An honest appraisal of mental health provision in Cambridge

KEIR MURISON: There are problems, but the foundations are there


Over the last few years there’s been an awakening. Stigma around mental health is falling and more people are using services.

The breakdown of this stigma is due to the work of charities, initiatives from CUSU and many other individuals speaking out. But this massive time and effort is just the start.

There are still problems with communication between students and staff, as well as shortfalls in funding and signposting of support. With the number of students seeking help rising, we must begin to look at the networks which aim to help people deal with mental health issues.

The 800-year-old institution that is Cambridge has a raft of traditions. In Freshers’ Week, you’re introduced to your Tutor, DoS, Dean, JCR Welfare Officers, college parents and so on.

It’s a lot to take on and not always clear who the best person to turn to is. For a pastoral problem, your Tutor may be best. But if it begins to affect your academic work, you may have to get your DoS, course reps or supervisors involved. The list just goes on.

I’ve been lucky to have a caring Tutor who made it clear he was here to help, pressuring the University Counselling Service (UCS) into prioritising me, or backing off to let me deal with it myself.

While many think the Tutor system is a waste of five minutes at the start of term, the concept isn’t so terrible. Tutors need clearer guidelines to prevent luck of the draw for students, but having a Tutor able to give five minutes to help you overcome a potentially huge problem is a severely under-appreciated resource.

The UCS is another fantastic resource. Free counselling from trained professional without a need for referral is invaluable. It even puts on workshops on sleep and procrastination.

One late night too many

Counselling works. Without it, I probably wouldn’t be in Cambridge today. Testimonies from students saved from forced intermission shows how important intervention by the UCS can be.

The head of UCS, Géraldine Dufour, said that her team “works so hard; they really care about the students”. If the UCS bypasses many of the key issues with counselling, it seems strange it’s so widely criticised.

Most of the anger directed towards the UCS is their speed of response. And this is fair – it can take up to five weeks for students to get an appointment.

Five weeks is too long to attempt to live and work normally while suffering. A failure of funding to keep up with demand may be to blame, especially as more and more students feel able to ask for the help they need. The UCS does the best it can, but when money isn’t there, their best may not be enough.

I’ve focused on the problems commonly felt by students. But it’s also important to consider illnesses that heavily affect people’s lives day in, day out: bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and eating disorders. Not all JCRs have Disabilities Officers – there isn’t a sabbatical post at CUSU yet, and college staff are sometimes lacking. I can barely imagine how it feels for people with the most serious conditions.

We must also face the culture of university, where the number of late nights and caffeine pills you can handle is a measure of how well you’re doing. Pursuit of excellence is great, but not at the expense of our minds.

Welfare draws so many headlines across Cambridge. It’s often overly criticised and unfairly put down. But these systems work, helping many students to survive the trench run that can be College life.

There are issues with funding and signposting, yet the foundations are there. We just need to work on the execution.

Keir Murison is President of Student Minds Cambridge