"I’ve found it quite bemusing that with the strikes has come a deluge of students talking about mental health, welfare, and disability"Cambridge Defend Education

Content note: This article contains discussion of anxiety.

As a student with ADHD and a generally chaotic mind, I’ve unfortunately missed a lot of lectures in my life; I haven’t exactly abided by the prescribed timetable of essays and supervisions either. So I’ve found it quite bemusing that with the strikes came a deluge of students talking about mental health, welfare, and disability — that the disruption of industrial action is condemnable particularly where it compromises the wellbeing of people like me. Funnily enough, ‘disruption’ is probably the one word I’d use to characterise my entire time here. I won’t pretend to have first-hand experience of it all, but I do recognise the anxiety that a lot of students must be feeling — that everything you’re just barely holding is bound to slip right out of your grasp, and maybe the strikes will knock it right out. Cambridge does give you a lot that you feel like you have to hold. I spent most of three years learning that if you want to get by, it’s probably best just to put some of them down

The story of individual success is another story about anxiety. It’s a foundational neoliberal myth that everything you feel and every action you take are signifiers of your worth and your worth alone. This is not a licence to divest all responsibility, but a call to understand ourselves in structural context. At its root, anxiety is a combination of uncertainty and fear: the possibility that something disastrous might happen, and dread at the potential consequences. Of course there is anxiety that’s maladaptive or pathological; I, for one, am trying to stop assuming that everyone I know secretly despises me. But if we’re talking about a student mental health crisis, or an epidemic of anxiety sweeping across the nation, it would be strange to discount structural causes.

When higher education is instrumentalised as an economic investment, and when social safety nets have been continuously eroded for a decade, there are real reasons for us to feel anxious or scared. Every moment becomes infused with the need to reduce the opportunity cost of making the decision to come here. We have a personal responsibility to take whatever we can get, and at least get what we paid for — so cross the picket line, do what you want, you deserve it. This is a capitalist anxiety, borne of the increasingly acute feeling that ultimately we’re all alone. Competition is when you can rely on nobody but yourself; anxiety is when, for the vast majority of people, all available options are only getting worse, and in our isolation there’s nothing we can do about it.

Every moment [is] infused with the need to reduce the opportunity cost of making the decision to come here

In this case, an exclusive focus on individual comfort is both nihilistic and futile. A lot has been written by now on the co-option of ‘self-care’ for marketing purposes into another iteration of individual responsibility. But the primary responsibility to ensure our own comfort is misdirected in a situation of structural anxiety, and our anxiety is further fuelled by the ‘self-’help’ idea that we should be able to make ourselves feel better. We can, of course, try and manage the effects of acute disruption — but most of us are still anxious all the time, insecure all the time, lack any real power to change our environment. Peace of mind cannot come without transformative change, and transformative change cannot come without collective organising. Wellbeing is indivisibly bound up with acting together.

Audre Lorde’s full quotation is this: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” But she spoke as a Black woman, as a lesbian, whose survival under racial capitalism was always a resistance to oppression. To transform an invitation to struggle for survival into a universalised call for individual wellbeing is an act of political nihilism. To survive a system that depends on your death is a creative, collective endeavour. As students, we’re anxious precisely because we have, by force of circumstance, arrived at a privileged place in the system where we have — however precariously — more than most to lose. To give ourselves over to the logic of individual competition to soothe our capitalist anxiety is an everyday kind of tragedy. To do so in the name of ‘self-care’ is nothing short of a betrayal.


Mountain View

Imagining a different kind of university

In daily life, there’s something of a trade-off. I’m writing this article now, for example, rather than going to a strike rally I really would’ve liked to go to, because I still haven’t quite figured out how to start things before the deadline. Maybe you have a better reason; maybe you have a compulsory lab, or a supervision that hasn’t been cancelled, or days of participant research you set up well in advance that would throw out your entire year to rearrange. But the instrumental calculations of daily life don’t mean that personal wellbeing and collective organisation are in some way fundamentally opposed to each other. We must expect and accept them, and do what we can with the means that we have. They’re an inevitable consequence of transformative politics — of working towards a radically different world while living in the one that compels us to act in the first place.

What keeps me from despair is the belief that we all deserve more than just staying afloat, of getting by within our constricting possibilities. Even for those of us who have material resources at our disposal, we have the right to imagine better — a life where we are not still gripped by anxiety and insecurity, or the knowledge that whatever security we do have is built on the insecurity of others. We deserve more than just fighting each other for what we think are the means of survival. Of course we can take small joys from life as it is; of course we can do small things to feel a bit better. But an existential comfort is nothing but the conviction that justice is possible; that things are as fucked up as they seem, and that feeling uncomfortable isn’t an undesirable negativity but a visceral knowledge that change is necessary. If we have a responsibility for self-care, it’s to work in whatever way we can to bring another world into being.

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