Pre-existing mental health issues, as well as how we interact with each other, might be more of the culprit for our mental health woes

I’m sat having dinner with 6 mates, and mention that I’ve run out of sertraline, the anti-depressant prescribed to treat my anxiety. Asking if anyone has any I could take until getting a doctor’s appointment, I get a shocking response: four yes’s. This meant that five of our six friends were being medicated for depression or anxiety related problems. It’s feasible that I’ve attracted friends with similar life experiences and personalities, and therefore my little sample of six is unrepresentative. Regardless, it serves as a stark reminder of how widespread mental health issues faced by many students at Cambridge are: a survey by The Tab found that 77% of students at the university reported having recently experienced feelings of anxiety, and 21% have a diagnosis for depression. To provide some context, current estimates of national depression levels sit at 7.8%. However, perhaps controversially, I feel uneasy about the common discourse that Cambridge is to blame for the current mental health crisis affecting its students.

Firstly, many people like myself come to Cambridge with pre-existing mental health conditions. Certainly, the stress of being at this University can act as a catalyst for mental health problems, and it’s important that the University continues to combat this. However, to put the blame on Cambridge takes the onus away from other institutions. The government, for instance, needs to respond effectively with the ongoing psychopathology crisis affecting our generation by providing better NHS-led mental health services and improving education on the topic in schools. The IFS advised that the NHS currently only treats around 40% of the population with Mental Health disorders, costing around £12 billion of the total health budget. To increase this to 70% would require doubling annual spending, yet only a £1 billion increase has been promised by the government in their new health plan.

Furthermore, blaming Cambridge does not allow people to tackle their mental health at their root cause. There’s no singular answer as to what this will be, but to attribute mental health problems to Cambridge as an institution allows the fallacy to prevail that these issues will fall away once students have left. I find this rhetoric truly worrying. While most agree that mental health services are lacking at Cambridge, it does still have some checks and balances in place that do not exist in the outside world. It concerns me that people will progress into work or further education and have mental health problems left undealt with.

Finally, a major source of stress people deal with at Cambridge is inter-student competition. This manifests in differing forms, but is deeply entrenched in life at the university. Whether it is wanting the highest essay marks in a supervision group, or feeling inadequate because of a lack of extracurricular involvement, the stress of competing with our own peers is doing a world of damage to our mental health. If we only look to institutional changes rather than also reflecting on how we interact with one another, then I believe the culture will persist.

“The tough reality is that many students at Cambridge have had mental health issues not solely because of the university, but also due to a number of risk factors at play.”

The tough reality is that many students at Cambridge have had mental health issues not solely because of the university, but also due to a number of risk factors at play. High IQ, for instance, correlates strongly with increased disposition to mental health problems, suggested to be a result of: greater emotional reactivity, greater expectations of oneself and a hyperactive central nervous system. 27% of MENSA members have been diagnosed with mood related conditions, which is very similar to the statistic at Cambridge. This indicates a correlation between high achievers and depressive tendencies that perhaps goes beyond the University’s locus of control. Mental health is also at its worst between the ages of 16 and 24, the age group most undergrads fall in. This is also something reflected in universities beyond Oxbridge, with the Guardian reporting 21.5% of uni students nationwide as having mental health problems. Moreover, LGBT+ people are 3 times as likely to suffer with mental health issues than the general population, and given Cambridge currently has the highest proportion of LGBT students of any UK university, this undoubtedly plays a role.


Mountain View

Every student must give their mental health the attention it deserves

This is not to say Cambridge does not have a duty of care to its students; as an educational institution, it should always prioritise the wellbeing of its student body. Current mental health services are not adequate, and the inter-collegiate differences in access and quality of mental health services is unacceptable. Given that Cambridge is well aware of the crisis students are facing, we should continue to hold the University accountable for improving its response. One much-quoted argument is that the term length should be increased to the standard 10 weeks, which would dilute the weekly workload. This would certainly help work-life balance, and there is little reason beyond tradition to remain obstinate on this change. Nonetheless, the task of battling mental health issues is a long and arduous one, and in my opinion, there’s a limit to how much the University can help its student body in even a 10 week term whilst maintaining the academic rigour that attracted students to the establishment in the first place.

“This is not to say Cambridge does not have a duty of care to its students; as an educational institution, it should always prioritise the wellbeing of its student body.”

My proposal therefore is that we should be tackling these issues before we arrive at one of the most pressurised institutions in the world. Intelligent children are often left to fend for themselves, because they are seen as the “lucky ones” who will excel academically. However, perhaps it is time for a paradigm shift: instead of viewing intelligence as a free ride in life, its risk factors should be acknowledged. Parents should be taught warning signs and how to deal with children struggling with mental health; resilience training such as CBT should be put on the curriculum before mental health issues show themselves; and there should never be a 10 month waiting list (as is the norm in my home town) for NHS therapy services, especially not for students with mental health emergencies.