Telling your colleagues or your supervisor that you’re feeling lonely, sad or depressed, having suicidal thoughts or living with a mental illness: it’s not easy, says Anna Schueth, a postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience. “You’re afraid that people will no longer take you seriously, or that they will think you are weak. But we must remove the stigma of mental illness.”
Pressure to perform
Mental health has always been a major theme in Schueth’s life. Her mother suffered from bipolar disorder, which affected Schueth deeply. “I attempted suicide when I was twenty years old.” Several years later, when she was doing her PhD at Maastricht UMC+, her father slipped into a coma after a long illness. But Schueth did not share her personal struggles and feelings with her colleagues, let alone her PhD supervisor. This all changed after a conversation she had with a professor of her department, on the day she received the news of her father’s condition.
“He wasn’t involved in my research, but we often ran into each other in the corridors and would stop for a chat or have coffee together. He saw how sad I was that day and said, ‘Anna, have you talked to your supervisor about this?’ I had never brought up my father’s situation; it simply hadn’t occurred to me. I lived in two different worlds: my world at home and my world at university. I worked hard and long hours and felt the constant pressure to perform. Looking back, it was unhealthy behaviour. I had almost no social life. But no one questioned it. Working hard was considered normal.”
Schueth followed the professor’s advice and confided in her PhD supervisor. “He was very understanding and gave me all the space I needed.” Her father passed away not long afterwards. “I had to take care of the funeral arrangements on my own. My mother was having mental health issues. She couldn’t get anything done.” Encouraged by her supervisor, Schueth took some time off to take care of herself and her family.
“When I got back to work, I was much more open about what had happened. People were very kind. That’s when I realised, ‘Anna, you have to open up more.’ You achieve so much more that way. I’ve learnt that pain and sorrow are part of life. For me, it’s important to listen to my feelings and ask for help when I need it.” And she believes that everyone deserves to feel that way. To that end, she began to share her personal story and other people’s stories (including those of UM students and staff) on her blog, annaschueth.com, a year ago.
Together with Mark Kawakami, an assistant professor at the Faculty of Law, she has since founded Flourish, an organisation that promotes mental health within UM. Schueth explains that there is still a lot of work to be done for both students and staff. “Suicide prevention is very close to my heart. During the Wellbeing week last November, UM offered a training course on suicide prevention, which was great – but it was only accessible to students, not to staff. I think that was a missed opportunity.”
Kawakami has written a blog post on his personal website about the Blue Monday Web Event (as he came up with the idea for such a gathering); what it is about (showcase relevant organisations and people within and outside UM) and why it's important to address mental health issues. Although UM has certainly made strides towards supporting and promoting mental health in recent years, he writes, students and staff often still struggle to find the right support for them.
Blue Monday Web Event, Monday 17 January, 12.30-1.30 PM. To register for the event, please visit this web page.