Opinion: The STEP study is a step in the right direction for mental health support but it’s still not enough

With mental health rates on the rise, the alluring possibility of winning a £100 Amazon voucher probably isn’t going to solve anything

CN: Mentions of mental health issues, including mentions of suicide and depression

Mental health in Cambridge is an enormous issue: it only takes one quick glance at Camfess to recognise that many students are going through an incredibly difficult time at the moment. Many students feel isolated, are in environments which are detrimental to their mental health, are maybe experiencing bereavement, or are struggling with other factors which are further damaging their mental health.

This is a difficult time, and Cambridge students are crying out for support: reduced workloads, increased funding of the Disability Resource Centre, and shorter waiting times at the University Counselling Service are just a few of the tangible ways the university could help students at the time.

So why have the university responded by merely introducing a mental health and well-being study which promises no tangible support?

In case you haven’t seen it advertised on Facebook or in your email inbox, all Cambridge University students have been invited to participate in a mental health and wellbeing study: STudent Experiences during the Pandemic.

The study, designed by a team from the University’s School of Clinical Medicine, aims to “better understand how mental health and well-being are impacted in Cambridge students during the pandemic”, in order to develop future wellbeing policies.

Whilst this is definitely a step in the right direction, with the university taking practical action towards understanding how to improve their mental health policies, something about it still feels slightly off.

‘It’s not going to help students now’

With recent news from the Cambridge Student Union about the underfunding of the Disability Resource Centre, showing how little the university prioritises mental health and student support services when it comes to funding, it’s hard not to see this new study as almost tokenistic. 

Rather than providing practical assistance to students in the present, this study seems to disregard the immediacy of the mental health crisis amongst the student population, and it comes across as somewhat performative. Whilst I’m sure that the study will provide invaluable insight for future generations of students, that really doesn’t help us now, in the immediate and pressing mental health crisis amongst students that we are currently facing.

Currently the STEP study consists of four steps:

  1. An initial survey of past mental health and information about current residency
  2. A set of 10 daily questions asking about wellbeing, perceived support, activities, and feelings about COVID-19 over the past 24 hours
  3. A weekly online survey for more precise data
  4. An exit survey

Data collecting and understanding the position of students’ mental health is of course a useful exercise. However, in a context such as the one we find ourselves in, with mental health rates and levels of distress and isolation on the rise, this study seems slightly out-of-step with the immediacy of the current mental health crisis, and even ignorant of the way that students have been treated recently by their colleges and the University.

‘It’s just totally focussing on the wrong thing’

The slightly questionable response of the university to the current mental health crisis is one thing, but we need to talk about the contents of the survey.

As someone who (perhaps naively) was tempted into participation with the offer of a £100 gift voucher, I do not feel I was adequately prepared for what I found. Amongst the gift vouchers, a primary source of motivation for participation is personalised mental health feedback at the end of each week after a short, far more personalised, survey. The questions in this survey, put to me with no sort of Content Notice or Trigger Warning, lurched into asking me deeply triggering questions, such as if I had ever felt suicidal, or if I felt like a failure.

Whilst these are, I am sure, important questions to ask, they seem to ignore how difficult and personal such questions are. Nevertheless, I answered them. At the end of the quiz came my “personalised mental health feedback”, which left a further sour taste in my mouth. I was benchmarked against other participants and told “to ask for help”; essentially informing me of my own distress with no proposed solution.

One first-year student told the Tab that they felt that the study was just “entirely focussing on the wrong thing” and rather than helping students, it was “exposing them to further upset.” The lack of sensitivity in the study is disappointing, but maybe not entirely surprising given the response of many colleges to issues facing students in recent months.  

On the note of college support, it is interesting that one of the questions that participants answer every week concerns the level of support that students felt they had received from their college or the university over the last 24 hours. Given that the results of the study simply give students the instruction to “seek help”, it is vital that colleges are providing a safe and supportive environment in which students feel able to “seek help” to discuss their concerns.

However, sadly, this college support is something which many students haven’t experienced throughout this pandemic. In recent months, it seems to me that students’ mental health has been actively harmed by colleges through insensitive emails and flippant comments about mental health. Whilst, sadly, there are numerous occasions which can be used to demonstrate this, here are some of the most shocking and disappointing:

Trinity College’s response to mental health issues 

Firstly, a scornful email was recently sent from the Master of Trinity, Sally Davies, the former Chief Medical Officer for England, explaining that students should only request a return to Cambridge in the event of “imminent danger at home.” This shows an alarming lack of sympathy with her students: unlike what this email appears to suggest, physical harm isn’t the only way in which students can suffer, and it is disappointing to see such a lack of understanding from such a high-level staff member, which further pitted students against each other by referring to students who hadn’t asked to return as the “silent majority.”

Students who are reaching out for help are absolutely doing the right thing and showing immense and admirable bravery in speaking up. However, the kind of rhetoric used by Trinity in emails such as these discourages students asking for the help they need, by portraying students who reach out as some kind of nuisance or an irritation.

This points to an extremely unsympathetic attitude towards mental health and does not encourage an environment at college where students feel safe, supported and able to speak up when they need help. The STEP study, while seeking to develop college wellbeing policies in the future, is woefully ignorant of the way in which colleges are actively harming their student’s mental health, and this is something that needs to be acknowledged and taken into consideration.

Photo credit: Author’s own screenshot from Camfess

Other colleges’ responses to student concerns

A recent message from a Selwyn tutor shows even more of this insensitivity towards students. The email, in response to a student requesting to return to college on grounds of mental health issues, suggested that the reason the student wanted to return was because of  a group chat of freshers who were “wind[ing] each other up”, despite the student’s reasons for returning being permitted within government guidelines.  The email felt like it was written with bursts of typing in between eye rolls and loud sighs of frustration, in a tone that felt entirely unnecessary and even insulting: assuming the worst of students as soon as a challenge arises. 

The cases above of hurtful tutors, insensitive remarks, and dismissive attitudes identify a real issue. The STEP study seeks to develop compassionate wellbeing policies in the long term, but in the interim, it points students back to their colleges, which, in some cases, are in fact the original cause of such issues.

Colleges seem to have responded to students experiencing mental health problems with little sympathy or tact, and the STEP study seems to have arrived too little, too late. Whilst myself, and other people that I know, have been told to “wait out” returning to college whilst experiencing poor mental health, the STEP study seems to be doing little to remedy these problems, sidestepping current issues and focusing on a hypothetical future.

The need for change

Students shouldn’t be forced to go into extremely personal levels of detail with mental health problems that they don’t feel comfortable talking about, in order to somehow prove their situation. The Trinity email calls for “necessary paperwork” to give evidence for a student’s mental health problems in order to return to college, but it is common knowledge that mental health is often far more complicated than a straightforward professional diagnosis. Nor should students have to essentially compete with other students to see whose mental health problems warrant a return to college. My tutor made my return to Cambridge relatively hassle-free, but I sadly can’t attest this experience on behalf of many other students. 

Fortunately, these examples seem to have been the exception rather than the rule – other Selwyn staff, for example, sent out considerate and supportive emails; it was just one tutor who went rogue. However, these incidents seem to be occurring more and more often, and it is leaving more and more students feeling isolated. As well as this, every similar email quickly circulates social media, meaning that other students become more hesitant to ask their colleges for support.

I feel that some sort of university-wide training programme for how to communicate online is necessary for all staff who have this responsibility. I’m sure that on the whole, college masters and tutors are deeply concerned about their students’ mental health and that most would endeavour to help a struggling student. Perhaps it is just a bit more delicacy, and a change in rhetoric, which is necessary to ensure that students feel like they have the support of their college when they are struggling mentally. In any case, some improvement in the consideration for students struggling with their mental health, is long overdue.

Photo credits: Author’s own screenshot from Camfess

Whilst STEP could certainly be said to be taking a step in the right direction in developing compassionate wellbeing policies and opening up a dialogue about mental health, there seems to be reluctance to make any changes in the present. This, combined with the insensitivity of certain colleges’ responses to students experiencing mental health issues, seems to undermine the university’s concern with the mental health of students, and shows that there is clearly considerable progress to be made in the nature of welfare support being given to students. 

The study has just come at the wrong time. People need support now, and channelling funds into a study rather than into other resources, such as the DRC, demonstrates an inability to provide practical mental health support.

Trinity College, Selwyn College and the University Press Office have all been contacted for a comment.

Related articles recommended by the authors:

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

• Trinity responds to complaints about their controversial ‘silent majority’ email 

• Cambridge University introduces mental health testing for students