Welcome to Cambridge, Mind Your Head

If you read any articles about Cambridge before coming up, you could be forgiven for thinking that literally everyone either arrives with or develops some kind of mental illness during their time here. These articles, written by both former and current students, read like the journalistic equivalent of the graffiti reading ‘TURN BAAACK’ scrawled in blood on the front of the haunted house in an episode of Scooby Doo.


How can somewhere so pretty cause so much headache?

I’m not going to tell you that there are no issues with mental health in Cambridge. A lot of people here, potentially a higher proportion than in the general population, do suffer from mental illness. As an average Cambridge student, I would be surprised if at least one of your friends didn’t have depression, anxiety or an eating disorder, although they may never tell you about it. Severe stress and exhaustion, which can often be tipping factors for those on the cusp of having a pathological condition, are so accepted in Cambridge that we’ve even institutionalised them as the ‘Week 5 blues’. It’s not just common, but almost expected that you will struggle at some point during your Cambridge career.

That doesn’t mean that you have to suffer in silence, or let what starts as low level stress or anxiety turn into something much worse. Cambridge probably has a greater variety of pastoral resources on offer than any other university in the country. There’s a kind of redundancy built in, such that if you find one person unhelpful (or even actively harmful) you shouldn’t need to rely on them – you can go elsewhere.


You’ll probably be cheered up on more than one occasion when you realise how utterly beautiful Cambridge is (even Churchill)

What follows is a brief list of the different resources available to you, their general role and a few words on their efficacy.

When you’re feeling low, your first port of call is often your friends and family. Having a support network around you is incredibly useful, and you may find that you and your friends end up relying on each other to get through the term with sanity intact. Often a half hour Skype call back home can do absolute wonders for your ability to cope with an essay crisis or crippling bout of freshers’ flu, and if you live in London then a weekend at home may be a feasible option for you. However, sometimes having your parents worrying about you from afar can just give you another thing to stress about, rather than providing any immediate solutions to your problems. People also tend to report mixed results with their friends: it’s important to remember that everyone has their own issues at any given time, and so your friends may not always find it easy to help you. For instance, during the early weeks of Michaelmas it’s really easy to get a few friends together for a chilled-out night in, but trying to do the same thing during the middle of exam term is less likely to work out. And whilst it can be helpful sometimes just to vent, it’s worth bearing in mind that your friends aren’t trained professionals, and if there is something seriously wrong then they may not necessarily understand or be able to help in a significant way.

If you need pastoral support, your tutor is probably the first person you should email. Depending on your college, you may have twice-termly individual meetings, occasional group meetings, or (sometimes, sadly) no contact at all. Regardless, if there’s something wrong and you don’t feel comfortable relying entirely on your friends and family for whatever reason, it’s a good idea to shoot your tutor an email telling them what’s up and asking what they, your college, or the university might be able to do about it. Tutors, like Footlights smokers, are a bit of a mixed bag (hah, wanky Cambridge in-jokes) with some students reporting that they’re lifesavers and others finding them to have overly old-fashioned approaches to mental illness. Fortunately, starting this year all tutors will be required to receive training – just don’t ask why this wasn’t the case before. It’s definitely worth trying your tutor before turning to other resources, as often they will be able to direct you to the best place to receive help.

Your Director of Studies, whilst technically an academic role, can be a useful person to turn to in a crisis. If your problems are work-related – too much pressure, too many deadlines, too few hours of sleep – then your DoS may be able to take some of the strain off of you, if only for a little while. They may tell your supervisors to cut you a little slack, extend some deadlines, or even offer extra supervisions if you’re really struggling. However, they’re unlikely to be incredibly helpful in directing you to pastoral care, and it’s sometimes wise to approach them with caution – they may end up telling you to give up extra-curriculars, or even be completely unsympathetic. It’s probably a good idea to sound out what they’re like with students in the year above who’ve also had them as a DoS.

Your college will have a JCR Welfare team, who have some training in dealing with students having a rubbish time. They’re usually very friendly, and will likely be more than happy for you to drop in and have a chat if you feel like you need it. They’ll also be able to direct you to other services. Bear in mind that they’re not professionals, and you shouldn’t rely on them as a sole source of support. They will, however, give you condoms. So many condoms.

There should be a college nurse available, whichever college you’re at. They will likely have drop-in times each week and a phone number should an emergency arise. They’re mainly useful if you injure yourself, but they have more medical training than your tutor or DoS and are more likely to be able to direct you to a useful mental health service than them. Be aware that not all of them are trained mental health nurses, and sometimes this can mean that they won’t be entirely understanding (or, in a few cases, they can be downright ignorant) of your problems. Don’t let this put you off – it’s not for them to decide whether your issues are legitimate or not.


Then again pretty much anywhere can be beautiful if you slap enough instagram filters on it

If you think there might be something medically wrong with you – whether it’s depression, anxiety, problems with food, or anything else generally screwed up in your head – then it’s best to go to your GP along with whatever university resources you choose to utilise. Your college will likely make you register with one during freshers’ week, and you’ll probably end up there in the first few weeks of term after contracting an annoying but inevitable dose of freshers’ flu. If you go to them with a mental health issue, it’s highly likely that they’ll recommend you go to counselling and then give you some drugs – anti-depressants, anxiolytics or sedatives, depending on your problem. This can be extremely helpful if the drugs work, but they might not. There’s also quite a lot of evidence to suggest that, at least for depression, the rate of recurrence is much better for people who used CBT-based counselling than it is for people who recovered on drugs alone.

Generally speaking, trying to change the way you think and react to events is a more effective long-term strategy than gulping down a tablet each day. Unless you have polio. This is why seeking counselling can be a good move. Your college may have a counsellor, in which case you should probably try going to them first – there’s unlikely to be a waiting list, and it’s a little more informal than the university service. It’s entirely possible that they might not be very good. If this is the case, don’t panic and just give up on counselling altogether.

Instead, apply for counselling at the UCS. There are a few things to flag up here. First, the pre-counselling form is very long. It sounds patronising, but it can be very difficult to fill out a long form which asks you to describe your mental state when you haven’t been able to get out of bed for a week. Fill in as much as you can, but if you can’t be comprehensive then don’t worry, it’s just a way for them to try and figure out exactly what kind of treatment to give you and where to focus. Next, you may have to wait a while to get a slot, particularly if you’re picky with your availability times. The wait can be agonising, especially if you’re desperate, but that’s part of why you should definitely go to your GP in conjunction with this (get a same-day emergency appointment, don’t be a martyr). Finally, the type of counselling you receive might not always be effective. If you feel you’re not getting anywhere, ask if they can try a different approach, or even ask to be transferred to a different counsellor if possible. This kind of treatment is quite an individual, personal thing, and sometimes it just doesn’t work for some people. Don’t give up.


No seriously, look how goddamn nice this town is

This guide isn’t entirely comprehensive, and there are always more services and people willing to help. The most important thing is to know that, if you’re feeling low, you don’t need to stay silent – and no matter how lonely you feel, you’re never completely alone.


5 thoughts on “Welcome to Cambridge, Mind Your Head

  1. Hi Tim,
    As someone trying to remain calm about going into 2nd year this weekend I really appreciate this post!
    I have a question though. How do you tell the difference between stress and anxiety due to pressure, and stress and anxiety due to being genuinely unhappy with your situation? Where is the line between the Cambridge system exacerbating a predisposition to anxiety and/or depression, or the system just genuinely not suiting you?
    Hope that makes sense. I ask not necessarily just in relation to my own position but because I’m interested generally.

    • Hi MP,

      This is a really interesting question, and not one that I can say that there’s a definitive answer to.

      It sounds like an utter cop-out, but I think that if you find yourself in a position where you’re overwhelmingly stressed and anxious (and I’m sure that most people probably have at some point) then you need to do a bit of introspection to try and figure out the source of it.

      I like to think of it as interrogating yourself: ask yourself whether you would be happier if you could relax your deadlines by a few days, or if you didn’t need to hand in two essays every week, or whatever. If the answer is ‘yes’, it’s likely a situational thing. If not – if the feeling doesn’t go away even the morning after you’ve sent in your essay and you should be really relaxed – then it may well be something deeper.

      That’s not to say that being unhappy with the Cambridge system is an immutable thing – I think we tend to put a lot more stock in the idea of something ‘not suiting’ than it actually deserves. It’s entirely possible in a lot of cases to *make* it work for you, it’s often just a matter of finding the way to do that. For me, establishing a routine really helps: this year I’ve started getting up really early, hitting the gym whilst everyone is still asleep, and then coming home and starting my working day wide awake. As a side note, exercise is a great time to probe your thoughts a little – take the time whilst you’re running or picking up heavy things to have some mental conversations with yourself and figure out how you’re doing. It sounds really wanky, but it’s honestly quite a helpful thing.

      I don’t know if this has been at all useful to you – I don’t think there *is* necessarily an easy answer to your question. Sorry if this has wasted your time!

      • Not a waste of time at all! Thanks for replying so nicely and quickly.

        I think that’s a really good way of looking at it, both with regards to figuring out how deep your feelings are and, if they are due to the situation, working out how to improve it.

        Thinking about it now, I found exam term better than Michaelmas, because by that point I’d learnt to make myself stick to a routine and treat revision as a normal working day rather than mull over essays for hours on end and never switch off. So I think you’re right – in some ways you can adapt the system to suit you rather than solely the other way round.

        I hope I’m not wasting your time either! Cambridge is weird, and I think it’s really interesting to discuss stuff like this. So thanks for opening up the discussion with your writing 🙂

  2. This is a good post! Sometimes students might find they need to speak to someone who is in no way affiliated with the University. This can be a little tricky, because the services want students to stay in their student identity boxes, but it *is* possible. Your GP can give you a list of local services, including charities which can offer a level of care for free or for a small regular donation.

  3. This was a great article, thanks Tim.
    Definitely if someone is struggling with mental health problems they should go to their GP, but some GPs are not great at the mental health side of things. If your GP hasn’t been helpful don’t be at all afraid to ask for an appointment with a different one.
    Mind also has a pretty good website you could explore if you like that sort of thing.
    One thing though, please don’t go to the GP with fresher’s flu! Have some paracetamol, lots of fluids and take it easy for a while. If you’re concerned it might be something else try and see your college nurse first. If anything they’re excellent at getting through the GP receptionists to get a same-day appointment.

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