EDITORIAL: Why a potentially lethal safe space needed to be exposed

Or when a safe space ceases to be safe.


In the normal run of things, it would not be appropriate to publish the details of a Facebook group built on confidentiality – as in the case of the CUSU WomCam Self-Care Group.

Even when we were informed by a Tab journalist that prescription drugs were being exchanged on a Facebook group, it was by no means clear that the situation called for a breaking of the group’s confidentiality.

What if the students were asking for proof of prescription? What if requests were limited to emergencies when students urgently needed the correct medication?

This, unfortunately, is not the case. The group contained instances of the following:

While some members were cautious, many were not

These instances suggest a systemic tolerance on the group for dangerous behaviour.

Responding to the story, Dr Helen Stokes-Lampard of the Royal College of GPs said:

GPs and other prescribers make the decision to prescribe medicines on a case by case basis, taking into account a patient’s unique circumstances, their medical history, and any other drugs that they might be taking.

Drugs prescribed to one person are absolutely not supposed to be shared with others – this is potentially incredibly dangerous as different drugs affect different people in different ways, particularly if they are taking other medication at the same time. 

Also, in many cases patients are prescribed a course of medication, and it is important that they complete that course – themselves – in order to have the best chance of getting better.

If someone is sick and thinks they need treatment, for whatever issue, I would urge them to make an appointment with their GP in the first instance, or discuss the problem with their local pharmacist.

While some self-appointed medical experts – non-qualified undergraduates – insist on defending these renegade practices, the medical consensus is clear.

The sharing on the group would be less concerning if it involved only students getting top ups for the right drugs in the right quantity they had already been prescribed but were unable to access due to an emergency. But this was patently not the case in many instances.

Even so, such reckless behaviour would not ordinarily be enough to justify breaking the confidentiality of a “safe space”. The crux of our decision to publish rests on the fact that not only did this activity contravene the purpose of the group but, crucially, the group bore the name of two very public organisations with stated missions of care.

Its description clearly (and nobly) defines it as “a space for women and non-binary people to share and seek self-care tips”. Such “self-care” is clearly not synonymous with the dangerous way prescription drugs have been discussed in the group.

More importantly, by originally bearing the names of the Cambridge University Students’ Union and its Women’s Campaign, the implication is that the parameters of this “safe space” reflect the stated mission of these organisations, namely that of care to students. This has clearly been broken.

The Tab can point to the following facts, which raise questions about the extent of responsibility borne:

  • Three elected WomCam exec reps who moderated the group.
  • One former CUSU Women’s Officer who explicitly condoned the activity.
  • The membership of all five women CUSU Sabbs in the group.
  • The fact that affiliation to the Women’s Campaign had been discussed at a previous Women’s Forum, with the Women’s Officer present. The group decided in that instance, by consensus, not to disaffiliate.

It is obvious that WomCam officials acknowledge the problems of the group and this is why they have changed the name of the group to read simply: “self-care tips group”. Moreover, even the members of CUSU’s executive team have admitted that the Facebook group has been muddied by messages that “may be counter to students’ wellbeing”. Because “CUSU exists to defend [and] extend student welfare at Cambridge University”, the statement goes, it “does not endorse these messages”.

If it’s okay, why did they choose to disaffiliate?

Some have been outraged that a student – let alone a woman – would dare to break the confidentiality of a safe space to reveal potentially lethal practices.

Lily Rosengard in her video for the “Students of Cambridge” Facebook page typifies this response.

Rosengard defined the group as unquestionably safe: “This group has helped me, friends, and over 1,000 women and non-binary people. The Tab Cambridge picking up on this is actually disgusting.”

A cool 14,000 views

She added: “This article has been talking about students asking for medicines – for instance, ‘I’m so depressed I can’t get out of bed, does anyone have a strip of this, this medicine, so that I can get it?’ It’s a standard thing you ask your friends in a WhatsApp group or your friends in the room next door.”

As we have seen, however, the activity of the group is considerably more serious – in terms of the quantity of medication, its potential mixing and the lack of questions over suitable prescriptions.

When one considers ONS statistics on anti-depressants, the picture is bleak, with 517 deaths involving antidepressants in the UK in 2014. More specifically, there are multiple references in the group to SSRIs, which the ONS notes is responsible for increasing deaths in recent years.

There were 3,346 drug-poisoning deaths registered in England and Wales in 2014, the highest since comparable records began in 1993

In addition, Rosengard appears to conflate the feminist aims of the group with its “safe space” status.

She draws comparison between The Tab’s journalism and misogyny – of “vilifying feminists, and calling them ‘militant feminists’, as they do in many of their Tab articles”. (The Tab has only done this twice, once in 2012 and once in 2011. In the former case, it was a quote.)

What’s more, one of the editors has been subject to outrageous personal vitriol and accusations of misogyny from his JCR Women’s Officer.

But there is nothing misogynist about questioning potentially lethal behaviour. Reckless treatment of prescription drugs happens in many contexts. This context happens to be feminist. If we knew of elected officials being complicit in another non-feminist group, we would respond in exactly the same way.

The attempt to divert attention from reckless behaviour with baseless accusations of misogyny is ridiculous. The Tab wholeheartedly supports the aims of feminism and deems the group unsafe on the grounds of health, not gender.

The only quotes we took from the group related to the dangerous and possibly illegal drug-related activity. The breaching of confidentiality in these rare cases – accompanied by anonymisation – to provide evidence of dangerous behaviour is clearly in the public interest.

Nonetheless, a small and vocal minority of students – including members of the WomCam exec – have taken it upon themselves to issue threats and personal abuse to the author of the article. It is totally ironic that these students who purport to support student welfare will personally attack the female journalist who broke the story. The guidelines of the self-care group say to “foster a spirit of mutual respect”.

The public defenders of the group on social media have egregiously betrayed this mission. “Self-care” proponents have done so with the following messages and comments of harm to a fellow woman student:

  • A taunting, sarcastic message from the woman in the Students of Cambridge video.
  • “What kind of total careerist fucking dickhead would think it’s okay to fuck over over a thousand fellow students?”
  • “I’ve met some rampant misogynists in my time, but the seething anger at women present here is pathological. Finn clearly needs help, not publishing.”
  • “This article needs to be seen for what it is – an act of bizarre violence.”
  • “A woman throwing other women under the bus”.
  • “Fuck you for throwing 1000 of your fellow students under the bus for 5 minutes of Tab fame. You’re fucking pathetic seriously.”
  • “Jeez talk about lack of solidaritea what a cow”.

If you have complaints, email [email protected]. Do not send personal abuse to a brave journalist who decided to take a stand against a dangerous practice that could have gravely or lethally harmed the health of students – when elected student officials had failed.

The Tab has disabled comments to prevent against accusations of libel being made in the comments section.