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Guest blog: Sharing my TEDx talk for University Mental Health Day

A few years ago, I was an international student at a university in London, and I was unable to pay for my tuition. I took out a bank loan and paid for the first year, but I was worried about paying for the remaining two years. I felt anxious, I cried a lot, and I could not concentrate on my studies. They were times when I felt I woke up at night in a cold sweat, unable to breathe. That was in 2005, a time when I knew nothing about anxiety, panic attacks and depression, or the symptoms of these mental health problems.

After completing the first year, I couldn’t obtain another loan, so I quit my studies, I worked for a homeless charity where I met men and women who reported similar symptoms to what I used to feel, and more. I did not understand what they were feeling, just like I did not understand what I felt when I was a student. But one thing that I noticed was that most of them cried a lot. One day, in 2010, I Googled 'crying all the time' and read about mental health, and I decided to study for mental health nursing so that I could understand more.

On the first day of induction, I was late to the induction speech. I walked into the hall with four other students and apologised to the lecturer for being late. She looked at me and said, "sorry for yourself" and then, asked me why I was there. I replied that I was there for the mental health nursing induction day. She looked at me up and down, and said, "go to the magazines, you will never be a nurse." I was shocked and felt like crying, but instead, I walked into the hall and sat at the back.

In the second year of my studies to become a mental health nurse, the same lecturer became my tutor, and harassed and bullied me constantly. She would tell me that I was never going to pass or become a nurse. This continuous experience brought back those feelings that I felt years ago.

Fortunately, I was now aware of what I was feeling, and I could name them: situational anxiety, panic attacks and depression. Mental health symptoms brought on by a negative situation.

In addition to the harassment and bullying, I suffered sexual harassment from two qualified male nurses, who were also my mentors. I was a student nurse, and I had to go to placements where I encountered these two male nurses. I was always anxious when I had to go for placements, and I cried a lot because there was nothing I could do to stop them. However, I did not let the bullying and sexual abuse impact on my learning experience. I focused on my studies and achieved a first class honours degree in mental health nursing.

Soon after, I applied to study for an MSc in public health, and I received a scholarship from the same university that I walked away from when I couldn’t afford the tuition. During this time, I noted that most of my classmates were international students and some of them reported similar symptoms to those I experienced years before. I saw myself in them because I have walked their walk, felt their fears, and I am still feeling it in the extremely isolating world of a PhD student. I could not advise them in my capacity as a mental health nurse, so I encouraged to visit their GP and the university wellbeing service.

When I completed the MSc in public health, I worked as a seminar tutor for undergraduate students. On the first day, I introduced myself as a mental health nurse. From that day onwards, students would book appointments to see me. I would prepare tutorials based on the seminar, but I quickly realised that most of the students did not want to talk about their module. They wanted to talk about what they were experiencing: fear, confusion, crying all the time, and insomnia. They said things like: "I can’t stop crying, sometimes I feel like I am choking and I can’t breathe" or "I feel worthless, I feel like walking away, what is the point." I knew that they were feeling things that I too was familiar with: stress, anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, and depression.