“When I talk about health and wellbeing, it’s a very important agenda within the university, and I think it’s fair to say it maybe didn’t have the attention it needed.”

Graham Virgo, the university’s Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education, perfectly sums up the state of mental health support in Cambridge. Just as in the wider world, the last five years or so have seen a huge change for the better with regards to the priority given to mental health and wellbeing issues here in Cambridge.

Mental health at our university receives huge coverage in student, local and national press, but I’ve always felt it leaves several key questions unanswered. Is the mental health situation in Cambridge particularly bad? Are our support services responding adequately, or do they require improvement? And who exactly is in charge of that improvement? To answer these questions I embarked on a series of wide-ranging conversations about mental health with some of the most senior figures within the university’s welfare networks. I discovered a surprisingly positive situation where staff are very aware of and open about the problems the university faces when it comes to making provisions for students’ mental health, and are working hard in multiple ways to improve things.

For starters, it seems levels of diagnosed mental illness in Cambridge are no worse than at other universities. According to Géraldine Dufour, Head of Counselling at the University Counselling Service (UCS), levels of illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are around average. It is anxiety, depression and relationship issues that top the list of reasons students seek help with the UCS. In her opinion, to some degree this is to be expected; university is a time of transition and change, so “young people being anxious is quite a normal part of development.” In addition, Dr Diana Wood, Clinical Dean at the medical school, points out that “any university is dealing with predominantly people between the ages of 18 and let’s say 30, and that’s when a lot of mental illnesses will present [themselves] for the first time.”

Skyrocketing levels of student mental illness are also the result of successful anti-stigma campaigns. John Harding, Head of our Disability Resource Centre, showed me some astonishing graphs produced from data collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). “I think we’ve gone from roughly 60 students disclosing mental health five years ago to having over 350 students now on our database”, he said, and far from being a Cambridge phenomenon “we can see that mirrored across the higher education sector. If you look at the HESA stats, and just from talking to other people in my position at other universities, it’s not something that is just apparent here.”

What emerged from my discussions is that rather than having a specific problem with mental illnesses, our issue is how much academic pressure we are under and the effect that has on our mental wellbeing.

In my conversation with Richard Partington and Dr Jane McLarty, Senior Tutors at Churchill and Wolfson Colleges respectively, the former emphasised that some amount of pressure is to be expected as simply ‘part of life’. “Pressure isn’t something that we want students to be under, but it is something that they’re going to be under.”

However, just like everyone else I spoke to, Pro-Vice Chancellor Graham Virgo was emphatic about recognising when stress becomes too much: “some people may just say ‘that’s just living in the real world, it’s having to cope with stress’ but it’s having physical and mental effects on people. Sometimes, good, you’re going to have to deal with that, we can’t be closeted away from it, but it’s when it becomes negative, that’s the line.” In other words, when pressure “means you’re having sleepless nights, you’re not eating properly, you’re not socialising properly.”

Explanations for exactly why Cambridge students experience so much pressure and stress centre around students’ expectations of their education and of themselves. Richard Partington put it to me that “nothing in Cambridge has changed. But the world before Cambridge and after Cambridge has changed in such a way that the way people experience Cambridge is probably a bit different.”

For example, the university is under pressure to become more instrumentalist in its teaching practices. Cambridge has long been a bastion of the ‘British intellectual tradition’, or as Richard Partington explained: “People come here, or they should come here, because they’re interested in intellectual endeavour in something – whether they use that something for the rest of their life is up to them.” With the exception of medicine and engineering, a university degree used to be about education and personal development, not a way to get a job.

But with an increasingly tight job market students feel they need to achieve a First or 2:1, and thus seek the reassurance of an instrumental degree; memorise the course material, nail the exams, get a First, secure a job. While some lecturers and supervisors are perhaps fanning the instrumentalist fire, Dr McLarty is one of many educators in Cambridge who are frustrated by the trend: “People from day one are saying ‘what do I have to do to pass the exam’, which I find intensely irritating. The exam just checks your engagement, your learning. It’s not the be all and end all.”

Secondary education is also increasingly instrumental, raising the amount of pressure students put upon themselves to ace A-level exams while leaving them unprepared for the different learning environment they face when they are dropped into our intense academic culture.

To a certain extent, a culture of high achievement, competition and excellence is what makes Cambridge the place it is. Students are expected to respond to intense supervision and teaching with appropriate levels of work. Graham Virgo reckons this is what students expect, and they’re up to the task: “Students coming in, undergraduate level and graduate level, are coming in having gone through an incredibly competitive process, so we know the students coming in are coming in with really high academic achievements and abilities.” But competition can quickly turn toxic, and achievement can come at the cost of personal wellbeing. “When you’re used to being at the top of the pile, suddenly you’re not. That produces all sorts of pressures and consequences. I think to that extent we’re unique.” Tutors and other educators are often seen as the drivers of these unhealthy practices, but they’re not immune to them. “The other point which is often forgotten in this is academics, so the teachers, are some cases as bad if not worse...it’s not a ‘them and us’, I think actually it’s everybody in the institution.”

From my position as a PhD student, I wholeheartedly agree. Those professors and post-docs pushing students to be in the lab all hours are doing the same themselves; they learned these unhealthy practices from their supervisors, who in turn learned them from theirs.

So if Cambridge’s issue is the toxic effect that pressure has on our mental wellbeing, how then should the university respond?

Everyone I spoke to agreed that for the most part the university is there to gently shepherd students into a healthy, balanced lifestyle. Richard Partington summed it up best: “They will need to work about eight hours a day to keep up academically, but that still leaves sixteen hours to do other things, and it’s really important that they do other things, including sleep.” How exactly to encourage such healthy attitudes? By instilling them in teaching and pastoral staff, and structuring workloads to allow for balanced lifestyles.

The next level of support is to ensure that students know where to find resources, and that the procedures surrounding mental health are transparent. That means training tutors and other pastoral staff to be aware of what support is available and when and how to refer students to it. However, a few of the people I spoke to echoed an idea that I’d heard from tutorial staff at my own college while working as graduate welfare officer last year – the importance of not overemphasising or over-publicising what support is available. There appears to be a concern that too much information may lead people into assuming they will encounter problems, counter-productively raising their stress levels. Although I’ve never seen this personally, there is definitely a certain ‘contagious’ element to anxiety – as Géraldine Dufour put it to me, in exam term stress can spread “a little bit like wildfire from time to time.”

When it is evident a student needs more help, Virgo emphasises that “the university and the colleges have a responsibility to intervene at some point.” Ensuring that welfare services are adequately funded and are appropriately organised to deal with those interventions, on top of provision of basic support, is crucial.

Ultimately, what students really want to know is that the university is fulfilling these responsibilities: encouraging mental wellbeing, ensuring students know where to go for support, and providing a safety net for students in crisis. Overwhelmingly, my interviews with the figures behind the university’s approach to mental health have revealed that this institution is working incredibly hard to ensure that happens, though this is often taking place in ways and means not immediately visible to students.