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Starting university? Here's some tips on how to cope...

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: September 04, 2012

  • A hectic social life can mean students find themselves struggling to work after a night out

  • Drinking to excess can prove harmful, plus students should try and maintain a healthy diet

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Hangovers and overdraft charges aren’t the only things university starters will need to watch out for. Abi Jackson speaks to a family GP about student health.

Within the next few weeks, teenagers all over the country will be heading off to university for the first time.

But as well as being an exciting time, fleeing the nest and embarking on this new phase can be an anxiety-ridden time too – for both teens and the parents they're leaving behind.

Having to deal with their own finances, manage busy timetables, and getting to grips with living in a new town with new people can be overwhelming – so health and wellbeing might be the last thing on a new student's mind.

But looking after their body and mind is just as important as getting good grades, says Dr Usha Sharma, a GP at BMI The Princess Margaret Hospital, Windsor.

Here, she gives students some top advice and tips on how to cope...

ALCOHOL

While it's normal for young people to enjoy a drink, as Dr Sharma says that anything in moderation is OK. "But drinking to excess is going to have a harmful effect on your body and mind," she says.

First and foremost, drinking costs money. If too many nights out leave finances very tight, as Dr Sharma warns, this could lead to additional worry and stress.

And, she says, alcohol is a depressive. "It gives you a high, which means afterwards you'll experience a drop in your moods," says Dr Sharma. "Then there are hangovers – you might struggle to get up and attend lectures the next day."

Drinking extremely heavily carries serious long-term health risks, including liver damage, she warns. Also, mixing drinks and binge drinking puts you at risk of alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal.

DIET AND EXERCISE

There's so much going on when you first start uni that diet and exercise might be the last thing on students' minds. But the importance of these things to your overall health and wellbeing should not be underestimated, says Dr Sharma.

"The main complaint is usually tiredness," she says. "Often I'll discover they're not getting much sleep, are undernourished and not exercising regularly."

Such tiredness can affect your ability to concentrate and focus on work. You could also be more prone to feeling run down and picking up ailments. Ensuring you have some regular exercise is crucial. "See if your campus has free or subsidised gym facilities," Dr Sharma says. "Or join a university sports team, then you can socialise at the same time."

As for diet, Dr Sharma advises students to try and eat well for at least four days out of each week – packing in fruit and veg, complex carbs like pasta or a jacket potato, and protein.

SEXUAL HEALTH

"Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are on the increase," warns Dr Sharma. "My first advice would be to find out where the nearest STD clinic is. That way you won't have to go to your university GP. Everything at the clinics is dealt with confidentially, so nobody will know you have been – not even your family GP at home."

It's a good idea to go for tests at the start of term, rather than waiting until you are worried you've caught something. For example, a male might not have any symptoms of chlamydia, but they could still pass the infection on to a partner, which could lead to fertility problems.

A lot of the tests these days are non-invasive, and many STDs are easily treated with a course of antibiotics. Dr Sharma also recommends girls ensure they are vaccinated against Human papillomavirus (HPV) to reduce the risk of cervical cancer – and she reminds everyone to use condoms and contraceptives.

DEPRESSION AND ANXIETY

Worries about finance, keeping up with workloads, social anxieties and even severe homesickness are all common factors that could lead to depression and anxiety.

"Being aware of student mental health issues is very important," says Dr Sharma. "Most will have left home for the first time, and homesickness is something we cannot ignore.

"Other common reasons for depression and anxiety can be loneliness and difficulty making friends, leading to social isolation."

The pressure of keeping up with studies can lead to problems. Drug and alcohol abuse are also major risk factors. "The signs are poor sleep, lack of motivation, and not turning up for lectures and tutorials."

Making friends and building a support network is important. "New students should find out about the support services available on campus, so they know where to go if they find themselves struggling."

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