It seems fitting to me that World Mental Health Day coincides with the first couple of weeks of the Oxbridge Michaelmas term. It’s the start of a new academic year, with bright eyed, busy-tailed freshers flooding the tradition-filled streets and buildings of those academically-hallowed buildings, and I can guarantee they are already struggling, physically from hangover, and mentally from being in a hormonal and intellectual hot house.
I look back on my undergraduate days at Cambridge with very mixed feelings. On the one hand, I made some great friends there. I got to study Classics from geniuses. I experienced eccentric and posh Cambridge traditions (one of my favourite memories is a random group of us huddled in the room of a St Catherine’s College organ scholar, tucking into salmon and scrambled eggs that a couple of people had just cooked in the kitchen, and sipping bucks fizz in between singing hymns together around the piano as a weekend brunch). I had some of the best moments of my life. But then, I also had some of the worst.
It’s an incredibly vomit-worthy word, but I felt incredibly blessed to be spending World Mental Health Day working in a job I feel fulfilled in and hosting dinner for a good friend within the flat of man who cares enough to tidy it up and bugger off out to let me have a girls evening in. How bloody lucky am I? Especially considering how low I have felt in the past.
I have suffered from depression, anxiety and OCD in various forms for over a decade. And, I had the worst melt-down in between my first and second years at Cambridge. Which is why it feels fitting to celebrate World Mental Health Day, and that we live in a culture that is gradually become more open about the fact people suffer from mental health issues by talking about Oxbridge.
University in general can be a prime time to upset your mental health. You’re effectively still a hormonal teenager when you enter, you are living away from home for the first time in most cases with all the dangerous freedoms that entails, and you are exposed to new people from different walks of life. When you throw in the fact that at Oxbridge terms are shorter, the workload is harder, and you are surrounded by people who have all been big fish in small ponds talent-wise, you start believing you are an insignificant minnow. Especially as the counselling provision, at Cambridge certainly, is crap. This is the university that would rather you took a year off then sit end-of-year exams and fail (read: get lower than a 2:1).
I know so many people who graduated Oxbridge with a degree (or three) and a mental health problem. But the glamour and kudos of attending an Oxbridge uni still persists.
Now I’m not saying, don’t go to Oxbridge. Oh my god, if I had my time again, I wouldn’t not go (although I wish I could tell past Ploy a few things). They are amazing institutions, full of exciting people (as well as some god awful ones; one lesson learned was people who give a shit about etiquette aren’t actually as posh as they project to be) and I’m not going to deny, having Cambridge on my CV opens doors.
But, I want to say to all those teenagers considering universities and whose parents secretly, or not so secretly, hoping their child gets into Oxford or Cambridge – it really is not for everyone. And that’s bloody OK.
You will get to meet just as interesting people, and indeed a selection of people who more accurately represent the real world, at other universities. The slower pace might actually give you the time and energy to enjoy your subject and really thrive (and god knows, you only get out what you put in – if you’re going to party non-stop and not study, it doesn’t matter what university you’re at) as I found in my slightly more sedate third year of the Cambridge Classics degree. And you’ll have time to have a life without feeling guilty. And just as importantly, you’ll have time to have a life that’s not full of worthwhile extra-curriculars without feeling guilty.
And honestly those are all things that help ensure you leave university with your mental health in good shape.