Camfesses about mental health issues have tripled in the last year and we need to talk about it

We all love Camfess, but we also need to think about the way in which mental health is discussed on our feeds

CN: Discussion of mental health concerns including depression, anxiety and self harm


If you, like me, have spent much of Lent Term scrolling through Camfess, just to get a vague sense of normality back, then you have probably noticed a somewhat alarming trend, and no – it isn’t the rise of Comic Sans.

In recent weeks, Camfess has seen an outpouring of posts in which students are seeking support and recognition for their mental health struggles. Whilst this is not an entirely new development on the page, this kind of content is becoming increasingly common, as over a quarter of students have reported worsening mental health with this last lockdown causing students to feel more isolated than ever before.

Photo credits: Author’s own screenshot from Camfess

In such difficult circumstances many of us have been looking for ways to feel connected, with Camfess offering Cambridge students another way to do that. However, whilst these posts may demonstrate the extent to which students feel part of a wider, supportive community which can offer assistance, such posts also display some concerning patterns around how we speak about mental health.

Are we normalising mental health or minimising it?

Sometimes a lunchtime scroll through Facebook can be a bit jarring. Nestled between posts about “your college as characters from Gavin and Stacey” and pictures of the snowmen (gasp) at Newnham College, are Camfesses expressing frustration at university mental health services, feelings of isolation, and (at times) graphic descriptions of the realities of coping with the pressures of studying at Cambridge with poor mental health.

Whilst this demonstrates the strong community feeling we have at Cambridge, where many students feel able to make use of the Camfess platform to share personal information, it can at times feel a little unsettling. Day after day, as more of our feeds are filled with posts beginning with content notices and trigger warnings, it is easy to get desensitised to it all, simply scrolling past these very personal posts without taking any particular notice.

However, that isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be discussing mental health at all on Camfess, because we absolutely should. Mental health is so important to talk about. In fact, studies suggest that 73% of young adults want to talk about mental health, but just can’t find the words, and I know that I have found this difficult myself. When trying to normalise and destigmatise discussions about mental health, it can sometimes be difficult to do so without simplifying or minimising it, or without feeling the pressure to be “funny and ironic”. It’s fundamental that we all feel free to discuss these issues truthfully and in their entirety.

With this in mind, Camfess, and anonymous confession pages as a whole, can be a useful and helpful place to vent feelings of upset and distress, and to have honest conversations about our personal difficulties. However, the frequency with which these discussions appear on Camfess is becoming increasingly overwhelming.

Ten percent of Camfess posts needed a content notice this January

During a procrastination-fuelled investigative hunt, I analysed Camfess posts from January 1st-21st of the last three years and the results definitely showed an alarming trend.

Whilst 1.5 per cent of Camfesses in 2019 required a content notice for discussion of mental health, this went up to 2.9 per cent in 2020 and in 2021, in the midst of our third national lockdown, numbers have increased to over 10 per cent.

I spoke to a Camfess admin who stated that there has been “a significant rise in posts surrounding mental health at every point you would expect them to” and that during the recent lockdown, admins received “over 300 submissions a day at one point”. Themes of isolation, frustration over the lack of support, and uncertainty in personal lives, were recurrent.

The rising rates at which we are all seeing posts such as these is really disheartening, especially for freshers such as myself, who haven’t been able to experience the “real Cambridge”, and it can sometimes feel like such feelings are just taken as standard at Cambridge. It is important to have an outlet to express such feelings, but the question remains whether this platform is helping decrease the stigma of mental health, or whether in reality it is causing more issues than it is solving.

Are content notices really enough?

An issue closely related to the topic of the treatment of mental health on anonymous confession pages, is whether content notices are truly enough. Content notices aim to identify specific aspects of the post which could be troubling or upsetting to some people, thus allowing them to avoid them. The question remains, is it ever appropriate to post distressing material on these forum pages?

Author’s own screenshot from Camfess

Posts such as that depicted above have a content notice, but some students have suggested that even with a content notice, such material is still not appropriate for Camfess. A first-year student said: “Even though there was a content notice attached to the post, I wasn’t prepared for the level of graphic detail in the post, I just found it very upsetting to see.” Another student told the Tab “it starts to get you down when you see the overwhelming number of these types of posts.”

Camfess does outline vague guidelines for the posting of sensitive material on their submissions page, including urging any submissions to come with the appropriate trigger warnings and content notices, as well as a reminder that Camfess admins are not qualified to provide support. But sometimes things slip through the cracks – the post above, for example, did not have a content notice when first posted, meaning that those who wished to avoid graphic content were not given an adequate warning.

Content notices and trigger warnings are incredibly important to have alongside distressing material, but this does not necessarily mean that the material is now entirely acceptable for the public sphere. The content notices on Camfess have frequently allowed me to avoid things that I might find upsetting, but I sometimes question if it is appropriate to have such a volume of these posts in the first place, especially next to humorous posts depicting ‘Toope stoop[ing] to two Toope tuques atop Toope’s top two Toope toupees.”

There is always support available

Although, from examining trends in Camfess posting, it appears that mental health problems are just getting worse amongst the student population, it is also key to consider that this outpouring of posts about mental health could just be a sign that we are working on decreasing the stigma around our struggles, meaning that students feel increasingly ready to open up online, and more comfortable using Camfess to share their emotions honestly.

Furthermore, alongside the negative posts, there has also been an influx of support, one particularly heartwarming example being that of a mother of a Cambridge student offering words of reassurance.

In addition to this, on a lot of posts, you may have noticed replies from Student Mind Cambridge who has an entire team of Camfess responders who aim to offer “sensitive and empathetic responses to Camfess posts expressing mental health concerns.” You can find more details about the work of Student Minds Cambridge and how to join their Camfess Response team here. The Cambridge student community is clearly doing as much as they can to pull together and support fellow students.

Author’s own screenshot from Camfess

Camfess is one of my favourite things about the Cambridge community – it is a never-ending source of memes and comedic content, and a social hub whilst we all study from home. But, I also think it’s really important that we consider how we talk about mental health on a public forum.

Mental health issues are clearly a significant problem at Cambridge, and we need to ensure that students who are struggling get the help they need. It’s true that perhaps some people making these confessions are not in search of additional support, and do just seek to make use of the anonymous place to vent that Camfess provides, and that’s absolutely fine. Camfess is a great, supportive page and people are often heartwarmingly willing to offer personal advice as well as offering up their time to chat privately.

However, for those who do need professional advice, there needs to be a follow-up on these posts. The burden of mental health support should not have to rest on students. It speaks to a deeper problem about the accessibility of professional mental health provision at university and national level if students feel the only support they can find is through a confession page, and it’s an issue we need to be prioritising, especially considering the current global crisis.

Ultimately, it is more important than ever in these *unprecedented times* to look after each other, to check in with our friends, and to talk about our mental health. Isolation from our friends and college communities can be really daunting and it’s okay to be struggling right now.

We’ve listed some resources below of places you can go to if you’d like some advice or support. And remember – you are supported, loved and, most importantly, you are never alone. 

Student Minds Cambridge

University Counselling

Cambridge Nightline

Feature image credit: Ella Fisher and Camfess 

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