Mental health as a fresher: advice from one student to another

Third-year student Daniel Aaron Levy shares his advice for freshers embarking on their first year at medical school and the best ways of looking after your mental health.

Opportunity and pressure can be two sides of the same coin.

Freshers' week and university is an amazing opportunity to meet people, make memories, and find yourself, but all of that can feel like a huge task. I certainly put way too much pressure on myself to achieve that ideal, and got a lot of FOMO.

A lot of students worry they're not 'making the most' of being a fresher and they should be going out every night. But although it can feel like everyone except you is doing this and having an amazing time, in reality that stereotype only appeals to a certain slice of people. 

If that's not your thing, you're not missing out. And if you're not enjoying freshers, that's okay too. You may be surrounded by people saying how great the fresher lifestyle is, but you don't hear the huge number of people who think freshers was their least favourite time at uni. 

That's mostly because while some people are lucky enough to find a great friend group right at the start, many don't. Finding your people can be hard and takes time. It's easier to do if you put yourself out there (everyone wants to meet new people in their first year, so don't be shy), but don't feel guilty if you need to prioritise your mental health.

It can also seem daunting to hear that as med students, you're representatives of the future medical profession, and need to abide by guidelines that other students may not have to. Although it may sound like added pressure, you can still have so much fun at university, and you'll come to see it as a privilege: people genuinely trust and respect doctors, and the fact you have to act in a way that doesn't violate that relationship just proves that it's there.

Six tips for your mental health

  • You don't need to compare yourself to others. Looking on social media and seeing what everyone else is up to can make you feel like you're not taking advantage of uni. But remember that people's social media profiles aren't representative of their life; they're curated images. Don't compare your reality to someone else's fantasy, and don't feel like a failure for not matching up to an abstract ideal of what your social life 'should' be. The only thing your social life should be is whatever brings you the most fulfilment.

    As a general rule for life, unhappily comparing yourself and your life to others is not just miserable, it's meaningless. Remember that it's never a fair or even accurate comparison; everyone has a different background, social/family support, mental health needs, genetics, and access to resources than you do. The only reliable benchmark to compare yourself with is you.
  • Find the right work-life balance for you. Med school can feel overwhelming. I've certainly felt that sometimes it's affected my mental health. You're not in this alone and you should always reach out if you're not doing well. Humans are social animals, and ultimately planning in time for seeing friends and building up strong support networks is the best thing you can do for your mental health.
  • Work hard, play hard. 'Planning in time for seeing friends' is easier said than done, isn't it? The most effective way to achieve a work-life balance is to make sure that when you're working, you're not distracted, and when you have free time, you're doing things that restore, fulfil you, and make you feel better. In my experience, the best way to achieve this is trying to cut down on social media and phone time.
  • Tick tock… Social media is deliberately designed to be addictive. But, personally, I find that it never actually makes me feel happier or more refreshed. It just feels like throwing time away. You don't have to be productive all the time. But for your own sake, spend your non-productive time doing things that make you feel happier, rather than just pacified.
  • Get involved! Installing app timers on your phone is great for cutting down on usage, but the key is to replace social media with something else. Universities offer so many societies and I really recommend properly getting involved. Discover your interests, meet new people, and take advantage of the opportunities of doing all of this! In my first couple years at uni I climbed Snowdon, explored caves, flew a plane (!), fought someone with a spear, went shooting, became a marksman on a bow, and much more. These are the uses of your time that you actually remember and which make you feel happier. And you'll meet some amazing people by exploring these opportunities as well.
  • Study the right way. It's best to learn a little about a lot, rather than a lot about a little. And cramming for exam season isn't fun - or effective, no matter what your mates tell you (they probably started revising much earlier anyway). It's best to do a small amount of revision each day, starting from around October- February or so. That can sound like a lot, but if you only spend 10-30 minutes on revision each day, it doesn't really feel like work, and you'll be able to maintain a good work-life balance and not have to skip seeing friends due to cramming. Remember that every med student is going through the same struggles that you are. Studying with friends, asking what they do to help them revise, and comparing notes are useful strategies for getting grades and building stronger friendships.

The beginning of the road

First year isn't about pressuring yourself to learn everything, but setting a good foundation for later. It's good to start considering what you want to do with your life and career, and being attentive in lectures and clinics is great because it helps you figure out your interest and passions for pursuing later.

But you don't need to have it all figured out - remember you're at the very beginning of the road. And it's normal to still be unsure, especially as first year is mainly pre-clinical anyway. Instead of stressing which speciality to go into, for example, it's best to wait until later years, when you have enough clinical experience to make a properly informed decision. 

Finally, remember that the med school experience is about more than just studying. Over these years, you'll discover what you enjoy, what kind of people you want to spend time with, and ultimately what kind of person you are. I know I did. But it all takes time, so don't put pressure on yourself or feel disappointed that you're not where you want to be right now. Get involved as much as you can, keep an open mind, and don't waste your time, and I promise that everything else will fall into place.

This page was correct at publication on 17/10/2023. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

Daniel Levy

by Daniel Aaron Levy

Daniel Aaron Levy is a third-year medical student at the University of Bristol and is passionate about mental health. He has a background in humanities and is interested in the utilisation of arts and the social sciences to explore questions of wellbeing and happiness. Having long been interested in neuropsychology, he hopes to synthesise different fields of academia to help inform medics and the general public about ourselves and human nature.