Week 5 Blues: A reading week isn’t the answer
Finding the time to be ill
My start to university life was in no way a smooth one.
In week 4 of my first term of first year I caught meningitis. I became ill very quickly and after figuring out that I was not feeling awful due to a hangover and that the rash all over my body could be seen through glass I called the porters to come check up on me.
Within moments a porter came over, very calmly said I needed to go to hospital and called a taxi for me. Jesus College were amazing throughout the whole thing. My parents drove down in the middle of the night and the next day were visited by the beloved and now departed Dean of Chapel, Rev John Hughes. John sorted my parents out a room and meals and visited my dishevelled self as pastoral support on behalf of the college.
The college rose to the occasion during my time of need and made a traumatic experience bearable for myself and my family.
I spent 6 days in hospital and was ill for around 10 days in total. The next question then was how I could possibly deal with missing so much time off work.
Intermitting was one option but for me this would have been devastating. I’d worked so hard to get in and to have to leave after a month was a demoralising thought. So I decided to just try and see what happened.
Supervisors were incredibly sympathetic; I postponed one essay deadline; wrote an essay plan for another; had an extra supervision to catch up. I took it easy. I was feeling too grateful to be alive to really stress out about whether or not I missed a lecture or didn’t write an essay.
So my first ever week five was all about recovery and euphoria. There were definitely days when I felt blue but it was worth it for the incredible high of being physically healthy and still in Cambridge. Missing time in Cambridge did not lead to my degree falling to pieces and I ended up with a good old 2.1 in my first year.
I do however understand that because of my subject (Psychological and Behavioural Sciences) I had it easier than others may have. Lectures aren’t 100% vital and for the exams I decided not to do essays on the topics I had missed. For other subjects this would not have been possible. I am also aware that this was a very extreme and rare case of having time off. Nevertheless, having time off is something I have regularly done throughout my degree.
There has been a lot of talk about Cambridge being especially difficult for the vulnerable people who suffer from mental health difficulties. Whilst a lot of people suffer with issues far worse than mine my mental wellbeing at Cambridge has been in no way optimal or stable.
Over the summer I experienced an event that was confusing and traumatising. I came back a mess. I drank too much; cried often and slept very little. Not an ideal state to function in. I quickly realised that if I was going to cope here I needed help so I went to a tutorial advisor in my college.
They were admittedly not that great but they did put me in touch with the University Counselling Service. I had 6 sessions in total and my counsellor was tremendous at helping me deal with both the experience that had lead me there and the environment and pressures of Cambridge.
Without this service I would probably still be in a very dark place however one of the down sides was the time it took up. Since the sessions were very emotionally draining I took every Wednesday afternoon off last term. Yet despite this mental health downtime I still managed to keep up with all my set work.
I still have days when my emotional state is not stable enough for me to get out of bed. On a weekly basis I miss hours of work time because my mood has plummeted, or the thoughts in my head mean I can’t concentrate.
Every couple of weeks a whole day must be sacrificed so I can nurture my wellbeing. If I was struggling I would not hesitate to ask for an extension or to write an essay plan instead of a full essay. This is because supervisors are sympathetic. They understand we are only humans and so won’t be angry at us if we’re not perfect.
If your supervisor lacks insight into such needs talk to someone in College and get a new supervisor. Whilst at Cambridge I have had both a serious infectious disease and a mental breakdown.
Being ill or struggling does not inevitably lead to in inability to cope with Cambridge. Yet this has been the basis of the reading week campaigning.
For me concept of week 5 blues is almost comical – if I was blue only for the one confined week of the term life would be so much easier. Having a reading week would not address the struggles that come unplanned at random intervals throughout the eight weeks.
Greater importance should instead be placed on maintaining wellbeing throughout the term. This can be done by seeking help when struggling; making use of the many sources of welfare available or simply accepting that you can take a day off every now and then.
Cambridge welfare is not all horror stories and in my case was actually lifesaving.