Too much stress, too little time

Leonie James 7 November 2009

Cambridge is not an ordinary university. Repeatedly recognised as one of the best in the world it is understandable that the workload here is higher than that of other universities. However, is the pressure that the intensive 8-week terms and supervision system places on pupils fair? Or are we all being pushed that little bit too far?

The university itself has put in place numerous support systems, with every college boasting tutors and college nurses trained to deal with the anxiety, depression and the other mental health problems that this type of environment can entrain.

The University Counselling Service has an alarmingly high take up rate, with most students being able to name a few friends who have admitted to taking advantage of the counselling there. It doesn’t need mentioning that this doesn’t count those who have not admitted visiting there. Aside from this, the 24 hour ‘Linkline’ service provides a listening ear for those that need one. In exam term there is a complex system of exam warnings for those who find the pressure becomes too much, while degrading or switching subjects is far from uncommon. Clearly, the university is aware that its student body is struggling to cope.

The fact we’re finding it all a bit much is far from surprising. With most subjects enduring high levels of contact hours comprising of 15 – 20 hours of lectures per week in addition to 2 or 3 supervisions, completing 8 essays in as many weeks is no mean feat either. When a typical timetable consists of morning lectures then a supervision in the afternoon for arts students or practicals for the scientists, the question that begs to be asked is when they are expected to fit in pages and pages of independent reading? Surely allowing students the evenings to themselves isn’t too much to ask. The massive number of contact hours and attempting to juggle the academic side of things with anything resembling a life all too often leads to the famous all-nighter essay crisis. Red Bull, coffee and commiserations all round for those spending the early hours in the 24 hour library, then heading to lectures on 2 to 3 hours sleep and more caffeine. This is beyond an unhealthy pattern to get into, yet it is one that becomes a weekly ritual for many students here.

Another infamous Cambridge tradition is binge drinking, as students seek to release the stress of their busy schedules. Recent news has focused on instances of alcohol related violence amongst the student population in Cambridge and considering the effects binge drinking has on our bodies, this coping mechanism cannot help our already exhausted bodies. ‘800 years of destroying your mental health’ laughs a Facebook group, the wall of which is filled with students tales of stress filled days. The laughter is bittersweet. We make jokes. We grit our teeth through our essay crises. We put on a brave face in front of our friends. Ask anyone about studying here and chances are the answer will be something along the lines of ‘massive highs and massive lows’.

It’s a very intense place, but no one ever wants to admit that they’re not quite coping. So we struggle in secret, use the University Counselling Service, email supervisors for extensions and get hammered before heading to Cindies. It’s just the way it works here right?

We shouldn’t have to deal with this sort of pressure right now. The stress levels of students here are, quite frankly, ridiculous for teenagers living away from home for the first time, trying to enjoy the university experience. For those who already have mental health issues time spent in this environment can and does send them over the edge. Everyone finds it hard to cope with at times, even if they hide it well.

As a highly regarded university not only is the work of a very high standard, there is naturally lots of it. The students are all competitive, aiming high and keen on taking part in extracurricular activities outside their studies.

Squeezing all this into an 8 week term without a reading week adds unnecessary stress to what is already a high pressure environment. We do not need this extra challenge. We are being pushed enough as it is. Extending the terms by a fortnight would make a massive difference, giving us a bit more time and a little less pressure.

Leonie James