28/04/2016 13:11 BST | Updated 29/04/2017 06:12 BST

We Need to Talk About Mental Health at Oxbridge


It seems like there is continuous media coverage of Oxbridge, veering between reverence of academic success and revilement of elitism. Yet, mental wellbeing is not discussed enough, even though it is a setting which amplifies and highlights the serious challenges facing university students across the country.

If you're a student at Oxford or Cambridge, it's easy to see the impact of mental health problems, and how the pressure of such an intense academic environment can exacerbate them. We each attended one of these universities and, like many of our peers, have countless stories to tell.

A student with an anxious fear of failure, abetted by a lack of comprehensive feedback on his work. A friend who was driven to insomnia and eventually psychosis by the pressure of nine exams in quick succession. A personal tutor who was meant to oversee welfare telling students year after year in exam term that, 'people in the army can survive on four hours of sleep, so students can too' and encouraging six hour working days during the holidays. It's clear that these universities are not fit for purpose yet, at least when it comes to ensuring their students' wellbeing.

There is also a particular kind of stigma around mental health that exists at Oxford and Cambridge. Whilst it can be a place of intellectual fulfilment, extra-curricular accomplishment and friendships that last far beyond the university walls, at many times, sleep deprivation, high stress levels, and an almost unmanageable workload are normalised. In a competitive and sometimes lonely environment, where you are judged on your ability to perform mentally, it makes it so much harder to speak up and say you aren't coping.

Traditions persist that undermine the seriousness of mental health problems. In Cambridge, a day of partying which marks the end of exams is known as 'Suicide Sunday', a tongue in cheek celebration that students have made it through a stressful term without killing themselves. But then there's nothing funny at all about the fact that students commit suicide each year in universities across the UK because they feel they can't go on. Likewise, at both universities, the tradition of 'fifth week blues' has the effect of belittling those who experience depression, whose 'blues' are far more complex and debilitating than a spot of mid-term fatigue.

Everyone can make a huge difference at universities with the smallest of actions: friends calling each other out on using stigmatising language around mental health, staff raising awareness of more mental health friendly lifestyles and all members of the university community making time to look out for colleagues or friends who seem like they are struggling.

Indeed, it's fantastic to see a grass-roots movement starting to form, with students coming together to advocate for action on mental health on campuses countrywide. With the creation of Student Minds, students have their own mental health charity doing excellent work in the sector. Peer support training is gathering momentum as an idea, and campaigning groups are popping up to address pressing local issues. Yet, there is some way to go in ensuring the levels of support are equally spread and adapted to different settings which come with their own challenges.

And there are all sorts of improvements that can be made to support the mental health of students at Oxford and Cambridge. Moving away from the 'finals' model towards coursework and more dispersed assessment would help to relieve the pressure of the final year. Introducing clearer procedures for suspension would help to protect students from arbitrary and harmful decisions. Obviously, all students would benefit from better-funded counselling services and more aware academic and personal tutors.

It's not impossible to make changes like these. Edinburgh University recently announced that all of its personal tutors would receive mental health training within the next couple of years. These staff members can play a key role in destigmatising mental health and making it easier to ask for help.

And even within the slow-moving, traditional city walls of Oxford and Cambridge, innovation seems increasingly permissible. In Oxford, Lady Margaret Hall recently announced a radical new scheme to support equal access to elite university education, committing to a year of teaching for high-potential school leavers from under-represented backgrounds. A few years ago, this seemed unfathomable. Why can't we have a similar revolution in mental health?

We hope that at these universities, rated year after year as among the best academically in the world, students' mental health and wellbeing will be treated as equally important to their academic achievement. After all, what is the value of an education if it does not help create well-rounded adults who graduate knowing they have the support of those around them to face life's challenges, through the ups and the downs?

We might also see these changes having a welcome impact beyond the universities themselves. Whether we like it or not, institutions like Oxford and Cambridge command a great deal of attention, and addressing the crisis of mental health at Oxbridge would help to set a positive example for schools, colleges and universities across the country. And whether we like it or not, Oxbridge graduates populate many positions of civic and corporate power. If we can encourage the universities to treat them with greater compassion, who knows? We may be on our way to a more compassionate society at large.