Seeking mental health support in Cambridge may be difficult, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try

‘It’s okay to need help and it’s okay to ask for help’

CN:// Discussions about mental health conditions and concerns 

We need to talk about mental health in Cambridge: Camfess posts about mental health issues have tripled in the last year, whilst the early findings from the STEP study suggest the pandemic has had a negative impact on student’s mental health.

This fits into a broader picture of declining mental health amongst students: The National Union of Students survey found that more than 50 per cent of students said their mental health had declined since the beginning of the pandemic and only 20 per cent of students sought mental health support.

Whilst discussions about the importance of accessible mental health and wellbeing services have become more common in recent years, it is still not always easy to seek help and support. Feelings of shame, not being taken seriously, being viewed negatively and long counselling waiting times are just some reasons that might discourage students from accessing these services.

(Image credit: Student Minds Cambridge) 

I have to admit, despite being an avid supporter of accessible mental health and wellbeing resources, I never saw myself using them. I believed I could deal with issues on my own. I feared that opening up would not actually help and just generally had feelings of embarrassment about admitting I needed additional support. Reaching out for support can be incredibly difficult, and to anyone struggling with their mental health, any concerns you have preventing you from seeking help are completely valid. However, whilst the process of asking for support can be unnerving, from my experience reaching out for support can help to lead to positive change.

The first step of asking for help is the hardest

My mental wellbeing was dramatically deteriorating when I finally decided to reach out to my college’s Head of Student Wellbeing. It can be incredibly disconcerting to contact someone especially as support at this time is virtual. I was filled with anxiety that my problems were not significant to discuss with someone else. No matter how big or small you think an issue is, your emotions and actions are valid, and you will not be judged for speaking about them.

Mental health and wellbeing professionals are there to support you, not to pass judgement on your situation. I was lucky that the Head of Student Wellbeing at my college was able to speak to me on the day I emailed them. They attentively listened to what I disclosed, helped me create a plan and directed me to multiple avenues of support whilst making it clear they would make time to speak to me when I needed.

Potential barriers to support

Unfortunately, this quick response and experience is not universal: Not all colleges have a Head of Student Wellbeing or college counsellor to begin with, let alone one that could even respond so quickly. This is something colleges need to improve on: It is essential that colleges have adequately trained pastoral staff so that students have the confidence that their concerns will be acknowledged and taken seriously. The fact we are living in a pandemic has also led to an increased number of students struggling with their mental health, so I can be sympathetic to the fact quick responses are not always guaranteed.

Currently, the Cambridge University service (UCS) waiting time is an average of four to five weeks and could potentially be longer if you have limited availability. With this representing over half of a Cambridge term, the university needs to be aware that long waiting times can cause feelings of isolation and abandonment if students do not have other avenues of support while waiting for UCS appointments, and take steps to ensure that all students can be guaranteed mental health support as needed.

Having staff dedicated to counselling or wellbeing is integral. Whilst tutors are meant to be a point of call to provide pastoral support it can also be difficult to disclose intimate details to your tutor. There may be subjects that students feel uncomfortable speaking about, or there may not be a sense of trust between students and tutors that prevents students from speaking openly. This can be especially difficult for marginalised groups, such as LGBTQ+, ethnic minority and disabled students as there may be worries that tutors cannot empathise with their experiences.

(Image Credit: Student Minds Cambridge) 

If this is the case, it could still be worthwhile letting your tutor or asking someone trustworthy to contact your tutor on your behalf to let them know that you are having a difficult time. However, don’t feel you ever need to share more than what you feel comfortable with: Your needs should remain a priority, you don’t owe anyone anything.

I can only recommend from experience that letting your tutor know you’re having a difficult time can be beneficial.  You can receive another form of support and they can also put things in place and contact necessary people to help improve your wellbeing during your time at Cambridge.

There is no shame in receiving support

No matter how much support you are receiving or what avenues you receive this support from, this does not detract from your value as a person. When someone has a physical injury, it makes sense to get help and you are not viewed as any less of a person for it, this is exactly the same for mental health.

(Image Credit: Student Minds Cambridge)

There can also be difficulties in telling friends and family members that you need support and that you are receiving it. This is something I personally struggled with a lot. Sometimes telling someone you trust can be beneficial as more than often those around you will want nothing but the best for you. While they may be concerned, your value does not decrease because of it.

Go at your own pace

 Mental health and wellbeing support should work around you. I won’t lie and say once I started receiving support, I automatically felt better. There will be days where you are more optimistic and days where you do start to struggle again. It is important to be compassionate and patient with yourself.  This is your individual journey and while it can be frustrating when you feel you are experiencing ups and downs, in the long run you will see positive changes.

(Image credit: Student Minds Cambridge)

It is also important to be honest about whether the support you are getting is working for you. Sometimes you may not connect with a counsellor/ wellbeing advisor and it is vital that if you feel like this type of support is not beneficial for you to raise the issue. This can enable you to be directed to other sources or support or could enable another approach to be taken.

From when I started receiving support to where I am now, I can confidently say I am using better coping mechanisms and my outlook on life has positively changed.

To any students who may be apprehensive about reaching out for support, I can totally empathise with you: There are many barriers to asking for help, and reaching out isn’t a fix-all solution. However, taking those first steps to seek support and advice can benefit your well-being and could be an option to consider if you feel like you are struggling. 

Cover image credit: Thea Melton and Camfess

Here are some links for mental health and wellbeing support:

Cambridge University Counselling Service   

Cambridge Nightline 

Student Space

Side by Side (Mind) 

Related articles recommended by this author:

You are not alone: How other Cambridge students have found mental health support this term 

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

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