The move to college can be a big change for students used to living at home. College life and independence means having responsibility for daily tasks like grocery shopping, cooking, budgeting and cleaning, as well as looking after one’s own health.

Add to that getting used to living in a new environment and the stress of settling into a new course of study. This can all make the first few months challenging for students.

The good news is that this period of life can be exciting too and that colleges do their utmost to help you settle in and advise you on how to stay healthy during your time there.

There is even a national policy on it. Since 2018 the HSE and the organisation Healthy Ireland, along with health promotion staff at Irish universities, have developed a health campus charter and framework specifically for Irish universities. So, whatever college you’re heading to, healthcare for students is well thought out.

There are lots of health-related initiatives and an on-campus student health service. The services for full-time students – medical and psychological – are subsidised at a rate of around €15 per doctor’s appointment, for example.

How one university does it

But how exactly does a university frame their help for students?

The University of Limerick is one example. Physical Activity for Health Professor Catherine Woods, explains the Healthy UL policy.

“This was set up to enhance the health and wellbeing of staff and students and the wider community and build an environment that is conducive to them being healthy,” she says.

“Healthy UL also supports a ‘First Seven Weeks’ programme, with week four of that programme focusing on health and wellbeing, entitled: ‘Fuel Your Body, Fuel Your Mind.’”

Six thematic areas are concentrated on in the wellbeing policy. These are healthy environment, addictive behaviours, sexual health and wellbeing, mental health and wellbeing, healthy eating and physical activity. She has some tips to help students, but talks first about habits.

Healthy habits

“We know that habits develop during university and that college years are formative years for developing habits that can be health-enhancing or health diminishing,” she says.

“UL is about helping our students to develop health-enhancing habits. These could relate to healthy eating, physical activity, mental health and wellbeing and lots of other areas.”

Eating healthily isn’t rocket science, she says.

“College life can be hectic and because of that, food intake can be overlooked. As you settle in, remember to have a helping of salad or vegetables every time you have a meal, to eat lots of fruits and drink lots of water.”

Exercise is very important too, she says. “Being active is so important for staying well. Find a sport or activity that you enjoy and stick with it. Join sports clubs in the college. You will meet other students there who are new to the university too. Get involved in a regular habit of exercise, taking at least 15 minutes’ exercise per day.”

Mental health

When it comes to mental health and wellbeing, students are helped to develop what’s called mental health literacy. This refers to an individual’s knowledge and beliefs about mental disorders that aid their recognition, management, and prevention. The bottom line is that when stress comes into your life you know how to manage it and help yourself stay well.

“First year can be stressful as you try to find the balance between course work and lectures and everyday life,” says Professor Woods, “but avoiding unhealthy habits is important, as is obtaining and maintaining good mental health.

“Social support from family and friends, regular exercise as well as yoga and meditation can help alleviate stress. Be prepared for stress and make sure you get enough sleep.”

Online support

All colleges will provide handbooks and an online self-help platform as part of their orientation programme. In UL’s case, they have a programme called Silver Cloud. This is a free online self-help platform for students and staff that offers a range of health and wellbeing resources.

“There is also a one-to-one counselling service for more intensive counselling,” she adds.

Sexual health and wellbeing is also very important and information is available about this.

“As part of that, we also have an active consent training programme available for the past three years that students can do. It looks at what consent involves and how you ensure you have consent,” she says.

As with all other colleges, when it comes to addictive behaviours, support resources are provided to those wanting to give up smoking, learn about safe levels of alcohol consumption and drug addiction prevention.

Tips from the Union of Students in Ireland (USI)

  • Mind yourself and don’t do anything you’re not comfortable with.
  • Eat properly. Pre-plan your meals and do a weekly food shop based on this.
  • Learn to manage your money by doing out a food budget for five or seven days. See what you can afford and how you can make healthy choices within that budget.
  • Learn to cook a few basic meals. Take turns with flatmates making dinner.
  • Incorporate fitness into your routine.
  • Know your alcohol limits.
  • Stick with your group on nights out.
  • Sexual health – have STI check-ups every six months.
  • Know where the college health centre is. Register with a GP in your locality too in case you need healthcare out of college hours or at the weekend.
  • Seek support if you are stressed or anxious. Your Student’s Union office will be able to guide you towards help.