Anxiety as a focus

  • 11 September 2023

Mental health and wellbeing have long been a focus for Michael Gottschalk (Biotechnology PhD 2012), who was a peer-to-peer counsellor during his time at Gonville & Caius College and is now a clinical psychiatrist.

Michael moved to Cambridge for an internship at the Cambridge Centre for Neuropsychiatric Research while completing his Neuroscience Masters at the University of Cologne. He was subsequently invited to apply for a PhD, during which his focus centred on a medical degree and psychiatry.

Having experienced the nerves and doubts which come from being a fresher, albeit as a postgraduate, Michael then provided pastoral support as the welfare officer of the MCR (the Middle Combination Room, which represents postgraduate students). The pass-it-on culture continues, with Caius students looking forward to welcoming the new intake this autumn.

“It was daunting at first, not being a native English speaker. It’s a new environment for pretty much everybody,” Michael says.

“Caius made it surprisingly easy. It was very welcoming. The MCR Committee put a lot of effort in. It was easy to join in with events.

“It was a natural path for me to choose to do something in College, and it was quite a rewarding experience.”

A man in a white laboratory coatMichael carried out protein research focusing on affective and anxiety disorders. Combining clinical work with the science appealed. He knew from prior to his first-year viva that he wanted to study medicine at the end of his PhD. He endeavoured to finish his PhD in the shortest time so he could turn his focus to clinical applications.

He took a postdoctoral position and was accepted as a medical student, combining the two.

He says: “Anxiety and fear always fascinated me. We were focusing on the genetics and epigenetics of anxiety disorders, and then in my case, panic disorder in particular.”

His medical specialism was obvious to him.

“I immediately knew from the very, very first day I knew it had to be psychiatry,” he says.

Now he works at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich.

Michael believes too many psychological issues are labelled depression, when symptoms can be contrary. Aiming to develop into a clinician scientist, he is interrogating molecular and physiological factors underlying entire spectra of psychiatric symptoms and favours personalised treatment approaches.

Michael’s involvement at Caius demonstrated his passion and determination to support positive mental health practices.

When informed of the approaches undertaken by Caius’ Health Centre staff – led by Anne Limon Duparcmeur, the Head of Health and Wellbeing and College Nurse, and Rachel Winson, the Mental Health and Wellbeing Advisor – Michael is impressed. Anne and Rachel are supporting students’ wishes to have mindfulness and wellbeing practices to boost their all-round mental health.

“It's always much better to prevent something from happening in any area of medicine, no matter whether it's psychiatry or something else,” Michael adds.

“Nobody is surprised when you state Cambridge is a higher-pressure environment. And most of the time, this sort of pressure is not only built up from external sources.

“Most Cambridge students have this incredible internal drive. They've got a very clear picture of what they're supposed to achieve.

“And almost everybody is aware that there's this certain Wonderland environment that helps you to shine right because everybody wants you to do well. But then obviously there's this specific risk associated with it. It might not work out for you.”

Michael reflects on his own experience being surrounded by “brilliant” peers.

He adds: “I was introduced to people who had done amazing things. Some of them had already founded companies, or charities. And you start to doubt yourself. ‘Do I deserve to be here?’ Impostor syndrome.

“Even the most stable person in this environment questions themselves. This is why it’s good to have entire domains in mental health.”

Achieving balance with relationships away from your area of academia helps, Michael believes. He did this through socials, while sport and societies also offer opportunities.

“One of the most interesting things Caius offered to me was that you get in touch with people doing degrees on your level, but in entirely different subjects,” he says.

“Many of my close friends I'm still in contact with from Caius are not people who were doing Natural Sciences. But of course, there are chemists and computer scientists, too, who I love to visit regularly to exchange experiences and stories.”