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.
The Cambridge experience is split between two worlds; the colleges we live in, and the faculties we work in. Why should only one of these worlds be responsible for student welfare? Faculties can offer unique forms of support, such as a degree-saving extension on a deadline.
While students fight for reduced stigma, more transparency, and better support, many still feel a pressure to prioritise demanding workloads over mental wellbeing. As a second year student in the Earth Sciences and Geography faculty put it, “sometimes it feels like Cambridge takes people who have a tendency to overwork themselves, and then applies a workload that makes these tendencies feel rational, or even necessary. It makes it hard to remember that overworking yourself isn’t a good thing to do.”
The BlueSci 2018 Wellbeing Survey was open to responses for seven weeks, shared on social media and submitted to the bulletins of CUSU, GU, departments, and colleges. 463 people from over 25 faculties completed the survey. Students are keen to talk about mental health – 141 respondents offered extra comments at the end of the survey, to tell us more about their mental wellbeing and how it has been affected by their studies. For analysis, we compiled faculties with fewer than ten respondents into ‘other’ groups, leaving a final sample of 15 subject groups.
The majority of our sample are undergraduates (59%), and a large portion have had mental health problems in the last five years, whether formally diagnosed or not. The most common illnesses are depression (54% of the respondents who reported a diagnosed mental illness), anxiety (44%), and eating disorders (13%).
Undergraduates and postgraduates are not worlds apart in the BlueSci survey. Though the university experience is very different, both groups are similarly affected by workload, with a majority reporting a negative or somewhat negative effect.
Perhaps surprising is that the impact of staff on wellbeing is also similar for all groups. The relationship with staff changes significantly after graduating. According to Tamsin Whitfield, a PhD student in the Department of Material Science and Metallurgy who has been both undergraduate and postgraduate in Cambridge, “a supervisor to a postgraduate is more like a boss at work than a teacher.” Despite this, 29% of postgraduates and 23% of undergraduates reported a negative effect, while 51% of postgraduates and 47% of undergraduates reported a positive effect.
“…sometimes it feels like Cambridge takes people who have a tendency to overwork themselves, and then applies a workload that makes these tendencies feel rational, or even necessary. It makes it hard to remember that overworking yourself isn’t a good thing to do”
The personal experiences shared in the survey are diverse. For some students, the high expectations are a blow to self-esteem, leaving them vulnerable to unhealthy behaviour patterns and poor mental wellbeing. Others make a point of choosing mental wellbeing over high performance. Postgraduate researchers looking towards a career in academia comment that even when mental health is supported in their faculties, one noted that “the fact still remains that taking time off to deal with a mental health problem decreases your ability to produce papers, and your career will suffer.” Still other students find that work offers a distraction from the symptoms of their mental illness. Over the next few pages, these diverse stories come together to form a picture of mental health in Cambridge.
Overworked and Overwhelmed
In Cambridge, the terms are short and the workload is dense; 7 in 10 feel that their workload harms their wellbeing. Subjects vary in volume and pacing of work, and results from the BlueSci survey show that the effect on wellbeing varies across subjects too. Though often a subject of good-natured debate amongst students, the difference between the humanities and sciences is imperceptible. Bruno Barton-Singer, a Masters student in the Department of Applied Maths and Theoretical Physics, is unsurprised that mood is negatively affected across the board. “But,” he says, “the negative impact on social life is more widespread than I expected. According to stereotype, I’d expect the impact to be worse for science than humanities students.”
An undergraduate finalist in Modern and Medieval Languages (MML) told BlueSci that they “often feel very overwhelmed and have breakdowns. It is so difficult to deal with the sheer volume of work, and the lack of time to socialise or rest.” Another student notes that workload impacting mental health, and vice versa, can create a vicious cycle.“The Cambridge workload seems to not allow for any sort of neurodivergence or mental illness – any such conditions will affect your ability to work, and you will get behind, which in turn worsens your mental health conditions,” writes a Natural Sciences student who has intermitted twice.
Evidently, for many, the effect of a heavy workload can be more than a bit of stress before a deadline. More than mood, ‘wellbeing’ also includes lifestyle factors that may at first glance appear to be physical rather than mental. But health of body and mind are inextricable. One second year MML student described the way that her workload touches all parts of her life. “The sheer quantity of work affects my mood and makes me cry with frustration and helplessness. Stress affects my sleep (inability to get to sleep, and nightmares when I do), and takes over the rest of my life: I can find hardly any time for socialising or exercising. Eating hours are messed around depending on when I’m working on an essay (I’ll eat very late), or I’ll eat as part of procrastination (which I then feel guilty about).”
Will Kitchen, a second year medic, thinks the central University and its departments have a responsibility to “take the initiative and design courses that are friendly to students’ wellbeing, with careful checks on the volume of content and the pace at which it is covered.” As Welfare Strategy Officer of Cambridge Medical Society, he recently conducted a large survey of pre-clinical medics. The results, together with similar surveys from Veterinary and Engineering Societies – and now BlueSci – show “worrying patterns of high workload amongst science students, with clear impacts on students’ mental health.” Will hopes that the mounting evidence will galvanise his faculty to change. “When it comes to any health issue – including mental illness – prevention is always better than cure. In this context, prevention means providing students with an educational environment in which they are not placed under excessive strain over prolonged periods by expectations that they should spend most of their time working.”
“[The University needs to] take the initiative and design courses that are friendly to students’ wellbeing, with careful checks on the volume of content and the pace at which it is covered”
Read the interview with Keir Murison, 4th year student in the Department Biochemistry, Emmanuel College and founding president of Open Minds Cambridge.
The Positives of People
Many Cambridge students find firm friendships in their subjects. The majority of the sample reflect this sentiment; 3 in 5 feel that other students in their faculties had a positive or somewhat positive effect on their overall wellbeing.
However, 17% of respondents feel a negative or somewhat negative effect on their overall wellbeing from other students in their faculties. Some students compare themselves to their peers; some find the competitiveness between students “depressing”. A first year student of Linguistics wrote, “Being in such a competitive environment can affect one’s perception of oneself. I suddenly had issues with my self-esteem that I had never had before.”
Mathematicians stand out as the group where students feel that their peers within the faculty have the most negative effect on overall wellbeing. But, with the smallest number of respondents in this sample – 11 – the results from Mathematics may be skewed. Eoghan McDowell, a fourth year undergraduate in Mathematics, says, “I’m a bit surprised. It is at times frustrating and stressful seeing other students being so much more capable, but its massively outweighed by the support I get from fellow students. We go to each other for help with work – understanding lectures, completing examples sheets – and everything would be a lot tougher without that.”
Meanwhile, students in Education, MML, Natural Sciences, and Biology appear to experience markedly less harm to wellbeing from fellow students. Simina Dragos, a second year student of Education, says that students in her faculty “get to know each other well, because we’re a small course. Our lectures are more like seminars, so we are always listening to each other and learning from each other.”
More than a quarter of respondents report that staff have a negative or somewhat negative effect. One research postgraduate, who wishes to remain anonymous, is unsurprised. “There is a definite hierarchical social structure, with supervisors at the top. It becomes a problem when you have superiors who set a bad example.”
At the same time, almost half of respondents said staff have a positive effect on wellbeing. Many students described huge help – or harm – from individuals within the faculty, particularly supervisors. As the key interface of student-faculty relationships, supervisors have a significant influence over whether students feel supported or abandoned by their faculties. For some students, the positive impact of supervisors can be as simple as “the odd positive comment to break up a stream of corrections”. Others attribute their recovery to supervisors who gave advice on how to study, who listened to their concerns and allowed extensions, and who encouraged students to access other forms of support.
Human, Social, and Political Sciences students report the greatest negative impact from departmental staff, yet also report a positive impact that is near the average across faculties. Ashwin Raj, a second year undergraduate, is surprised that so few of his coursemates expressed indifference, “because we don’t have much faculty contact. But,” he adds, “our subject – broad, and often lacking in coherent structure – suffers from clustering of work during parts of term, and one of the powerful things supervisors can do is to be lenient with deadlines. If they aren’t, then that definitely has a negative impact on wellbeing.”
There may be some explanation for the poor staff-student relations in Medicine. “My personal experience of staff in the medical faculty has been mixed,” says Jess Gurney, a final year medical student who intermitted in 2014, “but I think the results of the survey may look worse for Medicine partly because the clinical medical course has gone through some big changes over the last few years, with numerous teething problems, which may have increased tensions between staff and students.”
Out of 223 students who needed support for mental health issues, over half felt inadequately supported by their faculties. Some may not have sought support. But despite the growing awareness of mental health amongst students helping many to ask for help, a high number of students feel they are being failed.
One student who felt well supported by her supervisors – a fourth year undergraduate studying German and Russian – wrote, “My whole faculty has been incredibly supportive, academically as well as emotionally. I felt comfortable explaining my situation to my supervisors and have been supported with things such as applying for extensions and being unable to meet deadlines for assignments.” But a different student in the same faculty – a third year PhD student in Spanish and Portuguese – finds that “a lot of the systems put in place to protect my wellbeing – such as having a student advisor as well as my supervisors – are treated as ‘stupid’ bureaucracy.”
Many people wrote in the BlueSci survey about their supervisors and Directors of Studies, and the data suggests that support from individual members of faculty often has more influence than faculty-wide policies on mental health. The data collected suggest that the level of engagement with mental health topics by a faculty does not reflect whether its students feel they are getting adequate support. For example, of the respondents in MML, 7 in 10 felt that the faculty rarely or never discusses mental health. But over half of those who needed support got the necessary help from their faculty. Medicine shows the opposite pattern – the faculty talks about mental health a lot, but a large proportion of students did not get the support they needed.
Read the interview with Géraldine Dufour, Head of Counselling at the University of Cambridge.
Medicine, Veterinary Medicine, and Education are the only faculties for which more than half of students report engagement – ‘Yes’, or ‘Yes, sometimes’ – with mental health topics. These three subjects are vocational, where mental health is a key part of professional development.
Other faculties, however, seem to show a lack of proactivity: only 22% of students outside of Medicine, Veterinary Medicine and Education feel confident that their faculties are at least sometimes encouraging discussion around mental health topics. One PhD student in Plant Sciences described how, since hearing in the departmental introductory lecture that going to see the University Counselling Service was a last resort, they “have had the feeling that mental ill health is seen as something the department wants to brush aside, or take no responsibility for.”
What makes mental health hard to discuss within a department? Some respondents feel that teaching staff care more about grades than individuals. Others point out that they would prefer to seek support for mental health outside of their work sphere, especially if their struggles are related to their studies. Others express a sense of stigma – that being open about mental or physical illness is “a sign of weakness” in the faculty.
BlueSci invited Dr Lucia Ruprecht, a Director of Studies for MML at Emmanuel College, for comment on the results for her department. “From my experience as a Director of Studies, I think that the density and range of support for mental health is extraordinary – both within the Faculty and beyond. I don’t know the details of the Faculty’s mental health policies. What I do know, however, is that even though students might have the impression mental health is not being discussed, the Faculty makes every effort to accommodate any special needs that arise, often on a very individual basis and involving elaborate procedures.”
Dr Richard Davies, Sub-Dean for Student Welfare in the Clinical School of Medicine, tells BlueSci how he and his colleagues engage with student mental health. “We have three key approaches. First, we provide information, in an introductory lecture and online. Secondly, we try to improve access to support and mental health services: linking each student to a pastoral advisor who is also a clinician; promoting peer support; funding a mental health service for clinical students; and, enabling easy and flexible access to the Sub-Dean for Student Welfare – myself – for advice, signposting to other services, or face-to-face consultations. Because of the emphasis on small group teaching, we also encourage faculty to be mindful of students who may be struggling and to offer advice and guidance. Thirdly, we want to break down stigma. This is more difficult to achieve, but we work hard to encourage students to be comfortable about seeking help. One way to do this is through lectures and seminars in which clinicians – as well as students – share their experiences of mental health problems.”
Room for Improvement
The results from the BlueSci survey show – not for the first time – that students want more from the university when it comes to the subject of mental health. With more than one hundred students reporting that they didn’t get the support that they needed from the faculty, there is definite room for improvement.
The widespread harm of intensive workloads to student wellbeing is a gloomy discovery, but not a shocking one. Meanwhile, students and staff alike are making a positive difference to the people around them in their faculties. Various faculties offer pastoral training for supervisors, introductory lectures about support available from the department, and online information about how to access support. In particular, supervisors play a key role in minimising the negative health effects of work and supporting students during during times of poor physical or mental health.
Dr Davies’ three strategies for supporting the students in his faculty – being generous with information, improving access to support, and breaking the stigma – are clear ways in which faculties can transform a student’s experience of Cambridge – or even save a life. The unique forms of support available from faculties can sometimes be overshadowed by the vast resources accessible through college or centrally. But they matter.
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Artwork by Nina Carter