Archive for the Mental Health Category

Reasons to stay alive

Posted in Biographical, Mental Health with tags , , , , on September 15, 2019 by telescoper

I saw this message from author Matt Haig on Twitter last weekend and it affected me so much I couldn’t write about it at the time.

Twenty years ago, when he was in his twenties, Matt tried to take his own life. He didn’t succeed, but the attempt left him severely ill as he summarises in that tweet. He wrote about his crisis in his book Reasons To Stay Alive, from which I have borrowed the title of this post.

Why did this message affect me so much? It’s largely because the words he uses to describe his condition also exactly describe what I was like seven years ago when I was admitted to an acute ward in a psychiatric hospital. I wasn’t exactly suicidal, just so exhausted that I didn’t really care what happened next. I was however put on a kind of `suicide watch’, the reason for this being that, apparently, even while sedated, I kept trying to pull the tube out of my arm. I was being fed via a drip because I was ‘Nil by Mouth’ by virtue of uncontrollable vomiting. I guess the doctors thought I was trying to sabotage myself, but I wasn’t. Not consciously anyway. I think it was probably just irritating me. In fact I don’t remember doing it at all, but that period is very much a blur altogether. Anyway, I then found myself in physical restraints so I couldn’t move my arms to stop me doing that.

Eventually I was deemed well enough to move to a general ward and shortly after that I was discharged (with follow-up counselling and medication).

Experiences like that – which I sincerely hope none of you reading this ever have to go through – make you feel very isolated because you are lost inside your own head and body. Knowing that other people go through similar things, and not only survive but prosper, helps a lot. You feel a bit less of an outlier. Of course I’ll never appear on stage at the National Theatre, but although the intervening years haven’t exactly been plain sailing, the last seven have brought far more positives than negatives.

It’s hard to explain why Matt’s message had such a resonance. His experience was clearly far worse than mine, but when I was discharged from hospital the doctors made it very clear just how ill I had been, and that if there was any recurrence I should get help as soon as possible. As well as writing about it on this blog, I did a piece for Time to Change Wales, encouraging people to ask for help if they need it.

Anyway, this brings me to the point of this sermon. Yesterday I received this by email:

It’s from Niteline, an organisation whose volunteers offer students free confidential counselling, and it came with a suggestion (which I will follow) that I should share it with students before and after my lectures. I’m not sure how many students will read this blog, but I thought I would share it here too. If it encourages just one person who is struggling to find someone to talk to then it’s worth it.

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Health and the Season

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Maynooth, Mental Health with tags , , on August 10, 2019 by telescoper

After I came out as having arthritis a few months ago, I’m sure all both my readers are agog to hear news about the state of my knees. There’s only good news to report, actually. The warmer weather seems to have brought considerable respite. I have not taken any anti-inflammatory medicine for a couple of months now, and have largely dispensed with the walking stick too (at least for the time being). I still get the odd twinge, but nothing compared to what things were like during the winter.

I ended my earlier post about this with this paragraph:

One other thing worth mentioning is that this condition does seem to be highly temperature-dependent. This last week the weather suddenly turned a lot colder and the arthritis definitely got worse. Perhaps in future I could learn to use the colour of my knees as some kind of forecasting method?

Talk to anyone who suffers from arthritis and they will tell you a similar story – it gets worse in cold and/or damp weather. Talk to any medical expert, however, and they will tell you that there’s very little hard evidence about this and what evidence there is suggests that the effect is very weak. See, for example, this paper, which has the following abstract:

It is a common observation that pain and stiffness in patients known to have arthritis get worse in cold and damp weather conditions. The objective of this article is to review the available literature on this subject and to put forward an explanation for this common clinical finding. Literature search revealed twelve relevant articles including laboratory experiments and prospective questionnaire-based human studies. Various investigators have tried to study the effect of cold weather on arthritic symptoms and have suggested different theories. The effect of temperature changes localized to the joints has shown to increase stiffness at lower temperatures and decrease stiffness at higher temperatures. The effect of these changes has been found more pronounced in elderly population with arthritis and patients with advanced disease. The evidence to support this common observation is weak; however some studies have reported a trend towards worsening of pain and stiffness with falling temperature and barometric pressure in arthritic patients.

Among the problems associated with studying such effects is the issue of how to measure `pain’ in a reliable way. It may be in the winter people are generally less upbeat about their health which may affect the way they self-report the state of their arthritis. And even if one could measure the level of pain objectively, there are obvious confounding factors: people are generally more active during the summer months, for example, which may help ease joint pain. And what aspect of the weather really matters: temperature, humidity or atmospheric pressure? These tend to be correlated in complicated ways.

All I can say is that the last couple of months have been far better for me. Whether that is because of some direct causative influence of the weather or not I can’t say.

While I am on about health and the time of year, I’ll comment on another personal matter. Seven years ago I was suffering some serious mental health problems, which resulted in me being for some time on an acute ward in a psychiatric institution. That happened in July 2012. I’ve dreaded the arrival of July every year since because it reminds me of that very bad period in my life and I worry that might bring on something similar again. This year, though, has been much better. I can’t attribute this entirely to my move here to Ireland, but the change of scene has undoubtedly contributed.

As a final comment I’ll just say that 31st July was the third anniversary of my leaving Sussex (in 2016) to return to Cardiff on a three-year part-time contract back. I was planning to take early retirement when that expired, but things seem to have turned out rather differently. Things have a habit of doing that. Then again, if life were predictable it would be very dull. Anyway, it was very nice to meet up with quite a few former colleagues from Cardiff during recent week off, including at their summer barbecue at Llandaff. It seems quite a few will be spending the next week or so marking repeat resit examinations, so let me take this opportunity to wish them all the very best!

Sleep Hygiene

Posted in Biographical, Mental Health with tags , , on March 2, 2019 by telescoper

This afternoon I remembered a discussion I had with a few friends last week about insomnia and I thought I’d comment a bit on it here. This topic has come up before, e.g. here, but I’m very happy to say that sleeplessness is not a problem I’ve had recently (apart from once or twice when I’ve had a fever, but that’s different).

When I was struggling to come to terms with insomnia, much of the advice from NHS doctors and psychiatrists concerned sleep hygiene. This does not mean having a shower before you go to bed. It’s a collection of behavioural modifications designed to ensure you get a full night’s sleep every night. Here’s an example of the sort of things:

Received wisdom is that this actually works in most cases. I am, however, bound to say that it didn’t work at all for me. During the worst of my brushes with insomnia I was considered such an intractable case that I was passed around a collection of consultants who, despite their best intentions, didn’t really help either.

Then I had an appointment with a doctor who was refreshingly honest. She said that if insomnia is a result of anxiety or depression then making strict rules about how long you should sleep and what you should do to comply with them can easily make the anxiety worse and hence perpetuate the insomnia. She went on to explain that the practice of sleeping eight hours per night is a relatively recent one. In pre-industrial societies periods of wakefulness in the middle of the night were considered quite normal. Literature from the Victorian period in England, for example, describes how in some communities people would get up in the middle of the night – and even visit their neighbours for tea – before returning home and going back to bed for their `second sleep’. There’s an article in a recent edition of the Irish Times that describes this and cites studies that appear to show that two periods of 3-4 hours each is in some sense more natural than 6-8 hours in one chunk.

So the advice given to me when all else had failed was not to attempt to impose rules on myself but simply not to get stressed if I found I woke up at 3am and couldn’t immediately get back to sleep. Get up if you want to, she said. Relax. Listen to some music. Make a cup of tea. Iron a shirt for the morning. Then go back to bed, but only when you start to feel sleepy again. I’ve done that many many times over the last few years, without feeling anxious about it, although I have to say that nowadays I more often get a solid six to seven hours.

Since I only observe one or two of the list of ten steps to sleep hygiene given above I must be a dirty sleeper, but I much prefer that than being trapped into a cycle of insomnia and anxiety. My advice is sleep the way you can, and don’t worry if it’s not what others think should be the norm.

Come to think of it, that goes for many other things in life.

P.S. If they want us academics to obey rule number 2, why do seminars always go on for an hour?

P. P. S. Anxiety isn’t always the reason for lack of sleep. Sometimes it’s this:

World Mental Health Day

Posted in Maynooth, Mental Health with tags on October 10, 2018 by telescoper

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Today is World Mental Health Day 2018, so I’m going to treat myself to lunch in the splendid surroundings of Pugin Hall and then take a walk around the campus in the autumn sunshine. That is all.

UPDATE: That was nice. It’s actually rather warm today – 20°C – and St Joseph’s Square is looking very bonny.

My Time Out in Astrophysics

Posted in Biographical, Brighton, LGBT, Mental Health with tags , , , , , on July 13, 2018 by telescoper

Last week I did a little talk in Cardiff for LGBT Stem Day, which was similar to another I gave earlier this year at the IOP in London at the launch of the LGBT Physical Sciences Climate Survey. I intended to post a summary of the earlier presentation but somehow never got round to it. Doing the more recent one reminded me that I’d forgotten to write up my notes, so here goes.

What I was trying to do in these talks was to explain why I thought (a) the Climate Survey and (b) LGBT STEM day were so important, from the perspective of someone who has been `out’ for over thirty years while pursuing a career in astrophysics. I thought it might be useful to include some personal reminiscences along the way as in both cases most of the audience members were too young to remember what things were like over thirty years ago.

Although I knew I was gay when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge, I wasn’t very open about it except to my closest friends. I also didn’t do much about it either, apart from developing a number of crushes that were doomed to be unrequited. In my final year I decided that I would try to get a place to do a PhD (or, as it turned out, a DPhil). I applied to a few places around the country, and was very happy to get an offer from Sussex and started my postgraduate studies there in 1985. The reputation of Brighton as being a very `gay’ place to live was definitely part of that decision although it was really the topic of my research project that was the decisive factor.

One of the first things I did during `Freshers Week’ at Sussex was join the GaySoc (as it was called) and I gradually became more involved in it as time went on. Initially, though, I kept that part of my life separate from my academic life and wasn’t really all that open in the Department in which I worked. My decision to change that was largely because of things going on in the outside world that convinced me that there was a need to stand up and be counted.

One of these was the AIDS `panic’ exacerbated by the Thatcher Government’s awful advertising campaign, an example of which you can see above. It was a very frightening time to be gay, not only because of the fear of contracting AIDS oneself  but also because of the hostility that arose as a reaction to the `gay plague’.

Although I wasn’t really sexually active as an undergraduate at Cambridge, I had been while I was at school in Newcastle up until 1982. At this time gay sex was illegal with a person under the age of 21, but I had no difficulty finding partners when I was a teenager. I assumed that, as a result of this period of my life,  I would be found HIV+. When I eventually did have a test in 1986 I was quite shocked to find I was negative, so much so that I had another test to make sure. I was lucky, countless others were not.

The second thing that made me want to come out was the Local Government Act (1988), which included the now infamous Section 28 (above). This was the subject of the first political demonstrations I ever attended, but we failed to stop it becoming law.

Anyway, I just got fed up of hearing people making ill-informed generalisations during this time. Rather than make a big public statement about being gay, I just resolved to not let such comments pass. I think it only took a few intercessions in the tea room or Falmer Bar for it to become widely known in the Department that I was gay. That was how I came out in astrophysics, and thereafter almost everyone just seemed to know.

I have to say that for quite a long time in this period my general presumption was that a majority of heterosexual people were actively hostile to LGBT+ people, and that would always remain the case. There were quite a few gay people in Brighton who felt the same and their reaction was to become separatists. The logic was that straight people were always going to be horrible, so to hell with them. You could drink in gay bars, eat in gay restaurants, live in a gay part of the town, etc, and thereby minimise interaction with the hostile majority. This seemed an attractive lifestyle to me for some time, but I gradually began to feel that if there was ever going to be a chance of things changing for the better, LGBT+ people had to engage and form alliances. That strategy seems to have worked for the wider community, and I applaud the many straight people who have become allies.

It hadn’t been fear that my sexuality would have a negative impact on my academic career that had held me back – I never really thought I was going to have an academic career until near the end of my time as a research student – it was more fear of confrontation with colleagues who would be hostile. That never really happened. Over the past thirty-odd years, the vast majority of people I’ve known through astrophysics have been friendly and welcoming. There have been exceptions of course, but I won’t waste my time on them here.

Now fast forward to 2018. Not only has Section 28 gone (it was repealed first in Scotland in 2000,  and then nin England & Wales in 2003), but since 2003 the Age of Consent is now equal for everyone and more recently we now have Equal Marriage. If you had asked me back in 1985 whether I thought there was any chance of this happening even on a thirty year timescale, I would have laughed at you.

But although many things have changed for the better, the fact remains that LGBT+ people still face widespread hostility and violence. Bullying is rife in schools, many people are still afraid to come out in their workplace, and in many situations there is still a threat of violence. I know what impact the latter can have, as I have experienced it myself and is has caused me mental health problems throughout my life. In fact, I have found it much harder to be open about my mental health problems than I ever did about being gay!

There are increasing signs of a backlash against LGBT+ people, most obviously in Trump’s America. The rights we have won over the years could so easily be taken away and my fear is that if we are complacent and pretend that everything is fixed because we have equal marriage then we will soon see those rights being eroded. We have to remain active and visible, and keep pushing against all forms of discrimination, harassment and bullying wherever it happens. And the first step in doing that is to raise awareness among everyone that it is still a problem.

Now to some specific points about working in STEM.

First, my own experiences caused me not to perceive science being a difficult environment to be gay, but I am aware that many people have quite different perceptions, often with good reasons. One thing that feeds negative perceptions is simply the lack of positive statements. I remember, over a decade ago, being asked by representative of a major STEM organisation if I could think of anything they could do to make them appear more inclusive to LGBT+ people. I looked at the `equal opportunities’ bit on their website and found that it mentioned gender, race, disability, etc but entirely omitted sexual orientation. What message does that send to an LGBT+ person? The omission was not deliberate, but the perception might well be otherwise. Many institutions display posters about LGBT+ matters, and some staff (either LGBT+ or `allies’) wear rainbow lanyards to carry their ID cards. But what if you’re a student who sees these everywhere else other than your own department? Has nobody bothered to put posters up, or has some arsehole torn them all down?

Another important issue is visibility. Students and early career researchers may be deterred from continuing a career in STEM simply because they don’t see other LGBT+ people doing likewise. I know of at least one student who was on the verge of dropping out of a physics degree because `there are no gay people in physics’. Fortunately he said that to a member of staff who knew he was wrong, as her office was next door to mine, but this does illustrate another problem of perception in STEM fields. In Arts and Humanities subjects it’s much easier to be visible as LGBT+ through your work. You even research matters related to gender or sexuality in literature, for example. It’s rather harder when you do theoretical astrophysics. But what’s wrong with having a rainbow icon on your powerpoint?

When giving my talk at the IOP I got into a discussion about `role models’. I am horrified at the thought that anyone would think of me as a `role model’. I don’t like using that term because it seems to me to imply some sort of ideal to which others should aspire, which seems to me rather arrogant. What I do think is important is for as imany LGBT+ people as possible to say `I’m LGBT+ and I’m in STEM: if I can do it and be like me, warts and all, then you can do it and be like you!’

A comment that I’ve heard about LGBT+ people in STEM goes along the lines of `We don’t need all this political stuff in science. You should just concentrate on your research’. Another version I heard from a senior scientist recently was effectively `I’m not prejudiced at all. I don’t care about your sexuality. I’m only interested in your research!’. I think this kind of stance is not uncommon, actually, but I couldn’t disagree more with it.

Science is, above all, a human activity. It’s not done by robots or calculating machines. It’s done by people. And I don’t think you will get the best science out of your research time unless you create a working environment in which everyone feels comfortable and happy being themselves. Just a few small gestures can go a long way towards creating a department or research group that’s genuinely inclusive for all the people in it.

Of course some STEM subjects have other diversity and inclusivity issues to address. For example, there is a persistent gender imbalance in UK Physics that has resisted many initiatives to encourage more women to enter the field. I’m not arguing that LGBT+ matters more than this or indeed more than race or disability or anything else. It is, however, my firm belief that taking measures to make workplace as inclusive as possible actually benefits everyone  in it. That’s partly because it’s the way to build the best team, and partly the way to get the best out of the team once you have assembled it, but it’s also a good thing to do for its own sake.

Another comment I got on Twitter a few weeks ago `When is it Straight STEM Day?’ Well, perhaps when 69% of heterosexual people feel uncomfortable in the workplace because of their sexuality, or when students are bullied at school for being straight, then perhaps there’ll be a need for it. In the meantime, you just need to recognise that despite the undeniable progress there has been over the past decades, there still isn’t anything like full symmetry between straight and gay.

Finally, and I think this brings me more-or-less back to where I started, events like the LGBT+ STEM Day and initiatives like the LGBT+ Climate Survey are vital because they acknowledge that we’re involved in a  process, not a fixed state and we have to recognise that this process could easily be pushed into reverse. All that’s needed for that to happen is for people to assume that everything is fine now and close their eyes to the overwhelming evidence that it really isn’t.

POSTSCRIPT: A thought that occurred to me while I was writing this relates to inclusivity within the LGBT+ community itself. When I arrived at Sussex in 1985, I joined `GaySoc’. A few years later that became `Lesbian & Gay Soc’. It took a lot longer for Bisexuals to be acknowledged, and even longer for Trans people. Only last week the annual Gay Pride March in London was disrupted by anti-transgender campaigners. Some of us still have a lot to learn about what it means to be inclusive.

 

Peripheral Visions

Posted in Biographical, Mental Health with tags , , on May 29, 2018 by telescoper

A few days ago I came across the following video, and I thought I’d share it here for two reasons. The first reason is that you might find it surprising, possibly amusing and possibly also bit scary. Keep your eye on the cross in the centre of the screen and observe what happens to the faces either side:

Most people who I’ve shown this to report peculiar distortions of the (familiar) faces either side. This phenomenon is clearly related to the limitations of peripheral vision.

The second reason for posting this is much more personal and relates to my struggles over the years with a form of panic disorder (which I’ve blogged about before, e.g.,  here). The term `panic disorder’ has a very broad definition, so that different individuals experience different forms of panic attacks and they can also take very different forms for the same individual. For me, a “typical” panic episode begins with a  generalised feeling of apprehension or dread. Sometimes that’s as far as it goes. However, more often, there follows a period of increasingly heightened awareness of things moving  in my peripheral vision that I can’t keep track of,  accompanied by auditory and visual hallucinations.  I’ve tried to explain the latter in conversations with friends and colleagues and usually when I do so I describe how the faces of people around me become distorted in a grotesque and terrifying way. When that happens I usually run as fast as I can in whatever direction I can to get away.

On top of the effect of these attacks themselves, there is also the frustration, when they are over, of not really understanding what had happened. What is happening in my brain when a panic episode begins? What is going on with my peripheral vision when it goes awry like it does? Why do some particular places  or circumstances trigger an attack but other, apparently similar, ones don’t?

When I first saw the above video it struck me immediately that it might contain a big clue about these episodes, as the facial distortions that appear there are very similar to what I experience.  Perhaps what goes wrong is that peripheral vision takes over from central vision, i.e. a kind of opposite of tunnel vision,  as a result of some malfunction in the way my brain deals with peripheral data.

Most of the time we just discard data from outside our line-of-sight unless it’s something extremely dramatic and disturbing (whether good or bad); presumably we can’t process everything across our entire field of view so we usually filter out observations coming from the edges. What seems to happen with me is that something interferes with this filtering process so that almost everything gets flagged with a danger signal. My response to these is to look about manically trying to establish whether the threat is real before, usually, just getting out of there as quickly as I can when it becomes overwhelming.

Obviously, this isn’t a complete  answer to any of the many questions I’ve asked myself about this but somehow seeing the effect in the video makes me feel more comfortable with what happens because at least I can see that others can experience a similar phenomenon, even if in very different circumstances.

P.S.  I should say that although about two years ago I quit the medication I was taking to control them, I haven’t had any of these psychotic episodes since then. Reducing stress by leaving my job at Sussex was almost certainly a contributing factor.

 

 

 

 

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week Again

Posted in Mental Health with tags , , on May 14, 2018 by telescoper

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This year the focus is on stress. Research has shown that two thirds of us experience a mental health problem in our lifetimes, and stress is a key factor in this. By tackling stress, we can go a long way to tackle mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, and, in some instances, self-harm and suicide.

For further information about how we can tackle stress and help improve our mental health see the Mental Health Awareness Week website.