pause their studies or drop out. Some will continue their studies while receiving help, support, and treatment for their mental health.
Life stages and childhood - adulthood transition
The adolescent stage where most students are when they start university is indeed a crisis stage, where the child transitions into adulthood. This is not an event, but a process which takes time, with the adolescent oscillating between childlike states and tendencies, to being an adult who is able to look after themselves, and gain a sense of independence.
Many students who start university education are likely to be in their late teens -adolescents - or in their early twenties. These are not fully adults. Despite looking mature physically and outwardly, there are a lot of changes happening internally, pivoted by the surge of hormones. They are at a stage where they are learning a lot about adult life, exploring sexuality, and taking on an adult identity.
While the adolescent may have met all the developmental milestones physically and intellectually, it is important to keep in mind that they also have to meet the developmental milestones psychosexually and attain certain psychological abilities. It is indeed in the adolescent stage where personality and identity are formed; the child becomes an adult who has a solid sense of self and is autonomous in the world that they live with others.
The child also severs their dependence on adults - the parents - and develops into an adult, forming adult-to-adult relationships, instead of adult-child relationships. The negotiation between the outer and inner worlds can present a crisis to the adolescent and their parents, who are intrinsically part of this process. Some of the rebellious behaviours, the pushing of boundaries, and sexual exploration are all part of the negotiation, and identity formation.
Parents play a critical role in this tumultuous stage, where their presence and consistency in holding the adolescent through this transitionary phase is paramount. This stage is very critical, and it needs to be navigated very delicately, with parents being the moderator of what is acceptable and not.
Some young adults may not experience a smooth transition into adulthood and will see the emergence of mental health challenges including depression anxiety, self-harm, and eating disorders. Leaving home to start university can disrupt this already delicate process, making some students vulnerable to developing mental health problems during their time at university, away from their parents.
Attachments and loss
Leaving home, a familiar environment, means disconnecting from primary attachment figures (loss) - family, friends, home, etc. This spells a breakdown of emotional bonds the student would have built with their significant others and their environment. We may not see this as an attachment injury, however, this loss also means the student has to deal with absence and grieve for the loss of the significant attachments while fostering new connections in a foreign environment.
This loss can be profound for some students who become completely disconnected from their families, friends, support networks, and everything that is familiar to them. These are students who may have to move countries, cities etc. where there is not only an unfamiliar environment, but unfamiliar weather, climate, food, language etc. Foreign students and students who live far away from their homes often experience this loss more deeply than the ones who can visit home easily. However, this does not mean they do not experience loss in the same way.
Another form of loss experienced during the stage students start university is a loss of the old self - the child - and coming to terms with the new identity as an adult. This loss can stimulate ambivalent feelings about adulthood - while it brings a new sense of freedom, independence, and autonomy, being an autonomous and independent adult can be challenging - growing pains. Indeed, it comes with its own challenges of having to navigate everyday life without the watchful eyes of the parents and having to develop new relationships in an alien environment.
University culture - small fish in a big pond phenomenon
Many students who end up going to university are likely to have been academically superior, and popular in their former schools. They may have enjoyed the success of being in the top sets in their classes. When they start university, they realise they are just one of many others who are just as capable. There is often a lot of competition among university students, which can trigger a sense of being inadequate or being not as smart as the next person.
The rigorous nature of university studies, and the competencies they are expected to meet fuels this competition, which often becomes unhealthy, leading to anxiety and imposter syndrome. Many students find that they suddenly feel very small when they have always felt powerful; this creates a real blow to their confidence and self-esteem.
These secondary issues have a huge impact on their mental health, and how they navigate their new life at University. The newfound freedom and absence/loss of parental figures who keep a close eye on them can also lead to substance and alcohol misuse as a way of coping. This has a huge impact on one’s mental health.
Many students struggle with stress and coping with juggling their studies, academic life, social life, and independent living. It is not unusual for some students to end up experiencing severe mental health problems that require treatment from mental health professionals. At times parents have to be involved to support the students and keep a closer eye on them. In worst-case scenarios the students may end up deferring their studies, leaving University. This is indeed very sad and painful for the students and their parents.
Tips for students and parents to cope with University life
It is not unusual for students to struggle with their mental health in the first years of starting university. If you feel that you are one of them, here are the self-care tips to keep your mental health at an optimal level:
- Have a routine and prioritise rest from the library, classes, lab etc.
- Maintain a healthy and balanced diet, do not rely on takeaways-make your own meals.
- Make sure you get enough sleep and exercise sleep hygiene.
- Build a staple group of friends who are mutually supportive.
- Join University clubs and other social clubs so you can spend time with other people.
- Do not isolate yourself - make new connections and seek out new hobbies.
- Do not compete with your peers. We are all different - be mindful of the small fish in a pond phenomenon!
- Be mindful of peer pressure and how easy it is to lose focus. Peer pressure encompasses partying, drug use, truancy, and other delinquent behaviours.
- Maintain a positive relationship with your tutor where you can share your worries, concerns and anxieties.
- Stay in touch with your family and friends back home.
- Register with a local GP.
- Identify your University student counselling service and investigate the referral process.
- Self-refer to the student counselling services if you feel that your mental health is deteriorating.
- If you have a history of mental illness, identify your local CMHT and CRT.
- Parents - keep an eye on your children and try and have an open channel of communication.
- Parents - visit your children and make sure they are settling in well, and be curious about their new life.
- Do not ignore any signs of acopia or unusual behaviours, for example not answering phones etc.