Is Oxford ‘Toxic’?

During my first term at the University of Oxford, I’ve seen how important it is to prioritise your mental health to deal with pressures such as a heavy workload, applications for career opportunities, and managing a social life… to name a few. Although my experience of welfare support at Mansfield College has been positive, I’ve learnt that this is not everyone’s experience. Many people struggle to reach out about their mental health and their colleges are not doing enough to provide that support, such as the one-to-one sessions with peer supporters, well-being sessions, and online advice that Mansfield provides. In fact, many students would go as far as to describe Oxford as ‘toxic’ due to the pressure it creates and lack to support it supplies. Is this fair?

In 2016 The Guardian found that the number of Oxford University students accessing student counselling services has rocketed by 50% in the last five years, comprising over 10% of students. Over the decade 2004-2014 the figure rose by 136%. Some of this surge in demand may be down to the increasing number of international students, but more likely it is because of new willingness among young people to ask for help. Enterprises such as the 2015 mental health charter led by the Oxford Union which set minimum standards of respect, confidentiality and support would have helped encourage more students to reach out.

Clearly, there is some substance to the claim that Oxford is a toxic environment for mental health.

The importance of mental health at Oxford has been publicised since the uncovering that two Oxford students died by suicide within three months in 2013. They both attended Balliol College. Andrew Kirkman, 20, was studying physics and philosophy and died days after agreeing to go on medical leave and take a break from his studies. Three months after Andrew’s death, first year philosophy, politics and economics student Jennifer Xu, who was on medical leave and suffering from depression, also ended her life.

Clearly, there is some substance to the claim that Oxford is a toxic environment for mental health. What’s more, we must remember that the pressure of being at Oxford affects different groups of students to varying degrees. For example, having attended the ACS (Oxford’s Afro-Caribbean Society) event ‘Oxchat’, I realised the stress is heightened for those students who may be the only BME (black or minority ethnicity) student in their year as they may feel their grades will be representative of their race, whereas a white person failing will not carry that same weight. Societies like the ACS are excellent support systems for different groups within the university. However, pressure should always remain on Colleges to improve their resources for mental health, and help Oxford become a less toxic environment.

The stigma surrounding mental health can only be removed if students feel more comfortable addressing their mental health at their educational institutions. Although Oxford may be considered toxic, it has come far in increasing support for mental health and it will go further.