Archive for January 20, 2013

Time To Change

Posted in Biographical, Mental Health with tags , , , , , , on January 20, 2013 by telescoper

I suppose you could consider this post to be my New Year’s resolution, so apologies that it’s three weeks overdue. Apologies too if it’s a bit too personal for comfort; it’s difficult to get the mixture of public and private right when you run a blog.

Anyway, regular followers of this blog will know that I had some problems with my mental health last summer;  I posted a partial explanation here.  I completed a course of treatment last autumn and have since been feeling much better.  Words can’t express my gratitude to the people who looked after me when I was unwell nor to the friends and colleagues who put up with my unexplained absences for so long.

In November last year I came across a website run by Time to Change Wales which was in the middle of a campaign to get people talking about mental health issues. Among the things they were doing was getting people to post short blogs about their experiences in order to help people overcome the stigma that sadly still surrounds mental health. It seemed right to contribute something to this campaign, so I decided to write a piece for them. I probably don’t have to explain that I didn’t find this easy to do, and I changed my mind several times about what to include or indeed whether to send anything in at all. In the end I plucked up enough courage, and my piece went live last week.

I was given permission to post it here also but, on reflection, I decided that might detract from the campaign by deflecting traffic from the Time to Change website. I also thought I’d leave it a while before referring to it on here; as it happens, there were also practical reasons why I haven’t had much time to blog in recent days.

If you’d like to read the piece you can do so here. And while you’re there, why not check out the rest of the site? Or maybe even follow them on Twitter?

Closer friends who know the whole story will realise that I’ve edited it quite severely; they’ll probably also understand why. I’d just like to add here a few things I left out because I didn’t think they were relevant in the context of the Time to Change campaign.

First, you will probably now appreciate the irony in the fact that I’ll shortly be returning to live in Brighton when I take up my new job as Head of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex. That this opportunity came along when it did seemed so implausible a coincidence that  I’ve almost started to believe in fate. I feel a bit like a character in a play with a very strange plot; I haven’t a clue how it’s going to end, but I’m obliged to act out my part regardless.

In case anyone is wondering, before being appointed to my new job I did have to complete a medical questionnaire, and I did make a written statement about the problems I’ve had. I was more than a bit nervous about doing that, actually, and for a time I thought I’d get turned down. But instead of being declared unfit, all that happened was that I had a discussion with an Occupational Health Adviser who was very supportive. I know that my problems may recur, but now I know how to handle them I don’t see any reason why I can’t handle this new job either. I’m very much looking forward to it, in fact.

I’m by no means an expert on mental health, but I couldn’t resist ending with a comment arising from my recent experiences. The human brain is an incredibly complicated thing which means that even when it’s functioning “normally” it gives rise to a vast range of personalities and behaviour patterns that largely defy categorization. Likewise, when things go wrong they can go wrong in so many ways that simple descriptions such as “anxiety” or “depression” aren’t really all that useful or even complete.

You might think, for example, that panic disorder describes a fairly well-defined condition, but it really doesn’t. The things I have experienced during panic attacks – which includes alarming visual and auditory hallucinations as well as an overwhelming impulse to flee – are quite different from what others with panic disorder may describe. Post-traumatic stress disorder can likewise manifest itself in a wide range of behaviours, including extreme aggression. In my own case the dominant factor has been hypervigilance and I’ve never showed any sign at all of some of the other indicators.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that there’s no ab initio theoretical understanding of what causes such conditions, and that treatment is largely by trial and error. In short, neuroscience isn’t at all like physics. It’s also very very much harder.

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