From Sheffield to San Francisco via quarantine: Flying the flag for mental health

I am an international student from Sheffield, UK, a city in the north of England famous for stainless steel, new wave bands and the 90s hit movie “The Full Monty,” although most of my cohort probably weren’t out of diapers when the movie was released.

I made it to sunny San Francisco in late August 2020 after the long and complicated process of getting a visa and travel ban exemption, to work toward a Master of Science in Global Health Sciences at UCSF. The two-week quarantine when I arrived was something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy – all I wanted to do was explore the new city I was living in – but I’ve certainly made up for it since. Although classes are online, I do get the partial student experience of living in student housing at Mission Bay and seeing classmates who are on campus for outdoor study sessions and socializing, so I don’t actually feel isolated like I thought I might.

I’m a “mature” student (depending on who you ask!), so I’ve been working for the past 15 years in various non-clinical healthcare related jobs in quality, risk, audit, governance and regulation, mostly in mental health-focused positions, which is where my passion lies. I’m a mental health hospitals inspector for the Care Quality Commission in England, the UK government’s health and social care regulator. My focus has been on ensuring regulatory standards are met and ultimately that people using services receive the best quality care possible.

My passion for improving mental health services stems from my first “real” job after I graduated in 2005, which was quality visits to National Health Service mental health wards across the UK. The most rewarding aspect by far was listening to the stories of people who were using the services. Like most people, I have also been personally affected by mental health issues among my family and friends. I’m so glad that good mental health care is more firmly on the agenda in recent times, but there is still so far to go to improve access to services and reduce stigma.

Before I worked in mental health services, I had a very skewed view of mental health services from the media and what I had seen in movies such as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Now, after visiting thousands of services in person, my experience is that the majority of services are safe, therapeutic environments, used by people who have experienced trauma, who want to recover and be given a chance build happy personal and professional lives. It breaks my heart that it is still so commonplace to see mental health problems used in the media as the source of blame for crime and violence and the justification for poor leadership in politics.

Of course, there are always pockets of poor practice and abuse, problems due to outdated structures and huge underfunding issues. As an inspector, I have had the opportunity to address these issues on the local and national levels. Now I am looking to have much more of an impact on this huge global issue.

I chose to study global health to expand my knowledge and potential impact beyond the local and national level in the UK. I’ve always wanted to study a master’s in the US, and when I visited San Francisco a couple of years ago and found out about UCSF, I was keen to study here. When I found out about the GHS master’s program and saw the capstone research aspect, I knew I had to apply. I was honored to be offered a place in the course at such a globally respected institution. I hope to gain a better understanding of global health issues and tools to influence policy and practice. After only three weeks, I’m already thinking of new areas of research beyond mental health, having learned so much already.

Many of my friends and family questioned why I would want to move during a pandemic, and also travel to and live in the country which at that time had the highest COVID infection and death rates. They asked why I wouldn’t defer until next fall, concerned that I wouldn’t get the best value for the student experience. My response was this: When is there ever going to be a time more important than now to study and research global health?