Monthly Archives: July 2014

Mental Health and Academia

I’ve been threatening to write this post for sometime, and, as I sit here with a ball of anxiety in my gut because I’ve not worked on anything relating to my thesis for a full 7 days, tonight seems as good a day as any.

Let me start with a disclaimer; I am currently working towards a PhD.  This has been my dream since I was an undergraduate, or, to measure it in time, it has been my dream for just over a decade. I’m incredibly lucky that I was successful in both my application to study my desired topic, and won a three year scholarship to do so.  Money is tight but it is, importantly, sufficient to live on. Nonetheless, PhD study is a demanding, challenging, and at times exhausting way to spend a few years.

There’s been quite a lot of discussion around the issue of the pressure on mental health which PhD study, and academic culture, place on individuals as a result of this great article in the Guardian; There is a culture of acceptance around mental health issues in academia.  Recently, in my school, an event was scheduled for PhD students and faculty to discuss these issues and speak frankly about how the commodification of higher education was intensifying pressure on PhDs to produce published articles and other ‘impact’-ful research output.  It was something of a damp squib; faculty were horrified to learn PhD students lost sleep over not getting enough published, not presenting at enough conferences, not ticking all the boxes needed to make themselves employable. Simultaneously, however, they spoke about their own acceptance of a culture where you work 16 hour+ days, reply to emails on weekends, between 7pm and 6am, and during holidays.  They couldn’t see the connection between an absolute acceptance of a culture where you are never off-the-clock and the intense pressure we PhDs feel to complete, teach, publish, earn, all at a break neck pace.

I have a complex relationship with the never-off-duty nature of academia.  On the one hand, being able to work in the wee small hours, set my own schedule, and send emails which get date stamped at 3 and 4am, knowing I won’t be thought of as ‘strange’ or even ‘excessive’ is helpful.  There is also an enormous benefit that when a low hits and I simply can’t work, I can take that time off and catch up (however hard that is to do) later.  Back in the days I worked a 9-5 in an office, and even when I worked shifts in retail, there is no flexibility whatsoever to go off grid, collapse into bed, sleep for 16 hours, have no social skills, and shake uncontrollably in the face of the smallest amount of stress.  In this respect, academia is the perfect work environment for me.

In other ways, academia is a really, really difficult place to be when you’re cognitively ‘uncommon’.

“Inspired is when you think you can do anything. Manic is when you know it” – Takin’ Over the Asylum (1994)

Because PhD study is 99% self directed and also involves organising events, how much you have to do at any one time is dictated, largely, by what you volunteer for.  When I’m hypomanic I not only want to offer up my services to plan and run any number of events, I also believe I have more than enough time to do it alongside my research.  Hypomania can, of course, inspire.  More often than not though, when I write when at my most manic, it tends to be repetitive drivel rather than incisive analysis.  I don’t feel too bad about that though – some words on a page are better than none.

Almost counter-intuitively though, despite all the  discussion that’s happening about mental ill health in academia, I find it one of the hardest places to talk about my own, intermittent, difficulties.  Because even in acknowledgement of the mental ill-health that can be brought on by the pressure of academia, there’s still a framework of acceptable illness; depression, anxiety – these are things we can talk about. These are things we can help one another with by talking about, acknowledging, and working to alleviate the pressures which intensify them through mutual support.  However, hypomania doesn’t look like a problem to those who don’t know you well, and depressive periods which you will continue to experience periodically no matter what happens in your life, seem like things both too big to ask for support with, and too fleeting for people to take seriously. Most people are happy to support a friend or colleague for a short period, but patience, and above all, energy, are finite resources for all of us.  More than that – over committing yourself while hypomanic means letting people down when you come down – and who can blame colleagues and peers for getting frustrated at that?

Everyone is fighting their own battle with workload and stress  – academia leaves no space for anyone to pick up the slack from someone who is struggling.  That’s the fundamental issue; whilst everyone is under such huge pressure and falling onto the wrong side of the healthy/ill line, there will never be the space for a more holistic, community supportive model which will enable those with longer term, non-situational mental (ill) health issues to participate fully in academic work and study.  And for those people like me, who are managing a long term mental health issue, always running at the limits of my stress tolerance leaves nothing left to tackle the rest of life, with it’s ups and downs, or – and this is the thing I often regret most – to offer to friends suffering similarly from stress, anxiety, and depression.

Academia is a treadmill.  The pressure that comes from that unending cycle of league tables, publishing, conferences, 50 hour+ working weeks, and fixed-term-contract job applications is huge.  Looking to my future, I am not sure how far I am willing to sacrifice my mental wellbeing for the career, and pursuit of knowledge which has motivated me up to now. That’s not right. Academia should not only be the preserve of those with enormous reserves of mental wellbeing.

Academics are frequently busy writing about the structural inequalities of society, and how they must be dismantled.  There is considerable irony that they don’t turn their attention to the fundamentally ableist structures of their own profession which not only exclude or push to breaking point those with pre-existing mental health issues, but actively causes people in the field to become unwell.  My ability to resist these pressures – the pressure to give everything I have and then the rest – is pretty low, and yet that is the only way things will change – if people in academia stand up and say ‘no! Enough is enough, we will not submit to this institution’s demands that we break ourselves on the wheel. We will slow down, we will ask the same from others, we will grant one another breathing space.’  The difficulty comes in being the first person to say this, the first person to do this.  Because whilst the first person makes a stand, refuses to be broken, everyone else, exhausted though they are, will still be rushing ahead to the next publication, the next promotion, the next funding award.  And therein lies the catch.

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Selfies and vlogs

Update: Leaving this post here as a general reflection on vlogs and blog posts and mental health information generally.  However, Mind have got in contact about the issues I raised here and this is their response;

Hello, thanks for letting us have your feedback on this, it really helps us to keep the site as useful as possible for everyone who needs it. We’ve had a bit of this conversation on Twitter but we know it’s come up a few times so worth reiterating here!

We definitely haven’t replaced blogs with vlogs, our blogs are some of our most popular content and we’re desperate to get them back on the new site! The issue is money, unfortunately, we’ve moved a huge amount of content across from the old site to the new one so far but there’s still more to go, including older blogs and news articles. Our developers estimate this will take a full week of development time, which I’m sure you’ll appreciate is enormous! We’re seriously looking at other, quicker, cheaper ways to do this so we can get them back as soon as possible. It’s high on the list as we know how frustrating it is for people who have written or found a particular blog useful in the past and are no longer able to access it. We’ll keep you posted via social media as soon as we get the content back.

As for site search issues, we’re also working on this, largely to prioritise information articles as there’s a bit of a bug with this at the moment, but also, as you say, to improve tagging. By identifying cyclothymia here you’ve really helped, it’s actually fairly simple to add this as an SEO term within an article, we’ve done this today for you and others who have undoubtedly been looking: http://www.mind.org.uk/search-results/?q=cyclothymia Do let us know if there are any more like this which we haven’t captured so far, we’re keen to make sure everybody can find what they need on our site as easily as possible.

Thanks also for your comments on vlogs and mental health selfies. These are a separate project run by the info team and have been particularly helpful in allowing us to engage with young people, but they are in no way designed to overshadow our use of blogs – we’re big fans of shared written experience and blogs are certainly not going anywhere for us!

Take care, Mind’s digital team.

 

For some time now, I’ve had a draft post on here waiting to be finished on my feelings about Mind’s website restructure which saw them delete all their text blogs by people like me, and begin to replace them with ‘Mental Health Selfies‘.

The argument against these short videos (or vlogs) I was beginning to put together runs something like this; my browsing habits simply aren’t compatible with watching videos – I browse whilst watching tv, listening to music, eating lunch in a public cafe, travelling on a bus, or otherwise surrounded by people who don’t want to hear what it is I’m looking at. Vlogs don’t allow for easy and simple repeats of sections (whereas you can easily reread a sentence or paragraph), they can’t be watched on the bus or in the cafe unless you have generous data allowances on your phone or access to wifi, they also require you to plug in headphones so you don’t disrupt those people around you – or unwittingly announce to everyone within earshot your browsing habits and with it, perhaps, a hint of your mental health status.

Moreover, I read very quickly – much quicker than most people speak. Text based information allows me to scan through for the key points, or re-read sections if their meaning was unclear on the first pass.  There are other advantages to text based resources; they allow you to copy and paste words from one tab into a search in another.  This is particularly relevant to mental health information given the unusual and unfamiliar spellings that characterise the names and treatments of many conditions. How many people can spell cyclothymia correctly after hearing it spoken for the first time? Or some of the drugs used such as amitriptyline, quetiapine, or mirtazipine? What about even more commonly used words in relations to mental health – psychosis, dysthymia….the list goes on and on.

Finally, and for me this is perhaps the most important aspect to my disinclination to replacing written blogs with vlogs.  Vlogs can contain a lot of information – visual, audio, changing lighting, indistinct details that draw the eye and distract the mind. When I am feeling overloaded with information, with life, I can settle down with a text source and bring my focus back to one thing, perhaps even providing the information I need to navigate through that sense of ‘overload’ later. Thinking about accessibility more generally – and I must confess I haven’t gone in to great detail investigating what modifications are available on the Mind site – I have a couple of friends with Aspergers for whom vlogs over written information would represent sensory overload in an already overwhelming world.  I also have a couple of Deaf friends whose experience of vlogs is either of complete disengagement – because they are not captioned/subtitled, or poorly subtitled – or huge frustration.  Speakers of English as a second or other language can also face challenges parsing fast paced verbal information versus text which can be crosschecked with dictionaries, or navigated slowly.

However, and as you probably guessed reading my conditional introduction, last week I watched a vlog that changed my mind.  I follow Jonny Benjamin on twitter, having first encountered him through his powerful ‘Find Mikecampaign (if you haven’t heard of that, I really recommend clicking through on those links and reading up).  During the low swing which I wrote about in my last post, Jonny happened to tweet a link to this video, entitled ‘You are not your thoughts‘.

The content of that video was extremely affecting and I recommend you watch it if you haven’t already. I found myself in floods of grateful, pained tears by the end of the 7 and a bit minutes.   What that video did was allow me to look at a face that was mirroring my own. In the quiver in his voice, the face-on camera angle which makes every word feel like it is addressed to you personally, and the clear visual ‘stripping away’ of negative thoughts to a new way of understanding them, the video actually achieves an immediacy which can, as it did for me, penetrate the numbing and disconnected feelings that comes with depressive periods.  In a way which words on a page could not, this video made me believe Jonny’s key message; you are not your thoughts.  That is a valuable and important achievement, vlogs then, certainly can have their place in mental health information sites.

Returning to the Mind site by way of conclusion it must be noted that cyclothymia is under-represented and under-explained on the site (I searched for ‘cyclothymia’ on the site today and this was the result).  As well as still having people contact me on twitter more than a year after my piece for Mind was published, I also saw the charity tweet a link to my blog as one of only two resources on their site in response to a twitter query for information on cyclothymia.  About half of all the hits on this blog come via google searches.  There was and is a clear demand for straightforward written information and rather than increasing content, Mind have dramatically reduced it by erasing existing blogs in favour of these ‘selfies’.

The obvious solution, perhaps, would be for me to make a ‘mental health selfie’ but I won’t be doing this.  Partly because I can’t bear to see myself on film, partly because to make any useful or coherent comments I would have to script my ‘selfie’, and partly because a video of me talking about my mental health experiences would strip away a necessary – but small – piece of anonymity I need to maintain for the time being as a result of my professional and my family situation.  I fear many more people are losing out on finding support and information as a result of the restructure, than are gaining from the type of emotional immediacy I experienced via Jonny Benjamin’s video.

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