CN: Intermission, abuse, self-harm
It’s that time of the year in Cambridge when the pressure of essay deadlines culminate and the dreaded prospect of exams becomes more and more of a reality. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed. And some, those who actually know about intermitting, consider the possibility of doing so. I remember this time last year as fuzzy, as going downhill so quickly that I can’t quite piece into a logical sequence the events that led to my intermission. My mental health had deteriorated significantly and I remember feeling at a loss. When a friend mentioned intermitting, I grasped at it.
Not too long ago, Varsity did a series of investigative pieces into the intermission process at Cambridge, reporting that it disproportionately affects women and graduates, and is much more difficult and harsh for international students. Mental illness is thought to be the most common reason for a student to intermit. Mental illness is rampant in Cambridge, and I use that word deliberately. When speaking to a Master’s student the other day who had undergone a four-year degree in another university, she mentioned she’d never experienced anything like the stress-bubble that is Cambridge. She said that it was decidedly the environment that was dangerous. The tunnel vision fostered by Cambridge is harmful both ways: together, we feel alone and isolated – we are unable to see beyond ourselves, to empathise with others.
As Sophie Buck suggests in one Varsity investigative article, why women intermit much more than men may come down to oppression: “any kind of oppression poses added stress; women, for example, are much more likely than men to experience sexual harassment, and this can lead to PTSD.” This is just the tip of the iceberg for women and non-binary people of colour, especially international women and NB students. Intersectionality tells us that where race, gender, and often class oppressions intersect, we as women and NB people of colour are faced with a novel condition. We know, for example, that BAME individuals in the UK are more likely to be diagnosed with mental illness, more likely to be admitted, and more likely to experience a poor outcome from mental health treatment. We also know that a disturbingly common factor among women who suffer from ill mental health is abuse. While it all manifests in mental health problems and what may come across as an ‘inability to cope’, the reasons underlying the decision to intermit may include other factors such as abuse, discrimination, family problems, and/or financial and housing difficulties.
Coming to Cambridge and realising that years of abuse of all forms do not just go away once you leave the home, while trying to cope with degree work and feeling profoundly different from those around me as an international woman of colour, all came to a head in second year when I experienced a manic depressive episode. It was unsafe for me to remain in university when if I was alone, I would self-harm; at the same time, I needed treatment, something I knew I would not get if I did not stay in the UK. It became clear that I needed to intermit. During the intermission process, the university proposed I return only in Easter term the next year, as this was “according to policy” and would prevent me from “gaining an unfair advantage”. I voiced my concerns very strongly that I would be neglected and abused by family members during my stay at home. I said that while as an international student the only prospect of obtaining treatment was back home, because of my family circumstances, it was unlikely I would receive effective treatment, and as such wished to return as soon as it was safe to do so.
I was told that because my reports from the previous two terms consisted of I’s and II:I’s, the evidence did not support that I was academically affected by my mental health, and so there was no reason for me to have to start the year over again. The fact was I was struggling a lot more because I was trying to keep up with my grades tot the detriment of my mental health. Fast forward a year, when I returned to Cambridge, my scholarship refused to acknowledge my status as a student until a month and a half into Lent term, before which, receiving no financial support from my family despite being an international student, I was worrying everyday whether at some point in Lent I would simply have no money left. I was consistently treated with suspicion borne of a poor understanding of mental health and abuse. I couldn’t comprehend it as the onus should not have been on me to prove these conditions; the presumption should not have been that as a woman of colour suffering from mental illness that I was “making these things up” or “lying”.
I like to think of it as layers. While many of us at Cambridge are certainly privileged, if women of colour are more prone to economic and social marginalisation, more vulnerable to falling mentally ill, and thus at Cambridge, intermitting, what happens when we are subjected to a damaging intermission process and further stigmatisation? How many layers compound until one suffocates under their weight?
Many international students don’t know that intermission is even an option; once we do, we don’t fully know what we’re getting into. Where is the transparency? At the pace Cambridge operates at, where is the space for re-adjustment for students who return from intermitting? For coming to terms with loss of friends, course mates, and what was once a stable sense of community? I have seen students coming back from intermission feel so incredibly silenced that they hesitate to even speak to others who have gone through the same. Although Cambridge as a university has a lot to work on in terms of the formal process of intermission, we as a student body should dispel the stigma that surrounds intermission as a ‘weak’ opt-out, and seek to understand that the often distressing circumstances surrounding them. And we should be aware of the different experiences that make up the Cambridge experience of intermission: how women and NB people of colour are often left by the wayside.