Leaving home and starting university can be stressful at the best of times, even without the added worry of a pandemic. We spoke to Clare Stafford, CEO of the Charlie Waller Trust, to find out what students can do to take care of your mental health at this difficult time.


Clare has worked as a senior manager in mental health for over 25 years and it is her interest and passion. She was delighted to take up the post of Chief Executive at the Charlie Waller in 2014, since which time the Trust has expanded its activities significantly.

What should students do if they’re anxious about the virus on campus?

It’s natural for students to feel anxious during this challenging period – no generation of students has ever experienced these circumstances. That’s why we know the importance of helping students manage their anxiety and depression through practising mindfulness. Mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress levels, and the moment you begin to consciously think about what you’re thinking, how you’re behaving, and pay attention to your feelings, you can become aware of and change your emotional state. The tips on how to practise mindfulness on our website, offer simple practices students can begin, including breathing techniques such as 7/11 breathing whereby you breathe in for the count of 7 and out for the count of 11.

How can students look after their mental health if they need to isolate?

The Charlie Waller Trust strongly believes it’s crucial to show yourself kindness when struggling. Practising self-compassion during difficult situations such as these calms down the stress responses taking place in your brain and body. It’s key to recognise when you are suffering and allow yourself to find support. Knowing when to ask for help is key, even if it’s something as small as saying, “I’m not having a good day”.

What’s the best way to support a friend who’s isolating?

Our warning signs resource, which highlights things like decreased energy, changes in mood and appetite, and feelings of helplessness, can help students spot struggling friends during isolation. As well as knowing when to ask for help, it’s important to know when and how to give it. Finding a quiet time to talk to friends about how they’re really feeling and when to take the next steps can make a world of difference.

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If a parent is worried about their child’s mental health or welfare while they’re at university, what support is available for them? How can they support their child?

The Charlie Waller Trust is home to a host of recognised experts in children’s and young people’s mental health, and we aim to impart information to parents and carers through training sessions. We believe it’s important for parents to highlight to children that help-seeking is not a sign of weakness, and that it is a sign of strength. Letting them know you don’t mind if they want to speak to someone else is a powerful indication of trust and that you will not dismiss their feelings.

The Charlie Waller Trust has a guide for parents in supporting children with anxiety. The resource helps parents and carers identify what anxiety looks like, and offers some practical ideas such as creating a happy box of physical, nostalgic objects, or building a feel-good music playlist or sensory checklist to offer a distraction to anxious feelings.

What can a student do if the news or social media is making them anxious?

As more students go into lockdown, it can be hard to get away from the news and technology. However, the media world isn’t going away, so it’s important to build digitally healthy habits. Things like switching to ‘Do Not Disturb’ and taking breaks from your phone can help your mind recharge. Respecting home and sleep time is also key for wellbeing, and setting personal limits on digital time gives more time to focus on yourself and the present moment.

What advice would you give students who are struggling with being away from home? What is important for them to know?

In general, students tend to fall into one of two categories, The Enthusiastic Optimist or The Anxious Worrier, although of course they can also be anywhere in between. The Starting University Guide explores common concerns around starting University and how to tackle these depending on where you fall within these two categories. Things like meeting new friends, navigating a new city and living independently are all new experiences for many students. Overall, it’s important to be yourself, practise and plan good self-care and ask for help if you need it.

The Charlie Waller Trust is one of the UK’s most respected mental health charities, supporting parents and carers of young people with mental health struggles. The work is led by recognised experts in children’s and young people’s mental health, all with first-hand experience of the challenges of caring for a child with mental health struggles. For more information or resources, visit www.charliewaller.org

Featured image by Unsplash/Toa Heftiba.