Andrew Dunn

As a Cambridge student, I hear about mental illness every day. Especially this Exam Term, my inbox is a constant stream of emails from my college, tutors and student representatives about welfare. I have seen countless investigations into University support. I’ve worked on one myself.

Unfortunately, this university has a mental health problem. It is not unique in this. But Cambridge, with its mix of highly driven students, academic pressure, prestige and relentless lifestyle, seems almost designed to bring out students’ hidden problems. Our constant talk about work and tendency to emphasise just how hard things can be sometimes leads to a race to the bottom, as we one-up each other on how badly we are coping. For those with acute mental health problems, this can create a toxic atmosphere.

Moreover, the University and colleges do not necessarily have a good reputation for supporting students in need. There have been too many stories of endless waiting-lists and problematic intermission procedures. The idea that busy academics should be responsible for our welfare is deeply worrying. This reputation can, in turn, put students off from reaching out for support.

I refused to let Cambridge overwhelm me.

Yet my journey to support has been incredibly positive. I know that I have been lucky. Variations in support exist from college to college, tutor to tutor, academic to academic. However, I would encourage people to seek support: breaking your silence is vital to getting help. It is not worth worrying “what if?”

My first step was to apply to the University Counselling Service. I actually did this within three weeks of arriving, before I had any clear idea of what my problem was. After so long looking for solutions by myself, I had decided that I wanted help. I refused to let Cambridge overwhelm me. That feeling, in retrospect, marked a turning point for me. I became determined to be better.

I am very fortunate that my college (Peterhouse) is one of the few involved in the college counselling service. This meant that, within a week, I was able to see a specially-allocated University counsellor. I started the sessions terrified of what my counsellor would think of me. Now, I see her as a friend I could tell anything to. She has been brilliant.

But because I didn’t understand what I was experiencing, we could only get so far. Counsellors are not able to give diagnoses.

I was in a particularly bad place at the end of my first term, careening from one mood to another, unable to keep track. Something had to change. And then, talking to my friend James about his anxiety over the Christmas holidays, I knew. ‘Anxiety’ described me better than I could have ever described myself.

I made a plan. I booked an appointment with my GP in Cambridge, three weeks in advance, to see whether he agreed with me. I understood the dangers of self-diagnosis, having labelled myself with a litany of problems over the years. But this time it felt right.

Give yourself the compassion and empathy you would like to give to other people.

I knew that I had to talk to my parents before anyone else. After all these years, I owed them this conversation. I knew that, had they been aware of my problems, they would have been desperate to listen. I sat down with my mum on the night before I went back to Cambridge. I told her everything I could: what my plan was, what was likely to happen, and why I felt that this was right. The next day, on the drive to Cambridge, I did the same with my dad. And suddenly, we found ourselves sharing experiences neither of us had known the other had been through.

I went to the GP with a list of all my symptoms, on the recommendation of a friend. That way, my anxiety wouldn’t prevent me conveying what I needed to. And I was terrified. In those early weeks of January, my anxiety had been getting worse and worse. I was experiencing waves of panic and flashes of suicidal images. I was not coping.

The GP meeting lasted ten minutes. I read him my list. I filled out a test. And then, like that, I was diagnosed.

Next, I went to my college nurse. Again, I told her everything. I was becoming very used to this conversation; by then, I had repeated myself so often that it almost didn’t seem real. We agreed that I would organise to meet my college tutor, who is the academic in charge of my pastoral care.

The nurse recommended that I write everything I wanted to say to my tutor in an email before my meeting. That way, I would be able to convey precisely what I needed to in advance. I did. And, after all my worry about what might happen, he was incredibly supportive.

I told my Director of Studies, re-using large sections of the email I had sent my tutor. Again, despite my anxiety telling me that I wouldn’t be listened to or that I was over-reacting, he was brilliant and reassuring.


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I continued with my counselling. Now that we understood what we were dealing with, our sessions became far more effective. I felt I could finally say anything. I was recovering, understanding and recognising myself in ways I had never done before. I was on the road to better mental health.

Give yourself the compassion and empathy you would like to give to other people. Help yourself, even if you won’t feel the benefit now. There are no magic pills; there is no magic therapy. Recovery takes a lifetime. But you can always be better. You can be happier. You can be healthier.

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