Oxfess provides an uncomfortable window into Oxford’s mental health struggles

Naomi Packer exposes the pressures of an elite institution on our mental health, and what we can do to help those suffering the most

2075
Brasenose Lane, Oxford

Recently, Oxfess, the third manifestation of a distinctly Oxford orientated page, cropped up to join its hugely popular counterparts: Oxlove and Oxfeud.

But what was originally intended as a means through which students could air humorous disclosures has turned into an unlikely forum for a discussion about mental health, with the posts in question ranging from topics such as social isolation and gender dysphoria to self-harm and allusions to suicide. Such accounts potentially speak volumes about the successes and failures of mental health provision available to the student body, and demonstrate how much more both the university as an institution and we as individuals can do.

To begin with, one may question whether the sheer quantity of posts is indicative of a failure by Oxford in particular, or merely a general reflection of mental health for young people across the university system. Anyone who has struggled with their mental health may not find the sentiments on the page surprising, and anyone who has struggled with such issues at Oxford may well see echoes of their own experience depicted within the writing of other authors.

When considering the issue of mental illness, Oxford is undoubtedly a unique environment in that it carries the potential to evoke a compelling sense of guilt. One is constantly in awe of the gravity of the opportunity they have been blessed with, an opportunity so many aspire to attain.

This gratitude has the potential to colour any valid feelings of resentment or sadness throughout your experience. Mental health issues are in no way unique to Oxford, but the sensation of iniquity that can arise from resenting the university can certainly be unique to those who study here.

It’s an environment in which one is pushed to both their academic and emotional limits, and then, either consciously or unconsciously, told that they ought to almost feel blessed for having the opportunity to fall victim to such pressures. Moreover, and most importantly, those who attend Oxford are not accustomed to failure. Raw intelligence is not enough—it must have materialised in the form of high flying academic success in order for admission to have been a possibility, and naturally for many their sense of self-worth has thus become bound up with academic accomplishment. Couple this with a schedule that rarely allows for respite to reassess or place events in perspective, and Oxford can quickly become a breeding ground for mental health concerns.

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However, despite the sometimes harrowing accounts posted on the page, some tangible good can also be found. Thankfully, where you find those in need you often also find those willing to provide the help required. Although it may at first seem trivial, Oxfess has presented students with an opportunity to demonstrate support and to ask anonymous posters to seek help. It’s created a record of genuine experience from those who are suffering, and raised awareness of just how commonplace these issues are. It should be noted, however, that the anonymous nature of the page means that coming to the aid of these individuals in any real sense is near impossible, and this is a fundamental issue which many have found deeply concerning.

This element of anonymity has both allowed those in question to share their experience, whilst simultaneously removing any possibility that they might be provided with the direct assistance they so evidently require.

Moreover, it’s impossible to dismiss the posts as ‘attention seeking’—a common recourse for those who are ignorant of the intricacies of mental health—as there’s no way to attribute them to their original authors. Thus the university is presented with a group of genuinely vulnerable students, and yet no way to aid them directly.

When faced with the experiences depicted on this page, what we begin to question is whether this is a shocking indictment of the poor state of mental health provision at Oxford, or merely a vocalised, yet anonymous, reflection of a ‘cry for help’ which the university is unable to answer.

What Oxfess most clearly demonstrates is that there is evidently far more that both the university and ourselves as individuals can do. Some of those who have posted have stated their rejection of the counselling service currently operated by the university. Others have noted how feelings of isolation from their fellow students and friends have contributed to poor mental health. Therefore, we must not ignore the influential role we all play, both in improving, and worsening the mental health of our fellow students.

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When we isolate or exclude those we know to be vulnerable, or speak carelessly towards those who are struggling, we become complicit within an environment which can become unbearable for so many.

In the words of just one of dozens of individuals who have expressed words of support on the page: “I urge everyone at this university to step out of their cliques and talk to or invite someone you don’t usually interact with—it will make a huge difference to their day.”