Archive for Mental Health

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.

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Farewell to Whitchurch..

Posted in Biographical, Mental Health with tags , , on May 4, 2016 by telescoper

One of the things that happened over the Bank Holiday Weekend was the closure of Whitchurch Hospital on April 30th 2016. I read about this here, from which source I also took the photograph below:

Whitchurch-Hospital-2

Whitchurch Hospital was built in 1908 and was originally known as Cardiff City Asylum. After over a hundred years of providing care for the mentally ill – including soldiers treated for shell shock in two world wars – the remaining patients have now been transferred to a brand new psychiatric care unit at Llandough.

It was strange reading about the closure of Whitchurch Hospital. Having spent more time myself there than I wish I had, including an extended period an acute ward, I never thought I would feel nostalgic about the place. Quite apart from the fact that it looked like something out of a Gothic novel, it was in dire need of refurbishment and modernisation. Looking back, however, I have the greatest admiration for the staff who worked there and deep gratitude for the patience and kindness they showed me while I was there.

The first extended period I spent in a psychiatric institution, back in the 1980s, was in Hellingly Hospital in Sussex. That place also had something of the Hammer House of Horror about it. I was completely terrified from the moment I arrived there to the moment I was discharged and don’t feel any nostalgia for it at all.  When I recently looked at what it is like now – derelict and decaying – it gave me more than a shudder.

 

Mental Health at Work – to Declare or not to Declare?

Posted in Biographical, Mental Health with tags , on April 19, 2015 by telescoper

I couldn’t resist a comment on a recent article in the Times Higher  (written in response to an earlier piece expressing an opposite view). The question addressed by these articles is whether a member of University staff should be open about mental health issues or not. The latest comes down firmly on “no” side. Although I understand the argument, I disagree very strongly with this conclusion.

In fact I’ve taken this a bit further than just disclosing my problems to my employer; I’ve even blogged about them, both here and elsewhere. I also stood up in the University of Sussex Senate about two years ago and spoke about them there. That latter episode was in response to the attempts by some members of Senate to play down the extent of the violence and intimidation associated with a protest on campus that erupted into a full-scale riot on March 2013, accompanied by theft, vandalism and arson. Since violence is the root cause of my longstanding troubles I was incensed by the casual attitude some academics displayed about something that should never be tolerated. I don’t know whether my intervention had any effect on the discussion but I felt I had to make my point. It still troubles me, in fact, that the culprits have still not been brought to justice, and that some of them undoubtedly remain at large on campus even today.

Anyway, two full years have passed since then and I have received nothing but supportive comments from colleagues both in the School and among senior managers in the University.

When I applied for my current job at Sussex, it was just after I’d recovered from a serious breakdown. When I was offered the position, paperwork arrived that included a form on which to declare any health issues (including mental health). I have moved around several times in my career and have never made a declaration on such a form before, but this time I felt that I should especially because I was still taking medication then. I did wonder whether I might be declared unfit to take up a job that promised to have a fair share of stress associated with it. In the end, though, what happened was that I was put in touch with the Occupational Health department who offered their services if there was anything they could do to help. All these discussions were confidential.

I think it is very important that staff do declare problems with depression or other mental health issues. That’s the only way to be sure of getting the support you need. It’s also important for your colleagues to be able to put arrangements in place if you need to take some time off. On top of all that, employers need to learn how widespread such problems can be so they can try to deal with any factors that might exacerbate existing conditions, such as work-related stress.

Going back to the article in the Times Higher, though. I should say that I can understand the author’s reluctance. It took me twenty-five years so I am hardly in a position to criticise anyone! I was particularly struck by this section:

To disguise my illness, I try my best to be the very opposite of what depressed people are. I become the funniest, the smiliest and the most supportive colleague at work. At times, the performance succeeds and I feel a fleeting sense of being invincible. However, this feeling quickly dissipates and I am left feeling utterly alone, dark and lost. A colleague once said to me that she thought I was the most positive person she had ever met and that everyone enjoyed working with me. I couldn’t say anything to her in that moment. But if I was to speak my truth, it would have been to tell her that I was probably the darkest and saddest of her colleagues. That darkness frightens the hell out of me – so I keep it to myself.

That will ring very true to anyone who is living with mental illness; it becomes part of who you are, and it does mean that you find somethings very difficult or impossible that other people take for granted, no matter how effective your medication is. Putting on a brave face is just one way to avoid dealing with it, but it’s just a form of denial. Another common avoidance strategy is to make up fake excuses for absence from events that fill you with dread. I’ve done that a number of times over the years and although it provides short-term relief, it leaves you with a sense of shame at your own dishonesty that is damaging in the long run to your sense of self-worth and will only serve to give you a reputation for unreliability. The darkness can indeed be frightening but it does not follow that you should keep it to yourself. You should share it – not necessarily with friends and colleagues, who may not know how to help – but with compassionate and highly trained professional counsellors who really can help. It will also help your institution provide more and better assistance.

This is not to say that there isn’t a downside to being open about mental health issues. Now that my own genie is not only out of the bottle but all over the internet I do wonder what the future holds in store for my career beyond my current position. Then again I’m not at all sure what I want to happen. Only time will tell.

Reasons to be committed: mental illness in the 19th century

Posted in History, Mental Health with tags , , on April 11, 2015 by telescoper

I came across this on Twitter yesterday as I travelled back to Brighton from the RAS Club. It’s an official record of the reasons stated for patients being admitted to the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum located in Weston, West Virginia in the USA. Formerly known as the Weston State Hospital, this facility was constructed between 1858 and 1881. The first phase of the original hospital, designed to house 250 people, was opened to patients in 1864 but its population expanded to a peak in the 1950s with about 2400 patients in overcrowded and generally poor conditions. It was closed as a hospital in 1994 but remains open as a kind of museum. Like most such institutions it was founded with good intentions and was designed with long rambling wings arranged in a staggered formation, assuring that the patients received an abundance of sunlight and fresh air. Just as was the case with similar institutions in the United Kingdom, however, the lack of effective treatment for the mentally ill led to it becoming more a place of incarceration than therapy and no doubt many troublesome individuals were committed there simply to keep them out of the way.

Anyway, here is the list:

Lunatic Asylum

When I first saw this I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The mind boggles, for example, at a diagnosis of “masturbation and tobacco”, or was that the treatment? Among the baffling entries, however, you can see a clear thread of misogyny and considerable evidence of the traumatising effect of the American Civil War, not only on combatants but also on grief-stricken relatives of the fallen. It was on April 9th 1865, almost exactly 150 years ago, that Robert E. Lee surrendered the 28,000 troops of the Confederate Army to Ulysses S. Grant, thereby ending the American Civil War so it is not surprising so many entries refer to “The War”.

Psychiatric hospitals are no longer called “lunatic asylums”, and the approach to the mentally ill is no longer simply to lock them away out of sight, but despite the progress that has been made they remain far from happy places even if you’re only there voluntarily and for a short time. You can take my word for that.

Nature or Degree

Posted in Mental Health with tags , on March 28, 2015 by telescoper

A thoughtful post to follow on from yesterday’s reaction to the GermanWings tragedy…

Mental Health Cop

It was the timing and tone of yesterday’s newspaper headlines that crossed the line for me: not any of discussion about mental health and airline safety. Of course, occupational health and fitness standards for pilots should be rigorous and we heard yesterday about annual testing, psychological testing, etc., etc.. By now, it may be easy to forget that when papers went to press on Thursday night, we still knew comparatively little about the pilot of the doomed flight. We certainly did not know that he appears to have ripped up sick notes that were relevant to the day of the crash or what kind of condition they related to – we still don’t, as the German police have not confirmed it. Whilst we did have suggestion that he had experience of depression and ‘burnout’ – whatever that means – we don’t know the nature or degree of this, do we?

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Respect to Jonathan Trott

Posted in Cricket, Mental Health with tags , , , on November 25, 2013 by telescoper

News broke this morning that Jonathan Trott who batted at No. 3 for England has left the Ashes tour because of a “long-standing stress related condition”.

Jonathan Trott in happier days

Jonathan Trott in happier days

Jonathan Trott isn’t the first England cricketer to have been forced out of the game in such a fashion – Marcus Trescothick and Michael Yardy are two others who have found themselves unable to cope with the pressures of the modern game; neither Trescothick nor Yardy played for England again and this may indeed be the end of Trott’s career. I hope it isn’t because he’s an immensely talented player but that’s his decision to make. I think he’s right to leave if he feels he can’t give 100% to his team. He will almost certainly be feeling that he’s let his side down, but he hasn’t. Had he been forced to withdraw because of a bad back or a hamstring problem nobody would have said such things; a mental health problem is no different.

I think his decision shows considerable personal courage. It’s not easy to admit that you can’t cope. Whether or not it was triggered by David Warner’s unpleasant comments makes no difference to me. I know which of these two I respect more. I hope he gets all the help he needs to get over his problems, and that he makes a full and speedy recovery unhindered by press intrusion.

In any case, as Mike Selvey put it in today’s Guardian

… when all is said and done, it is just a game. There are more important things in life.

Quite so.

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.