"[Robinson welfare] sometimes feels a bit performative"Louis Ashworth, Isabel Dempsey, Flickr/Joe Bain

“Cambridge University’s mental health service ineffective, says report” read the headline of a BBC article last Summer. The report found that the University’s mental health support was unequipped to handle the “increasing number of students [that] are arriving at University with complex mental health needs”. For me the report was surprising because its critiques were ones I’d expect to see on the borders of my Shakespeare Portfolio, not on an internal investigation: a lack of clarity.

“As Robinson ‘Men’s and Non-Binary’ Officer, I often felt powerless to help people”

Looking back on my time as Robinson ‘Men’s and Non-Binary’ Officer, I often felt powerless to help people, and unsure of where I fitted in alongside college nurses, welfare heads, porters, university-wide counsellors and tutors. So how do we disentangle the welfare web?

I began by typing ‘Cambridge wellbeing support’ into Google and was presented with the Mental Health and Wellbeing page of the Cambridge Student Support website. The uni-wide links cascade overwhelmingly, but are invariably useful, including the University Counselling Service, Mental Health Advice Service, several external mental health services and the NHS crisis line.

The college support is more disparate. From the pages I was actually able to access (looking at you Clare and Homerton) I felt I was staring down the “wide variations” in welfare that the BBC-cited report found. Every college had a college nurse and tutor system of some description, some pointed to the Porters’ Lodge for emergencies, many had a dedicated ‘Head of Welfare’ or ‘Wellbeing Advisor’ and lots linked back to the university-wide resources.

Pictures of flowers or smiling students on these wellbeing websites were very common, but even more common was one difficult-to-tackle problem: information overload, of which John’s website is a blatant example. Their light blue sea of a background is polluted thoroughly by red links: there are links for COVID vaccinations, links to mindfulness courses, links to dentists, links to counselling services and even links to student confidentiality terms of service. Should a student struggling with anxiety talk to their college nurse, college counsellor, their tutor or their JCR welfare officer?

The lead welfare officer at Robinson College told me that they were excited about the chance to help people when they started in Michaelmas. They started drop-in sessions but “the only people that came in the end were my friends”. ““You ok?” I’d ask them, “Yeah” they would disappointingly reply, “I was checking if you were ok.””...

The officer’s problems were not a lack of effort, but were the result of welfare’s incoherence. If a student wants to talk to someone about their wellbeing then the welfare officer is only one of many options, each of whom have little communication with one another. The roles are all stepping on each other’s toes, preventing anyone from providing real help.

It’s a textbook case of weakness too on page seven of the “Student Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy 2018-2021” report: “Overlapping and unclear roles, responsibilities and expectations on the part of the University and the Colleges with respect to student mental health and wellbeing.” The disease is welfare-inundation, and every college has caught it.


Mountain View

‘I’m not worried about getting a 2:1 or a 2:2. I’m worried about staying alive’

We also discussed a more cynical view of this lack of clarity. The Robinson Welfare officer explained how “sometimes it feels a bit performative; if we have all these things in place, then if something terrible happens, we can say that we have done all we can as a university to prevent it”.

I’m hesitant to pursue this sinister reading of welfare, however, because I can only imagine that the people behind it began with the same altruistic ideals as this representative. I have also experienced first-hand the good that it does. They mentioned the successes of “pet therapy” and “garden games” in Robinson’s Wellbeing Week, as well as the amazing feeling of the rare “thank you” from people who have benefited from the work she’s put in. Another welfare officer who preferred to remain anonymous informed me that they “managed to get a prayer room for students opening later this term”, and despite the frustration that poor turn-outs create across the colleges, “achievements like this often make it all feel worth it.”

“It is very easy to feel disillusioned about the state of mental health in Cambridge”

Having read both the previously mentioned report as well as the new Strategy Plan, I’m struck by how difficult a problem University mental health is to tackle. However, the resources at Cambridge are fantastic, so what needs to be worked on is unifying them more effectively.

Point 7.a on the strategy plan is to “Clarify the roles, responsibilities and boundaries of different groups of key staff and of those in our student-facing services”, which is the perfect sentiment but is frustratingly ambiguous. I would personally like a flow-chart which tells me which resource to access for different problems – one which is universal across the colleges, so that students know exactly who to contact. The websites should also be a focus because this may be the first port of call for someone in distress. Following the lead of a college such as Downing would be a good first step, with staff whose function is clear and easily accessible. The role of Welfare Officers also needs to be made more solid and bounded, making them work with the rest of the wellbeing staff rather than in competition.

It is very easy to feel disillusioned about the state of mental health in Cambridge, but researching for this article has also given me a lot of hope. Investment is relatively high, an internal review has been conducted and there is great enthusiasm for change across students and staff. The web of welfare is admittedly a mess, but a bit of tidying would allow the great resources that are there to shine through.