A group of young people sit on a picnic bench together in the park. They are smiling and talking together.

A guide for parents and carers Mental health at university

Find out how you can support your young person if they're struggling with mental health issues at university, and how the university can help with mental health.

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Lots of young people hear that going to university will be the “best time of their lives”. And it's often true that there will be exciting experiences. But there will probably be difficult moments too, just like at any other time of life.

While young people can feel pressure to have fun all the time, lots of students struggle with mental health issues at some point. It’s a time of big change and there’s a lot to manage. This includes living away from home, finding new social groups and dealing with academic pressure. The years around Covid have also been really challenging for lots of students.

If your child or young person is having a hard time at the moment, they might be feeling:

  • anxious about social situations or their academic work
  • isolated
  • homesick
  • low or depressed – this could be because they're finding it difficult to make friends, or struggling with a lack of structure
  • pressured to do things they do not enjoy, such as going out, drinking alcohol or taking drugs
  • stressed or overwhelmed about their workload
  • worried about money
  • tired because they are not getting enough sleep, or do not have a regular sleep pattern

Whatever's going on, we've got advice to help you support them. We've also got information about accessing mental health services at university.

How can I support them when they start university?

Two young people sitting together and listening to a conversation.

If your child or young person is about to start university, you’re probably both feeling a real mix of emotions. It might feel exciting, but also nerve-wracking and a bit daunting.

Be guided by them in the support you offer during this time. Some young people might be happy to get ready at their own pace. Others might want to work their way through practical things with you.

If your young person has a mental health condition, or a neurodiverse condition like autism or ADHD, they may need some extra support to manage.

To help your child or young person get ready to start university, you can:

  • Set realistic expectations

    Give lots of positive encouragement about the exciting experiences they will have. But also let them know it’s normal if going through such a big change is hard sometimes, especially to begin with. This will make it easier for them to open up to you if they do find things difficult.

    Remind them that they do not need to have it all figured out before they start. They can learn as they go, and you’ll still be there on the end of the phone.

  • Check in with them

    Try starting a conversation while you're getting ready for the move, for example when you're shopping or packing. This can make it easier to chat in a more relaxed way. If they are feeling nervous, let them know that's completely normal. Reassure them that everyone will be feeling this way and that everyone’s in the same boat.

  • Help them feel prepared

    If they are feeling anxious, ask if there’s anything on their mind. They might feel worried about money, making friends or their course. You could help them to feel more prepared by making a budget, thinking about societies they would like to join, or looking through their course material together. Their university may also offer to put them in touch with their new flatmates before they arrive, if this is something they would like to do.

  • If they take medication, encourage them to get a new prescription before they leave home, so they do not have to worry about this to begin with.
  • Encourage them to register with student support services and a local GP, so they can reach out for help if they need it.
  • If they would like to, they can set up a student support plan or statement of reasonable adjustments with the university. This outlines how the university will provide support. Many universities have a disability advice service that can help with this. You can also have a look at the information on the university’s website.
  • They can also apply for Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA). Through this, they can get financial support for the things they need to do their course. This might include a note taker or specialist equipment. Or it might be covering the cost of extra travel to attend courses from home.

Most universities ask students to provide contact details for their next of kin. Sometimes they also ask for one or more ‘trusted contacts’. A 'trusted contact' is a supportive adult that the university can contact if they have concerns about someone's wellbeing. This does not need to be the same as someone's next of kin. If their university offers this, encourage your child or young person to think about who they would like to name.

A man and woman look at each other outdoors
Booking my son’s accommodation prompted a discussion about what he’ll need, but also what he'd like to take to make it feel like home.
Liz, parent

How can I help them look after their mental health?

If they want to speak over the phone or FaceTime, arrange regular times to check in. When you talk, focus on listening and empathising with what they’re going through. It's important to make them feel understood, rather than trying to fix everything straightaway.

If they do not want to speak on the phone, you could:

  • send supportive messages
  • chat on Whatsapp or text
  • send them a card or package to let them know you’re thinking of them
  • ask whether a visit from you or a friend would help

To look after our mental health, we need to get enough sleep, do some exercise, connect with people we care about and eat regular meals. When we’re not doing these things, our problems can start to feel worse. Students may not do these things all the time. But you can encourage your child or young person to do each one at least a few times a week.

If they believe they are feeling bad during what should be the “best time of their life”, it will make things worse. Provide some context for how they’re feeling. Remind them that they are managing a lot. They're coping with flat shares, social groups, deadlines and academic pressure. They're also structuring their own day-to-day life for the first time. Let them know that lots of people go through a hard time at some point while they’re at university.

Some courses involve lots of teaching hours, while others have relatively few. If they don't have many 'contact' hours, they may need your help to plan activities that give them some structure. If they have a lot, they may need your help to plan activities that give them a break.

Universities have societies and groups for just about any interest. Joining a group for something they enjoy can help them meet like-minded people and find their community.

Money can be a source of stress and anxiety at university. Having a budget might help to give them more confidence. You can have a look at Save the Student, which has lots of tips for managing finances at university. Many universities offer hardship funds or bursaries. So if your child or young person is struggling, it’s worth looking for these on the university website.

Self-care looks different for everyone. It could be:

  • going for a walk or a run
  • doing something creative like drawing or colouring
  • reading a book
  • playing sport
  • listening to audio books, podcasts or music
  • cooking or baking

It can be easy to stop doing these things when you’re living in a new place and there’s lots going on. But making time for them can really improve our mood. Your child or young person can use our young person’s guide to self-care to get started.

Self-care

It’s okay if the academic work feels a lot more challenging than when they were at school or college. Lots of people find it’s a big change. If they’re feeling really stressed, or finding it hard to keep up, they can always talk to their personal tutor to get some support. If a mental health issue is affecting their ability to do their work or exams, they can apply for an extension, or for this to be taken into consideration.

It’s common for students to go out and drink alcohol at university. It can also be a time when some people experiment with drugs. Avoid being cross or judgemental if your child or young person talks to you about this. But be really clear about the risks. Help them to understand that drinking and taking drugs can make existing problems feel worse. If they’re struggling at the moment, it might help to cut down on how much they’re drinking.

You can find more advice about drugs and alcohol in our guide for parents and carers.

Drugs and alcohol

You can find out how your child or young person can get help at university below. You can also give them the number for helplines they can call when they need to talk. You’ll find a list of helplines at the bottom of this page.

Three people sitting on a sofa chatting.

Reaching out to chaplains, multi-faith chaplains and local faith communities

Some universities have a multi-faith chaplaincy service, where any student (of any faith or none) can talk to someone. They may also run wellbeing activities like meditation or yoga. If your child or young person is feeling lonely, they might like to connect with their local faith community at a local church, mosque or temple too.

How can universities help with mental health?

Most universities provide their own wellbeing and mental health support. This often includes free counselling services. Each university has its own system for doing this.

Have a look around the university’s website to find out what’s available. If there is a section on student wellbeing, this is a good place to start. You can also use Student Space to search for wellbeing services at your child or young person’s university (England and Wales only).

Some young people feel nervous about asking the university for help. If this is the case, encourage your child or young person to speak to whoever they feel most comfortable with. They can reach out to:

  • their personal tutor
  • a wellbeing advisor or officer, or the university’s wellbeing service
  • the residential life or pastoral support teams in their university accommodation
  • the university counselling service
  • a GP
Two people sat on a sofa talking seriously.
Two common barriers that prevent students from asking for help at university are feeling that their needs are ‘not serious enough’, and thinking the waiting list will be too long. Reassure your child that university support services are designed to help students with a whole spectrum of different needs, and that it’s a good thing to address concerns early before they become more severe. Even if there’s a bit of a wait, it’s better to be on the list and moving forwards than to not be on the list at all.
Adrian, Student Health and Wellbeing Manager and Warden

These people can help by having an initial chat with your child or young person about how they’re feeling. They can:

  • provide information about what support is available at the university
  • tell them how they can access the university’s counselling and wellbeing services
  • help them manage their academic work, including getting extensions on deadlines

Wellbeing advisors may also offer other types of support. This can include a listening service, drop-in sessions and self-help strategies.

A counsellor or therapist can help your child or young person to make sense of how they’re feeling. They can provide emotional support, be there to listen and help them find ways of coping.

Your child or young person may be able to access free counselling at:

The university’s counselling service

Most universities provide a free counselling service to students. Your child or young person will usually be able to self-refer to this service. You can find out how they can access counselling by going to the university’s website. Or you can call the university’s main contact number and ask for information about this.

An NHS counselling service

If your child or young person is 18 or older and they live in England, they can refer themselves to their local NHS service for free talking therapy. They can use the NHS directory to find services near them. They do not need a referral from a GP to access therapy, but they need to be registered with a GP to use the service.

If they live in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, they can get a referral for NHS counselling services through a GP.

You can find advice about other types of counselling services, including private services, in our guide for parents and carers.

Counselling and therapy

It's important that your child or young person registers with a GP at their university. This means they can access help during term-time. Most universities have their own health or medical centre/clinic. Or they can register with any other GP surgery in the town where they are studying.

The GP can:

  • talk to your child or young person about how they’re feeling
  • support them to access counselling and wellbeing services at the university or elsewhere
  • discuss medication options if this is something they want to talk about
  • refer them for specialist support if needed

You can find more information about GPs in our guide for parents and carers.

Getting support from the GP

Who can I speak to at the university?

As a parent or carer, it’s helpful to understand the rules about confidentiality at university. Universities will only share information about a student’s health or wellbeing with other people if they are concerned about their safety. Or, if they have the student’s direct and explicit consent to do so.

If you can, it’s best to encourage your child or young person to seek help from the university themselves. But if you're worried and they are not talking to anyone at university, you may be able to use an online form to let the university know what’s happening. You can usually find this on the wellbeing section of their website.

You can also contact their personal tutor. They will not be able to discuss anything your child or young person has told them unless they are concerned about their safety. But they can signpost you to the university’s support services. And it can help for them to be aware that there’s a problem.

If you are having trouble contacting someone, you can call the university’s main telephone number and ask who you should speak to.
If you are really concerned about your child or young person’s mental health, or you are worried they are not safe, get urgent help.

Close up of a man engaging in conversation with a lady in the background

Getting urgent help at university

If you are worried that your child or young person is feeling suicidal, or they are experiencing a mental health crisis, you need to get help.

It can be incredibly upsetting when your child or young person is struggling and they’re far away. Trust your instincts about the situation and get urgent help if you feel it’s needed.

  • call 999 or take them to the nearest A&E

If you are not with them, you can:

  • call 999 on their behalf
  • ask if someone who is with them can call 999 or take them to A&E
  • encourage them to call 999 or go to A&E themselves

  • call 111 for urgent information and advice from the NHS – you can call this number 24/7 in England, Wales and Scotland
  • encourage them to call their local NHS urgent mental health helpline, if they live in England
  • encourage them to make an urgent on-the-day GP appointment, or take them to an appointment if you’re with them

You can find a list of these on our urgent help page.

Urgent help page

Useful helplines and websites

  • YoungMinds Parents Helpline

    We support parents and carers who are concerned about their child or young person's mental health. Our Parents Helpline provides detailed advice and information, emotional support and signposting.

    You can speak to us over the phone or chat to us online.

    You can speak to us over webchat between 9.30am and 4pm from Monday-Friday. When we’re closed, you can still leave us a message in the chat. We’ll reply to you by email in 3-5 working days.

    Opening times:
    9.30am-4pm, Monday-Friday
  • Student Minds

    Supports students to look after their mental health by providing information and advice.

    They also provide details about local services offered by universities and information on how you can access support group programmes.

    You can call or email for more information (this is not a helpline).

  • Parenting Mental Health

    Digital support community and charity offering information, peer support, facilitated listening circles, mentoring and courses for parents of children with mental health difficulties.

    Founder Suzanne Alderson’s book Never Let Go - How to Parent Your Child Through Mental Illness (Penguin, 2020) outlines how she supported her daughter to recovery after she became depressed and suicidal.

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This page was reviewed in January 2024.

It was created with parents and carers with lived experience of supporting their child or young person at university.

We will next review the page in 2027.

YoungMinds is a proud member of PIF TICK – the UK's quality mark for trusted health information.