Help Under Water: A Plea for Early Intervention in Mental Health

By Grace Scolyer

On the two year anniversary of Robin Williams’s suicide, I am finally ready to share something obvious, important, clichéd, and true:

It can happen to anyone.

By the time I started medical school, anxiety and depression were part of my disposition – manageable and compartmentalised in my high-strung high school years, ignored and irrelevant in the grand scheme of my life thus far (entirely composed of getting into medical school). My first year – messy and difficult and ultimately unremarkable – was peppered with small moments of uncontained poor mental health. Quiet and controlled panic attacks in lectures, toilet cubicles, and my room, managed with impersonal and ineffective online counselling and the superficial support of fleeting jaffy friendships.

It was second year where I started to realise there was a real problem. The problem was not the terrifying panic attacks in my pitch black room in the space between bedtime and sleep. The problem was the next day, where I dismissed those moments, felt fine, moved on and put on a brave face, only to fall deeper and deeper each night. The problem was not the mornings I skipped tutorials, spending hours staring at my bedroom wall from my stale bed, confused, numb, and exhausted. The problem was the afternoons spent in tutorial rooms with a full face of makeup, lively and happy. The problem was cancelling GP appointments made on difficult days because today, I feel too happy to need help. It is my first SSRI prescription, sitting on my desk, waiting for the next bad day to remind me why it was written. It was not the single exam I failed, it was scraping through the rest of them, sliding through medical school without being a blip on anyone’s radar, my friends and family oblivious.

The problem is that it is never over, and although the majority of my time is the calm between the waves, with each wave I swallow a little more water, sink a little deeper.

Yet somehow I have ended up at my absolute rock bottom, surrounded by the support of my closest friends, my overseas family, the medical faculty itself, my GPs and therapist. Getting better has been hard, getting up every morning harder, asking for help perhaps the hardest, but life has gotten so much easier since I first admitted I wasn’t okay.

When I read stories like these at the start of this journey, I felt unvalidated – I felt like I was not as bad as the people who had sought help, I felt strong in my isolation, invisible in my silence. I’m here to remind you of these five things:

  1. If you clicked on this article, and are still reading – if you are looking for some validation to seek help, consider this it. Reach out before things are out of control. When, or if, you lose control, you won’t have to reach far to get the help you need.
  2. Mental health is weird, invisible, easy to ignore, hard to validate. That doesn’t make it less real or important. Your friends and family care. They want to know. It is their job
  3. You won’t feel like this forever. Things will get worse, but things will also get better, and you’re lucky enough to experience both of those things.
  4. Nothing is more important than your mental health. It is the first step to getting better.
  5. If you’ve been feeling gradually worse for a while, stop redefining your normal. There is no “new normal” or “new baseline.” There is healthy, and there is sick.

If I had visited my GP when I started struggling in first year, or before then, if I hadn’t been dismissed by the campus doctors because there were no available appointments with counsellors for “non-urgent” patients, if I had realised, earlier, that my struggles were a) real; b) important; and c) treatable, perhaps I would be in a different position. Perhaps I wouldn’t be writing this article. You wouldn’t be reading it. But there is a discussion that still needs to be had. Getting help early should be encouraged, supported, applauded – and unfortunately, in my experience it is not.

In concept, we have learnt to look after ourselves. In practice, it feels hard to justify getting help while you are still staying afloat. We need to foster a culture that promotes seeking help before you’re under the waves, both in our education and profession.

Until medical school ceases to be the breeding ground for poor mental health that it has become, I will continue to fight for this culture. I am hopeful – and I hope you are, too.


Are you struggling with your own mental health? There is help available. headspace is a public youth mental health service for people aged 12 to 25 with both physical centres and online support, available at www.headspace.org.aubeyondblue is a non-profit organisation that aims to increase public awareness of mental illness, available at https://www.beyondblue.org.au/.

If you are concerned about the immediate safety of yourself or a loved one, contact Lifeline at 13 11 14.


Featured image by Sander van der Wel at Flickr.

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