Archive for the Mental Health Category

Mental Health and the Reasons for Burnout

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth, Mental Health with tags , , , on May 10, 2022 by telescoper

It is now European Health Week as well as “Employee Wellbeing Month” here at Maynooth University. I’m reminded that ten years ago that I was heading for a breakdown and a subsequent spell in a psychiatric institution so I always try to use this opportunity to encourage friends colleagues and students to do what I didn’t back then, and ask for help sooner rather than later.

Today my colleague from, and former Head of, the Psychology Department at Maynooth shared a piece on twitter that provided me with a new theme, burnout, which is usually described in these terms:

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest and motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.

Burnout reduces productivity and saps your energy, leaving you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful. Eventually, you may feel like you have nothing more to give.

I’d be surprised if any of my friends and colleagues in the University have not felt at least some of the signs of burnout at some point over the last two years during the which the pandemic drastically exacerbated existing conditions of overwork. I know there’s a tendency among staff to blame themselves for struggling and I know that there’s a even stronger tendency for Management to want staff to blame themselves: “you need to be more resilient” is the catchphrase.

As a counter to this attitude I suggest you read this piece which explains that burnout is not the fault of employees but of the environment created by management. In particular, here are the five main causes of burnout:

  1. Unfair treatment at work
  2. Unmanageable workload
  3. Lack of role clarity
  4. Lack of communication and support from their manager
  5. Unreasonable time pressure

Do any of these look familiar to you? They certainly do to me! I would add a sixth: “6. management determination to make 1-5 even worse in future”. Academic staff on proper contracts are much more expensive than low-paid temporary lecturers on insecure contracts. If you care more about making a profit than providing a quality third level education, why not let the former burn out and replace them with the latter?

My biggest fear is that having seen the lengths to which staff have been prepared to go voluntarily to keep things going during the pandemic, all that has been achieved is to establish in the minds of Management an expectation that this is the way things will be for the indefinite future.

It’s not so bad for me. I’ll be 60 next year and I can see the prospect of retirement on the horizon, but I do worry about what this means for the careers of younger staff.

The Wellness of Being

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, Mental Health with tags , , on April 14, 2022 by telescoper

So we’ve arrived at the Easter weekend. No work tomorrow, Good Friday, or on Easter Monday. I’ve put my out-of-office autoreply on and I’m taking a break from work for four days in an attempt to recharge the batteries before the examination and marking season. I only have two papers to correct this year, but because my Computational Physics class larger than it has been for a few years so I have quite a lot of projects to assess too. The deadline for those is in May, as are the examinations.

Today while finishing off a few things before the break – including the last Computational Physics lab test – I noticed an email from Human Resources, announcing that May 2022 is “Employee Wellbeing Month”. Among other delights we are promised a “wide range of wellbeing workshops that will run throughout May” which most of us teaching staff will be far too busy to attend.

And don’t get me started on making us come in for an Open Day on the May Bank Holiday weekend…

I wonder if there’s any empirical evidence at all that wellbeing workshops and whatnot do anything at all to alleviate work-related stress? I suspect not. It seems to me that they’re just a way of telling academic staff that they’d better get used to it because no attempt will ever be made to deal with the real causes of burnout: lack of resources, staff shortages, ever-increasing workloads, and the suffocating influence of remote and unsympathetic management.

This week though I learnt a far better way to experience feelings of wellbeing. Yesterday evening, for the first time in ages, I went to a pub for drinks with some current and former postgrads and colleagues (and partners thereof) from the Department of Theoretical Physics. Unlike, for example, Cardiff (where visits to the pubs with colleagues were a regular occurrence for me) I hadn’t really socialised with folks from Maynooth University even before the lockdown put paid to the possibility entirely. Last night was actually an initiative by some of our PhD students, and I’m very grateful to them for organizing it!

I’d been to the pub – McMahon‘s on Main Street – a few times before so when invited to go along it seemed like having a couple of pints there might be a good way of trying to shake off the agoraphobia. The evening turned out to be ideal for that purpose – the pub had enough people in it to have atmosphere but not so many that it was heaving. I went with the intention of staying an hour or two, but ending up leaving at midnight.

I hope this sort of thing becomes a regular feature from now on. Going to the pub with some friends now and then is far more likely to improve my state of mind than any number of wellness seminars. Although slightly hungover this morning I was in a very good mood, at least until my computer decided to embark on a Windows Update that took over an hour to complete…

Irreversible Changes

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Mental Health on February 12, 2022 by telescoper

There’s a feature on Facebook that reminds you of things you posted there on the same day in previous years. It’s often a pleasant thing to be reminded of past events involving your friends but occasionally the memories are not so nice.

Over the past few weeks Facebook has been bringing back posts that I put up a decade ago, when I was experiencing serious mental health issues that had gone on for months. I ended up in a terrible state in summer 2012, resulting in me spending some time in a psychiatric institution near Cardiff.

Some time after that I wrote a piece for Time to Change Wales from which I’ve taken the following excerpt:

I realize how stupid it was for me not to have sought professional help before. It’s only now, looking back, that I realize how ill I actually was. I had almost left it too late. I know I’m not “cured”. I’ll no doubt have to confront this problem again. But next time I know what to do.

So why did I leave it so long? Fear of the stigma, perhaps. But I suppose also pride. It can be difficult to ask for help, to admit to yourself, your friends and your colleagues that you can’t cope, especially when you’re in a job in which you feel that people “expect more” of you. Difficult, yes, but not impossible, and certainly necessary. Don’t do what I did. Life’s too short.

Although I did not enjoy at all the experience of being in a high-dependency psychiatric unit, I was lucky that I got professional help in time back then. Even more happily, in recent years I haven’t had any problems of the same severity.

I have only just come to understand, however, how far I was irreversibly diminished as a person by that episode, not only in social settings but also intellectually. My ability to concentrate has greatly deteriorated, for example, and I have far less energy. The fact that I’m also getting old – another irreversible change – hasn’t helped!

On top of all this, bridges that you burned when you were not in your right mind can’t be rebuilt, no matter how much you wish they could. You can’t hope to go back to things exactly as they were. It’s taken me a decade to realize that it this is a positive: there’s no point in being haunted by the past and dreaming about undoing things that can’t be undone. Moving on is the only way to move forward.

I don’t know if these thoughts will help anyone else who might happen to read this blog, but I hope they do.

Birthday Fundraiser – Pieta House

Posted in Biographical, Mental Health on June 4, 2021 by telescoper

It’s that time of year again so for a change I’ve decided to do a fundraiser for the charity Pieta House, Preventing Suicide and Self Harm. I’ve chosen this charity for my fundraiser this year largely because of Darkness into Light, an annual walking event and fundraiser held, primarily, across the island of Ireland. Participants meet before dawn on a particular Saturday in May and walk to meet the sunrise. I couldn’t participate this year so am trying to make up for it with this!

Should you be minded to make a donation, however small, you can do so here.

A Year of Closure

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth, Mental Health with tags , on March 12, 2021 by telescoper

Today is 12th March 2021, which means it is exactly one year since Maynooth University campus closed because of Covid-19. Last year 12th March was on a Thursday and I remember doing my Computational Physics lecture in the morning and a computer lab in the afternoon and then hearing we couldn’t go back to teaching the following day. After that, as it is this year, it was the Study Week break (which includes the St Patrick’s Day holiday). Last year we all trued to use the opportunity to move all our teaching online.

I certainly didn’t imagine that a full year later we would still be working from home. Although the current lockdown isn’t as strict as that of last Spring we’re still told not to come on campus unless it is strictly necessary, and all teaching remains online.

When the campus closed last year I was living in a small flat with no internet connection, so the only way I could do my teaching was using my mobile phone data. It wasn’t great but I did the best I could.

At least I was able to use the semi-unlocking of the lockdown in late summer to complete the purchase of a house. I’ve been much more comfortable doing teaching from here for the last six months or so, although not leaving the house except to do shopping has led to an extreme sense of isolation which is not all ameliorated by endless online meetings via Zoom and Teams. That, together with the heavy workload, is all very wearying. It further annoys me how many people think “working from home” means not “working very much” or not “working at all”. What it does mean is never getting away from your work, except when you’re asleep.

I’ve noticed over the last few months that the agoraphobia from which I’ve suffered sporadically over the years has very definitely returned. Agoraphobia can be defined as:

…an anxiety disorder characterized by symptoms of anxiety in situations where the person perceives their environment to be unsafe with no easy way to escape. These situations can include open spaces, public transit, shopping centers, or simply being outside their home.

My long-term agoraphobia has been about the threat of physical violence caused by a traumatic event in the past, but now it is more general. I see too many people not taking proper precautions (face masks, social distancing, etc) that it gets me very anxious for a new reason. Supermarkets are bad enough, but it’s more general. I’m now starting to realize that I’m going to find it difficult ever to return to a “normal” life of crowded lecture theatres and campus buildings after this pandemic ends, whenever that happens.

This morning I did a tutorial (via Teams) which was my last teaching session before the mid-term break. I was exhausted even before term started so it has been a very difficult six weeks. It’s not just the teaching, it’s also the relentless stream of demands from upstairs for other things to be done. There seems very little understanding from that direction of what life is like on the front line, to be honest.

My appointment as Head of Department for Theoretical Physics was nominally three years. I am now about halfway through that term and can’t wait for it to end.

Unfortunately there isn’t much light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel. Case numbers in Ireland remain high, and are falling slowly at best; they have actually been increasing for the last few days. Vaccination rollout is also very slow, thanks to supply issues (chiefly with AstraZeneca).

I am now fairly confident that teaching at least for the Autumn Semester of 2021/22 will again be online, as there is little chance of staff being vaccinated by the end of the summer. I know colleagues in other Irish universities who are planning for this eventuality too.

My Acting Career

Posted in Biographical, Brighton, LGBT, Mental Health, Television with tags , on January 30, 2021 by telescoper

Out of the swirling mass of cathartic memories unleashed by watching It’s A Sin there suddenly popped this one which had been buried away in the dark recesses of my subconscious for over thirty years.

Oh no, I can hear you thinking, not another one of those tediously self-indulgent posts. It’s not like that, actually. I decided to share it mainly because I think it’s quite funny!

When I was living in Brighton in the late 1980s I and a friend of mine decided to try a spot of amateur dramatics. I can’t remember what the play was – because neither of us succeeded in getting involved – but it seemed like it would be interesting so responding to an advert in a local newspaper we turned up for the audition.

The first bit was a reading. My choice of piece was a bit unusual. I did a bit of drama at school, but since I went to a single-sex grammar school all the female parts were played by boys, which is why I ended up playing Lady Scottish Play in the Scottish Play. I remembered some of Mrs M’s speeches – an do to this day – so did for my audition piece the one that begins “The Raven himself is hoarse…” and has bits about “unsex me here”, etc.

Surprisingly I got through the reading bit.

For the next part all the survivors (about 15 of us) sat in chairs on the stage. The Director bloke then announced that he wanted us to “act” somebody crying. I sat for a moment, then looked at the others, who were making what I thought were very hammy attempts to do a cry and I thought to myself “I can do better than that”.

I may have been quite young then, but I’d quite recently been beaten up, spent weeks in a psychiatric hospital, and seen two friends die from AIDS. I had, therefore, under the surface, acquired quite a reservoir of sadness to draw on. I’m not a trained method actor or anything like that but I knew that I could summon up something very easily. So that’s what I did. I shut my eyes and thought for a moment, and started crying my eyes out. The group of prospective actors around me all stopped and stared.

Eventually the Director came on stage looking very concerned and asked if I was all right. I said “Yes. I’m fine. I thought you you wanted us to cry.” He looked amazed.

The audition ended and I assumed I had wowed everyone enough with the deep emotion of my performance to get the part. On the way out, though, I was told that I hadn’t passed the audition.

The reason given was that it’s absolutely no good portraying grief or pain in a theatre – even a small one – by sitting in a chair actually crying. The audience won’t really see the tears, so you have to do a lot more with gestures and movement.

The production went ahead without me in it, and I’ve thought so little of it until now that I’ve even forgotten what the play was!

It’s not much of a talent to be able to turn on the waterworks on demand, but I thought I’d share this experience here to point out (a) that I can still do it and (b) if there are any TV or film directors looking to cast a (hopefully lucrative) role for a middle aged guy who can cry in close up and is not required to do much else then they need look no further!

Perhaps I should hire an agent?

The Eyes to the Left

Posted in Biographical, Brighton, Mental Health with tags , , , , , , on October 1, 2020 by telescoper

One of the things I managed to squeeze in during these last hectic days was a visit to the optician. I hadn’t had my eyes tested since I lived in Brighton, probably more than five years ago, which is a bit long to leave it for one of my advanced years. Inevitably the test revealed that I needed new spectacles, though curiously one eye – the left – has changed much more than the other since my last test. My prescription has corrections for both astigmatism and myopia (short-sightedness) but these are both well corrected by varifocals, the type of glasses I have worn for some time. My new specs took just a week to arrive and I find reading much more comfortable wearing them than I did with my old ones.

I remember the first time I had to wear varifocals I found it quite difficult, especially looking down through the bottom half of the lens (which is where you are assumed to be looking when reading) as they make it difficult to judge the distance to the ground (or, more dangerously, exactly where the next stair is….). I found after a day or two I was used to the varying focus and now I think nothing of it.

Because it means that your eyes focus differently on horizontal and vertical lines, and that’s exactly how text is constructed, uncorrected astigmatism makes it difficult to read words and numbers at a distance. With varifocals you have to look through the top half of the lens, which is the bit that corrects the astigmatism, and move your point of view until you find the place where the optical performance is best. I’ve often found myself in the audience of a lecture moving my head in odd ways to try to find the best angle to read what’s on the screen. I hope it’s not too disconcerting for the speaker when I do that!

The most interesting bit of my visit to the optician however was that I had an optical coherence tomography scan which generate a three-dimensional picture of the back of the eyeball. I’ve never seen one of those before. Here’s an example (not me):

This type of scan can be used to diagnose things like glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy, neither of which I have. In my case though it did reveal a significant level of unevenness in the surface at the back of both eyes and some signs of swelling of or near the optic nerves. The optician showed me the scan and pointed out these abnormalities, but said that it wasn’t anything too worry too much about as he thought it was historical rather than progressive. He said the only time he’d seen anything like that was in the cases of people who had in the past had some form of trauma to the head (which can cause increased pressure inside and so damage the back of the eyes).

I’ve blogged before about the long term effects on my mental health of the beating I experienced in Brighton over thirty years ago, but this was the first time I’ve seen such clear evidence of the physical damage that I presume was caused by that event. In extreme cases I experience periods of exaggeratedly heightened awareness of things moving in my peripheral vision that I can’t keep track of, accompanied by auditory and visual hallucinations. I’m not an expert but it seems likely to me that what the scan revealed may play a role in these episodes. It doesn’t explain why they seem to be triggered by stress, though, so there must be other factors.

Over the years a number of people have remarked that I often have the blinds closed in my office during the day, and that as well as that as well as being varifocals the lenses I wear in my glasses are reaction lenses (i.e. they go dark in bright light). Avoiding bright light in such ways was suggested by an optician some years ago, who suspected I might have some form of retinal damage but couldn’t see anything definitive with the technology available then. It seems he was right!

 

Lucia Joyce

Posted in History, Mental Health with tags , , on June 16, 2020 by telescoper

Lucia Joyce photographed by Berenice Abbott (date c.1925-1930)

On Sunday I listened to a programme on the radio about Lucia Joyce a celebrated dancer who just happened to be James Joyce’s daughter. Lucia was born in Trieste in 1907 and subsequently moved with him to Paris where she made a big impact in the field of modern dance. W.B. Yeats was an admirer and wanted to cast her in one of his `plays for dancers’.

Lucia’s early years were filled with artistic promise but shadows gathered around her and by the the middle of the 1930s she had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was eventually taken away in a straitjacket and forcibly detained in a psychiatric clinic. She spent the rest of her life (until her death in 1982) in various institutions. The programme provides a fascinating insight into her creative early years but the latter part is desperately sad. One can’t escape the conclusion she did not deserve to be locked away the way she was (against her will) and the men in her life (her father, brother and very lovers, including Samuel Beckett) share a large part of the responsibility for her decline. Psychiatric institutions have a long history of being used to dispose of `inconvenient’ women.

Anyway, do listen to the programme which you can find here.

Dream Time

Posted in Art, Biographical, Covid-19, Mental Health with tags , , , , , , on May 13, 2020 by telescoper

The Dream (Salvador Dali, 1931)

I know I’m not alone during this strange and unsettling Coronavirus period in having extraordinarily vivid dreams almost every night.

I’m grateful for two things related to this. One is that I’m sleeping much better than usual, with not a trace of the insomnia I’ve experienced in the past during times of stress. The other is that these dreams are very far from being nightmares. Most of them are benign, and some are laugh-out-loud hilarious.

The other day, for example, I had a dream in which Nigel Farage returned from his recent trip to Dover in search of migrants publicity to find his house filled with asylum seekers singing the theme from The Dambusters. There was also a cameo appearance by Nigella Lawson in that dream but I forget the context.

I’ve written about dreams a few times before (e.g. here) and don’t intend to repeat myself here. It does seem to me however that dreams are probably a byproduct of the unconscious brain’s processing of notable recent events and this activity is heightened because the current times are filled with unfamiliar experiences.

I know some people are having far worse nocturnal experiences than me, and I don’t really understand why I’m having a relatively easy ride when my past history suggests I’d be prime candidate for cracking up. Perhaps I’ve had enough practice at dealing with anxiety in the past (not always very satisfactorily)? Perhaps the sense of detachment I’ve experienced over the past few weeks is part of some sort of defence mechanism I’ve acquired?

Anyway, don’t have nightmares!

Exceptional Moods?

Posted in Biographical, Mental Health with tags , , on April 20, 2020 by telescoper

The other day I came across the following excerpt from The War Of The Worlds by H. G. Wells:

Perhaps I am a man of exceptional moods. I do not know how far my experience is common. At times I suffer from the strangest sense of detachment from myself and the world about me; I seem to watch it all from the outside, from somewhere inconceivably remote, out of time, out of space, out of the stress and tragedy of it all.

This passage struck me very forcefully because it captures what it feels like to experience depersonalisation disorder. I wrote about my own experiences of this about three years ago.

In my own case the depersonalisation was, I think, a side-effect of medication I took to deal with an anxiety condition that has plagued me off and on for many years.

In recent weeks I have often felt strangely detached in the same way as before, but I haven’t been on medication for nearly three years now so that’s not the cause this time.

Perhaps it is just the social distancing and the general stress caused by the Covid-19 outbreak that is causing it?

If so there is probably quite a number of people out there feeling the same way.do maybe these moods aren’t really exceptional?