Managing a mental health spiral – a Cantab’s testimony

Facing up to the challenges of shifting friendship groups, the collegiate system, and the infamous workload

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This photograph is of me at Halfway Hall. I look happy, a bit bemused at the selfie being taken in the foreground, but generally happy. There is no trace of the panic attacks that had wrecked my body for the past week, just the front to pass through the ‘celebrations’ of the night. Hardest of all was, as many felt nostalgic about the last year’s memories, it could be difficult to find much to be fondly nostalgic about.

Student mental health hits headlines monthly. Demoralising statistics, which detach readers from the actual human feelings behind every graph and infographic, are mixed with ‘helpful’ opinions provided by members of the public. My favourite comments came from the Newmarket residents, when asked if the Cambridge term was putting too much pressure on its students. Anger, unhelpfully in some situations, is my go to emotion when discovering these gems of public engagement.

This week I’m trying to put that anger to good use and discuss why mental health issues can develop as a student. Obviously, personal experience will skew much of this, and my experience is that of an individual; I certainly don't presume to speak for others.

A lot of the 'why' remains very personal, and I'm sure the readership of The Tab are happy to be spared the inner workings of my mind – hmu and ask me out for a drink if you want that much detail. Suffice to say I, like so many people, suffered with depression during my final school years. My two lovely parents and therapy were essential in recovery. Fast forward to beginning of second year, and new feelings rear their ugly heads. Sadness was overtaken by fear, and instinct repressed the hell out of both. It took an extreme shift in my social group to lift the lid of Pandora’s box.

Students deal with an inordinate amount of changes. Many are forced onto us by societal norms as we move through the well-oiled machines that lead us towards adulthood. Overlooked, however, are those we undergo because of our own choices. Focusing on friendship circles, for now – starting at Cambridge, you make a set of friends due to room proximity or course similarity. Many new freshers will have Whatsapp groups buzzing with these groups of friends. Don’t get me wrong, lots of them will be promoted to a meaningful relationship, but others will be relegated in time to acquaintances or just ‘person I nod at because the social awkwardness compels me’.

Matching tie and dress #couplegoals

Matching tie and dress #couplegoals

Colleges can be comfortable, insulated environments which provide the gorundings for instant connections with your peers. I love my college wife, I love many of my college friends, but since week one I know that there are many equally great people in other colleges. That’s a huge part of the Cambridge experience but this separation in the system leads to frustration. An arbitrary choice on a UCAS form 5 long years ago continues to condemn me to a shit shower to this very day.

This was a huge part of the change that sent me into a dizzying spin during second year. As I began to meet more and more new people from different colleges, this total upheaval began to confuse and bewilder me. As trivial to some as this might seem, everyone has their Achilles heel. A self-confessed extrovert, I rely on other people to help fill my day and uncertainty has never sat well with me.

I would be remiss if I omitted any talk of workload from this discussion, and again my comments might only be a subsection of people’s experience. Keeping up with work is used by many colleges as a litmus test for struggling students. It can be very challenging to get support for intermission or other services when the mere fact you handed in you last essay exempts you from such measures.

Having got to grips with a lot of the inner workings of the welfare system at Camrbidge, through several extra-curriculars, it's become apparent to me that the primary trigger isn’t the crushing workload for many students. Frequently, internalised factors have a more profound impact upon how you're perceiving your work. The conditioning of ‘I must always be working’ kicks in and you can descend into panic because of the days spent in bed or trapped in your own head. Spiralling starts, as shown in this handy diagram.

Spiralling is horrible. Breaking it from the inside can seem inconceivable. Often, to counteract these inexorable feelings, it's really worth seeking help – there are many, many sources and networks of support available.

My Pandora’s box opened, and I haven’t quite shut it fully yet. But it's okay. It's okay not to be okay. Treat yourself kindly, and take things slowly.