The 'endweek5blues' protest last yearAndrew Connell

A nationwide survey has revealed that 78 per cent of students have experienced mental health problems in the past, prompting criticism of Cambridge's welfare services from CUSU's Disabled Students' Campaign, a Student Minds representative, and CUSU's Welfare Officer.

Over three quarters of students say they have experienced mental health problems in the past year, according to a survey conducted by the National Union of Students (NUS).

Almost 9 out of 10 respondents reported having experienced feelings of stress, while 77 per cent reported having felt anxiety, and 69 per cent feelings of depression.

Over a third (36 per cent) of those surveyed said that they had experienced thoughts of self-harm, while 62 per cent recorded having experienced feelings of “hopelessness” or “worthlessness”.

54 per cent of students experiencing mental health issues did not seek support, according to the survey.

Speaking to Varsity, CUSU's welfare officer, Poppy Ellis Logan, explained the ways in which the experience of studying in Cambridge can damage students' mental health, saying that many Cambridge students never feel "that they've lived up to what was expected of them."

She added that the "university and colleges purposely put students under extreme pressure" to get the best results, and encourage a "competitive environment" where students are "held to extremely high standards or expectations that aren't realistic." 

Logan told Varsity that these factors can exacerbate the stress and pressure students feel and feelings that you aren't living up to other people's expectations, which are all triggers of "mental health difficulties." This is because they tend to promote "low self-esteem, which feeds into anxiety/depression" and "finding it hard to cope leads to feelings of low self-worth." 

Social isolation, worsened by the expectation that students "will spend a high proportion of time by ourselves in the library", was among the factors behind students' mental health issues which Logan identified.

The CUSU Welfare Officer was critical of the fact that there is nothing to "ensure that teaching is inclusive of those with AS or ADHD" or "that feedback is constructive for those with anxiety." She claimed that any instances where there was such inclusive teaching or constructive feedback, it was "out of the ordinary, rather than being the basic minimum-level of provision that students have a right to." 

Logan continued by saying that the "proactive approach" taken to tackle sexism at the university is not mirrored by the university's approach to "accessibility for students with indivisible disabilities such as those affecting mental health." 

"Add to this the institutionalised issues of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and other stigmas that many students experience on a regular basis and again we see how the Cambridge University environment not only fails to accommodate for students with mental health issues, it is itself an initial trigger."

She argues that a commitment from colleges and faculties to offer mental health training to supervisors, to ensure that all students have access to a mental health professional, and to put on workshops for each cohort of students would improve the situation. She is currently working to formulate her suggestions into a 'pledge' to be put before the university.

A Varsity investigation recently uncovered the difficulties faced by the university's mental health services, which is increasingly under pressure due to rising demand and government funding cuts. Géraldine Dufour, the Head of the University Counselling Service (UCS), described how her team "works so hard; they really care about the students, and everything we see is ‘the student services didn’t do this, or didn’t do that’.”

CUSU’s Disabled Students’ Campaign have also responded to the findings of the NUS survey, denouncing the support available to students as “poorly-signposted”, “enormously underfunded”, and “often inadequate” in a post on their Facebook page.

Katie Wetherall, a representative of the mental health charity Student Minds, told Varsity that she was "shocked, but not surprised about the figures", adding that "if 80 per cent or more of students are unhappy or depressed at least some of the time, then the system isn't working."

The study, conducted on behalf of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Students, surveyed 1,093 respondents, and also revealed that over half (54 per cent) of those who experienced mental health issues did not seek any support.

Furthermore, a third of respondents (33 per cent) stated that they “would not know” how to access mental health support at their college or university, and only 38 per cent reported feeling “positive” or “very positive” about the mental health support on offer.

Ms. Wetherall added that "there is still a huge stigma associated with suffering from depression and other mental health issues."

She said that the University Counselling Service needs to be "more open, accessible and available", that all colleges should have dedicated counsellors and that students "face a lottery" with whether they get a good tutor or not.

CUSU's Disabled Students' Campaign agreed that Personal Tutors and Directors of Studies often “dismiss” mental health issues as “unimportant”.

They also claimed that the current “mental health crisis” is a “structural” issue, and cited the examples of 8-week terms and the lack of a reading week as contributing factors within Cambridge itself.

They view “Week 5 Blues” as a “practically enshrined way” of encouraging students to “compartmentalise” any mental health issues in to “just one week of term”. It condemned these issues as “endemic” in the “very structures and attitudes of the university's educational practices and its staff”, claiming “we are sick”.

Ms. Wetherall concurred, saying that we should "be ready to talk about structural changes that could make life much easier, such as a 9 week term to spread work out," and describing the need for a "proper review" of student workload.

The university currently has a working group undertaking such a review.

When contacted by Varsity, Graham Virgo, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, said that the working group will likely "be in a position to publish a report next Term", adding that they have "been engaged with extensive consultation with Faculties, Departments and Colleges about student workload."