Supporting Student Mental Health with David Sunnucks

This lecturer’s commitment to mental health at Queen Mary, Malta is not just a tick-box exercise – it’s personal.

David Sunnucks brings a unique perspective to the challenges encountered by students pursuing a career in medicine. Having navigated his own mental health challenges during his student years, he understands the hurdles that students may face. In his role as the Deputy Head of the Student, Academic, and Pastoral Support Team (SAPS) and Head of Year Three, David is wholeheartedly dedicated to prioritising the wellbeing of students. Here’s how:

Sharing our mental health initiatives or programmes that Queen Mary has for students.

Could you please introduce yourself and describe your experience?

I’m David Sunnucks, and I’m Head of Anatomy and Deputy Head of Student Support, and I’ve had an extensive experience in dealing with students from a wide range of backgrounds with lots of different mental health aspects. I was given this role purely because I’ve had my own personal experience going through hardships during my own medical training, so I have a lot of insight into the processes required for students that might experience something similar.

For me, the challenges stemmed from a hearing impairment—I wear bilateral hearing aids. When I was a medical student, I had to take two years out due to surgical reasons, which had a huge detrimental impact on my studies. I thought my career was over and had to drop down two years, which caused issues with my motivation, mental health, and my studies.

Sourcing the right help and support got me through it. With the backing of the right people, I realised it wasn’t the end of the world, that there is a bigger picture. For me today, I want our students to have the same support I had—and they undoubtedly get it at Queen Mary, Malta.

How do you support students’ mental health in your role?

The small cohort size means I get to know all the students by name, how they work and what works well for them academically. Therefore, I can see when they’re starting to struggle and can start to give them tips and advice on how to approach certain bits mentally. Challenges are a part of life; what’s important for me is students knowing that they are supported.

What challenges do students face?

 What’s unique about Queen Mary is that you’ll never just be a number in a cohort. At the smaller institutions, we have that luxury of getting to know you as an individual, while being able to be supportive as best as possible. We take care of our students no matter the challenge, which will be present no matter what university you attend.

One issue we’ve had has been some students struggling to find their friendship groups at first. Also, some students romanticise about what it’s like to be a doctor. These types of issue are commonplace no matter what university you attend. What Queen Mary, Malta does well is having someone to talk to and support you no matter what challenge you face.

Supporting student mental health with David Sunnucks, how the university support you.
Mental Health at Queen Mary Malta, supporting our students.

What initiatives or programmes does Queen Mary have to its students?

Primarily, we have the SAPS Team which you can learn more about. But when students want extra information, we provide extra workshops. We have additional classes on sexual health, drug dependency, and another on suicide prevention. We do a lot of festival activities, like Christmas and Easter. We do mental health walks around the island and charity events. My own personal charitable cause is around Latin American ballroom dancing.

Can you talk a little bit about mindset for students thinking of joining?

Be open to everything. It’s important to recognise that not everyone will adapt to the course the way you plan to adapt, so don’t compare yourself to others. The key message is to just make sure you make time for yourself. At first, try to say ‘yes’ to most things then begin to whittle down depending on what you enjoy. Do not overburden yourself and remember that it’s okay to say ‘no.’ You are all unique individuals, you all have your own pathway, and we will be here to support you along the way.

You have a quote from Leonardo Da Vinci on your email signature. Why?

The quote is “Learning never exhausts the mind”. I like it for a few reasons. Firstly, Leonardo da Vinci was an anatomist, and as a clinical anatomist myself, he has been a huge inspiration for me. I speak Italian, I love the Renaissance and the way he infuses anatomy into his art. It’s the fact that he was thirsty for knowledge, thirsty to understand the workings of the human body, to understand how everything works. So, I love that quote.

And medicine is constant learning. It should not exhaust you; it should invigorate you, especially if you truly want to do it, and having that passion can be a solution to many of life’s mental health challenges, so we hope you’ll join us on the journey.