Fifth week in Oxford: blue or false?

It has come around again: the time when the flurry of new term excitement is a distant memory, but the end is not in sight. If you think you can see a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s probably just some bastard bringing you more work.  If you’re a fresher, chances are you’ve been warned about it in hushed tones by your college parents not long after you first set foot in Oxford. If you’re a second year or above, your dreams of the ‘fresh start’ you promised yourself, in which assignments would be completed  days in advance, perfect colour-coded revision notes would be made for every topic, and books would be taken out of the library in a naively optimistic attempt at ‘extra reading’, lie more crushed and broken than the bikes left outside Camera on Tuesday night.  It’s fifth week. The gloom descends.  It’s time for the onset of the notorious ‘fifth week blues’.

The blues have become as inevitable a part of the Oxford experience as the essay crisis, kebab regret, or being hacked, so much so that we’ve scheduled them in their own special week on the termly calendar.  The propensity for us all to get a little bit depressed come the middle of term has not gone unnoticed by colleges of course, and this week we’ll be bombarded with welfare teas, stress relieving workshops, and even, if we’re lucky, some sweeties popped in our pidge from the Christian Union in an attempt to cheer us all up a little.  It’s only natural that fatigue starts to creep in after nine essays with no break in between, and four weeks is just enough time for the work backlog to have built up in a seemingly insurmountable fashion. In short, we all need a break. Of course, having special provision there for when people tend to experience a slump can only be a good thing (I for one am looking forward to my fifth week chocolate very much), but I often wonder if fifth week deserves the infamy it has earned over the years.

Many an essay will not make it to completion and many a lecture will be skipped in an attempt to hold back the tide for a day or two, or just to catch up on some much needed sleep.  Maybe one of the reasons that we love the idea of fifth week blues so much is that it’s the elusive diagnosis we’ve all been longing for, the thing that justifies our feeling of being burn-out and give us the chance to shrug off a commitment or two without feeling so guilty.  Stress is always present to some extent during the Oxford term; fifth week blues give us an appropriate avenue in which to acknowledge it.

‘Fifth week is around the time your student loan starts to bite as well, which never helps your mood,’ adds a third year geographer, while a chemist tells me, ‘I hate fifth week.  Can we just eradicate it and call it something else?’

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Perhaps in some way, the action of labelling ‘fifth week blues’ as such can turn out to be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Constant reminders from your peers that this is the week in which we are all destined to feel down may contribute to a kind of nocebo effect; placebo’s more sinister cousin. When you take into account the fact that all the tasks that seemed fairly straightforward and manageable in the first few weeks of term have a habit of multiplying and converging brutally upon you during fifth week, it’s no wonder that so many of us feel overcome with stress, apathy, exhaustion, and even sheer tedium. The concept of fifth week depression has become so reinforced in our mind that thinking and worrying about it, and reapplying it to our mounting workload, may indeed play a part in making it a reality.

All this begs the question as to whether fifth week blues are a peculiarity of the Oxford experience, brought about by too much work and too little play in a comparatively short, but very intense time frame, and whether they are based on truth, fifth week hysteria, or a combination of the two. Looking at our closest counterpart, Cambridge, the resemblance is strong. Our friends at the other place have their own version of the mid-term slump, dubbed “week five blues”, so I am told, and the furore surrounding them seems almost identical.

I spoke to a student there about his view on the blues. ‘I think people do start to get a bit more down this week as stuff can pile up, but the whole thing is blown massively out of proportion by making it into in actual thing,’ remarks Elliott, a third year engineer at Emmanuel College. ‘I mean it’s not as if by clockwork I hit week five and am suddenly depressed, it’s just more likely I will have work starting to pile up around this time.’

Like Oxbridge’s own peculiar answer to PMS, it seems that the blues take over both light and dark blue universities with some kind of regularity each term. But what of other universities? A media and art student says, ‘With us, I think people get more depressed at the end of the term; it’s like D-day anxiety, wondering if what you’ve done is good enough, and if you’ll be able to get all your work finished.  Deadlines are what scare people here, and those are end of term things.’

‘Plus,’ says a Belfast law student, ‘the bonus of reading weeks means the workload is taken off a little.’ A reading week! What a beautiful thought.  It seems to be salt in our wounds when all our friends at other universities are gallivanting around the country or dropping in to visit us at the time when we most resemble one of the Bodleian’s screaming gargoyles. It might cure the fifth week blues, but the likelihood of an Oxford reading week ever becoming a reality is fairly non-existent. Time, outside of the normal eight week term, is money for our colleges, renting our rooms to thousands of conference guests who they can charge far more for the privilege, and every week we spend here is money out of their pocket. Not to mention the fact that the Oxford term is steeped in tradition that the University won’t be willing to break for the sake of some undergrads having a duvet day.

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It seems that the fifth week blues are here to stay. How, then, is it best to cope with them, if we can’t take the catch-up time that we actually need? One strategy is the cathartic approach, giving half a day to wallowing in the blues by closing the curtains, putting up a ‘do not disturb’ sign for your scout, and getting into bed with a 200g bar of Galaxy and your iPod switched to Damien Rice on repeat. This might help you get the melancholy out of your system, but obviously it’s not sustainable. Others prefer to reward themselves for surviving.  Focusing on the prospect of cocktails at Grand Café on Friday night might just help you to keep your head up and to get through the week relatively unscathed. Most of all, remembering that fifth week will soon be over and that it’ll be Friday of seventh week before you know it can be a cheering thought.

While an Oxford degree might help to make you a master of the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ philosophy, and it’s perfectly normal to have a bad week, the idea that misery is the natural state of the Oxford student is one that we cannot afford to perpetuate. It might be easier to dismiss the persistent negative feelings that you’ve been having as a side effect of the blues than to address them for what they really are.  One of the most alarming outcomes of becoming too much of a believer in the whole ‘fifth week’ discourse is that real depression, and not just transient unhappiness, can go unchallenged for too long.

‘Most of us will end up feeling down sometime during term,’ a student peer supporter tells me, ‘but we are probably made more aware of our deeper emotions at a time when everything around us seems to be centred on depression. It is perfectly all right to be upset during your first week at university, the night before a collection, the morning of a seventh week tute, or the evening of the end of term party. Just remember that if you do ever feel that you need to talk to someone at any time, your college and the university as a whole offer amazing support services for whatever issues, big or small, you may want to deal with. Most colleges run so many welfare events throughout fifth week, not so much because this is the limited time when a miasma of doom descends upon Oxford, but more as a “just in case” measure so that students know we are there for them.’