Sometimes, it’s important to hold your hands up when you get it wrong. When OUSU passed a policy to support a free 5th Week, I opposed it, thinking it would take away from the other important challenges facing students with mental health issues in this university. I was wrong. The campaign led by WomCam this 5th Week has demonstrated that a reading week would be enormously beneficial to many students. But more importantly than that, it’s challenged some of the entrenched prejudices we hold around mental health: the way that we have normalised mental health problems so much that it’s become normal to be ‘blue’ in 5th Week, and that debilitating stress is called ‘pressure’ and ‘just part of the Oxford experience’.
In order to make this university environment one which is truly accessible and welcoming to those with mental health problems, we can’t simply change policies. Unfortunately, we must do more than just criticise the University and colleges, although there is no denying that there is plenty which we can and should criticise. We also need to challenge those underlying attitudes which are present within us: among our peers and among this student body. The WomCam campaign to #Free5thWeek has challenged some of those attitudes by making us recognise that the way we talk about work pressure at Oxford is not acceptable. We shouldn’t dismiss and trivialise the real and unacceptable effects of this university’s work structure on many of our students as ‘tradition’ and ‘why we’re such a great uni’.
There’s so much more that we need to do in this regard. And it starts with every single one of us: we need to look at our attitudes and ask ourselves if they are making students with mental health problems feel valued and welcomed, or worthless and excluded.
Just go ahead and ask yourself some questions. Have you ever challenged someone as to why they have decided to rusticate? Have you ever thought to yourself, ‘They’ve just done it because they didn’t prepare well enough for exams.’ Have you ever turned up to a tutorial, essay in hand, only to find your tute partner hasn’t completed their work for this week, and put it down to that student being lazy, or just spending too much of their time in Park End and Bridge? Have you ever seen a common room officer not fully commit to their role for a few weeks, and instead of trying to support them, decided that they simply aren’t fit for the position? If the answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’, ask yourself a few more.
What if that person who rusticated didn’t manage to prepare fully for their exams because of depression? What if that tute partner without an essay in hand didn’t complete their essay because of anxiety: and found themselves in Park End and Bridge because they were genuinely terrified of losing all their friends if they didn’t go? What if that common room officer had received some terrible news a few weeks ago, and is so keen to get back on track with their role if only someone would ask to make sure they’re doing alright?
Mental health issues can affect people in so many different ways. The ways that they can distort people’s perception of the world a round them can prevent people suffering from mentalillness from getting done what they want or need to do.
If you ever come across a friend or peer who seems to be falling behind, or being unreliable, just remember these three key things. They almost certainly aren’t being lazy. They almost certainly want, desperately, to be able to get on with what they want and need to do. And those attitudes, as discussed above, are likely to be just as big a factor in preventing them from doing so as the mental health problems which they face.
So constantly question your attitudes. Most importantly: give people the benefit of the doubt. And do whatever you can, as much as you feel able or comfortable to do (with no judgment for being unable or uncomfortable doing so), to remind people that they are welcome here, that they are wanted, and that they are of immeasurable value. And remind them in any way you can, that no matter what is holding them back: they are brilliant, and deserve to be at this university.