The intense workload in Cambridge can take up your entire dayWikipedia

Cambridge is no walk in the park for any student, but for those with mental illness, Cambridge is even more tough, demanding and challenging. This is worsened by the University systematically failing to properly support students with mental illnesses.

With intense terms packed full of supervision work, labs and lectures, students can spend most of their day (and night) studying. Often, I go through an entire day having only seen my friends for a few minutes. For most of us, this isolation is trivial. The intense workload is why we wanted to come to Cambridge, right? But, for some, the idea of spending hours in a room trapped with just their own thoughts is terrifying. Eight weeks of social isolation can become eight weeks of torture.

“Adults in a position of authority should help students rather than forcibly pushing them over the edge”

The University is failing to provide adequate welfare services to help students with mental illness and should reduce waiting times for counselling. Last week, Varsity exposed the University Counselling Service (UCS) for its long waiting times and limited counselling hours. In Lent 2016, some students had to wait five weeks to receive counselling. This risks mental health deteriorating and could put some students off seeking help altogether.

The UCS can provide amazing support, but not if it pushes students away too soon and without long-term support. The total number of counselling hours provided by the UCS fell by 6% over the past year, according to its annual report, despite a fairly constant number of students seeking help. Last week’s Varsity article pointed to a change in UCS policy as the cause of this fall. UCS minutes state that “students were no longer offered a set number of sessions; rather the decision was based on progress”. This policy is having a negative impact on student welfare. Since its enactment, students have reported feeling pushed away by counsellors after being assessed as having experienced a “marked improvement”. One humanities student, Eleanor, said “I was told after just one appointment that I had improved markedly, which I had not, and they said I did not need any further counselling. I left with just some leaflets on mindfulness and anxiety but no long-term support.”

Colleges must also work to improve the timing of welfare slots and increase awareness of welfare services. Many welfare slots are spaced in periods where pupils do the bulk of their work, primarily in the morning and afternoon. Slots often clash with supervisions, labs and lectures: appointments should be available in the evening. Colleges need to improve information about available welfare services. Many students are unaware that free mindfulness classes and group counselling sessions are offered. It is also important that colleges forward sign-up links.

The University must tackle the worrying attitude towards mental illness expressed by some Directors of Studies and supervisors. It is common knowledge that some senior academics do not regard mental illness as a problem. After turning to her DoS for support about anxiety, one humanities student, Lily reported that “she told me to just work harder and warned me against getting behind on work”. Adults in a position of authority should help students rather than forcibly pushing them over the edge.

Colleges should speak up to condemn such attitudes and not allow them to be commonplace. This issue manifested itself in the case of the recent email from a Queens’ DOS. Students should not be made to feel inadequate if they do not get a First. It can be unhealthy for students to work all the time and it can lead to social isolation. After spending most of Easter term alone in his room revising, Jacob, a Natural Sciences student, said “I became a husk of my former self”. Additionally, Directors of Studies must pay more attention to students’ timetables when planning supervisions. Often students are left with no deadlines in some weeks and three to five in others.


Mountain View

Not just tea and condoms: welfare is political

Colleges must also work to better identify students suffering alone with mental illness and more training is needed. As supervisors and Directors of Studies often do not have welfare training, they may be unable to identify problems or know how to help with them. Although colleges allocate pastoral tutors, students often have little interaction with them, and some pastoral tutors could make more effort to form a relationship with students.

There is much that can be done to support students suffering from mental illness. University should be an exciting time filled with new experiences and great opportunities – not the place for mental illness to take hold