I’ve fought to protect my mental health at Cambridge, but it feels like no one is listening

My experiences with reaching out for mental health support in Cambridge have left me feeling abandoned and something needs to change

CW:// This article includes detailed mentions of mental health difficulties and the university’s return policy, alongside brief mentions of racial harassment, transphobia and homophobia.

The end of Michaelmas 2020 and my first term at Cambridge complete. It hadn’t been the first term I had been expecting by any means: Covid having robbed me of a proper freshers experience, and my friendship group limited to the people I had randomly been accommodated with. 

Whilst Covid restrictions allowed it, a friend visited for a day trip in the week after term had finished. His reaction to the city was eye-opening to me. It was like seeing it for the first time again – he reminded me of the beauty around every corner, the magical feeling of the city, the wonder of the striking facades of King’s Parade and Trinity. It felt like it had been so long since I had seen these iconic sights. I had become numb to them. Worse, I had come to hate them, or at least what they represented. 

A tourist may see a porter in a funny bowler hat at Trinity or Clare. Whereas I see them and I’m forced to question whether they would also seemingly dismiss the concerns of BAME students, or appear to  fail to speak out in support of trans women, or request students take down pride flags. A college crest transforms from a symbol of community to a badge of shame for me – how much money has been invested in companies linked to the arms trade by some colleges with tuition fees? How many students who have not returned to Cambridge are struggling to make ends meet (a small proportion we’re told) because their grants have been slashed, all under the banner of that shield?

In Michaelmas I had some solace though – I wasn’t at one of those colleges. My college was better than that. We were an accepting, friendly, caring community – supposedly one of the friendliest colleges in Cambridge (although it feels like about half of them claim to hold this title!) Our covid regulations weren’t overly harsh but still protected us. There would always be grants there if I need them. All this had been promised to me time and time again, from Open Days to Freshers’ Week. 

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(Image credits: Katie Thacker)

There were red flags, though. After serious incidents during Michaelmas triggered by mental health issues, the college certainly seemed to support me: when I approached the college, they put in place weekly meetings with my tutor and the college nurse. There was an underlying tone, though, that I couldn’t put my finger on. It made me feel uneasy. 

I now think these interventions they had put in place to help me seemed to punish me as much as they supported me. Looking back, they felt like parole meetings, fulfilling a weekly checklist of what I have and haven’t done with the implication that if I stopped being able to look after myself then support would be withdrawn and I would be punished. In reality, chronic mental illness is a rollercoaster and you will have relapses, even if you are on a general upwards trend and doing everything you should. Meanwhile, the college failed to implement the support I was actually asking for, such as counselling or academic adjustments.

That was left to the Disability Resource Centre (DRC) and the University Counselling Service  (UCS), both of which have been reported by Cambridge Student Union to be chronically underfunded, more difficult to access, and struggling to meet the needs of a student population in crisis. It was even suggested that I intermit, despite the fact that this wasn’t what I was asking for; academically I was doing perfectly fine. Most importantly, I was actually happy 99% of the time. 

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(Image credits: Katie Thacker)

Michaelmas had some really dark moments but I made it through. Having struggled with my home situation for a number of years and knowing that returning home could risk this, I asked for permission to stay in Cambridge over the Christmas holidays. Whilst this request was approved, my tutor strongly and repeatedly encouraged me to return home for Christmas, and so I eventually did. I felt returning home under the advice of my tutor had a significant impact on my mental health: my mood deteriorated, I found myself reliving past traumas and struggling to even get out of bed.  Eventually, I broke down and wrote an email to my tutor requesting an urgent return to Cambridge. 

I struggled to receive clarification on if I could return for over a week. 

I was desperate – I reached out to everyone I could think of:  the Disabled Students’ officer, my Director of studies, my Mental Health Advisor, and my DRC advisor. I called the porters, I called the tutorial office, emails were sent to the Senior Tutor. 

Finally, my tutor replied: no. He called me – I cried saying I couldn’t cope at home and intermitting was suggested. Later that day, Lent was announced to be online. That evening I received an email from my tutor which to me felt like he was gloating that he had been expecting this announcement and asking if it changed my stance. I knew home would not be the right place for me. 

This was the start of a two-month-long process, which eventually involved the Senior Tutor, two other college tutors, medical support, and many, many meetings on top of work resuming as term started. There were delays, my tutor left me on ‘read’, questions were avoided, I suggested return dates which seemed reasonable, only to be told the day before that it wasn’t possible. Miscommunications between all parties were rife and I was growing increasingly angry at the college’s handling of the situation. At the halfway-point of term, there was still no end in sight for me, no meetings booked, no idea when I would return. I was defeated. All I had wanted to do was to come back to college, for reasons which the university itself had said were ‘permitted reasons’ for returning. 

This had taken a toll emotionally and so I took some time off. I sent an email to my tutor that explained my reasons for this – I was managing my studies well but the amount of uncertainty he had put me through had destroyed my mental state. His only response was that he might be having the necessary meeting to facilitate my return at some point that week. I asked some clarifying questions. I was left on ‘read’. Again.  

It was alleged that these delays were being done to ensure I was properly supported upon my return, but the reality was that it left me in a traumatic and damaging situation. It seems I’m not alone in this, the amount of support available for remote learners is less by the nature of the situation, and yet in my experience colleges do little to fill the gaps left in support for those who have not returned, often leaving it to JCR and MCR Welfare Reps, who are not equipped to deal with these issues. It has felt that colleges have washed their hands of responsibility for students who have not been able to return. Out of sight, out of mind, right?

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(Image credits: Katie Thacker)

At the time of writing, it’s almost Week 7 and I’m still not back. I’m knackered and only getting worse. I now only attend a third of my contact hours and I can’t help but have an intense feeling of self-hatred for that – I love my subject. I don’t want to be missing so much but I can’t manage my health and attend these classes. 

More than anything else, this process has shown me that I was not an isolated case. I reached out to people across the university through various groups and organisations, and I found my situation paralleled again and again. I spoke with a wonderful guy who was really sympathetic to the situation, and something he said really stuck with me: my experiences with Cambridge aren’t unique, this happens. People fall out of love with Cambridge, particularly those who require support. It’s inevitable. 

The university can claim to care about its students, but a lot of what the uni does feels performative to me: A college may fly the LGBTQ+ Flag, but how well do they actually support those issues? They’ll release a survey to track mental health, but I think put so little care into it that vulnerable students can be triggered by the survey itself; they’ll encourage students to reach out to university services, but then underfund the DRC so badly that they can’t properly support people. 

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(Image credits: Katie Thacker)

The entire situation has left me feeling so angry and upset about the way I’ve been treated. When a Senior Tutor couldn’t find the time to reply to my emails about urgent mental health issues but was active on the college’s social media pages, it became so painfully clear to me that image mattered more than reality.

In a way, they’ve won. I’ve been so ground down by them and the horrible situation that I now just accept it. I have a feeling this is exactly how others feel, resigned to the fact that this is the way the uni is to some: they’ll do what they want and there’s no use fighting them. 

The beautiful Cambridge which I saw for the first time on an open day is meaningless now – the architecture may never change on the outside but the system inside is rotting and it is clear that it’s not fit for purpose in my mind. I’m happy to see people fighting for reforms: such as introducing a reading week and pushing for better support for LGBTQ+ students, but there are worrying signs that appear to demonstrate just how resistant to change the University of Cambridge is. Change must be swift and it must be drastic if students are going to truly feel supported.

 As for me, I’ll continue my degree, out of spite if nothing else, but I’m exhausted. I’ve fought so hard for my right to be in the best place for my mental health – I am still fighting. My one glimmer of hope is that, if I fight hard enough, I might be able to stop them from treating someone else like this.

The University of Cambridge press office was contacted for comment. 

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