DAAD award winner 2021: Reaching people

26 Nov 2021

Psychology student Zane Wilkinson supports people going through personal crises. The DAAD has rewarded his dedication and academic performance.

DAAD award winner Zane Wilkinson in front of the large lecture hall of the Biomedical Center in Martinsried. | © LMU MUENCHEN

A relaxed get-together with friends after a long day at university? That’s not possible for Zane Wilkinson, at least not every day. Several times a week the psychology student takes the time to chat to people from his Irish homeland by text message to offer them support in times of personal crisis. Zane has now been awarded the DAAD Prize for his dedication and his outstanding academic performance. The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) has been awarding this prize for over ten years now to international students with excellent academic results and particular commitment to social issues.

When Zane speaks about ‘his’ science, psychology, you can really feel how fascinated he is with the human brain and how it works. The 26-year-old grew up in Galway, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology at the National University of Ireland, graduating with first-class honors. For over a year now, he’s been enrolled on the elite Neuro-Cognitive Psychology (NCP) master’s degree program at LMU Munich for select students from around the world. He is also doing research in medical and neuroscientific topics at the University of Munich Hospital’s Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy and the LMU’s Graduate School of Systemic Neurosciences.

Although Zane has already taken his first steps on the path to a university academic career with the publication of his bachelor’s thesis on the role of empathy in the visual perception of art in an international journal of the American Psychological Association (APA), he sees his future more in applied science than in basic research. “I wanna help the treatments and technology to reach people,” he says. In his opinion, mental illness is still underestimated or stigmatized far too often, and he believes research holds a great deal of potential to help, including with the technique of brain stimulation. “The field is rapidly developing, and there is so much to discover,” he says. In the future, Zane wants to work in psychiatric research on using neurobiological methods to find out more about the human brain and behavior, and thereby help develop a new method of treating depression.

In doing so, he is after something more than academic success – he wants to help. Zane has long spent his free time volunteering, finding an opportunity to do so in every place he’s lived so far. Starting in Galway, where he helped and supervised disadvantaged children with their homework. “These children don’t go home to a functional family unit, so any little help or attention they get can mean a lot to them,” he says.

During a stay in Edmonton, he got involved in the reintegration of workers who had suffered serious brain injury in an explosion in an oilfield, and helped look after senior citizens suffering from dementia. This year he also found an opportunity to actively support others from his base in Munich as part of the Irish crisis intervention team called the Crisis Text Line. The concept is simple: People send a text message to the organization’s number describing their acute personal crisis, volunteers like Zane answer – and, most importantly, they are good listeners. “We don’t advise them, we don’t tell them what they should do, we don’t give our opinion – we are just actively listening,” he explains.

The importance of this empathy for people with mental health problems is often underestimated. Many have no one they can talk to about their problems – and the desperation is particularly pronounced at night, as Zane noticed during his night shifts. There is a lot of fear, loneliness, and depression. Many of those asking for help are even considering suicide. “Services like this are really needed now,” Zane has realized. The coronavirus pandemic has created even more lonely people: “People have become kind of detached from each other and we have lost a lot of social connections.” It’s not always possible to help from afar, but it often is. The Crisis Text Line is a place where those seeking help can bring some sort of order to their thoughts and feelings.

Insights into practice

Zane’s work for the Crisis Text Line produced an incidental learning effect for him: “I get to see the psychiatric disorder, anxiety, and depression in real life and see how it is for an individual.” The combination with research in the hospital has enabled him to get a more holistic picture of mental illness. He raves about the many opportunities for research available to students at LMU Munich. It’s a privilege, he says, to be able to use state-of-the-art technology in his work in the Multimodal Neuroimaging and Neuromodulation Research Group, such as the MRI scanner and transcranial magnetic stimulation.

Zane will be writing his master’s thesis in the summer and will probably do a doctorate after that. But he doesn’t want to think too far ahead. He’d like to stay in Munich for a while — he already thought this might be the case back when he spent his year abroad at LMU on an ERASMUS scheme during his bachelor’s degree. He chose Germany primarily out of curiosity, as he wanted to experience something new — and he very quickly felt at home in Munich. “It was the best year of my life, I fell in love with the city,” he recalls.

Despite the amount of time Zane spends on his volunteering, he says it’s just the best feeling whenever someone who was in need of help texts the Crisis Text Line at the end of their conversation and says thank you and that they feel better now. That is what gives Zane the energy to carry on and take his commitment forward.

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