Archive for the Mental Health Category

Death and Shingles

Posted in Biographical, History, Mental Health with tags , , , , , on August 31, 2017 by telescoper

So it is now twenty years to the day since news broke of the death of Diana Spencer, formerly the Princess of Wales, along with Dodi Fayed and driver Henri Paul, after a car accident in Paris. I’ve noticed many people posting their memories on social media of where they were when they heard that Diana had died so I thought I’d do the same as I remember it very well.

In the weeks leading up to 31st August 1997 I had been suffering from shingles, a very unpleasant condition that results from the reactivation of the virus responsible for chicken pox, which I’d suffered from as a kid. Shingles causes nasty skin rashes, but on this occasion I was also treated to a spell of almost total deafness. This is a fairly unusual side-effect of the disease but is well known to occur in some cases. Hearing loss caused in this way can be permanent, but thankfully mine wasn’t.  I responded rather well to the anti-viral drugs I was given and it took only a matter of weeks for my hearing to be fully restored.

Suddenly becoming deaf was an unsettling enough experience, but it was even stranger to have been unable to hear anything during the period just after Diana’s death, which turned out to be one of the weirdest times of my life.

On the morning of 31st August 1997, which was a Sunday, I got up rather late and went to the local newsagent to buy a Sunday paper. They were sold out of everything. I thought that was a bit strange but walked out unaware of the reason everyone was buying papers that morning. I went back to my flat – I was living in London at the time – made breakfast, and did some reading. I was looking forward to the football match that was going to be live on TV that afternoon – Liverpool versus Newcastle Utd – but didn’t switch on the TV until it was just about the start. All I saw was a shot of an empty Anfield and some football pundits talking. I assumed there had been a bomb score or something, but I couldn’t hear so had no idea. I decided to have a look at Ceefax (remember that?) and then found out the story.

I was shocked, of course. She was still young when she died and I was fully aware of the reputation she had earned through numerous acts of kindness, e.g. towards people living with AIDS. That said, I was completely unprepared for the events of the following week which seemed to me to amount to an outbreak of national hysteria. I don’t know if it was more extreme in London than elsewhere in the UK, but I felt the whole country had lost its grip. Together with the sense of isolation caused by my deafness, it was a most uncomfortable time. I was saddened by her death, but I just couldn’t feel the extreme grief that others seemed to be displaying about someone that I didn’t know personally. Worse, there was a palpable sense of pressure being exerted on people to fall into line with the deification of Diana. Anyone who expressed anything even slightly short of devout praise was treated as some kind of blasphemer. It is probably the only time in my life I’ve felt that I was the only one to have remained sane while everyone around me had gone mad.

As my hearing slowly recovered I decided to go out with some friends for a drink in a pub in Bethnal Green. I mentioned in a conversation that I never knew her personally and therefore found it hard to understand how the feelings of grief people professed to having could be genuine and that the whole atmosphere that had been created seemed to me to be profoundly unhealthy. A bloke from another table came across and threatened me with violence unless I stopped `insulting Diana’. Insulting Diana was not at all my intention, though I think what the bloke was angry about was the (probably correct) interpretation that I was criticising those who had bought into the Diana cult.

Anyway, over the week following her death my hearing had improved a little bit, so I decided to watch the memorial service on TV. I couldn’t hear the music or speeches very well, but I remember watching the soldiers carrying Diana’s coffin into Westminster Abbey. It must have been a very heavy coffin as it was a very wobbly process and I thought at one moment the pall-bearers might drop it. They slowly approached stone structure on which the coffin was to be laid. Then I heard the commentator on TV solemnly announce that it was “placed on the catapult”.

This is novel, I thought. She’s going to be launched into the hereafter on a ballistic trajectory through the stained glass windows.  However, that didn’t happen and the service continued without an aerial display.

I found out much later that the word used was not catapult, but catafalque….





Der Doppelgänger

Posted in Mental Health, Music with tags , , on July 12, 2017 by telescoper

Writing yesterday about depersonalisation for some reason brought this song by Franz Schubert to mind. I heard it on the radio recently and found it profoundly moving. Der Doppelgänger is a setting of a poem by Heinrich Heine that Schubert composed in 1828 near the end of his life; it was published posthumously in 1929 as part of Schwanengesang.t’s relevance to the topic of depersonalisation lies in the middle verse, in which the poet describes seeing a tormented figure only to realise that the figure is he (the last line says `The Moon shows me my own form’):

Da steht auch ein Mensch und starrt in die Höhe,
Und ringt die Hände, vor Schmerzensgewalt;
Mir graust es, wenn ich sein Antlitz sehe –
Der Mond zeigt mir meine eigne Gestalt.

It’s a very bleak piece, its desolate atmosphere underlined by the inexorable piano accompaniment which consists mostly of block chords. I think you can tell that this is written by a man who knows his days are numbered, but the simplicity and beauty of the composition and pervading sense of loneliness and desolation mark it as a work of genius, which Schubert undoubtedly was.

The singer is the late great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

On drugs (and off them)

Posted in Mental Health with tags , , , , , , on July 11, 2017 by telescoper

I came across an interesting piece in the Guardian the other day written by Deborah Orr, who had just taken antidepressants for the first time (with unpleasant consequences). This was followed by an explanatory article by blogger and author Dean Burnett who explains that nobody really knows how anti-depressants work, and why it is not surprising that they can have unexpected side effects. I hope that the articles I mentioned above help make it clearer what is involved being on medication of this sort. These drugs are in widespread use, but ignorance about them is spread even wider.

I remember a while ago, when I was working at the University of Sussex, sitting on a bus in Brighton with two people behind me talking – in a very unhelpful and ill-informed way – about depression, and how anti-depressant drugs were a `soft option’. It made me quite angry listening to some of the comments they made but I didn’t intervene. I toyed with the idea of writing a blog then but I didn’t get round to it, partly because I didn’t really want all the staff and students in the School of which I was Head to know I was taking heavy medication for much of the time I was working there.  I only told a handful of people at the time. Now I am no longer in that job I think it’s safe to be a bit more open, and add a little bit here from my own experience to the articles mentioned above.

The most widespread anti-depressant drugs currently available are called Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (the best-known of which, Fluoxetine, is known by the trade name Prozac). Deborah Orr’s article concerned her experience with an SSRI called Citalopram, which I was using about five years years ago. More recently, for much of the time I was at Sussex I was taking Paroxetine (trade name: Seroxat). The latter is not available on the National Health Service through a General Practioner, but must instead be prescribed by a consultant psychiatrist.

Anti-depressants are not only prescribed for the treatment of clinical depression but also for, e.g., anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Nobody really knows why anti-depressants work against depression (although there is clinical evidence that they do), and there is even less understanding why (and, in some cases, evidence that) they are effective for these other conditions. Like many treatments they seem to have been discovered empirically, by trial and error.

As Dean Burnett explains in his article, SSRIs work by increasing the level of Serotonin (a monoamine neurotransmitter). However, taking an SSRI increases the level of Serotonin almost immediately whereas the effect on depression takes weeks to register. While low Serotonin levels may play a part in depressive illness, they’re clearly not the whole story.

My experience contrasts a bit with Deborah Orr’s, in that I have never experienced significant problems going onto this sort of medication – the worst by far has been when I’ve tried to quit. I had awful problems in the summer of 2012 largely as a result of trying to come off the medication I had been on since the previous autumn. The withdrawal symptoms then included shaking fits, insomnia, visual and auditory hallucinations, nausea, and hypervigilance.

The effect of this extreme collection of withdrawal symptoms was that I didn’t eat or sleep for a couple of weeks, and ended up in a high-dependency unit at a psychiatric hospital under sedation while they figured out what to do with me. Fortunately, I recovered well enough to return to work after a couple of months.

At the end of the summer of 2012, I was offered the job of Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at Sussex University. I moved from Cardiff to Brighton in early 2013 to take up this new position. I hadn’t been there for long when my old problem returned. The stress of the job obviously played a role in this, and I soon realised that I couldn’t keep going without help from medication. It was then that I was tried out on Paroxetine, the dose being gradually increased until I was at the maximum recommended level (60mg daily).

While this medication was effective in controlling the panic disorder, it had some unpleasant side-effects, including: digestive problems; dizziness; difficulty in concentrating; fatigue; and the weirdest of all, a thing called depersonalisation. Deborah Orr describes the latter very well in her piece but she seems to have experienced it as soon as she started taking medication, whereas in my case it came on  gradually.

 I found myself living a kind of half-life, functioning reasonably well at work but not having the energy or enthusiasm to do very much else outside of working hours. Eventually I got fed up with it.  I felt I had to choose between staying in my job as Head of School (which meant carrying on taking the drugs indefinitely) or leaving to do something else (which would mean I might be able to quit the drugs). I picked the latter. The desire to come off medication wasn’t the only factor behind my decision to stand down from my job, but it played a big part.

I knew however that Paroxetine  is associated with notoriously difficult withdrawal symptoms so, mindful of my previous experience in 2012, I followed the medical instructions to the letter, gradually cutting down my dose over a couple of months during the course of the Autumn in 2016. I still had significant withdrawal symptoms, especially the insomnia, but not as bad as five years ago. I’m hoping that my current (part-time) job allows me to manage for the foreseeable future without the need for any medication – apart, perhaps, from the odd glass of fine wine!

So those are my experiences. All I can say that I hope I’ve convinced you that anti-depressants are not a `soft option’!

Punched Out

Posted in Mental Health on April 20, 2017 by telescoper

A tragic and harrowing  last blog post from an academic who took his own life yesterday. I suspect his thoughts resonate with many academics. They certainly do with me. But don’t get the wrong idea about my reasons for reblogging the article. I am not, and never have been, suicidal.  I just thing it is important to at least try to understand why.

Please read the article, and then read some of the comments following it and despair.

‘What a piece of work is Man.”

Will Opines

Assuming I did not botch the task, by the time this posts I will have been dead via suicide for several hours.  Nope, that’s not a setup to a joke.[1]

Why would someone who is healthy, employed, has every outside appearance of success, and so on, take their own life? In my case the answer is simple enough: I was done, but my body wasn’t.  But that answer isn’t satisfying, so, for those who are aggrieved, upset, saddened, etc., let me do my best to try to explain.

And lest you imagine me some sort of sad human whom you should pity, I have never had that view of myself (aside from the occasional pity party, of course).  I did struggle with that self perception on and off as an adolescent and teen.  But since becoming a young adult I came to understand myself as a remarkably privileged human…

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You have the power to change someone’s life – Time to Talk Day 2017

Posted in Mental Health with tags , , on February 2, 2017 by telescoper


Today, 2nd February 2017, is Time to Talk Day, which means that it’s time for the nation’s biggest conversation about mental health.

One in four adults and one in ten young people will experience a mental health problem every year. Talking about it doesn’t have to be difficult but can make a big difference. It’s easy to have a conversation about mental health, and it could change someone’s life (including yours). You don’t have to be an expert to help: sometimes just asking  how they are is all you need to do to help someone who’s having a hard time.

Here’s a little video about Time to Talk Day:

For more information on how to get involved see here.

Changing Patterns of Work

Posted in Biographical, Mental Health with tags on November 28, 2016 by telescoper

I read an interesting piece in yesterday’s Observer about a number of people who have decided to switch careers, or at least change the pattern of their working life, relatively late in life. Unlike the cases described in the article, I haven’t had the nerve to try an entirely new kind of job – at least not yet! – but I did feel the article in question had some relevance to my own decision, made a few months ago, to resign from my previous post as Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex and move back to Cardiff.

I’m not going to go into all the reasons for stepping down, but one of them is I wanted to establish a better work-life balance. Fortunately, I never sold my little house in Cardiff and had also paid off the mortgage on that property some years ago, so returning to live there full-time was relatively straightforward and meant reducing my outgoings considerably.  I was therefore more than happy to accept the offer of a position here on a 50% salary. In other words, I am officially a part-time member of staff. I’m planning to use the other 50% to pursue some other interests, such as writing a couple of books and running the Open Journal of Astrophysics, but generally just taking more time off the treadmill of academic life.

Another thing I ought to mention is that my current position is fixed-term, for three years only. The earliest I’ll be able to retire is when I am  55, which is still a couple of years away. Whether I do go then depends on a number of things, including how difficult the University funding environment becomes as a result of loss of EU income and the proposed large reduction in numbers of overseas students.  If things become really tight I think it’s important for people of my age to make way so that the younger generation have a better chance. Perhaps I won’t retire at that time anyway. Perhaps I’ll follow the example of the folk in the Observer piece and start a new career as something completely different!

Having said that I’m a part-time member of staff, I have to also admit that I’m finding it quite difficult actually working part-time. This is largely because the University’s calendar of business continues at a full-time rate. Some of the jobs I’ve been asked to do in my new role – specifically designing a couple of  new postgraduate courses – had to be completed quite soon after I arrived, something I had not realized when I accepted the position here! However, now that those deadlines have been met I can hopefully settle down to a regular pattern of work, involving a bit of teaching and research in the School of Physics & Astronomy and helping get the Data Innovation Research Institute off the ground. When things have settled into a steady state I think I’ll start filling in time sheets – not for anyone else’s use, but for my own records. I can manage comfortably on a part-time salary, but I draw the line at unpaid overtime.

On the other hand, it’s always difficult to draw the line when you’re an academic. We’re basically paid to think and most of us don’t stop doing that even during our time off..

World Mental Health Day

Posted in Mental Health on October 10, 2016 by telescoper


Today is World Mental Health Day 2016, so I made use of the part-time nature of my current employment to take the day off work and, among other things, go for a walk in the park in the autumn sunshine. That is all.