Monday, 6 October 2014

Some Thoughts on Mental Health at Cambridge

I was surprised to read today of several academic studies which have illustrated that Cambridge University does not have an unduly high suicide rate amongst its students. I had looked into this off the back of an article discussing depression at the university in The Guardian, which ranks as one of today's most read articles on the newspaper's website. The article struck a chord with me because it aligned very closely with my own time at Cambridge and the difficulties I endured. However, I felt that the article missed a few vital points which I myself would like to address.

Whilst Cambridge may not appear to have a higher suicide rate than other UK universities, it can be difficult to measure for statistical significance in suicide rates due to the relatively low numbers involved, and UK coroners' resistance to list a death as a suicide without absolute certainty. The fact that, as the article points out, 25% of students at the university have been diagnosed with depression is extremely telling. The environment is positively set up to encourage it. To me one of the key causes of the problem is part of what encourages people to apply to the university in the first place; the supervision system, where students engage with their tutors on a two to one or even one to one basis, might appear like a fantastic privilege on the face of it, but to many it can seem like repeated trial by fire. There is surely much to be gained by such close contact with the some of the world's best academics, but often being the best in their field means that those doing the teaching are completely unable to empathise with students who may be struggling to grasp difficult concepts in their field. It is unfortunately often the case that those who understand most easily are the least best placed to pass an understanding on. As such supervisors can often become impatient with students when they are unable to process tricky concepts.

Add to this the fact that most people giving supervisions have little to no training specifically in teaching and you could be setting up for a disaster. I myself can remember at least one supervisor who I would absolutely dread visiting, despite knowing that I had done my best at attempting the work. He was completely unsympathetic to my struggle and the message was effectively always “work harder”. I couldn't work any harder, and can remember at least once leaving his room in tears.

One of the other difficulties is that Academic Tutors (note capitalization), who are partially in charge of pastoral care at the university, will often have their college's academic reputation in mind. After getting a 2:2 in my second year mathematics exams I was encouraged to switch to another college to study mathematics with education. Part of me feels that this was at least in part an attempt to get a lower achieving student off their books. Institutional reputation is important at Cambridge, and it seems to me is often placed ahead of things which should matter more, such as personal well-being.

The institutional pressure to perform at all costs is reinforced by the social atmosphere at the University, which is dominated by the kind of gender-specific drinking societies and sports clubs which hold a parallel with US fraternities and sororities. A recent Cambridge University Women's Society survey found that a third of respondents had been sexually assaulted whilst at the university. It seems to me that this can't be unrelated to the hyper-masculine environment that many of the male societies encourage, the kind of cliquey environment that also leads to non-public school educated students to feel excluded and looked down upon. I cannot speak for the female experience of this kind of world, but this is the kind of toxic laddish climate that Emma Watson was referring to a few weeks ago when she spoke to the UN of how feminism can also benefit men. The pressure to drink engendered by these groups can be no help either.

The social exclusivity problem is far more prevalent at some colleges than others, but the inadequate mental health support systems in place at the university are common to all students. Whilst it is true that students at the university enjoy a specific counselling service not available to the general population, saying that one group of people has greater access to mental health facilities than the general population in the UK is hardly saying anything. The University Counselling Service was, in my experience, stretched to breaking point, and only able to offer a limited number of sessions to service users. After these sessions were done you were back out on your own, in the kind of high pressure environment that is bound to cause problems. This is not to criticise the excellent work that the people at the counselling service actually do, but everyone involved in mental health in the UK knows that non-private services are woefully lacking.

I sincerely hope that this situation changes, not only for the generally more privileged individuals at Cambridge, but all of the people suffering mental health problems in the UK. Whilst the country's ability to deal with those of us less able to cope with trappings of our own minds than others is one of its great shortcomings, mental health awareness campaigns do seem to be gaining some kind of traction, and I can only hope that this is followed up by affirmative action on mental health, for people at Cambridge and everywhere.