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How to avoid learning the hard way

A Leavers' Mental Health Forum at Brighton College aims to ease the transition between school and university

Posted by Julian Owen | September 18, 2018 | Teaching

By Leah Hamblett, Deputy Head at Brighton College

With higher study costs and an increasingly competitive jobs market, there is greater pressure than ever on the more than half a million teens starting further education this autumn. A recent survey showed that 87% of first year students in the UK find it difficult to cope with social or academic elements of student life. 

With this in mind, last week we invited our parting sixth formers to a Leavers’ Mental Health Forum aimed at easing the transition between school and starting university. 

There has been much in the news in the past couple of years about the rise in student depression rates. Pupils across the country leave their schools having become used to the structure and routine that helped them achieve their hard-fought-for A level grades, so it can be oddly bewildering to suddenly have so much freedom at university. 

On top of that, they are faced with living in a new city, meeting new people and the practicalities of looking after themselves. Is it any wonder that some find themselves at sea in this crucial period of transition? 

We invited the Chief Executive of mental health charity Mind, Paul Farmer, to speak to our leavers and their parents (who will continue to be the support network long after they have left home) and also asked three past pupils, now in their first year at university, to talk about their experiences so far.

The result was fascinating and I think resonated with every adult in the room. It certainly brought back memories of that wonderful but sometimes scary time when I first left home! 

"More than half of mental health problems in adult life start by the age of 14, so it is incredibly important that we get used to discussing this subject and learning how to tackle it."

Paul told the audience: “There is a stigma still attached to mental health that we are battling all the time. We are making progress but one in ten young people have a diagnosable mental health problem and 70% of young people with mental health issues have not had the right help at an early enough age. So we still have a long way to go. 

“You are in transition. Young people come from school, where there is a lot of organised activity, and then they head to uni where there is a whole lot less structure. It’s important that you prepare for this. Often you are so busy thinking about the practicalities of moving on to live independently that the mental health side of being in such a classic transition phase is forgotten. 

“New friends, a new place to live, a new course – all these things can be stressful, and it is important

to focus on how you are managing mentally and set time aside to look after yourself, whether that means going on a run or talking to old friends who know you well. Then, when a stress moment comes and causes a wobble, you will deal with it.” 

Panellist and former pupil Milan Shah, now reading geography at LSE in London, said: “Everyone says going to uni is going to be amazing and that you’ll make best friends straight away and love it. It was not like that for me. The only place to meet others in my halls was a room that looked like a hospital waiting room and no one used it. I would go to dinner and then back to my room and wonder what everyone else was doing and why I wasn’t having more fun. It’s very daunting to knock on someone’s door so I didn’t. I would go and meet my parents in Regent’s Park and walk and talk about it and I was very close to not going back in my first term.” 

"Pupils across the country leave their schools having become used to the structure and routine that helped them achieve their hard-fought-for A level grades, so it can be oddly bewildering to suddenly have so much freedom at university." 

Fellow former pupil Mimi Fullerton, now studying engineering at Bristol University, added: “When you go to uni, people can’t wait to tell you what a great time they are having, but they are not as they seem and not as cool and carefree as they make out. It’s easy to go out every night and try and be part of the crowd but you have just made a massive jump – you are now looking after yourself, with no clean clothes unless you wash them and no food in the fridge unless you put it there – so you need to remember to take time out to reflect and check you are doing what you want to do and not going along with the crowd.” 

Kate Appleby, reading psychology at Exeter, said in: “When I was at school, I was there 7am to early evening and I had a structure to every day. At uni I have just a couple of hours of lectures and no structure to speak of. That’s really hard. At first you don’t know how to fill that time. My best advice to school leavers heading to uni this autumn is to take a doorstop and plenty of packets of biscuits so that you can say to people in the same boat walking past your room: ‘Hi, fancy a cuppa and a biscuit?’ Be kind to yourself and don’t worry if everyone seems to have loads of friends in the first few weeks!” 

We are now planning to hold an annual conference on student mental health. It has long been a taboo subject but, thankfully, society is learning to talk more about it now. More than half of mental health problems in adult life start by the age of 14, so it is incredibly important that we get used to discussing this subject and learning how to tackle it. Going to university is a wonderful experience for most young people, but making that transition isn’t always plain sailing and we feel it is our duty to prepare leavers for this next step in their lives.

Brighton College: brightoncollege.org.uk

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