Mental health at Oxford: it’s time for change

Mental health is now widely discussed and recognised as a prominent issue. Over recent years, the discourse fuelled by students has encouraged the improved provision of mental health services across universities. But, how well is this issue dealt with on a meaningful level?

On the surface, the support provided for students seems effective. Peer supporters, welfare reps, nurses and chaplains in college and the university’s Counselling Service are available to all – even if the last option doesn’t exactly provide a rapid response, it must be noted that there are multiple points of contact. The university seems to have a reasonable network of interventions for those struggling with mental health in place. But the problem is, it’s easy to shut yourself away in your room and become isolated from this. When you do reach out, the support systems in place are only able to respond to mental health issues that have already taken root.

I’ve only been here for a term, but a few of my friends and peers have already been struggling with stress about their academic life, anxiety and depression. Initially, this sort of thing flies under the radar – it seems like on the surface, everyone else is generally happy and has their lives put together. I thought so too, until I developed good friendships and discovered that some of those I had assumed were completely fine were facing personal issues and stresses beneath the surface. That’s when it really hit home for me – we may try to hide it in day-to-day interactions, but the Oxford environment can be quite intense and people do struggle.

It’s unfortunate that some face mental health issues, but surely it should be enough that the university has a range of support services available to use, right? Wrong. I’ve realised that there needs to be a deeper understanding that mental health isn’t just about the support system, but about the system as a whole. Mental health does not only matter when things go wrong, but it matters that it goes right. We exercise regularly and try to maintain healthy eating habits in order to stay in good physical shape. But we don’t think about exercising our positive mental faculties or the experiences we ‘consume’ often enough. It’s only when things go wrong and we start to become mentally unwell do we treat the symptoms, rather than tackling the root conditions that cause our problems.

Oxford has a work-hard-play-hard culture which is often genuinely enjoyable, but there isn’t enough consideration given to the more negative demands and stresses that can accompany this on a day-to-day level. The 8-week terms and constant deadlines mean that life at the university is often fast-paced, at the expense of being able to take some time out from a hectic schedule to get some much-needed time to breathe. Too often, the atmosphere at this university can be rather like consuming emotional junk food, and then being surprised when people crack under pressure. A general consideration of students’ wellbeing needs to be much more thoroughly involved in all that the university experience involves.

Considering that I’ve acknowledged that the university already has a broad mental health support network in place, how would the university be able to provide more support than it already does? This question misses the point. It’s not about implementing another formal system or setting up another point of intervention – it’s about the right attitudes to mental health being integrated into university life as a whole. It’s about not just ticking boxes when it comes to the treatment of mental health problems, but making an effort to create a considerate and supportive atmosphere that promotes positive mental health in the first place.

What would this actually look like? Perhaps tutors could take a few minutes to ask whether the deadlines they set are reasonable, and consider other work students have. Are continuous collections and lengthy reading lists really the most effective method of learning? A two-way conversation with students about things as small as when they could reasonably manage to get work done by, or about bigger things like course structure and how some might want to use their vac for more focused reading and learning rather than skimming and cramming, could go a long way.

Fit the education to the student rather than the student to the education. I’ve already had enough of being boxed in by the one-size-fits-all societal straitjacket of secondary school, thank you very much. I’m not saying that it would be reasonable or helpful to throw formal deadlines and assessment out of the window, but we’re all here because we care at least a little bit about learning. Give us a bit more freedom to spread our academic wings and explore the subjects we love – after all, education systems are effective enough at dulling genuine intellectual passion as it is – within a reasonably challenging but flexible curriculum.

We should be pushed, yes. Pushed to take the time to engage with our learning on a more profound level. Real learning involves a deeper level of thought, tackling the nuances of a topic or work over an extended period of time and thinking critically about its fundamental intellectual value. Skimming half a dozen books and cramming surface-level information into our heads does not make us “clever”. Otherwise, our happiest memories are more likely to be of times we spent at Bridge Thursday escaping from it all than the academic passion we could have pursued, if only we weren’t far too busy jumping through hoops.

This is just one significant example of my broader point. The question “What is best for the student?” should be more frequently asked across all areas of university life. Positivity should be actively encouraged, not just by student-run societies and college communities, but in the way the university’s faculty communicate and work with students. Too often, the university expects continued academic success without actively considering the personal wellbeing of its students. We need to feel emotionally supported and comfortable in order to academically flourish.

Oxford as an institution seems fundamentally uncomfortable with this more complete idea of mental health and general wellbeing. It could be down to tradition, or high expectations, or a stiff upper lip, but the traditional Oxford mentality of times past seems to have been very much about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. The university is highly prestigious and you’re lucky to be here, so you’d better make the most of it. Even now, you’re generally expected to perform, else you risk being faced with an underlying attitude of “we’ll support you, but maybe it’s time to think about rustication”. While some colleges have a better track record than others, there have been too many stories of students being pushed to rusticate without a proper two-way dialogue of support and understanding.

Unfortunately, this means that academic management can almost be like a detached flowchart process. If this student is doing well, great. If this student is facing mental health problems, send them to counselling. If that doesn’t work, start talking rustication – maybe they can come back when they’ve sorted it out. There’s an underlying failure to realise that student performance isn’t just part of a closed system of mechanical steps and interventions for when things go wrong. The most important influence over the wellbeing of students is the vast collection of small, intangible experiences that students face at the university every day.

In any high-flying, high-pressure environment like Oxford, there’s always going to be demands and competitiveness. Arguably, this makes it even more important that steps are taken to ensure students feel cared about. Oxford does well enough in specific tangible ways to tackle mental health problems, like the provision of welfare support and counselling. However, it fails to understand that the broader ‘Oxford culture’ and atmosphere – and whether it is truly supportive on a personal level – is just as important in ensuring not just academic success, but personal and emotional happiness.