Jennifer Thorpe, from St John’s. Students spoke of mixed experiences with taking a break from studiesLucas Chebib

Intermission, in which students, usually ones who have been ill, take time away from Cambridge, can produce hugely mixed experiences. Six students spoke to Varsity about the support they received, and how it felt to return to college.

Rory, Selwyn

I intermitted with severe depression just before my first-year Chinese Studies exams last year. I felt that dissatisfaction with my subject had contributed to the deterioration in my mental health, and had for some time been pursuing a change in subject. My grades from Michaelmas term were extrapolated and used to say that I would likely have achieved a 2:1 had I not fallen ill.

This extrapolation was vital in fulfilling the departmental criteria to organise a subject change to HSPS. To my surprise, the senior tutor and my tutor told me that I would move straight into the second year of the HSPS Tripos, rather than starting from first year. I felt uncomfortable with this, feeling that my lack of experience in the subject would put me at a disadvantage when recommencing my studies, and add to the stress and pressure of reintegrating in college. This was on top of feelings of inadequacy I would surely feel, having failed to even complete my first year of study.

So I returned to commence in the second year of HSPS, having neither been set any extra examinations by College, nor even passed my first-year Chinese Studies examinations. Upon my return, my new DoS mistook me for a first-year and included my name on the first-year HSPS mailing lists, despite my official being enrolment in Part IIA. I’m now finding second-year HSPS incredibly stressful, and I have just changed two of my four papers (having been offered extremely limited advice on my paper choices by my new DoS before starting), so I’m now in a position where I will be catching up on catching up. I’m surprised by the lack of support for returning students. I’m now feeling totally overwhelmed and have since decided to withdraw entirely.

Raphael Levy, Queens’ (MPhil)

My experience of attempting to intermit was a disaster from start to finish. I suffered severe panic attacks leading to the loss of my voice and have been in therapy since. I initially decided to make the application on the advice of my course director after discovering that my results would not enable me to continue my Master’s. I was told there was no strict deadline. Two weeks later, I received an email informing me that the committee had declined my application on a technicality.

Raphael Levy: “I was messed around and given false information”Lucas Chebib

It transpired that because I had submitted work it was assumed that my mental health was fine. I was advised to make another application, which was once again declined, again on a technicality. After my dad phoned them and made it clear this was absurd in the extreme, I received a second email approving my application.

The reason I was intermitting was because of panic attacks and anxiety, and the fact that I was messed around and given false information is likely to cause anyone further anxiety, especially when I had offers to study law next year dependent on being allowed to retake the MPhil.

Returning was no better. I was told to submit the relevant forms at least two weeks prior to the start of term. I did so a month and two weeks prior to the start of term. I still had not heard back on the day before term was due to begin despite emailing twice.

At no point did anyone have a clue what they were doing or treat me as an actual human being with emotions, feelings and the capacity to respond to events. Instead, there was a blind insistence to stick to rules that either should not have been applied or simply did not apply regardless of the detriment to my health that it would cause. Cambridge failed spectacularly in their duty of care towards me and I am launching a formal complaint.

Miriam, Newnham

For me, intermitting was a relatively smooth process, at least administratively. I’d been thinking about it for a while and my DoS had mentioned it in passing as an option, so once I made up my mind and consulted my parents, I went from theoretically considering it to signing the forms in about a week. My DoS was very nice about it – probably because she could tell it was needed. I didn’t talk to all that many members of staff; I think I had a meeting with the senior tutor, but since I don’t remember it, it can’t have been particularly emotional.

It was a couple more weeks before I actually left because I stayed to make sure I could attend various hospital appointments. The timing meant I was able to fulfil my commitment to perform in the ballet show, Romeo and Juliet, which was good because it was basically the only thing that had stopped me intermitting earlier in the year.

I didn’t feel I was given entirely clear information. I wasn’t sure on the rules regarding visiting friends in college, nor the reasons behind other rules. For example, I wasn’t allowed to attend the June Event, even though non-University members were allowed to go as guests. I didn’t particularly mind, but it seemed like an arbitrary rule. College didn’t explicitly ban me, and I did pop into my faculty library during the summer, but I was very unsure about whether or not I would get in trouble for doing so.

Thankfully, I wasn’t required to do anything academic to return (just prove that I was medically well enough by means of a letter from my GP, which was reasonably painless), but I did find that it was a tough transition. I left at the end of February, which meant I wasn’t ‘better’ by the time the summer started, so I hadn’t done much work during what was, for other students, the Long Vacation. It made for a few evenings of dissertation-related panic early on in term.

Anonymous, Clare

After matriculating in 2013, I intermitted in Lent 2014 due to clinical depression; I was aware that something was wrong in Michaelmas 2013 but was only diagnosed in time to intermit in Lent. Due to me having completed first term, Clare only allowed me to return in Lent 2015 – despite the fact that: (a) I tried to testify that even my first term was undermined by depressive symptoms; (b) a whole year out of a strenuous subject like maths would do me a great disservice academically; and (c) I would be at a huge disadvantage socially, having not done Freshers’ Week in 2014.

Despite appealing and even having my GP submit a letter stating that coming back late would be detrimental to my mental health, the University did not grant me entry in Michaelmas, and all of the things I said would occur in fact did. I believe a lot more could have been done by my college to make sure I was rehabilitated correctly so I wouldn’t have to struggle with both academic and social demands.

Jennifer Thorpe, St John’s

Jennifer: “I feel that I have a strong support network in my College” Lucas Chebib

My health began to decline during the summer term of my first year when, on the day of my exam, I had a seizure leaving me with a minor head injury, forcing me to spend the remainder of my day in hospital. Following my ordeal, I decided to continue through to second year, but anxieties associated with a desperate need to prove myself (having missed all my exams) and the stress of coursework deadlines led to a worsening of my epilepsy and anxiety.

The words of my tutor following my seizure – “you can enter second year but MUST pass the year” – haunted me for the best part of six months, giving me the impression that intermitting was not an option. Over the Lent period my condition worsened: my anxiety prevented me from leaving my room and left me with sleep problems, depression, and an increase in stress-related seizures. Eventually, I became too overwhelmed to continue and visited the college nurse to tell her, whatever the consequences, I just couldn’t continue with university.

The college nurse immediately told me that I should consider intermitting – reassuring me that I had the grounds to do so. She played a pivotal role in the process, providing me with emotional support, and contacted the college tutor on my behalf, who later explained the process and allowed me to leave a few weeks into Easter term.

College were extremely supportive, reimbursing me for the four weeks rent after I left and granting me some money to pay for private specialist counselling while I was on the NHS waiting list to see a consultant psychiatrist.

The entire process was fairly straightforward. College paid for a doctor’s letter outlining why I should intermit, which they submitted to the exam board. The only requirements I had to meet upon my return was another doctor’s letter recommending that I could return, also paid for by College.

Upon my return to university, I feel that I have a strong support network in my college, the Disabilities Resource Centre and the Department of Geography, providing me with a positive outlook for the year ahead.

Hannah, Pembroke

I didn’t really have a choice when it came to intermitting, as my college had to follow hospital advice. I did feel backed into a corner and powerless at the time, though in hindsight I think intermitting was for the best. Though most of the college staff were very supportive, I was given the impression that my presence in college might negatively affect those still studying, as though my circumstances were in some way burdensome to others. I was permitted to stay in Cambridge, largely because of the proximity to Addenbrooke’s, and my college were supportive in offering me graduate accommodation to rent while I did; I don’t feel they were overly punitive, but there was an implicit understanding that I was temporarily no longer a student. I felt cut off from the student community, and struggled with the lack of purpose and social group.

While applying for intermission was very much out of my hands, the process was fairly smooth: preparation for returning was a far more stressful ordeal, as there was no information as to when/who you should contact if you were considering returning to your studies.

The deadline for approving my appeal to return had passed when I contacted the University, and so I only had confirmation three weeks into Michaelmas term – my college were quick to act with regards to informing Student Finance and the relevant authorities of my return, but there was very little information available about the process.

Upon returning I was informed of various University support systems, and Pembroke offered to help if I wished to access them. I do feel that while such support systems are necessary, the social side of reintegrating after intermission is often overlooked. Joining a new year group throws up its own problems that can’t be addressed by the University Counselling Service, and it can make you feel like you’re an outsider even after you return to study.

❝ Have you experienced intermission?

We would like to hear from students who have intermitted, whether it was good or bad, to find out more about how the University’s guidance can be improved. If you have intermitted, and would like to discuss what the experience was like, please contact the Varsity intermissions investigation team at: Please give your name, your college, whether you wish to be anonymous, and an outline of what your experience was like.

If you are a Cambridge student suffering from a mental health issue, you can contact the University Counselling Service.

Investigating Intermissions

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