You are not alone: How other Cambridge students have found mental health support this term
There are so many places you can turn to when you feel like giving up
CN: Detailed discussion of mental health conditions and concerns, including suicide, depression, anxiety. Also contains mentions of eating disorders, disabilities and LGBT+ experiences of lockdown. Additionally, the article discusses the general impacts of COVID-19 on wellbeing.
There’s been no shortage of people talking about how “difficult” this term must be for us, of supervisors expressing “sympathy”, or of the university prefacing emails by acknowledging that this is an “uncertain” time for us all. Of course, it is an uncertain time, and we’re sure that university staff and supervisors are struggling just as much as we are.
However, beyond recognising that this is a “difficult” term, we should bear in mind that support is available; support that includes and also goes far beyond the University Counselling Service. In a term like this, where we’re mostly studying from home and not seeing many people whilst still having to manage the same workload, it’s more than understandable to feel alone, and as if there’s nowhere to turn.
Camfesses about mental health have tripled in the last year, with more posts needing content notices than ever before. While many of us are comforted by posts that show us we’re not alone in our experiences, they have the potential to be triggering and perpetuate the feeling that there’s no tangible way to seek support.
Often, if we do see resources being shared, it’s in the form of very brief signposts – a couple of links with very little background information in a comments section, at the end of a post, or a Tab article. However, sometimes these brief references aren’t in themselves enough to encourage us to actually use these resources.
So, in an attempt to encourage productive discussions and use of resources, The Tab spoke to groups and students around the university to compile a list explaining the resources available, accompanied by the experiences of anonymous students using them.
In gathering these resources and responses, we hope to show that, while not every resource may be right for everyone, there are still a multitude of ways to receive support and help.
Why it’s completely normal to be struggling right now
It goes without saying that COVID-19 and its accompanying lockdowns have generally had a negative impact on mental health, and the reasons for this are rooted in human nature. Daniel Ellis from Student Minds Cambridge explains this:
“COVID-19 has brought with it an overarching sense of isolation. Humans are social beings and we thrive off of interaction with other people. This past year has been trying for so many people for so many different reasons, but at the root of these struggles lies the same dreaded sense of loneliness that COVID-19 has inflicted upon us.”
Daniel highlights that we are currently experiencing a mental health crisis as there has been “a sharp increase in reports of both anxiety and depression emerging over the past 12 months, with adolescents being one of the hardest-hit groups.” In this sense, we really aren’t alone right now.
However, simply acknowledging the fact that struggling is a common experience isn’t enough to make a meaningful change. Daniel emphasises that “ Now, more than ever, we need to put an emphasis on compassion and care for our loved ones. Checking in with a friend can be the relief that you didn’t know that they needed. The blessing and curse of social media has made it easy to stay connected to each other, whilst also giving us this false sense of contact. Sometimes the human voice can be more powerful than words on a screen.”
Beyond staying in contact with friends and relatives, some of us might be considering seeking more professional support. One of the most common recommendations you’ll get is to turn to the University Counselling service.
Should I contact the University Counselling Service?
The university offers its own counselling service, but it can sometimes be hard to work out when or if to make use of it, particularly if you haven’t struggled with mental health before the pandemic. A key first step might be speaking to your tutor about whether this would be the right move for you, but you should also be aware that UCS offers so much more than counselling itself, and these resources are sometimes overlooked:
UCS provides short-term counselling, individual counselling, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and access to guided-self help where appropriate. Self-help guides range from topics of eating disorders, bereavement and difficulty sleeping.
Another form of support offered by UCS is mental health advisors, which tutors and colleges nurses can refer you to. An anonymous student spoke about their experience with this:
“I didn’t have the best experience with counsellors themselves at the UCS, but if you’re experiencing mental illness other than depression and anxiety, or very severe forms of the above, ask your tutor or nurse to refer you to a mental health advisor. They are absolutely brilliant and have helped me navigate the NHS, referred to a psychiatrist within the UCS, given actual continuity of care rather than chucking me around different people, and been all-round amazing.”
Another student spoke about their experience with the counselling service itself: “I’ve started receiving counselling from my college counselling service this term, and whilst I recognise some people may find this an uncomfortable or problematic prospect, I’ve honestly found it really helpful. It feels a bit simple, but sometimes giving a voice to the thoughts you’re feeling can be incredibly empowering and helpful.
“Having someone acknowledge that you’re not making it up’ or ‘exaggerating’ or just need to get on with it because it’s a difficult time for everyone has really helped me to help myself.”
Often, negative accounts about UCS or any type of support service can deter us from reaching out, but for every bad story, there are also many positive ones. Of course, UCS won’t be right for everyone. One person told us that “for me specifically, it helped short term but it wasn’t the right kind of counselling as they just let me talk and I needed a more guided approach.” It takes courage to ask for help but you’ll never know if something works for you until you try it.
Contacting UCS can be a first step towards accessing further help from the NHS. For those suffering from anxiety and depression, the Adult Improving Access to Psychological Therapies Programme has provided talking therapies to over one million people in the last year to help manage their mental health. For those wishing to access private therapy but are faced with financial difficulties, you can apply for funding from the university’s Crane Fund.
College-based support is also available if UCS isn’t right for you
If you’ve found that UCS isn’t right for you, or you’re unsure about it and want to discuss your options, college could be a great place to start. You’ll most probably know that you can email your tutor or see your college nurse if you want to talk through something, and chat to your welfare officers who can point you to external resources.
We often forget about chaplains or assume they merely represent religious concerns, but part of their job is to offer pastoral care. One student spoke about their own experience reaching out to their college chaplain:
“I’m not religious, but they were approachable, normal, understanding and friendly. They were always ready to listen to me and to try to understand how I felt. They were interested in me as a person and not as a problem. They also plugged into other college networks well and could access medical help (e.g. mental health support) when needed.”
Roly Peel, a welfare officer at Trinity, also said that “I know, for example, that the Chaplain in Trinity talks to a huge number of students, and he is a familiar face who could be more approachable.”
We hear it said over and over again that college support is available, and hopefully hearing these testimonies shows that those words aren’t meaningless. Especially at a time where we’re hearing how some colleges have treated students poorly with returning to Cambridge or disciplinary measures, some of us may be feeling completely disillusioned with our colleges. But we hope this shows how if you have one bad experience with someone at your college, there are other people you can still turn to.
Dealing with specific issues without feeling alone in them
In a term where we’re literally living and working alone in our rooms, as opposed to with friends, it can be so easy to feel like you’re the only person dealing with a particular experience. We spoke to a few groups in and around Cambridge to reverse that perception and point you towards support in these areas:
We saw in the first lockdown that LGBT+ students in Cambridge were feeling increasingly isolated at home with their families. Elia Chitwa, undergraduate President of the SU LGBT+ Campaign, spoke to us about why the new Care+ campaign might help to combat this:
“I’ve spoken to way too many people who have had to live in environments where they have to hide who they are, sometimes for fear of being abused for it. That, alongside being away from your support systems and not knowing when you’ll feel even a semblance of safety again, is absolutely harrowing. For me, this is one of the many reasons why our Care+ campaign is so important.
“As well as needing the university to be more understanding of specific issues affecting LGBT+ students and more proactive about it, I think it’s important to show students, especially those for whom it’s too dangerous to interact with us right now, that we care, they’ve not been forgotten and they’re not alone.”
The Care+ campaign is pushing for students to have autonomy over their accommodation and for colleges to account specifically for vulnerabilities that LGBT+ students are facing. In the meantime, there’s an LGBT+ listening service, Switchboard, which you can use or you can access MindOut which is specifically for promoting the wellbeing of LGBT+ people.
Male mental health
This is something that has been said multiple times, but it can never be stressed enough. Men struggle with mental health and that is completely normal. It’s also completely understandable why some people who identify as male might find it more difficult to seek support, and Male Welfare Officer at Trinity, Roly Peel, explains this:
“From my experience, one of the main issues surrounding male mental health is rooted in the perceived idea that men shouldn’t talk about their feelings, or go and seek help. It’s toxic masculinity in an inverted sense – the very stereotypes that men have reinforced throughout the years in fact cultivate a culture in which men think they shouldn’t really acknowledge their problems. This was particularly notable in Michaelmas, with the added pressures of COVID, in which I know a lot of people were thinking that since everyone around them was being ‘resilient’ and ‘stoic’, then they should be too.”
Roly says that while Trinity has both a Male and Female Welfare officer, “fewer people who identify as male come forward. I do not believe that there are fewer men than women with issues surrounding their mental health, and therefore the only thing that remains is to try and foster an environment in which it is no longer considered “male” to simply ignore your problems until they go away.”
This environment of stigma around male mental health is not going to go away overnight, but there are specific organisations, as well as your college’s Male Welfare officer, that deal specifically with male well-being:
Psychiatrists are currently concerned about a rise in eating disorders due to the pandemic, and if this is something you’re dealing with, you’re definitely not the only one.
One student recommends the charity Beat. They’ve noticed the way there seems to be more Camfesses about “people struggling with EDs[…] but no one in the comments ever seems to mention Beat when trying to help”.
Beat have telephone, email and webchat helplines, as well as chat rooms and support for friends and family members of those affected by eating disorders.
Mental health conditions can qualify you for disabilities support
This has been a particularly difficult time for disabled students, with online learning at times exacerbating pre-existing difficulties and delays at the DRC not making things any easier. However, there are still multiple forms of support available for disabled students, as Rensa Gaunt, SU Disabled Students’ Officer explains:
“It’s key to remember that you are not limited to one source of support at once – if you’ve emailed your tutor, that doesn’t stop you from signing up to the University Counselling Service and also speaking to your college nurse. Whether your mental health problems are a diagnosed condition or not, please believe that the support is there specifically for people like you! The earlier you speak to someone, the easier it will be to stop things from escalating.”
Another important thing to note is that if you have, or have recently developed, a mental health condition that affects your daily life this “counts as a disability and you’re invited to join any Disabled Students’ Campaign groups, chats and events for advice and solidarity at any time – without any need to disclose why you are a campaign member,” explains Rensa.
There are places you can go if just want a chat
It can be hard to talk to friends or family members about your feelings for a whole list of reasons. Even if you’re someone who is usually open with your peers about what you’re going through, it might be hard not to feel like you’re talking about yourself too much, or you may feel guilty about going to them when they’re also dealing with problems of their own.
While it’s great to share your experiences with friends, there are specific services dedicated to chatting through your day, week, or longer-term concerns.
Cambridge Nightline is a confidential support service that is currently operating on instant message from 7 pm to midnight and by email 24/7. Nightline told us a bit more about what they do and how they can be there for you:
“Nightline is an active listening service, which means we’re here to listen to anything you might want to chat about or get off your chest, with no judgment at all, whatever the issue. We’re trained for the most serious of topics, such as suicide and self-harm, but we’re also up for talking about your favourite TV show or the weather – if you’re feeling lonely or bored and just fancy a chat.
“There aren’t very many places to go if you want to talk to someone during the night – friends and family might be asleep, lots of services shut in the early evening, so we aim to be there when no one else is.”
One Nightline volunteer also spoke to The Tab earlier this term about their own experience using the service before they joined the team:
“I have suffered from anxiety and depression for about six years now. When I feel like the world is closing in on me and my support systems are collapsing it can be pretty terrifying and can leave me out of action for days. This happened to me during first year and I didn’t know what to do.
“I still don’t know why I chose to phone Nightline but I did, and it was the best thing I ever did. Nightline provided me with a soundboard that I’d never had before – a place where I could just say what I felt and I knew that it wouldn’t affect a relationship because I didn’t have any sort of relationship with the volunteer beyond this phone call.
“It really took a weight off my shoulders that night and from then I always recommend people to Nightline if they feel they don’t know where to turn. Often we have the answers deep within ourselves but don’t know how to find them. Nightline helps guide people to those answers.”
If you haven’t tried Nightline before, hopefully, this gives you a sense of whether it might be the right kind of thing for you. Cambridge Nightline is currently operating on a more limited capacity due to the pandemic, so if a phone call is what you prefer, Student Space offers a telephone service from 3 pm to 12 am every day. Samaritans are also free to call at any time of day.
Advice from anonymous students
One thing that’s great about this university is that we’re so ready to offer support to each other and offer advice, which is definitely the nicer side to pages like Camfess. Some students reached out to us with tips for making it through this term or any difficult time – the point being, you are not alone. These comments are from people who have faced or are still facing similar things to what you might be going through and have made it to the point of now being able to support others. Here’s what some of them had to say:
“Celebrate milestones, not achievements. Even if you don’t do great in an exam, you worked hard to study for it and you got through it, so celebrate it!”
“Please ask for help in whatever way you feel comfortable. I’ve struggled with my mental health on-and-off throughout my teenage years, but this is the first time I have felt able to actually admit I need help. For me, recognising you are struggling can feel like you’re at a crossroads: you either ask for help (in whichever way that may be) and can start the road to recovery, or there’s a high chance things will simply get worse. Taking that first step of recognising you’re struggling is often the hardest, but is also an act of self-care in itself. Remember, you don’t need to hit rock bottom before you ask for help – recognise the signs you’re struggling and act on them.”
“I know that people have different experiences with their DoS/tutor, but mine have genuinely been very helpful. Cambridge has lots of bureaucratic policies and procedures so it’s worth asking for advice before navigating these processes.”
“Reach out to anyone you feel comfortable with, or just go straight for help. Sooner rather than later is always better, and I wish I had done it earlier.”
“Just ask for help.”
We’d like to give special thanks to Student Minds Cambridge, who provided us with a list of resources, many of which have made up this article. The full list can be found on their website, here.
Student Minds Cambridge have added a final comment, which we’ll end with: “There are so many people that are silently suffering as a result of this terrible pandemic but there are ways for us to get through this. We will come out the other side of this better and stronger.”