In an ideal world, Oxford would exercise at the very least a benign influence on the mental health of its students and staff. As it is, its counselling service is the best-funded of any British university. The research into mental health undertaken here is world-leading. Many JCRs, MCRs, and the SU dedicate no small amount of time and energy to trying to support students who find themselves struggling.
Despite all of this, we must wait for weeks just for a hugely oversubscribed appointment with a counsellor. Even a cursory glance at the troubling content of many Oxfesses reveals that Oxford is currently gripped by the same crisis of student (and academic) mental health that has set in at an alarming number of other universities and colleges across Britain.
The blame for this cannot be left solely at the door of individual institutions and the primary steps towards solving the crisis would start with adequate funding for the NHS and mental health services, alongside meaningful educational reform and a proper attempt to recognise the issues young people face as they grow up in our current society.
But leaving this aside, Oxford cannot and must not avoid acknowledgement of its specific problems. It needs to recognise the ways in which the distinct structures on which it so prides itself on are often actively harmful.
The length of term, in particular, propagates a relentless cycle of two months’ worth of stress and perpetual exhaustion, followed (particularly for those whose home friends are at universities with different term durations) by a long period not just of recovery but often of loneliness and aimlessness.
Upon arrival, many freshers are told to conceptualise their time management in ‘eights’ – eight week terms, with each day to be split into eight hours of work, eight hours of recreation and, the most elusive element of all, eight hours of sleep. Anyone would be hard pressed to find a student here who can easily and consistently achieve this, try as they might. To complete each term’s eight or more essays or problem sheets, attend classes, go to lectures, labs and libraries, and on top of that simply attempt to function as a human being, is a task that is at best Herculean and at worst just impossible; its burden on our mental well-being shows.
Eight week terms are unnecessary. Their existence is down almost solely to the desire of the University and its colleges to rent out rooms for conferences or visitors for as long as possible in the forced absence of students. They are not an example of academic rigour and high standards, but rather of the prioritisation of profit which begets a careless attitude towards the health and happiness of the people that make this University what it is. Eight week terms drain our energy and enjoyment of the subjects we have come here to study, because we have no time to pause – we cannot afford to ‘miss’ a week, however exhausted, ill or unhappy we are feeling; nor are we given the opportunity to do so.
An effective and necessary solution to this would be the introduction of reading weeks. For some years now, Oxford SU has pushed for their introduction, but it is time the University took note. The chance to stop for breath, whether this would be catching up on work or just having a brief few days in which to rest, would be invaluable. For many, it could be the difference between a basic level of well-being and severe, lasting harm to one’s mental health.
Reading weeks would be a radical change, of course, but the current price too many of us pay for studying here suggests that they, alongside the student mental health crisis, are not something which can afford to remain unacknowledged by those who have the power and duty to do better.