Through Lent term and Easter 2018, BlueSci conducted a survey on mental wellbeing at the University of Cambridge. Our aim was to better understand how our studies interact with our mental health, and explore how faculties can best support students. Laura Nunez-Mulder, Elsa Loissel, and Martha Dillon explain the results in this article. Also, read the interview with the head of the University Counseling Service, Géraldine Dufour.
I had wanted to go to Cambridge ever since I took a punting trip down the Cam with my family when I was eleven. My brother bet me £100 I wouldn’t get in. But I did.
I do take great pride and confidence that I am a Cambridge student: not to be arrogant, but to remind myself that while I may be not extraordinary here, we are all extraordinary people. This can be hard to remember, given the overwhelmingly negative effect Cambridge can have on mental health. The level of competition that it breeds in students who are already paranoid about their own achievements is a recipe for disaster. I try to reject much of this burnout culture, but even so I eventually fall into bad habits. My own struggle with mental health began in sixth form. My depression blighted quite a lot of the first year and only really got better towards the end. I never considered not applying to Cambridge because of my health, but I also wasn’t aware of the problems that Cambridge had. I don’t think any prospective student does. Over my first two years at the University, I had a lot of insecurities about being accepted and finding friendships whose
bonds went further than politeness and proximity. I worried about missing out on key moments and I found it difficult to say no to things.
Thinking beyond Cambridge also scared me. That sense of freedom is tinged with uncertainty. Recently, however, I have suffered from anxiety. I began to feel disconnected from my emotions and experiences, getting panicky and having the classic signs of an anxiety attack. The triggers are complex – not a single event or thought – but often it will be emotional stress around the future, jealousy in my relationships, or crisis in confidence. The most extreme symptoms are panic attacks. My entire body will shut down and simple tasks become very hard, near impossible. The Hollywood-style shouting and screaming happens inside, and it’s trying to communicate the situation to others that can be the most difficult. Anxiety also causes tightness in your chest, an inability to concentrate or relax. It’s like having nerves before a big event, but over the smallest detail, with no end in sight. Constantly having your body on that level of alert is exhausting.
Receiving support for my anxiety at Cambridge has been a mixed bag. I’ve used the University counselling service three times for different parts of my mental health. Talking therapies are effective and, however painful, necessary for recovery. Yet, when I applied to see the UCS, I think they were understaffed and oversubscribed, and it took around eight weeks between filling in the form and being seen. This year, I am pleased to say it has been far quicker, and I have seen someone within weeks instead of months.
I think longer terms and a reduction in workload would be ambitious, but necessary changes. These are the roots of many issues: stress, lack of sleep, people falling out of love with their subject… The relative importance of different pieces of work also gets very badly skewed. When we worry excessively about a supervision essay, our response to actual exams or coursework becomes ludicrous. I seriously believe that the rankings, scholar’s prizes, and underperformance meetings are very damaging.
I started speaking out about mental health as soon as I came to Cambridge. It struck me how little it was being discussed about and how isolated I felt, thinking I was the only one. I started writing blogs and articles in student newspapers and speaking at a few events. Taking the first leap was hard and I delayed many times, but since that first blog post I have never felt judged or unwelcome. By asking others to accept my mental health, I have also found it easier to accept myself, and not feel ashamed.
If you need someone to talk to or emotional support you can contact the Samaritans 24 hours a day on 116 123 or at email@example.com