Mental Health is a Political Issue at Cambridge

Originally from themisanthropope.tumblr.

This is a slightly longer version of a piece in this week’s Varsity. You can read the original, published, for some reason, as “Coping with life at Cambridge”  here: http://www.varsity.co.uk/comment/6777
Recently, the mental health provisions at Cambridge have come under the spotlight. The Cambridge News and the Independent both published articles on the Cambridge Speaks Its Mind campaign, a Facebook page which provides anonymous testimonies of problems with welfare in colleges and across the University more generally. For someone like me, who is entering their fifth year at Cambridge, this sustained coverage is refreshing. Every year there are articles in one or other of the student papers entitled “It’s time to talk about mental health.” The articles are usually powerful, harrowing and well written, but their desire for change tends to get lost by about week seven, and before you know it we’re back to the grind again, and worrying about our deadlines.
Responding to the media coverage of Cambridge Speaks Its Mind, the University Press Office issued a statement which claimed that the University and colleges takes the mental health “very seriously,” and praised the work of the University Counselling Service. I’m not going to take UCS to task in this article – I suspect there are many who would, with good reason, but I want to draw attention to something that got lost in the University’s defence of its mental health provision – the role of the colleges.
Well hidden on the University website is the “College Fee Agreement” which, among other things, states that the University delegates student welfare to the colleges in the first instance. Here, I think, is where the problem lies. As most of us are aware, the primary welfare providers in the colleges are the tutors. On paper, the tutorial system sounds fantastic – tutors are an independent, supposedly impartial source of support, tasked with your pastoral well-being. What other University could boast having such a system? Sadly, a quick browse of the Speaks Its Mind Facebook page suggests that the system is far from perfect – there’s testimonies which refer to a lack of confidentiality, a failure to understand, and, in some case, and I hate to have to call it this, malice or extreme stupidity on the part of some tutors, in particular with relation to mental health. This is tragic for two reasons – firstly, students suffer as a result of it. We cannot deny that. Secondly, I know from personal experience, as well as working relationships last year that there are some excellent, exemplary and hard-working tutors out there, who care about their students and will fight their corner to the end. It’s sad that their good work tends to get lost when you read of tutors telling rape survivors that “Boys will be boys.”
The problem with the tutorial system is so simple; it is mind-boggling that it hasn’t been properly addressed yet. Training, or rather a lack thereof. There is, as matters stand, no meaningful training for tutorial staff. Given the complexity of issues like mental health, disability, sexual assault, it seems totally absurd that tutors do not have a comprehensive training system before they begin to support students. There is a long standing CUSU campaign for tutor training, in which I played a part, but due to the glacial pace of progress at Cambridge I’m not hugely optimistic that it will have real results.
Opposition to training tutors takes several forms. I was informed by an older tutor (who shall remain nameless) that he had been doing this for thirty years and didn’t need to be told how to do his job, thank you very much. This attitude, sadly, isn’t a minority one. The essential conservatism of the colleges holds back real progress. For many of the younger tutors, it’s a question of priorities. Young academics across the HE sector are under considerable pressure to prove themselves, to publish, to advance their research – where do you find the time to learn how best to support a depressed student if you’ve also got to publish a book by the end of the year, or else?
Yet it seems totally counter-intuitive to put people in a position of support when they haven’t been equipped with the very best skills and knowledge to do their job. I would suggest that the tutorial system requires a total rethink – we need to have a rigorous training program, something which it is compulsory for tutors to retake every few years. And, since training cannot cover all eventualities, tutors should be in a position to request additional support if they feel they need it. I say this not just for the welfare of the students, but also for the welfare of the tutors. If I were a new fellow, told I needed to be a source of support to two dozen students, never having had any training myself, I’d be lost. In addition, the money to do this exists. If Cambridge University could afford to spend £3 million on wine last year, it can afford to train its staff.
The other problem is one of attitude: Cambridge piles on the pressure. We all know this and expect it, but for those of us with mental health conditions, it can be a breaking point. The attitude which seems to pervade our colleges and departments is that you need to get your work done, and if you can’t, if you can’t meet the deadlines or can’t get that 2:1, you’re in trouble. Don’t believe this is the case? Remember that just a few years ago, the University essentially banned students who were intermitting from living in the city of Cambridge. Not the University, the city. While the University has now admitted this is wrong, it’s tragic that anecdotally colleges still tell students to leave Cambridge. So much for all that hard campaigning.
If Cambridge were to cut itself some slack, were to be less rigid with its deadlines, its pressures, its desire for essay-factories rather than students, would the world end? No. Would Cambridge suddenly drop from the top of league tables and lose its 800 year reputation for excellence? No. An enlightened senior tutor once said to me: “If my students are happy and healthy, and if they feel that they can get help or pause if they need to, I know they will do well.” To bad he doesn’t run the place…
Several decades ago, the literary critic Raymond Williams wrote “]“We read golden reminiscences of Cambridge so often…I have to include this other kind of fact: Cambridge can break you up, to no good purpose: confuse you, sicken you, wring you dry.” He could well have been writing today. This is why I think mental health is a political issue. The Cambridge Speaks Its Mind campaign is taking the first step by raising awareness of the problems. The next step is for students to call for reform, to put pressure on their colleges to bring in a system which is fairer, and deals with the plurality of problems. The pressure need not be antagonistic, we don’t have to riot in the streets, we just need to emphasise that we deserve so much more.
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