Mental Health And University: Navigating College Cultures


This is a part of our Mental Health And University series.

This season we have been using our blog to examine some of the ways the transition to university can be challenging for all young people, but especially those who are struggling with a mental health condition. This week we’ll take a look at how college cultures – and the behaviors and habits they tend to promote – present difficulties for individuals who are new to this lifestyle. 

Each university has its own particular set of cultures and subcultures. Clubs, organizations, sport, partying, creative endeavors and independent study all form part of the social scene on campus. While the opportunities provided by this wealth of activities and potential social groups are amazing for some, they can also be overwhelming for many young people. 

What’s more, some university cultures come with particular behavior expectations that can place additional pressures on young people: social circles or clubs which encourage late nights, heavy drinking and the use of other substances, for example, or study groups which encourage all nighters and ‘burning out’ preparing for exams or writing papers.

For young people who are undergoing treatment or in recovery, understanding some of the cultures they can expect to find, and knowing where to look for subcultures which will support a healthy and balanced social life rather than undermine recovery, can make all the difference.

Cultures and Subcultures at University

At university, there are all sorts of clubs and organizations that students can get involved in. There are those which focus on particular interests, like music or drama clubs, and those which are more social in nature, like sports teams or dance groups. 

There are also informal activity groups which develop around social behaviors, like drinking or drug-taking. Each of these groups has its own culture, with its own set of expectations and behaviors. For some students, these cultures can be positive and supportive. But for others, they can be overwhelming or even risky.

All young people face some risks when they get involved in formal or informal groups at university. The pressure to conform to the group’s norms and behaviors can be intense, and this can lead to students engaging in activities that they wouldn’t normally do. This is especially true for students who are struggling with mental health conditions, as they may be more vulnerable to the social pressures of group cultures. For those struggling with mental health conditions, it is therefore important to be aware of the different types of group cultures that exist on campus, and to make sure that they are getting involved in activities and socializing in ways that are supportive of their recovery.

The drinking and partying culture is probably the most well-known college culture, and it can be found at universities all over the world. This culture is centered around alcohol and other substances, and often revolves around going out to bars or clubs and getting drunk or high. This culture can be very risky for students struggling with mental health conditions, as it can lead to them drinking excessively or using drugs, which can worsen their condition. 

This can be a type of neo-institutionalist culture[1], as it often develops around formal clubs or societies, like fraternities or sororities. For example, in the US, Greek life (fraternities and sororities) is often centered around drinking and parties. Sports teams can also have this culture, as drinking is often seen as a way to celebrate after a game. Conversely, formal groups such as study groups are less likely to have this culture, as their focus is on academic achievement.

There is also a wider approach to university life that revolves around drinking and making friends. This is often seen as a rite of passage for young people, as many students feel pressure to drink in order to fit in and make friends[2]. 

The UK in particular has a drinking culture that is deeply ingrained in university life. In fact, the British drinking culture centered around binge-drinking is well-known around the world, and many international students coming to the UK can find it a shock[3]. This can be especially taxing on young people who are struggling with mental health conditions, as the pressure to drink is often very intense.

Finding Balance and Creating Boundaries

It is possible for students to find a balance between their mental health and their involvement in college cultures. It is important for students to understand that they have agency over their own lives, and that they can pick and choose which activities they want to participate in. 

They don’t have to drink if they don’t want to, and they don’t have to go to parties if they don’t want to. There are plenty of other things to do on campus, and students should pick things that interest them. It is also important for students to cultivate friendships and relationships outside of these group cultures. This can help provide balance in their lives, and can give them an outlet to talk about their experiences. 

Additionally, students should seek out cultures which highlight promoting mental health, or which are centered on recovery and treatment. These types of cultures can provide support and understanding, and can be a valuable resource for students struggling with mental health conditions. Researching these types of cultures ahead of time can be helpful, as it can allow students to find ones that fit their needs and interests, and avoid falling into the trap of joining a culture that could be detrimental to their mental health.

While universities can’t solve the student mental health crisis on their own, they often provide support to students struggling with mental health conditions[4]. There are a variety of resources available on most campuses, such as counseling services, peer support groups, and mental health awareness campaigns. 

Additionally, many universities now have codes of conduct or anti-harassment policies that can help protect students from abusive or harmful situations. It is important for students struggling with their mental health to familiarize themselves with these resources, as they can be vital in times of need. Students should also reach out to their friends and family if they are struggling, as they can provide support and understanding. 

Ultimately, it is up to the individual student to find a balance between their mental health and their involvement in college cultures. However, by being aware of the dangers these cultures can pose, and by familiarizing themselves with the resources available to them, students can make informed decisions about how to best take care of their mental health.

Next week we will examine how some university cultures are changing, and have changed in recent years, to reflect a new landscape of mental health awareness and support, and how these changes stand to benefit young people who are struggling with the transition to post secondary education.


[1] Leontini, R., Schofield, T., Brown, R., & Hepworth, J. (2017). “Drinking Cultures” in University Residential Colleges: An Australian Case Study of the Role of Alcohol Policy, Management, and Organizational Processes. Contemporary Drug Problems, 44(1), 32–48.

[2] College students are more engaged in interest groups than in political parties. (2018, October 30). Higher Ed Dive.

[3]  Thurnell-Read, Thomas & Brown, Lorraine & Long, Philip. (2018). International Students’ Perceptions and Experiences of British Drinking Cultures. Sociological Research Online. 23.

[4] Turner, C. (2022, May 29). Universities can’t solve student mental health crisis on their own, says Russell Group chief. The Telegraph.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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