Natalie Acton, Head of Student SupportNick Safell with permission for Varsity

Sitting across from Natalie Acton in a comfortable armchair feels a lot like sitting in a therapy session, except that there’s a lovely guy called Paul in the corner, fact-checking our conversation. As Head of Student Support, Acton is here to talk to me about the ‘Reach Out’ campaign, a wholesale reform of the University’s mental health services, which has now been in place for an entire academic year.

The campaign follows a University-wide Strategic Review of Student Mental Health Provision, which Acton led in 2021. Over the next three years, an extra £4.7 million will be spent on mental health services across the University. The campaign, Acton explains, aims to “encourage students to reach out for help when they need it”, break down stigma and ensure students know the paths available to them.

“Waiting lists were getting up to seven weeks”

Acton stresses the importance of “student consultation” – that is, dialogue with students to improve services. Acton’s team has been in conversation with the SU and, since October, a new racial harassment advice service has been in place: “[the SU] felt it was really important that we had a specific post for students to come and seek advice”. The post is designed to combat the influence of microaggressions, alienation and violence, and Acton hopes it will help her team in “understanding a lot better what our students are experiencing.” This year, the scheme has also introduced a new screening service for autism, ADHD and specific learning difficulties, as an alternative first step to the long NHS waiting lists, as well as a postgraduate wellbeing service.

At the time of the campaign’s launch last year, Varsity interviewed Christopher Haylock, Head of Counselling for the University. However, now that ‘Reach Out’ is well underway, with Acton assuring me that “loads has happened” in the last year, it is important to assess what progress has been made.

Access to counselling, Acton says, has “radically improved”. Last year, the counselling service was able to see 30% more students than the year before, and the average waiting time for an appointment is now three days, a marked improvement from a couple of years ago. Previously, Acton recalls, “waiting lists were getting up to seven weeks, which in an eight-week term isn’t really any good to anybody”.

The old systems really weren’t “any good” – as much as the new statistics are encouraging, the situation before the ‘Reach Out’ campaign was dire. Last year, Varsity reported a meteoric rise in intermission and exam mitigation applications – up 258% from 2013 – and a draft report, leaked to the BBC, branded previous wellbeing systems “ineffective”, “untargeted” and “unsustainable”. Between March and June 2022, five Cambridge students died by suspected suicide. Change was not just preferable – it was urgent.

“I’m very open to external challenge”

A recent BBC report on “fitness to study” hearings, I inform Acton, quoted students who felt as if they were “on trial”. Forced to unpack their mental health struggles in front of a court before they had time to address them with a therapist, students had to advocate for their academic futures. How do the new services approach these kinds of situations? Contained within her department, Acton explains, is the Mental Health Advice Service, a group of mental health nurses, all of whom come from the NHS. That group is intended to be “involved and engaged” with fitness to study processes, “so they can advise the college on the student’s mental health condition, and how that might be affecting their work”. As for the colleges, there is now a 24-hour helpline to aid staff dealing with emergencies.

I am struck, given that inconsistency in the level of care between colleges was a key area picked up in the 2021 Review, by Acton’s assertion that, in these crisis situations, “the colleges tend to be in the lead”. While they are bound to be the first point of contact, and mental health professionals will also be involved in fitness to study decisions, the onus is very much still on individual college systems to decide a student’s academic future.


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I try a different tack: what would she say to anyone who was worried about the risk to their degree if they did decide to come forward about their mental health struggles? Essentially, says Acton: “I would encourage students not to be worried about that”. The experience of her mental health team is that students “do want help and do need help”, and they should be reassured that her colleagues are “very experienced in advising colleges about what the potential impact of that condition might be on their work [...] there is a lot of support available.”

“I’m very open to external challenge,” Acton assures me, towards the end of our conversation. The University has recently signed the Mental Health Charter, a national programme run by Student Minds. “Student Minds can interrogate and challenge what we’re doing [...] and we’ll be doing annual reports to see how we’re progressing”. “I think that’s really important,” I say. Acton nods in agreement, and Paul closes his notebook. That fact, it seems, is unequivocal.