Mental Health Writing in Cambridge

It seems like we talk about mental health in Cambridge quite a lot these days. Campaigns like #endweek5blues are doing a lot to raise awareness of how we as students tend to normalise worrying symptoms which could be indicative of serious problems. In 2014 especially there were a large number of articles published which gave personal accounts of what it’s like to suffer from mental illness and also be a student at Cambridge. Increasingly, authors are choosing not to remain anonymous, putting their social lives and, potentially, their future careers on the line in the name of eliminating the stigma which is still attached to discussion of mental illness.

There’s a lot of great writing being done, but some of it is incredibly difficult to find. If you google ‘Cambridge mental health’, you’ll mostly find NHS websites and resources for clinics in the Cambridge area. Unless you’re familiar with the main student papers, you likely won’t be able to find much, especially now that the Tab has made it particularly difficult to search their website.

So, I decided to take the plunge, search through the last five years’ worth of articles about mental health in Cambridge, and create a list of the most interesting, illuminating and unusual accounts, along with some comments about the articles I’ve chosen. Hopefully this can serve as a central, accessible resource for current students, potential applicants and other interested people. It’s categorised by common themes, with each section containing links to articles and some analysis of the way these subjects are written about.

1. Stress and Anxiety

Without a doubt, this is the most talked about aspect of mental health in Cambridge. Everyone knows that Cambridge is a stressful place to live, work and study, and very few people are afraid to talk about that. Some of the earliest articles I found, from all the way back in the pre-Jurassic era of 2009, talk about the stress, pressure and anxiety which Cambridge students feel on the regular.

The article ‘Too Much Stress, Too Little Time’ by Leonie James, which appeared in The Cambridge Student in late 2009, highlights how cyclical all of the Big Problems in Cambridge are: it talks about the ‘alarmingly high’ uptake rate for the University Counselling Service, the ‘complex system’ of exam warnings for students crumbling under the pressure of exam term, and the fact that degrading or switching subjects is ‘far from uncommon’. Moreover, it concludes by calling for an extra fortnight or a reading week to be added to term, ‘giving us a bit more time and a bit less pressure’. There’s a particularly great quote:

We shouldn’t have to deal with this sort of pressure right now. The stress levels of students here are, quite frankly, ridiculous for teenagers living away from home for the first time, trying to enjoy the university experience. For those who already have mental health issues time spent in this environment can and does send them over the edge. Everyone finds it hard to cope with at times, even if they hide it well.

This will probably ring true for the majority of students now, as I’m sure it did five years ago.

The call for extra time in term is interesting in light of the new campaign by the group Cambridge Defend Education to get the University to instate a reading week, stressing that ‘It would be a small step to relieve the mental illness epidemic in Cambridge. Stress and workload are major contributors to disorders; little time for rest and self-care followed by long periods of inactivity away from friends and support networks, Cambridge exacerbates existing conditions and can even lead to new ones.’

The CDE campaign, and indeed most of the very recent discussion about stress and anxiety in Cambridge, comes in response to the results of a National Student Survey which suggest that the majority of Cambridge students think their courses apply unnecessary pressure.

In our coverage of stress and anxiety, what’s most interesting is the way that it’s normalised, with many suggesting that the pressure and anxiety we feel suggest that Cambridge is ‘getting it right’. This normalisation is no more evident than in the ‘Week 5 Blues’, which for the uninitiated is the idea that halfway through Cambridge’s eight-week terms it’s not only perfectly normal but actually expected that you will feel pretty awful and not want to get out of bed or do anything but wallow in misery. It’s as shit as it sounds. There’s a really fantastic article by Martha Perotto-Wills in Varsity which calls this out for the trivialisation of serious mental health issues that it really is.

Everyone has their personal ways of coping with the stress of the Cambridge term, and this article by Raisa Ostapenko in Varsity gives a few of the ways that one student in particular copes with the pressure. There are quite a large number of articles written every term about coping with various situations in Cambridge, though the majority of them are tongue-in-cheek, and there’s certainly room for more serious suggestions about coping. Student Minds Cambridge’s recent #HeadspaceInCambridge initiative has a decent collection of coping tactics given through the now-ubiquitous medium of happy people holding up whiteboards.

2. Depression

After stress, depression is probably the most talked-about mental health problem in Cambridge. This may be in part because it’s one of the most common problems, and has comparatively less stigma attached than most conditions. Worthy of note is the fact that most writing on mental illness before around 2013 tended to be anonymous, with one exception that I was able to find: Kit Preston Bell’s account of his experiences with depression, in The Cambridge Tab. Kit’s experiences are likely to ring bells for many Cambridge students who’ve suffered from depression or depression-like symptoms: being ‘exceptionally tired’, missing nearly all his lectures because he just couldn’t get out of bed, anxiety attacks whenever he tried to force himself to get better, and eventually degrading for the year, going on to medication and then coming back to Cambridge with his depression under control. It’s an experience very similar to my own, published in early 2013, also in The Tab.

Accounts of depression in Cambridge are predominantly written by middle class white guys with supportive families, in part due to the fact that this demographic is pretty prevalent in Cambridge. We can’t ignore the fact that this might present a biased or unhelpful picture, especially for students who don’t feel able to degrade because their home is either not able to support them or is in fact part of the problem. Cambridge’s solution to student welfare issues is often to send the student home for the year, and whilst I don’t want to lapse into polemic here, we really ought to have a conversation about whether that’s always productive. Sometimes colleges can be very accommodating with respect to intermitting, allowing students to stay in college, as illustrated in this article about Whose University? by Francesca Rycraft-Moore in The Tab.

Since 2013, there’s been quite a lot of discussion of depression (and other mental illness) in Cambridge, including some helpful articles on how to talk about depression and how to help friends with depression by Michael Zacharias, as well as plays like Snap Out of It! and Grey Matters. The University Counselling Service are often quite helpful for students suffering from depression, employing CBT strategies which have been shown to be more effective in preventing relapse than the SSRIs which are often the first line of defence when students go to GPs.

There’s little discussion of the really serious aspects of depression, including self harm and suicide attempts. I thought there was an article in The Tab which dealt with the latter – albeit anonymously – but I can’t find it now for looking. On self harm, there’s very little – one of my own pieces deals with the subject, but it’s hardly definitive and I only self-harmed for a comparatively short period of under a year. It just shows that there are still some subjects which are taboo, and very few people are comfortable talking about self harm or suicide attempts openly, if at all. If anyone has any better resources on self harm by Cambridge students, it’d be interesting to read them.

3. Eating Disorders

You would expect that out of all the eating disorders, anorexia would be the most discussed. It’s a ubiquitous topic in the media, and given that many Cambridge students come from all-girls private schools where anorexia (and bulimia) are endemic, it’s highly likely that many people here suffer from it. Surprisingly, there are few articles which give personal accounts of the condition. The most prominent is Morwenna Jones’ article in The Guardian, which is written for a wider audience, as well her other material in TCS. There’s also an in-depth account by Jethro Thompson, also in TCS, of what it’s like to have anorexia and be institutionalised. In The Tab there is a great account from Simon Metin on what it was like to be an anorexic as a boy.

There is also very little material on bulimia, with an article from Liz Fraser in The Tab addressing the issue – though not talking much specifically about bulimia. James Mitchell gives a really fantastic exposition of what it’s like to be a man with bulimia, combining it with an analysis of the problems male body image has in being taken seriously as a problem, and I really can’t recommend his article enough. There is also an interesting (though quite unnecessarily verbose) analysis of coverage of eating disorders in Varsity from 2009, which talks about the dangers of glamourising them.

There is, however, quite a lot of discussion of binge eating disorder and various unclassified unhealthy relationships with food. This excellent anonymous article in The Tab entitled ‘My Problem with Food’ details the daily difficulties of attempting to negotiate disordered eating. There’s an anonymous account in Varsity of anorexia and binge eating which also deals with the process of recovery. Mollie Jones in The Tab talks about binge eating disorder, with particular reference to the stigma attached to the condition and the fact that it’s often not taken seriously. The anonymous article she references is here, though the disparaging comments are not.

4. OCD

There is very little work on OCD in Cambridge – I could only find two authors who’d written about it. There’s Vic Sautter’s column on her experience with the disorder and the follow-up article about it which addresses the stigma attached to the condition. Both of the articles are great and illuminating expositions of an often misunderstood disorder. In an article published very recently on TCS, David Roper talks about his own experiences with Obsessional OCD, explaining how it works and what it’s like to have to deal with it. I’d highly recommend all three of these articles, especially given how little decent material there is on OCD.

5. Other Conditions

There has been, so far as I can tell, no writing on schizophrenia by Cambridge students in the last five years. This isn’t particularly strange, given that the condition is relatively rare – when I ran a mental health survey a couple of years ago, only a couple of people identified as having schizophrenia. It’s also unsurprising given that schizophrenia is probably the most stigmatised of all mental illnesses, with its sufferers overwhelmingly portrayed as unhinged killers. However, this makes it doubly sad that there haven’t been any resources written on the condition in Cambridge recently. There are, of course, many other mental illnesses which are lesser known and even less covered. It would be fantastic to see some writing on living with these conditions by Cambridge students – as I’m sure you’ll agree, many of them are really great writers.

It is entirely possible that I have missed some of the great writing done on mental illness in Cambridge, and please do let me know if I have. I’m aware that I have not cited any articles from This Space, which is a webzine dedicated to mental health set up recently by Megan Dalton; however, it definitely merits a mention as there’s some really interesting stuff on there, including personal accounts, poetry and illustrations. There are also miscellaneous mental health articles and bits out there, including this video of interviews with Cambridge students by Student Minds which explores mental health issues in Cambridge. Finally, there’s this fantastic smackdown of Katie Hopkins’ bigotry about mental health issues by Amber Cowburn, who was until recently the President of Student Minds Cambridge.

I hope this is helpful to people looking for accounts of what it’s like to be both mentally ill and a Cambridge student, or just for some of the fantastic and often really moving writing done on the subject of mental illness by Cambridge students.

You may be wondering why the featured image for this post is a stuffed blue bunny. It’s because there are no good images for mental health articles. They’re all trite, clichéd or offensive. Bunnies are none of those things.


One thought on “Mental Health Writing in Cambridge

  1. A very prominent and vital post. My wordpress site covers an array of the above topics (in a very blended, pluralistic manner) through my personal experiences, I also happen to be a Cambridge Student. I’m so glad great writing exists on these topics.

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