Interview by Stuart Graham
Answers by Melissa Remington
Q- Can you talk me through what the phrase mental health means to you?
A- I think for me I always thought that mental health just is anything that has to do with your own psychology. I feel like mental health has a very negative stigma in that it always means that there’s a negative impact on capacity to either feel emotion or think in a standardised way. But I don’t really see it that way – I see mental health as an aspect of individual neurology, so everyone is a bit different so everyone’s mental health is a bit different.
Q- Tell me a little bit about what your experiences were with mental health before coming to Scotland?
A- I was born in Munich, in Germany. My dad is American and my mum is German so I grew up bilingual, and I spent the first seven years of my life in Boulder, Colorado. So from a very democratic, liberal American state, I then moved back to Germany when I was seven and finished my high school education there. I then came to Scotland for uni.
I think the first time I properly realised there was an impact on my mental health was when I hit puberty. In hindsight, a lot of that was probably my thyroid that just was un-diagnosed at the time, so I was going through a lot of hormonal imbalance that people sort of blamed on puberty when in reality I was having actual physical issues that were being ignored.
When I was sixteen I had a really massive depressive episode and people thought it was because I was getting bullied as school. But again, it was actually because I had a severe lack of serotonin. My family and doctor decided to send me on a semester abroad because they wanted me to go near an ocean so that I could breathe better, thinking that would help my mental health.
So I moved to Canada for six months and just ignored everyone, got out of my circle of comfort and that’s really when I realised that what I had was a depressive episode. After that every year or year and a half I could feel the cycle start again. That’s sort of when I realised there was a problem.
Q- So in your teenage years, while living in Germany, what was the perception of mental health? Does it get as much recognition as it does in Scotland?
A- Yes and no. I think there are different aspects of mental health that probably get more attention and then others that get less. When it comes to learning disabilities there’s probably a lot more people in Germany who get their disabilities discovered at a young age. I think there is a bit more study support, in that sense. In terms of depression and anxiety – and mental health that’s not as limited in definition – I don’t think that their attitudes are as good as they are here. But I think that has a lot to do with the cultural attitude towards depression, and in Germany especially there is a generally just an ethos of ‘Get on with it’, ‘Be efficient’, ‘Get over it’.
I struggled with it a lot as I feel like a lot of people disregard those feelings and box them off. So when I came here, that’s when I realised that, when I first got my contract with disability services, a panic attack is a valid excuse for me to leave the classroom. Before that, I thought I would just have to get my shit together and stand there. That never would have been a valid reason to leave for me, ever. So I had to kind of re-evaluate what mental health means here in order to work out how I can best benefit from it.
Q- So were you diagnosed in Germany, or once you came here?
A- I got my diagnosis here, but that was because I was being treated in Germany for loads of different health concerns and they didn’t realise they were all connected, that it all had to do with my thyroid. I was having problems, which I think a lot of international students do, between do I go to the doctors at home, do I use my German insurance or do I go here in Scotland?
So after second year, I decided to move all my medical records over to Scotland so I could get regular doctor’s visits and regular counselling and really regularly take care of my mental health. Getting it treated here was when I realised that the medical attitude towards mental health is a lot different here than the treatment I was receiving in Germany.
Q- How did it feel, finally getting the diagnosis about your thyroid being at the root of your troubles and knowing it had affected you for so many years without being flagged up?
A- Well, on the one hand I was the one hand I was really relieved because it’s an answers. Whether it was a positive or negative one, it’s an answer and that was already more than I had received in the last six years. For a really long time they just couldn’t figure out what it was – I was getting all these different tests done and it was really, really stressful for me.
A lot of it is you needing to start analysing yourself by looking at your own behaviour and asking ‘Am I asking differently than I normally am? How is my behaviour right now?’. Especially with a thyroid problem, I would go into the doctors office, be asked how my mood had been in the last month and you’d have to be critical of your own behaviour.
That made me so confused because I started questioning my own choices. I’ve always been a really convicted person – I always just know what I feel like would be the right thing to do by my gut and I kind of always go with that. It’s gone really well so far. But if you can’t judge your gut because you don’t know if you are getting a bad feeling because your hormones are low, or because it’s not the right decision for you to make, then it just snowballs in your head and it all becomes this massive insecurity.
It was a relief to know it wasn’t in my control and it wasn’t anything I was doing to myself, but it also meant I had to look at how my body is affecting me and how I can change that from happening.
Q- Can you talk me through your experience from your diagnosis in Scotland to present day? Has anything changed? Do you feel the same way about mental health?
A– In my first year I was a very very active student. I was busy every weekend and out three or four times a week. Then, in second year, everyone sort of settles down. You are not necessarily making friends with everyone like you are in first year.
For me, that’s when my depression and my anxiety started kicking in. I think for a lot of international students it’s really difficult, because on the one hand you are dealing with a completely new surrounding, a new culture, a new type of speaking with not only language to get your head around but slang and humour too. There were so many things I didn’t know about Scotland. On top of that, you are taking in the experience of uni, being away from your parents and dealing with lots of things on your own for the first time. So when you get anxiety it makes you feel like you’re not ready and you isolate yourself. Then it becomes really difficult to keep friends because when people don’t know you for long enough they get scared when you show weakness. That’s what I’ve always felt.
Finding your support system, especially with mental health issues as an international student, is really difficult. In my second year, I just felt like I was half isolating myself, half everyone else was isolating me. I think that I was so blurred in my judgement that I still can’t figure out whose fault it was. I’ve ultimately decided it was no-one’s fault – everyone had their own issues to deal with and everyone just goes their separate ways.
It got really dark for a bit. But the people who stick to you when you are at rock bottom, those are the people who aren’t going to just leave if you start crying. As soon as I realised that those people were going to stay, then I was okay.
Q- Finally, what made you come forward to be part of this project?
A- I think there is a big stigma surrounding mental health. A lot of it is really negative when in reality a lot of people have some kind of issue with mental health. I think university is about self-discovery – everyone goes through a phase of transition at uni, whether it be sexuality, or gender, or attitude changes. You develop a kind of sense for what was given to you by your surroundings at home and what is your own. I think that, with mental health, people don’t openly talk about it, but I have just always been one to say ‘Y’all, I’m fucked today, I can’t deal with this right now’.
People just have to sort of deal with that, and that’s okay. The more open you are about it, the easier it is to talk about it and less it will feel like pressure on yourself. If you are avoiding those thoughts then it will affect your mental health again. When you can, just deal with it. Yes, it will be hard for a couple of weeks and it will probably be pretty shit, but after that you will feel so much better. I think there are so many people who are discouraging when people open up about their mental health, when in reality we should all just be supportive – and the best way to be supportive is to say you are not alone.