Adolescence and young adult life are usually associated with good physical health, but they are also times of risk for developing mental health problems, particularly anxiety and depression. What can we do to reduce risk, and how can we recognise and get help for problems if they occur?

Many – but not all – mental health problems are triggered, made worse or prolonged by stress and anxiety. Although stress is hard to avoid completely, there are some things we can do to minimise potential negative consequences.

The goals that we set for ourselves

Course content may be very different from high school, and assignments may also take much longer and be more complex, so we don’t have our usual benchmarks when making decisions about courses. We can often avoid problems by researching online other students’ experiences of different courses and by taking slightly fewer or easier courses than we think we are capable of, at least until we have a good grasp of what is doable.

Regular routine 

Higher education is much less strictly timetabled, and (with the exception of highly organised people) it takes most of us a while to develop good time management strategies that add structure to our day and minimise the number of last-minute panics associated with deadlines. Lighter timetabling means we can also underestimate the disruptive effect of not having regular sleeping and waking times; our brains like routine too!

Physical wellbeing and mental health 

Research has shown that regular, vigorous exercise substantially reduces anxiety, improves sleep and boosts self-confidence. Joining exercise classes, participating in team sports, finding someone else to exercise with, or (if the funds allow) getting a personal trainer are for most of us much more likely to lead to regular activity. And as for that fast food, just about its only benefit is that we don’t have to cook it. Thankfully, there is no need to follow the latest diet or food fad, but a balanced diet usually helps with the energy levels.

Establishing a new peer group

The large size of higher education campuses and the differing composition of individual classes can make it hard to spend enough time with people to identify potential new friends. It is easy not to see this situation as problematic as the stability provided by being with familiar people is easily overlooked, and we may not recognise that we are socially isolated until other stressors occur. Some people seem to make friends quickly wherever they go, whereas many people find that striking up a conversation with strangers requires real courage. We can stack the odds in favour of finding people we are likely to be compatible with by joining clubs and societies that revolve around our interests and skills, and by establishing a supportive social network.


Many individuals decide not to disclose some sort of disability or personal challenge when they start higher education in the hope that they can leave past difficulties behind them. Nevertheless, research clearly shows that students who disclose a disability (and particularly those who disclose early) have the best outcomes at college or university. Not only are they are able to access adjustments and material support, but they can also receive help with organisation and meeting deadlines, and with socialising and making friends, and increasingly they can receive individual mentoring, which can significantly reduce isolation.

Mental health and the core issues

Many students will have irrational fears that voicing these issues may indicate some weakness on their part and that others will think badly of them. Of course, very few people also feel personally responsible for the state of their tonsils or their intestines, and this tendency for people to adopt different standards for physical and mental health issues is a major obstacle to getting timely help!

Taken from an article specially commissioned by Ai-Media from Professor Tony Bailey (Professor and Chair of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine, UBC). Please click here to read the full article. 

Professor Tony Bailey became Professor and Chair of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at UBC in July 2010. He came from the University of Oxford where he was the Cheryl and Reece Scott Chair of Psychiatry, the first medical chair devoted to the study of autism.

Professor Bailey’s research has investigated the neurobiological basis of autistic disorders, using genetic, neuropathological and neuroimaging approaches.

Until his move to Canada, Professor Bailey coordinated the International Molecular Genetic Study of Autism Consortium, a large international team of clinicians and scientists brought together to identify susceptibility genes for autism.

At Oxford, Professor Bailey built the first Magnetoencephalographic Centre designed for the study of autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. Professor Bailey’s clinical work focuses on teenagers and able adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders. 

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