With thousands of different courses, and hundreds of different universities, the choice can feel overwhelming. Hopefully, you've had some thoughts about any future career or life goals that further study might lead to, and perhaps input from your school, college, family and friends.
For many people with a long term health condition, there are other parts of the University experience which are as important as the academic side. Here are some things you might want to consider if you have a long term mental health condition.
Who should I ask?
Your family and friends will often be able to help you think through what might be important to you, although sometimes they might be the worst people to ask! If you feel like you need some more independent input, how about a teacher or careers adviser? A counsellor may be able to help you in some cases.
The Student Room is the UK's largest online forum for students aged 14-24 and has many forums where you can ask specific questions. Bear in mind responses may be opinion and not fact!
University websites do vary in quality, and of course, are designed to sell their courses to you. Although they must not promise you things that they can't provide, they may not answer all of your questions.
Before you get to University, you should be able to access advice from admissions staff and Student Services staff (if you have a long term mental health condition). We'd recommend that you ask both admissions staff and Student Services staff to get a rounded view. Student Services staff will often come from an advice background, and will be able to help you understand your options and rights as a student. They will also be able to signpost you to someone else if needed.
What should I ask?
We've given a few headings below of areas we know are important to students with mental health conditions. This is designed to get you thinking, rather than being 100% prescriptive.
Our main message is: don't assume.
Is it important to you to be close to family, friends, a therapist or medical care? Or do you want to get as far away as possible? Many students do now chose to live either at home, or close to home, and some universities have higher proportions of "home" students.
- This can effect what is on offer to you - for example, if it's important for you to meet new friends, but you are going to live at home, are there lots of social opportunities that are not entirely focused on halls of residence? Does the students union run events for home students to get to know each other?
If you want to move away from home, do you need to be able to access good public transport networks? Is the University city or campus based? Would you like the hustle and bustle/quiet? Perhaps being by the sea or in the mountains would be good for your mental health? Or would you like to be able to access the clubs and music venues of a city? Even the ease of day to day tasks like grocery shopping might be something that's important to you and your mental health.
It's worth mentioning here that cities are by nature far more diverse places, which many people find liberating. It might be the first time ever that you'll easily be able to meet up with people like you in person. This doesn't mean to say though that the university itself is diverse. Student Unions can be good sources of information about this.
Universities who do have a diverse population will often tell you about this in their literature - if you want to double check you can also look at statistics on the Higher Education Statistics Authority website.
It's important to check out health services, particularly if you have a long term mental health and/or physical health condition.
A few universities have health care services on campus, which can mean that it's easier to access appointments with staff who understand student life, and requirements in terms of providing medical notes for absence. Some have seconded staff from the NHS, such as Mental Health Nurses.
The majority will expect students to register with a local GP, and to access local health services. Unfortunately, due to funding, and geographical differences, there can be long waiting times. This is especially for any diagnostic services e.g. Autism/ADHD, or specialist Mental Health services e.g. for eating disorders or to access Dialectical Behaviour Therapy.
Mental Health Advisers may be able to refer you into local NHS services, although this is becoming more difficult as thresholds for support are increasing. They should be able to give you advice about this, and also local waiting times - this is something you could ask about at an open day.
If you have existing care or support from statutory services, such as the NHS or Social Services, please speak to your local team as soon as possible. This can take a long time!
You can read more about this on our webpage about disclosing a mental health condition.
Many halls of residence now have specific pastoral care teams and are used to helping people manage their mental health. It's worth carefully researching what's on offer, and thinking realistically about whether particular living arrangements would/wouldn't work for you. You can normally have an accommodation tour as part of an open day, and many now also have virtual tours.
- If you have a long term mental health condition, with particular accommodation requirements, most universities will arrange for you to have a separate look around if you want to, and can help to ensure that you are prioritised for specific accommodation. Some might have funding to ensure you don't have to pay extra because of your health needs. Please talk to the Student Services team about this, and what evidence you need to provide about your mental health condition.
Teaching and assessment
Many universities are moving away from traditional lecture-style teaching which is assessed purely by exams, but there are still a large number of courses where this is still the norm.
- Admissions tutors and web pages should be able to give you information about how a course is taught or assessed. The same course may be taught in a different way at different universities, so it's worth looking around.
- It is not usually possible to change the mode of teaching for a course. If there are particular forms of assessment that are a barrier to you, it may be possible to have an alternative kind of assessment. This normally requires input from Student Support services. They will try to be transparent with you about your options.
- For some courses, such as those with a professional qualification attached, or Fitness to Practice element, alternative assessment options may be limited.
- It's worth thinking through your career goals and whether placing yourself in a particular situation would be something you have to do e.g. if you want to work as a French translator you will probably need to be able to participate in face to face oral assessment. If this is something you currently struggle with, you may be able to access some help in getting more comfortable with this.
Universities hugely vary in size. Some people like the anonymity of a large campus, but for some with a mental health condition, the support offered by a small campus population can make a huge difference. Specialist providers, such as creative or teaching institutions will, by their nature, have a large amount of specialist knowledge when it comes to how mental health can effect studying their particular course. It may be that they only have a small number of support staff, and may even outsource some mental health provision such as counselling. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but again, worth researching.
Large universities may have large numbers of staff, but that doesn't mean to say the ratio of staff to students is any better. Counselling services may well have waiting lists to access them at the busiest times.
If you are moving into postgraduate study, you may have already worked out what works for you and what doesn't in terms of location of study, and your teaching and learning. Perhaps you are now moving to a different university for a new course, or just a different academic department. Many of the questions above will still be relevant, but additionally, it's probably worth reflecting on what went well and what didn't during your experience as an undergraduate.
- Due to the short nature of many PG taught courses, it's important to get any support requirements or teaching/learning adjustments in place immediately. If you are staying in the same university, it's worth touching base with the Student Services team to let them know, and so that you can review your support requirements.
- Student Services can also give you advice about accessing Disabled Students Allowances - this can be slightly more complicated for postgraduate study as there are multiple funding bodies. Specialist Mental Health Mentoring may help you with the transition to a different mode of study.
- Your relationship with your supervisor can be extremely important - this might include the amount of contact and support you can access from them. Perhaps it might be worth trying to contact current PG students in your field, who can give you frank advice about this?
- The Wellbeing Thesis website explores some of the issues faced by PG students in more detail.
Disability Rights UK has a range of factsheets it's worth looking at. Their guide "Into HE" provides cases studies and also gives some more suggestions about questions to ask. It gets updated every year so is a good source of up to date information. This guide might be especially useful if you have multiple impairments.