'Let them eat cake': TCS talks to welfare officers about the Week Five blues

Life in Cambridge can often feel like there's a dark cloud overhead...
Image credit: Flickr: Tim Reagan

We have Week Five, they have Fifth Week. They have tutorials, we have supervisions. It can sometimes feel like the linguistic discrepancies between our own University and ‘the Other Place’ are just strange creations to hide us from the fact that we’re pretty much exactly the same. A brief ask around of other universities seems to reveal that they don’t have a concept quite like it. A friend from Manchester told me about ‘exam week’, whilst a friend from Cardiff told me about a particularly horrible week-long ‘project’ once a term, yet neither have the same notion of one universal, horrible week, in which everything seems to go wrong, everyone looks a bit miserable, and Students’ Unions across the city throw cake and chocolate around well-meaningly.

I thought it wise to ask some of Cambridge and Oxford’s finest Welfare Officers exactly what they made of the ‘Week Five’ phenomenon. James McMullan recently wrote a powerful and moving article on men’s mental health in this paper, arguing that we “normalise serious mental health issues, passing them off as ‘an essay crisis’, ‘Week Five blues’ or just a necessary consequence of being at this institution”.

It’s an issue others have raised when I speak to them – is it really wise to obsess over the potentially detrimental ‘Week Five’ concept? Charlotte Brown, Female Welfare Officer at Gonville & Caius, doesn’t quite buy it. “I don’t think it’s detrimental per se. I’m just not convinced it’s ‘Week Five' that’s the problem. I think everyone goes through highs and lows at different times and for different reasons. It’s really important to remember that. Everyone finds different things stressful and there can be far more than just work that’s bothering you.

“Of course, work never helps, and I think from week four onwards people start to get a bit panicky when they realise they’ve hit that midway point. They feel behind on lectures, supervisions, [they feel] that everyone else knows what they’re doing and there’s [only] half a term left with no chance to catch up.”

One Welfare Officer at Oxford, who asked to remain anonymous, disagrees. “Obviously I don’t know what happens at Cambridge, but the whole ‘Fifth Week’ thing is pretty dumb. Sure work gets tough, and we sure have a lot of it to do, but obsessing over that in one orgiastic week a term isn’t going to help anyone. [It’s] not what Welfare Officers are supposed to say, [but] it’s ridiculous. How about a week where we encourage everyone to see past their own Oxford or Cambridge bubbles and realise [we have] it pretty easy?

“One risk is that we end up looking super out of touch. If we’re here with just a few essays being all ‘life is so hard’ when there are people out there who can’t eat, have nowhere to live, that sort of thing, how does that seem? But it’s more than that. There are tons of people with genuine mental health issues – people who genuinely consider suicide every day, who find it hard to leave the house, who can’t face getting out of bed in the morning. Fifth Week comes along and everyone else jumps on the bandwagon like ‘omg I’m so depressed too #FifthWeek’. That’s just not helpful.”

Sean de Montfort, Charlotte’s male counterpart at Caius, sees the risk to a certain extent. “This can be the risk of taking a reductionist approach to people’s problems in Week Five. Nevertheless, it is really important that Welfare support systems use the publicity of Week Five to spread awareness of serious mental health issues in Cambridge.

“[The role in Week Five] is mainly making sure students are aware of the various support systems available to them in college and across the whole University. It is much more about awareness of welfare than responding to an overwhelming demand for support in Week Five.”  

Much of the issue is that it’s easy to forget about welfare and wellbeing in the mad rush of Freshers’ Week. Charlotte tells me that by Week Five it’s important to “kind of say ‘it’s ok if you’re struggling; you’re not the only one’. That’s the point of welfare, right, solidarity in the fact that every student has a bit of a crap time one in a while? At the same time it’s important to know that mental health issues aren’t just a Week Five thing. I suppose that might be where it’s detrimental. It’s not just enough to make sure your friends are all OK in Week Five; mental health issues like depression, eating disorders, addictions aren’t just about work being a bit too much to handle and they certainly shouldn’t be ignored or trivialised.”

The message from the many people I speak to seems to be that we need to grab at the chance to show our support for people. Week Five is for doing the same thing you should be doing all the time. Having chats, taking the chance to relax a bit (and no, that doesn’t have to be with alcohol, or in Cindies), making sure [that] if someone looks like they’re struggling you actually ask if they’re ok, and set aside the time to listen if the answer is ‘no’.”

I’m heartened to learn that Welfare Officers are human too – the permanently-smiling, permanently open-door, happy-to-help individuals who keep our colleges ticking find it just as tough as the rest of us. When I ask them what they find hardest about Cambridge life, their answers are pretty much what you’d expect. “Striking the right balance between friendships, work, relationships, extracurricular activities” for Sean, whilst the Oxonian says “it’s going to be different in a different place, but the problems are the same. Making time for friends and family, not hitting a brick wall with work, finding space for the fact that you really love playing netball on Sunday mornings. It’s all a juggle.”

Week Five is a great chance to show solidarity with those who genuinely find getting through each day tough, and showing that in spite of our own workloads we’re willing to be there for other people. The danger is that we make it all about our one particularly challenging essay and how awful it is that we won’t have time to go to Life this week.

Above all, please, please, don’t hashtag it. Just don’t.

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