"Whatever was going on, I didn't want anyone else to know about it."Priscilla Du Perez

When I left home for my first term at Cambridge University, I had the same fears as every other fresher. Absent from this list of worries was my own mental health. The prevalence of depression and anxiety amongst those attending this specific University is quite disturbing, and it only takes a quick Google search to dig up truly alarming testimonials from current and former students. I was aware of all of this as an offer-holder, yet I brushed it aside. After all, I was smart, I was resilient, I’d worked my tail off to get an offer from Cambridge, and I wasn’t about to let concerns about my “mental health” incite me to throw that all away. This is a story of how one term at this University swiftly destroyed every anchor I didn’t even know was keeping me grounded, and what I’ve learned in the uphill battle to regain a sense of normalcy and security.

Before university, I had the incredible privilege of never going through a mental health crisis (an amazing feat in hindsight). I’d always done very well in school, I never got in trouble, and as a consequence I became the rock of my social circle. Supporting others, whether physically emotionally or academically, became my whole reason for being. I was the eldest sibling, the parent, the teacher, the director, the therapist, whatever was needed in any given situation. It was this version of me that started their degree one year ago.

Everything seemed to go great at first. But then the novelty wore off, and the workload began to increase. No big deal right, what’s a little lost sleep? The feedback from the first few supervisions wasn’t promising. Oh well, I’m sure everyone struggles at first. What’s that? Why wasn’t I at lectures this morning? Oh yeah, I overslept, I’ll watch the recording later today. Wait, these lectures aren’t recorded? It’s okay, I’ll live, I’ve only missed 1, 5, 10 so far. Everyone’s going to the library tonight? I’m okay thanks, I work better alone in my room. Huh? Oh yes sorry, I’m okay, just the Week Five blues you know!

"Supervision work served as a constant reminder that I was a fraud, that I didn't deserve to be here."

A missed lecture, the occasional late night, the famed Week Five blues. Individually, not a cause for concern. But all together, getting worse as term progresses? I’m amazed I even made it through to the end of term. I would say I felt miserable, but the truth was I didn’t feel anything — except maybe I felt lost. Whatever was going on, I didn’t want anyone else to know, especially my friends and family. I just needed a bit of time, after all. No point worrying anyone else over something that will surely go away soon.

Anyone who suffers from depression of any variety understands how hard it is to see how far you have fallen until you make it out the other side. It took failing the majority of my mock examinations in January, my college inquiring about my stagnant academic performance, and a global pandemic sending me home for 6 months of house arrest for me to wake up to the gravity of what had happened. With the benefit of hindsight, and nearly another Michaelmas over, I’d thought I’d explain what went wrong, and why it got so bad so quickly.

First were the lifestyle factors. We’ve all heard being physically healthy is great for your mood, but the effect cannot be ignored. This means getting 8 hours of sleep a night, every night. It means eating a healthy diet, or least not eating junk. It means getting regular exercise, a good amount of fresh air. During term time, these are often the first things to go when under intense stress. While some students manage to maintain a healthy routine, most see their sleep schedule deteriorate as term time progresses. Late night work sessions often pair with excessive snacking, and when running on little sleep, very few people will still make that trip to the gym. In practice, most students choose to sacrifice their work-life balance for academic survival.

"Having always done well in school, my identity and self-worth became entirely dependent on academic success."


Mountain View

A wobbly start to Cambridge

Second were more emotional factors. I'm quite confident that these are not exclusive to me. Having always done well in school, my identity and self-worth became entirely dependent on academic success. This wasn’t healthy, but was also never a problem back home. Upon arriving at university, it rapidly became clear that I was of average academic ability in comparison to others in my course. I had to work 10 times as hard to produce work that in my eyes wasn’t nearly of the quality it had been in school. But of course, I couldn’t let anyone know I was struggling. That would make it all so much worse. It became harder and harder to sit down and actually attempt any supervision work, because supervision work served as a constant reminder that I was a fraud,  that I didn’t deserve to be here. I had lost that spark, that passion for my studies that had gotten me through the rough times before, and it felt like I was up a creek without a paddle with no sense of direction. Couple this with the lifestyle factors which only amplified my feelings of hopelessness and despair, and it only took a few weeks to fall into my first proper depressive episode.

"When you feel the most lost, remember that you don't have to suffer in silence."

Digging myself out of this hole took a lot of work, and — especially during these 'unprecedented times' — I worry about significant backsliding. My best advice would be to watch out for the warning signs. Resist the temptation to withdraw when stress builds up, seek help if you find yourself struggling, and remember that your value as a human is not tied to the mark you achieve on exams at the end of the year. Look after your physical and emotional wellbeing as best as you can, and when you feel the most lost, remember that you don’t have to suffer in silence.