• Leaving for university is a huge transition, for teenagers and parents alike

  • Especially if your child is prone to stress or struggles with mental health, parents may be concerned says therapist Rachel Farhi

  • Many therapists have worked extensively with students and young people, and some offer concessions – start your search here

Now that the excitement of Results Day is over and the student in your family is getting ready for their next step of going to university, it may be prudent to look at what kind of help and support is available for them, particularly if you know that they may be managing mental health issues or if they are prone to stress and anxiety.

Back in the day, going off to university, perhaps in a town many miles from home, was seen as a rite of passage that very few young people experienced. But in recent years and with nearly 50% of youngsters taking up the opportunity that a degree can offer them, it is worth noting that there is bound to be a significant number of that cohort who may find the transition from school and home to living independently and away from the familiar particularly challenging.

As a parent or carer, you may well expect to hear stories of home-sickness and general adjustment issues from your student. Such feelings are natural and to be expected – it’s part and parcel of any big change that there will be anxiety and strain as well as excitement and optimism. However, when should you be concerned? And what can you do if you are worried that your student isn’t settling down as well as you had hoped for?

The state of student mental health

Unfortunately, there have been some tragic stories in the news of students feeling under pressure and choosing to take their own lives. Whilst it is wrong to speculate on the levels of support in these cases, it is not wrong to understand that universities in general are struggling to provide sufficient provision for students who are experiencing difficulties with their mental health and wellbeing. Although many universities do have counselling services, these are often overwhelmed by the number of referrals they can cope with and often can only offer very short term help, largely because of underfunding issues.

So perhaps it may be time for us, as parents of young people, to be offering some practical help with this alongside the other things we are doing to help our children make the most of their time at university.

My experience as a parent

From personal experience, one of my own children experienced a mental health crisis in her second year at Cambridge. Usually a happy, laid-back character with a capacity for hard work, we all thought she would find her degree a challenge, but not in a bad way. At first she seemed happy, had made friends and was enjoying her experience. During the summer before starting her second year however, she was at home and woke up with an extreme panic attack which I had never witnessed before. As I struggled to get an appointment with our GP at home (who refused one because my daughter was now registered with a doctor in her university town), I realised that students fall in the gaps between medical provision and I felt helpless at watching her go through such a painful experience without being able to summon the right medical assistance. 

After driving across London to an emergency walk-in, my daughter was seen by an unsympathetic duty doctor who, after making unnecessary judgemental comments about students, sex, alcohol and drugs (none of which were issues for my daughter), gave her some heavy duty sleeping pills and told her to go home to bed.

Fortunately, the sleeping pills helped in the immediate aftermath (it turned out that she had literally burned herself out studying and socialising at exam time without enough sleep or regular meals) but the real problem remained – she told me she hated her course and the uncompromisingly old-fashioned culture of her college where she felt she was just a number and not a young person to be helped, nurtured and understood.

Quitting was an option but she had worked too hard and sacrificed too much for this to be more than a moment’s thought. I suggested that she approach the university’s counselling service and arrange for some one-to-one sessions but she told me that she had already tried earlier in the year and been told she wasn’t ‘bad enough’ to get the limited help that was on offer, which was to join a ‘wellbeing group’, where students were taught how to manage their stress through developing good study/life habits.

As a parent, I was shocked that even at such a prestigious institution there was scant help available. I was also angry that no one at her college had let us know that our child was experiencing difficulties, even though she’d skipped classes and was laying low, trying to manage herself as best as she could without wanting to worry us.

A recent study of 14,000 UK students by Hepi and Advance HE found that two-thirds of students would like their university to let their parents know if they are experiencing a mental health crisis but as students are legal adults then there is no obligation on the part of universities to involve third parties – even parents are seen as third parties. Students themselves may feel ashamed that they are not coping or, as with our daughter, were concerned about worrying us. A more joined-up approach would be a good way forward, firstly to acknowledge that young people don’t just magically turn into the same kind of fully-formed adult the day after their 18th birthday  but require a duty of care which involves everyone who comes into contact with them to realise that they are a work in progress, and some need a lighter touch than others.

What can you do to help your student to get the support they need?

When my daughter was a student I was not familiar with the counselling world at all and didn’t have a clue about how to find a suitable private counsellor that she could see during term-time. Now that I am a therapist myself I am happy to say that parents and students have contacted me and I have worked with several students on a private basis, with therapy fees being regarded by their parents as another necessary expense to help out and prevent crises developing. Most of our universities are located in towns and cities which will have qualified and experienced counsellors ready and willing to work with students and with much quicker appointments available than waiting for the statutory services to kick in. You can find one here on welldoing.org.

Yes, it can be expensive but in the overall scheme of the university experience, the learning and life-changing skills that your young person could acquire may well be better value than the degree itself. Looking back on my own university experience, when tuition was free and I even got a grant (!), I realised that the real education I received was not in the lecture hall but in the quiet, welcoming therapy room of the college counsellor who I saw for a year when my mother died in the middle of my course.

Time, life and experience feel as though they have brought me full circle and I feel privileged to pay that forward.

Rachel Farhi is a verified welldoing.org therapist in South East London

Further reading

Surviving university: freshers' week and beyond

Student mental health: can mindfulness reduce stress?

When your child leaves for university

Why do university students see counsellors?

Students: don't ignore your basic needs