We need to begin talking about stress and anxiety at Oxford

Part of C+’s investigation into student intermissions.

TW: Self harm, depression

During Trinity last year, Alex* began self-harming, as a result of depression exacerbated by the stressful working environment at Oxford. “Oxford just completely swamped me,” she said. “I had had pretty bad mental health issues in the past and suddenly I found myself right back in that position.”

Alex explained how her self-harming caused a lot of panic at her college, which was seemingly unable to deal with it. Within a few weeks, she was told that she had no choice but to intermit for a year.

Interested in the factors that led to Alex intermitting, I asked how university life might have exacerbated her illness, and what, if anything, could have been done by her college to prevent it. “I think I started just working the whole time, thinking I was going to go into a tutorial without having read everything, and that I was going to get kicked out and exposed for a fraudster,” she explained. “I think the whole Oxford thing of essay to essay to essay is much worse in this short eight week period. I was getting exhausted; it’s just so unhealthy, and I was so unmotivated because I wasn’t enjoying it at all.”

In terms of preventing intermission, Alex believes the way tutors approach the topic is important. “There’s a lot of pressure at the start and it had quite an effect on me. As soon as I admitted that I had any kind of problem, intermission was immediately considered, and this meant I was very secretive after that, pretending everything was fine, when really it was all getting worse and worse. If they’d supported me rather than had this threat looming over me, I might have been better.”

Alex also voiced concerns about returning to college, and the effect this could have on her recovery. “I found that when I spoke to the Junior Dean in confidence about self-harming, they immediately went to the Dean and I was kicked out the next day! I think that is a worry when I get back; how am I supposed to trust my tutors?” 

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I spoke to another student called Jo*, who had also been forced to intermit because of self-harming. She explained how college welfare officers, who found out she was self- harming by word of mouth, began seeking her out on a daily basis to assess her condition. After a couple of weeks, they told Jo they were sending her home as her self-harming was supposedly disrupting the welfare of other students. She was picked up by her parents that same day.

Jo had similar concerns as Alex. “I feel that welfare should be there so you can talk to them if you need to, rather than doing what they were doing. They made out that everything I said was confidential, but they were actually repeating everything I said to the Dean.”

On returning, Jo felt she had to be secretive about her feelings to prevent any knee-jerk reactions on the part of the college. At fortnightly meetings with the welfare officers, she felt that if she said anything “worrying”, then she’d be “kicked out again”. “They were the most pointless meetings,” Jo told me. “I couldn’t really say anything that I was thinking.”

Katie* intermitted because of severe anxiety and stress, believing like Jo and Alex that much more needs to be done by the University and colleges to prevent intermitting in the first place. “In my opinion, a big part of this would be just to educate everyone more about the process of suspension (taking a year off voluntarily),” she explained. “Although you’d hope that suspensions would never become commonplace, knowing that it is a well-established policy and that it is perfectly normal for you to choose to suspend is really important.”

Katie also believes there should be more informal communication between college tutors and students. “In such a high-intensity environment like Oxford, I think it is so important to have social interactions with your tutors. For instance, having a subject dinner not only allows you to talk about something other than work with your tutors, but it shows you that your tutors care about your welfare and care about you beyond your essay.”

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Talking about the stress at Oxford, Katie told me it is an issue that desperately needs to be addressed. “Although it is an unfortunate inevitability at somewhere as intense as Oxford, it should not be ignored just because it’s commonplace. Obviously this isn’t to say that everyone should freak out if they feel stressed – a small level of this is undeniably normal – but if it starts to dominate your social life, your work and so on, then it’s important to do something about it.”

Improving the process of suspension and rustication at the University is one way of improving the welfare of its students. But as these cases demonstrate, there seems to be a lack of focus on preventing factors that cause intermissions in the first place.

Many people I spoke to about stress and anxiety in the wider student body casually dropped the phrase. “It’s just Oxford.” But this is the problem, not an excuse. Indeed, we need to begin talking more about stress and anxiety at the University, and to decide when enough is enough.

 

*The names in this piece have been changed to preserve anonymity.