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Hear about Natascha’s experience graduating in a global pandemic. Natascha is a research assistant in the TOPIC Group, investigating anxiety prevention in 4-7-year-old children. She recently obtained her MSc in psychology and had to face some difficulties when trying to find a job during lockdown and in the middle of the Brexit transition period. Her outlook on the pandemic is nonetheless quite positive as she believes that it has opened up new possibilities for online therapy and prevention programmes, currently working for a randomised controlled anxiety trial that is 100% digital.

After completing my BSc in Germany in 2018 I moved to the UK to work as a research assistant. I knew I wanted to pursue further study in a clinically focused MSc. When I found out, that British MSc programmes are not recognised in Germany I was devastated. I had to leave the UK for the time being and returned to Germany to complete my MSc thesis only to find myself in the midst of a global pandemic a few months later. 

In early 2020, I was working in a Berlin-based anxiety disorder unit while writing my thesis. As a result of the national lockdown our research study had to be cut-short. I moved back in with my parents and soon found myself sitting in my childhood bedroom wondering what I wanted to do next.

It was always my plan to return to the UK but nobody knew how long the worldwide travel restrictions would last. I wanted to find a job but the risk of infection made me anxious about working in face-to-face settings. I was searching for work in the UK, but was concerned that I might have to fly back to Germany to defend my thesis in person. If you’re lucky and didn’t need to take a flight during this past year then I can assure you that you didn’t miss much. You might have been annoyed that your holidays were cancelled but moving country was a whole different challenge.

In the end, I had to leave Germany because as a non-British citizen, I hadn’t applied for pre-settled status in the UK yet and the Brexit clock was ticking. According to the government requirements, people could not apply for this from abroad. So eventually, it was the urge of a Brexit application that made me book a flight.

While facing 14 days of quarantine after my arrival, I found a great job online. It was a position as a research assistant at the University of Oxford. I had always dreamt of working in a setting where my work would have an immediate positive impact and I am very interested in child and adolescent mental health. The study is an anxiety prevention research project: MY-CATS stands for Minimising Young Children’s Anxiety Through Schools. It is an RCT aiming to systematically screen children at a young age who might be at risk for anxiety disorders. Families of children who screen positive are offered an online support programme with telephone support or a written version of this programme.

I was delighted when I heard that I was shortlisted and nervous on the day of the interview. It went well and I received a call on the same day offering me the position. I am sure many of you know what it feels like to have something to celebrate during lockdown, but not knowing how to mark the occasion because you cannot invite anybody or do something special. I felt like that again after my viva in February 2021. Luckily, I could do it via Zoom. The unusual circumstances fortunately didn’t keep me from feeling very joyful.
I am aware of how lucky I was. 

While many studies were interrupted due to the pandemic, MY-CATS coincidentally happened to be perfectly designed for an era where online contact is the safest way of reaching out. I was lucky to find a job that didn’t require me to put myself at risk while still working efficiently.

I started working for MY-CATS in early 2021 in the middle of the winter lockdown. At the time, research had already pointed out that parental stress, anxiety and depression had significantly increased during lockdown and that families from certain households were at a particular risk: Single parents and families with a low income seemed to experience more mental health difficulties, as well as families with children who had special educational needs. Child mental health symptoms had also increased while being home-schooled. Both behavioural and emotional difficulties as well as issues with restlessness and inattention were rising, especially in primary school-aged children.

The MY-CATS programme started just at the right time. We contacted primary schools across England in February 2021 and were soon able to start inviting families with children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 classes into our study. While the intervention used in MY-CATS was originally based on a book, the programme was converted into an online format by experts in treating child anxiety at the University of Reading. The idea was to make anxiety prevention as accessible as possible and to reach schools with a wide range of demographic features.

MY-CATS is still ongoing at the moment and I am really enjoying my work. Despite all the hassle in the last year and the detrimental effects of COVID-19 on many peoples’ mental health, I do have an optimistic outlook on the future. The pandemic surely is a turning point for e-health and telepsychotherapy and I am amazed by the opportunities that we are now facing and the reduction of barriers when it comes to providing accessible support online.

I am grateful for graduating in 2020/2021. But I wouldn’t necessarily wish it to anyone.

This blog was first published in The British Psychological Society’s West Midlands Branch newsletter.


Further information

Natascha Niekamp is a Graduate Member of the BPS and a research assistant at the University of Oxford working for the TOPIC group.

TOPIC is the Oxford Psychological Interventions for Children and adolescents Research Group.

One of their projects is the MY-CATS study, a research project which aims to minimise young children’s anxiety through schools.