Content note: the following article contains discussion relating to mental illness and the process of recovering from assault 

Lisha Zhong

Until this year, my mental health had never been a huge concern. I had had my ups and downs, particularly in sixth form, but after a year out where I had, among other things, worked on myself, I was stable and happy.

Like many others, I entered university with unrealistically high expectations about it being the best three years of my life, in which I’d make friendships that would last forever and love every second. The reality couldn’t have been farther from the truth: at the end of my first term, I was assaulted.

Responses to trauma are varied and entirely unique. All survivors will tell you they have very different ways of processing what happened to them. In my case, I delayed any form of reaction until early in Lent term when I had a breakdown. I could barely muster the energy to eat, let alone talk to anyone. The thought of having to struggle through another 12 essays, or get up and get myself to lectures seemed impossible. I would alternate between crying until I was sick and staring at the wall for hours– I contemplated intermitting.

Recovery is a pretty much constant battle to remind yourself that things will eventually be ok

However, some form of innate stubbornness combined with a desire to not take another year out meant I decided – perhaps stupidly – that I would power through. Until this point in my life I had always been able to cope with what life threw at me and somehow still do well academically. I can admit now that far too much of my self-esteem was entangled in my perceived intelligence comparative to others. Cambridge is the kind of place where pretty much everyone struggles with a sense of being an imposter and I felt that, as I was not coping, I was not deserving of a place here at all. This only exacerbated the isolation I felt. It seemed everyone else was getting on with their normal, trauma-free existences when for me, just waking up in the morning was a huge task.

Yet somehow, I got through it. I found the courage to tell my DoS I wasn’t coping – despite never having admitted defeat to myself ever before in my life. I found the strength to find my college nurse to set me up with counselling, and I found the physical and mental energy to walk into the University Counselling Centre once a week. I managed to get out of bed every day.

The support I received from both college and UCS allowed me to focus on myself and myself alone

Things began to get easier. I started making it to a couple of lectures a week and my essays stopped being completely incoherent. I smiled more. Over time I began to see what I had perceived as failure and defeat was anything but– it was a sign of my own strength to keep on going through what was the worst period of my life.

Perceptions of self-care can fall into clichéd expectations of bubble baths and hot chocolate. Yet for me, self-care was having a shower in the morning. When I began to regard actions such as having some fruit, as looking after myself, I began to forgive myself for not coping - which enabled me to try and move on.

However, my recovery did not come solely from myself. Thankfully, I had an incredibly supportive DoS and Tutor who helped organise special exam arrangements and repeat supervisions for those in which I had panic attacks. They reminded me it was ok to just be surviving right now. The best thing anyone told me this year was my DoS informing me that I only had to pass my exams; there would be no repercussions, no stern conversations about how I hadn’t worked hard enough.

I stopped believing my worth was entirely defined by academia and focused on looking after myself

I finished the year with a 2:1– a minor miracle for anyone who had met me in Lent term. Although it initially appeared miraculous, reflection has made me see that it was a slow upwards haul to recovery. I would not say that I am back where I used to be and perhaps I never will be. All I know is that now I am at a point where days and weeks can go by without thinking about it. Now, my goals for the day are things such as spending time with a friend, rather than only to get out of bed.

I’m not sure what my advice is to incoming freshers. Many of you will have struggled or be struggling with your mental health, you might be worried that any attempts at recovery you have made will be dragged down by the stress of day-to-day life here. You might be nervous to admit to yourself that you are scared it will be too much. My own experience has taught me that it is ok to admit you aren’t coping. It is ok to ask for help, however and whatever you need, even if it’s just a cup of hot chocolate with a friend, to talk about whatever is on your mind.


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Mountain View

My journey towards mental health in Cambridge

I learnt that prioritising my own wellbeing was the only way to survive. I stopped believing my worth was entirely defined by academia and focused on looking after myself and ensuring I was as healthy and happy as I could be that particular day. I was lucky in that the support I received from both college and UCS allowed me to focus on myself and myself alone. I no longer had to be perfect for anyone else, which let me finally begin to forgive myself for not being able to be perfect academically – and otherwise. It was then, and only then, that I began to feel happy again.

Recovery is not a walk in the park. It is a pretty much constant battle to remind yourself that things will eventually be ok and that life can be amazing. In my case, self-forgiveness and prioritising my welfare were lessons hard learnt. To all freshers, and current students, the most important thing to realise is that you aren’t alone and that things can, and do, get better.

If you have been affected by any of these issues, you can contact the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org, and the mental health charity Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or visit mind.org.uk.

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