Transforming my mental illness: from suffering to advocacy

an interview by Pooja Khurana

A story well told, can change lives! Even more so, when it demystifies societal taboos. The following interview with Hendrik Huthoff explores the hardships of experiencing a mental health condition, seeking professional help and channelling lived experiences to support others as well as aiming to reform the academic system.

Hendrik Huthoff is the Head of Education at the Jena School for Microbial Communication, Friedrich Schiller University Jena, following academic positions at King’s College London and the University of Amsterdam. During his chemistry studies he developed a severe anxiety disorder that had a major disruptive impact on his life despite finding ways of successfully completing his degrees. In 2020, he set up the first Mental Health First Aid team at a German University and he currently co-chairs the working group on mental health of the German University Association UniWiND.

How did having a mental health condition affect your university experience?

The onset of my anxiety disorder coincided with the beginning of my chemistry studies. My anxieties about crowds and enclosed spaces caused debilitating fear and panic attacks with physical effects such as uncontrollable trembling or shaking as well as stomach cramps and nausea. This made me withdrawn and I would hardly attend lectures or I would not eat in order to control the physical effects when I had to sit for an exam. I hit my crisis point when I handed in my PhD thesis and what should have been a moment of celebration became the instance when I had to face up to the fact that I was unable to lead a “normal” life outside of the strict behavioural patterns I had adopted to cope with my anxieties. I was supposed to go on a back-packing trip in Asia with my brother but felt completely unable to do this. Instead, I told my family about my problems, saw my house doctor and was referred to a psychotherapist. In the end, it took only about four months of weekly cognitive behavioural therapy sessions to get my anxieties under control. To this day I regret not seeking help 10 years earlier.

How did you channel your mental health struggles as strengths to become an ally for others?

On moving to London as a postdoc, and eventually as a group leader, I was very open about what had happened to me in my capacity as wellbeing officer and student mentor. This helped students with opening up and taking the first step of seeking help, which is often the hardest part. It is so important that we create a culture in academia where it is OK to say, “I’m not OK, I need help.” Most mental health issues can be effectively treated but stigma and misconceptions about therapy make that there is an average delay of between 8 to 10 years from the onset of the condition to the point of seeking help [1]. I try to spread these evidence-based messages to prevent others from doing what I did: wasting the full potential of what can be the most formative, productive and fun years of your life! From my experience, seeing an example of somebody who has overcome their mental health issues can be an important motivator for others to do the same.

You have held academic positions in various countries. In your experience, how do cultural aspects influence the dialogue around the mental health of academics?

Cultural attitudes towards mental health are vastly different from country to country. In the UK, there is a general culture of supporting charities and good causes by engaging in fun fundraising activities. It certainly helps that some UK celebrities, including royalty, speak openly and publicly about their wellbeing struggles. In Germany, attitudes towards mental health were traditionally quite reserved but the pandemic has caused a seismic shift that has lifted the topic out of the taboo zone. I once gave a presentation about mental health and was afterwards approached by a student from India who was impressed that this topic is so openly discussed in Germany. This was an eye-opener for me, because I had regarded Germany as a difficult cultural setting to address mental health. Therefore, we must have spokespersons and advocates from different backgrounds in this arena.

You set up the first Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) team at a German university and are a first-aider yourself. Could you share some insight into implementing such a measure?

A small team from our university were among the first in Germany to obtain their qualification in 2020 when the national accredited MHFA institute was founded. We all had management or student advisory functions and we often served as the go-to persons for any sort problems that students ran into. With our MHFA qualifications we were better armed to address difficult situations and we created better visibility for support with wellbeing issues. Subsequently, we noticed that many who approached us did not necessarily have a mental health problem but another underlying issue that caused the distress. Being part of the university management meant that we can easily refer to departments responsible for discrimination, legal status of international students, conflict mediation or support with financial hardship, as examples. An unforeseen effect of this was that we actually contributed to reducing the waiting lists for therapy. Another remarkable outcome of our MHFA initiative was how widespread the interest is among staff and students to participate and obtain their qualification. We are now offering the MHFA qualification in-house and the courses are overbooked as soon as we announce them. In the first instance, we prioritised those who have student-advisory or conflict-mediation responsibilities. Indeed, some of our ombudspersons got their MHFA qualification and the feedback from them has been that this actually makes their job easier as well.

What can different stakeholders like researchers, supervisors, institutes and funding bodies do to better support mental health in academia?

It is essential that we continue to communicate the importance of looking after one’s wellbeing. In terms of the scientific community, few are aware that many luminaries of science actually struggled with their mental health. Isaac Newton likely suffered from bipolar disorder, Charles Darwin had a panic disorder [2] and John Nash was schizophrenic as famously depicted in the film “A beautiful mind.” Even Marie Skłodowska–Curie acknowledging that she fell into a deep depression after losing her mother at a young age [3]. Mental illness can affect anybody at any time for a range of different reasons and nobody is immune from this. But importantly, a mental health condition does not exclude professional success or a fulfilling life at all, as those famous examples demonstrate. The more we normalise the discussion of mental health, the more those affected will seek the help they need. Everybody from students all the way up to institute leadership, governing bodies and funders can contribute to this. The prevention, recognition and treatment of mental health conditions are all evidenced-based interventions. To me, promoting mental health is science in action.

Interview by Pooja Khurana

About the author:

An experienced Stem Cell Scientist and a Developmental Biologist, Pooja worked across multiple disciplines during her studies in B.Tech. in Biotechnology (Amity Institute of Biotechnology, India) and M.Sc. in Biomedical Engineering (Fachhochschule Aachen, Germany). Given her strong curiosity for science and research, she was awarded the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) Fellowship for her Ph.D. in Biological Sciences (University of Southampton, England), where she spent 6 intense yet rewarding years of her career. Since her latest postdoc in exotic Hawaiʻi (University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, USA), she has been working as an Editor for the Marie Curie Alumni Association (MCAA); Ambassador in the Public Health domain for menstrual equity and period poverty with The Pad Project; Outreach Coordinator for a sustainability think tank- Global Crisis Response, and a founding member of a virtual peer-support group- Therapy Thursday. Going forward, she aspires to combine her passion for research and social issues surrounding menstrual mental health to combat stigma and bridge scientific knowledge gaps.

Follow her on:
Twitter: @PK_ActNow
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/drpoojakhurana

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