University is messing me up

It may make me, but it’s also bloody breaking me

Cambridge column mental health stress Tab

GABRIELLE McGUINNESS, Week 5: In need of a spa day

I’m not here to have a little whinge because I’m bit stressed about my workload. Nor is this just a silly ‘first world problem’ that we should all just suck up and move on from. Let’s all admit that, just like our parents and memories of bad friends, Cambridge is going to royally screw us up.

I’ll retract that slightly. I admit that everyone is quite fucked up to some degree. Maybe there is a very tiny proportion of the University that pass through their degree completely unscathed. The majority of us leave with bruises because it’s hard to protect your mental health here, but feeling like crap should not be a prerequisite of being at Cambridge.

#tbt to when life was simple because I was carefree and happy

Last year I hoped to be the Queen of edgy who rejected Cambridge for UCL. When I saw I had been accepted on UCAS I quickly discarded this idea but I realise that I was right to think my wellbeing could have improved, even if it meant sacrificing the very best education and opportunities.

As much as we all are supporting one another in these dark times of exam horror, there is an underlying competitive spirit. Even where doing extracurricular activities that we love, they are underpinned by a fierce desire to further your career in any way possible. Certainly, I’m not denying that this is valuable work experience, but it also promotes selfishness as a positive attribute.

Moreover, everything is so time pressured that it’s so easy to sacrifice looking after yourself. Don’t worry, I generally manage to shower daily, but there are days when I’ve just plastered my hair in dry shampoo in the hope that no one notices the grease dripping off it. Multiple packets of biscuits and copious amounts of tea are consumed in the place of a proper meal when a lengthy to do list takes over. Sleep used to be like an old school friend who I’d see every day, but now it’s as if they go to a faraway northern University so we only share the occasional WhatsApp. Before I know it I’ll be following in Charlie Sheen’s path or even become like Britney circa 2007’s meltdown.

This is what my dreams look like

No matter how many hobbies we participate in or friends we see, those lonely moments in our rooms dominate, so we are bound to feel isolated. There are a dozen exciting events going on every day with various societies that I want to be involved, but deadlines press at the back of my mind and this means putting anything extra off. We live in such a beautiful, historic city, but we view it through a library window.

I’ve personally found that, no matter how many essays or recreational activities I do, I perpetually feel inadequate because it’s never quite enough. This is then exacerbated as it seems that everyone around me is doing more work, having more fun or participating in more extra-curricular activities than I am. Granted, this is the fabrication of my own neurosis but there is no escape from these thoughts, so they just spiral further into the darkest pits of your conscience and scratch away at your self-esteem.

Books are my only friends now

What’s more is that welfare provisions are lacklustre. In exam term, providing puppies to cuddle or looking at some self-help guides on the counselling website isn’t enough to transform me into Buddha. Equally, I’ve used the counselling service and it was helpful. But you only get a handful of sessions, so I said I was OK because I felt guilty about being a drain on resources. In a University when such a large proportion of us struggle with mental health problems under high stress levels, it is unacceptable that the service is not funded more.

Most of us accept that mental health issues are prevalent, but the taboo is far from being eradicated. We talk about them from a distance, as though we are talking about societal issues in a grand intellectual manner. So don’t lie the next time someone asks you ‘how are you?’ Don’t bother saying ‘you’re fine’ if you feel dreadful. Tell them. Go cry it out in market square or shout in the Reading Room of the UL.

Don’t let the thoughts you have fester inside your mind, instead put your own wellbeing before some essay. When you’re 70, you’ll hardly be telling your grandchildren that your biggest regret was an error in your Tripos exams.

Let’s drop the façades of false happiness and honestly speak about how stressed or often depressed we feel, because even venerable Cambridge is far from perfect.