Louis Ashworth with permission for Varsity

In the Summer of 2022, the BBC published a damning article about Cambridge’s mental health service. In the article, former students explained the process of dealing with an uncaring and ineffective welfare system, which prioritised evading liability for the college, rather than protecting the lives of the students. These students felt thoroughly let down by those whose job it was to help them. One said that “as far as college were concerned, if I were to die they wanted it to be not on their property.”

"If I were to die they wanted it to be not on their property”

Three months later, I became the ‘Men’s and Non-Binary Officer’ of Robinson College’s student association. Such a hallowed role brought me the expected power (I could vote on whether the lettering on our committee jumpers should be gold or dark yellow) but it also earned me a place on the welfare team. Meetings soon ensued, and throughout the year I worked alongside students and staff who made up a small part of Cambridge’s mental health service - the very same service which has received so much criticism in recent years.

Flash forward a year, and I was sitting on a rug on the grass outside the Robinson’s Wellbeing Centre, with the rest of the student welfare team, eating a mini magnum and chatting to our Head of Wellbeing. Had I been subsumed by the dark machinery of Cambridge’s mental health service? Indoctrinated into a shadowy cabal of well-being heads whose Welfare Cake Wednesdays, dog walks, and free iced lollies were smokescreens for their complete disregard for students? No. I don’t think so. During my time in Robinson’s student association, I met people who genuinely cared about the wellbeing of college members, whose faces lit up when their craft sessions or baking socials were enjoyed, and whose biggest frustration was the lack of general interest from students. But, if my experience was of such enthusiasm, I had to ask: where is this uncaring, dysfunctional system?

“Had I been subsumed by the dark machinery of Cambridge’s mental health service?”

The first problem is a glaringly obvious one. Unfortunately, not all colleges are blessed with a Men’s and Non-Binary officer who puts on events like ‘Cookies and Condoms’. By the same token, there also exists a wide disparity between the quality of senior staff members involved in student wellbeing across colleges. Because of the small scale of colleges, one sub-standard member of staff can ruin a student’s experience with welfare. This is not something with an easy fix, but the Student Mental Health and Wellbeing Plan suggests that a dedicated SU service has already been effective, and continuing to build on this service will give a greater number of options for those who are dissatisfied with their college’s resources.

But there exists another far less visible problem: the sprawling, overlapping nature of welfare roles themselves. If a student has a mental health issue, what lies before them is not one clear pathway to the gilded gates of ‘help’, but a labyrinth. You could go to your DoS, your personal tutor, the college nurse, the wellbeing head, a student welfare officer, a porter, an SU welfare officer, or use the numbers provided on the SU website to contact a medical professional. This is, firstly, daunting for the irrational, yet understandable fear of contacting the wrong person. But more important than that, is the fact that the current system is both inefficient and risky. Such a wide team means a far sparser distribution of resources, and different members will be more comprehensively trained than others. That first step of reaching out to someone requires vulnerability, and is incredibly scary. If a porter, student welfare officer, or DoS isn’t properly trained to handle a specific mental health issue, or crisis, then they could risk ostracising a student forever.

“The current system is both inefficient and risky”

My experience has led me to advocate strongly for a streamlining of roles. Student welfare officers should know that their role is not to provide therapy, but to facilitate conversation and community. Wellbeing staff should clearly state how and when they should be contacted, and who to get in touch with based on the severity of the issue. Tutors also, currently, exist in a strange place - purposefully detached from your course (so that they can be talked to without judgement), but so detached that nothing of substance gets discussed, with meetings sometimes feeling like a state-enforced small talk session. As is characteristic of Cambridge staff, their level of engagement is also majorly varied. I was once told a mythical story of a tutor group meeting for teas and desserts, which feels like an anomaly amongst the all too familiar tales of total tutor desertion. If a college has a dedicated wellbeing head, I don’t think it is radical to suggest that they would be much more suited to holding meetings with students, engaging them more fully with college life, and giving more useful advice than a somewhat randomly assigned fellow.


Mountain View

Oxbridge is what you make of it, after all

The reason that I advocate for these changes is not because I think that welfare staff are incompetent, not because I do not believe in welfare, and not because I want to escape tutor meetings (I promise). In fact it’s quite the opposite. Engaging with welfare has demonstrated to me that there are people who genuinely care about others and do try desperately to reach out to those in need. But before we are able to reach out, the welfare system needs to inspect the terrible mess within. It is only when roles are clarified and information displayed clearly, that the effort of individuals can shine through to those in need. Behind the headlines which disparage the wellbeing system and its staff, there is one quiet actor who requires more blame: bureaucracy.