A boy with his hand on his head looking at his laptop.

Oxford’s individualisation of mental health

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Image description: A boy with his hand on his head looking at his laptop. 

“Fifth week blues” as a concept and as an experience is as predictable and as stress-inducing as the inevitable student journalism about the topic every term. The idea that the Oxford experience is so corrosive to your mental health that the University will pre-schedule your crises for you is a bizarre Oxford custom. Yet it’s a custom that becomes normal as soon as every other bizarre aspect of Oxford does. “Fifth week blues” as a concept comes so close to recognizing the root of the problem – that Oxford as a cultural, institutional and educational environment produces psychological strain with unavoidable regularity – and yet pivots at the last second when it comes to finding a solution. A list of “top ways to fight your fifth-week blues”  will include cookies from your JCR Welfare Rep, a helpful Canva infographic on self-care tips from your preferred student society, or SU-funded welfare dog walks. It  will rarely take the form of, say, lobbying the University to introduce a reading week, or encouraging tutors not to require long-form descriptions of trauma to justify a missed essay.

This isn’t to say that these things can’t help; I personally have always enjoyed getting pidged cookies when I’m sad, and fifth week can be a genuinely valuable time to spark a conversation about mental health. The issue, however, is that the level of academic stress at Oxford is a structural problem, to which we are only ever presented individual solutions. Oxford acknowledges it has a mental health problem. It cannot stop acknowledging it has a mental health problem. But it does so in a way that encourages students to accept mental health crises as something that will be an inevitable part of their time at University, rather than something that is at least in part a result of the environment they are a part of. Eight-week terms, constant collections and examinations, and a culture that normalises and even prides itself on open distress are not “core parts of the Oxford experience” – they are choices that can be made and can be unmade.

The issue, however, is that the level of academic stress at Oxford is a structural problem, to which we are only ever presented individual solutions.

All this feeds into the idea that academic stress to the point of crisis is not only an inevitable part of being at Oxford, but part of what makes this historic institution so unique. There is a certain pleasure in self-flagellation, the academic masochism, the being able to one-up your friends with who’s stayed in the library to the most ridiculous hour, and who’s been the most dependent on caffeine to get through this week’s essay crisis. It’s the idea that short terms, constant examinations and the ability to keep up a certain pace of work are what makes Oxford, and therefore its students, special – and if you can’t deal with it, maybe you shouldn’t have signed up for it in the first place. It’s a presumption that feeds into Oxbridge’s ideological dominance, accepting the intellectual criteria the University lays down as correct without pausing to think why it exists. Is having two essays a week for eight weeks, for example, really the most effective way to absorb the depth and complexity of material covered in some degrees? Or does the pace of work leave students with the primary skill of being able to under-prepare and then bullshit?

The idea that you measure value and prestige by your ability to not burn yourself out over periods of intense work is an attitude that feeds into other aspects of a student’s life, not least the high-intensity, high-paid, and, again, highly stressful careers they often go into. The idea that mental crisis is firstly, an individual, personal problem and secondly, something to be secretly proud of, is a belief that only benefits the structures of neoliberal capitalism Oxford students progress into. That’s right: if you keep up a good academic track record and get the right internships, you too might one day get the privilege of working 90-hour weeks at Goldman Sachs – and get to think that that’s normal.

This isn’t to say that hard work, academic rigour or even periods of stress are universally bad. Nor is it to say mental distress or mental illness are entirely products of their environment, rather than caused by a variety of complex and often poorly understood factors that will vary for every person who experiences them. But psychological strain so frequent that there is a dedicated week each term for your breakdown doesn’t need to be a constituent element of any institutional environment, let alone an educational one. Fifth week is more than a particular quirk of the Oxford term. It’s part of a culture that insidiously promotes stress as predictable, that individualizes mental health to personal self-care instead of a structural problem, and that attempts to normalize mental illness in an environment that is itself not normal. There’s only so much welfare cookies can do to help with that.

Image credit: Tim Guow via Unsplash

 

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