The academic life and mental illness

The academic life for staff and students defies common perceptions and is one of the most stressful jobs around. It contains many triggers for depression and anxiety.

My mother thought that being an academic was one of the cushiest jobs she could imagine – a couple of lectures a week and holidays for six months of the year. She thought students had it even easier having to go to those few lectures, take an exam or two a year, and spend the rest of the time travelling the world. She also thought they were out partying every night, finishing drinking at 3 a.m. and then trashing the town. I suspect she was not alone in her prejudices. How wrong these common perceptions are. I think being an academic, and being a student, is one of the worst careers for aggravating, even causing, mental illness. The job has the following triggers.

  1. The work is open ended. How I used to envy people with 9-5 jobs. Academics and students are never finished because there is always just one more job to do, whether it’s another paper to read or write or a textbook to go through again. When I was Dean it amused me that HR had a workload model for academics of 40 hours a week. I don’t know anyone who worked less than 50, and many did much more. What is there to stop us? We don’t leave the building and down keypads just because the clock moves on to 5, or because it’s the weekend. And if you should finish one job, there’s always another to do. There’s nothing to stop us doing more. Few things are more stressful than knowing you have an uncompleted task to do, and that you could be doing it, and that you have the time to dot it.
  2. What is work anyway? The same analysis is true of holidays as is true of the working week. I know of several academics who have booked annual leave in order to carry out research. When I go on “holiday” I read psychology articles and books, as do most people I know. When I was a student I would spend the vacation working in a factory in order to earn money as well as studying while travelling and in the evenings and weekends. Those maths worksheets seemed never ending. Christmas will find us reading and writing. For us there’s no such thing as a proper holiday.
  3. The work contains contradictory elements. We’re expected to carry out world-leading research as well as teach to the highest standard, and you get evaluated on both. I know there is some carryover between teaching and research, but time you spend teaching is time you can’t spend doing research, and vice versa. Contradiction is stressful.
  4. Giving a lecture or presentation or tutorial is stressful. Fear of public talking is one of the most common fears, being strong enough to count as a phobia for many people. Yet we have to do it all the time. Training is often inadequate. Some students find they’re not really prepared and although they might be taught how to organise their material and how to use Powerpoint I don’t know of anywhere that teaches them about the fear of speaking and how to overcome it. I’ve known of several students being physically sick before having to give a seminar. Speaking feeds fears.
  5. Deadlines. The life of the teacher and student are very similar in they they’re both full of deadlines. You have to give that lecture tomorrow or hand in that essay by 4 p.m. You can’t decide you’re going to take the day off instead. You need to be really, really sick before you call in. Deadlines are often too close together or even on the same day. Deadlines are exceptionally stressful.
  6. You have to organise your own time. One day you think you’re settling down to finish writing your 4 p.m. lecture, or finish your essay, when something happens. Your manager or supervisor wants to see you urgently (and it’s nearly always urgently). Your car won’t start. Your child or dog is unwell. There are suddenly 15 new pressing emails. Someone wants to see you and just won’t stop talking about their problem. And worse than deadlines are jobs with no deadlines because unless you’re very careful they never get done. You live from one deadline to another, one essay or lab report handed in to the next. So just when do you do that background reading, or write that important paper that could help you get promoted? When there’s no deadline and you’re tired and fed up it’s easy just to stop. And many deadlines aren’t real, anyway: do a a journal review by the end of the month? Sure, I’ll agree tot hat. Get to the 31st, and no problem, because everyone knows that if you send the review on the 1st it won’t matter, and what’s the difference between the 2nd and the 1st? When I was Dean I was always giving deadlines for jobs that I needed to follow up on, and less than half the staff would do the job before my deadline. What was I to do? Fire someone for being two days late with a document? In any case they were probably just busy with the last thing I asked them to do. The problem is that delays cascade. No-deadlines are often worse than deadlines.
  7. There is far much more rejection than praise. Journal acceptance rates are very low and grant rejection rates are very high. I’ve known people to send off an excellent grant proposal ten times before it gets accepted, and much outstanding research never gets funded. How demoralising it that? Feedback for students is mainly a long list of things you’ve done wrong. Of course that’s good in a way because you want to learn and improve, but persistent negative feedback gets to you. After a while people develop learned helplessness. Continual negative feedback is stressful and causes depression.
  8. It’s an exceptionally competitive environment for staff and students. Not everyone can get promoted every year. Not everyone can get a grant. The top journal can’t publish everything. Not every student can get an A every time. Perpetual competition is stressful.
  9. Some people are stars (but you’re not). But if you don’t succeed you sure will be aware of someone who has. You have to congratulate them through gritted teeth. Although you are struggling just to manage, you will know at least one person who seems to sail though. In every field or every department or ever class there is at least one Einstein. We admire them, we have to praise them, but really they just make us feel worse. Comparison makes us feel sick.
  10. EMAIL is evil. When I was Dean for every email I had to send I would get at least three back. It would be easy to spend all day doing nothing other than email. I am not alone: everyone I know is dreaming in a sea of email. And then there’s social media which some find compulsive. Often when lecturing you suspect every student is checking their messages or Facebook status. How demoralising is that? How do we cope when we’re striving in a sea of email that gets deeper every day? Smash up every computer or phone you see.

These triggers are more numerous than in many jobs. You might say other careers are bad too, but often they are better paid, and students aren’t paid at all – in fact they have to pay to have all this fun. And staff and students are often the sort of people who are least able to cope, having been brought up learning to expect to succeed.

I have no solutions. If you decide you’re going to take a real holiday for a month, you know that the departmental Einstein won’t, and they’ll have a stronger case for promotion than you at the end of the year. Off sick for a week and dare not to do that marking? When you come back that marking will still be there, but with another pile to join it, now with the same deadline. Oh, and whatever you do there will be two hundred emails in your inbox.

One thing we can do is face our weakness and admit we’re struggling, that we’re feeling anxious, that our agoraphobia has been triggered and we’re scared to go out, that we’re too depressed to talk, that our OCD has come back and is making us check every mark ten times (actually for me it has to be a multiple of three). To return to where I started, my mother thought mental illness, unlike physical illness, was a weakness. She was very, very wrong. Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, and talking about it is better than getting so bad that all you can think about is suicide.

 

Is this all there is?

The holidays are over; normal life is resumed. We are heading towards Blue Monday, the third Monday in January, the alleged day of the year on which most people tend to be most miserable, and for which there is no scientific evidence at all. (I’m happy to be proved wrong.) Nevertheless there is a sense that people are ground down by the lack of sunlight at this time of year, the absence of anything to look forwards to after Christmas, with work or school to resume as normal, and perhaps left to reflect on having spent money over Christmas that they didn’t really have on things they didn’t really want. What can cheer us up?

I enjoy Christmas, but as I said in my previous post I don’t make too big a thing of it, or overdo things. Even so I am left feeling both a bit empty apart and full of dread. The rest of the year stretches ahead. Maybe I’ll go away a few times. I might enjoy a few days in the sun in summer. I might finish writing a book or two. But soon the days will start shortening again, and then it will be my birthday. Another year since the last one. And not long after that it will be Christmas again. A year nearer old age, a year nearer infirmity, a year closer to death. And so the cycle repeats.

People tell me that this is a negative, depressive way of looking at things, to which I say: this is exactly what it means to be depressed! “Normal” people often appear to think that a person who says they’re depressed won’t have any symptoms.

I realise too that I am luckier than most: I’m in relatively good health, I achieve some fulfilment in my work, and I’m not struggling to eke out a tough existence doing a biring repetitive job (which is one of the things I dread most in the world). That knowledge doesn’t help. I feel lonely and I feel alone, an alien on the sidelines watching everyone else enjoying life and finding meaning in mundane things, helping giving their children a good life, or comfort in their God.

I can’t even imagine what meaning there could be to make up for the grind of everyday life. THIS is all there is.

An interesting seeming paradox then is my Kurzweilian obsession with life extension. I don’t think there is in fact a paradox: who wants to go to a football match if you know it’s going to be abandoned because of a water-logged pitch after ten minutes? Part of my ennui is because it hardly seems worth starting anything if I’m going to be dead in forty years. (Again, please don’t tell me this is crazy messed up thinking.) I’ve got to rush to finish writing my book on consciousness and the next one on weather and psychology because bits will start falling off me in a few years. So yes please, sign me up for freezing my head, having my blood vessels cleaned by nanobots, neural implants, and uploading my intellect to cyberspace. To paraphrase Woody Allen, I don’t want to become immortal just through my work, I want to become immortal through not dying. Life extension would give my life real meaning.

Scientific progress in the quest for eternal life is one of the few things that stops me from killing myself at this time of year.

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas comes but once a year – thank God

I am no grinch who wants to steal your Christmas. In fact I love many aspects of it; I love the lights, the colours, a nicely decorated tree, an opportunity to drink champagne before lunch, and thinking about the turning of the seasons as the winter solstice at last arrives. But I don’t feel the joy of anticipation and the frenzy that many people, perhaps most people, apparently feel. It is one of many events, like parties and family gatherings, where I feel like an alien.

Why do people get so worked up about Christmas? Maybe I’m very lucky in having such a good life that I don’t need special days; maybe it’s because I don’t have children; maybe because I’m not so conditioned by the insane advertising that tries to force us to think the event is the most important thing ever. Or maybe it is because I’m an insane alien. Sure, it’s nice, but the reaction of nearly everyone else seems so over the top  to me, particularly given that most ignore the religious aspect. (Indeed usually the more religious people are, the more restrained they are about the commercial aspects.)

It is seen as opportunity for many to “let their hair down”, and have fun, a good “blow out” for a day or two. But why just one day? Why can’t our lives be full of meaning and pleasure all year round? Why can’t it be Christmas every day?

I know of several people of whom it is said “they live for their holidays”, among which I am including Christmas. I find that sad: the remainder of their lives is so unpleasant and has so little meaning that they’d rather they didn’t happen, but instead would pass as quickly as possible until the next special day. At this time of year it is almost impossible to get into Marks and Spencer’s food hall, and that’s assuming that you can park within ten miles to get in; what are you doing the rest of the year, shoppers? Where are you? What do you do the rest of the time? And why are you such bad drivers? I am supposed to be antisocial and depressed, yet I think your situation is the sad one. One day of joy and gluttony, three hundred and sixty four of misery. At least in good years I can manage five days of joy and only three hundred and sixty of misery. (Bugger leap years.)

Is it really that “work” you have to do really so unpleasant? It is clear that many people have really unpleasant jobs. It’s manual labour and repetitive, boring jobs that would get to me. Being an academic was good; working on a checkout sounds dreadful to me. Most jobs are in between. Yet the people who do them don’t seem that unhappy; they have friends, they chat, the time appears to fly by for them, although I would hate it. I am left confused. It doesn’t make much sense to me, but I am the unhappy one who is depressed. Is there some causal relationship here that I’m missing?

Is the experience of Christmas much worse if you are very depressed? I have been alone a few times on Christmas Day and it’s not nice. There are several good sites (here is another) talking about how Christmas and depression “don’t go” together. It is hardly surprising, because there are few things more depressing when you’re depressed than happy people.

If you are crazy about Christmas, good for you. I’m not trying to demean or cirticise you; I sometimes wish I could join in more easily. I’m simply saying that there are some of us who are cut off from normal life. I wish I could, if only once a year, let my hair down, as they used to say, but probably no longer do. But a very Merry Christmas to you!

Finally, a few notes. First, I am in the process of updating my website, so there might be a few hiccups along the way. Second, a little shameless self-promotion: my novel, Fit for a King, is available from Amazon for Kindle on special offer over the festive season for £0.99 here, or $1.32 on Amazon.com here. You can buy a paperback version if you prefer. A novel about how to be sane in an insane world.

Mental illness at work

The news that people with mental health problems suffer at work will not come as a surprise to anyone with those problems. In my experience it isn’t down to malice on any one’s part, but clearly something isn’t right if so much talent and money is wasted. Remember that people with mental health problems include some of the most creative people around.

One major problem at work is that mental illness …

“Mental health sees 300,000 people leave their jobs each year”

And I was one.

I should immediately qualify this statement by making clear that I was in no way forced to leave. I was one of the lucky ones: I just didn’t feel strong enough to do that job properly any more, and I had many other things I wanted to do instead. Like writing this blog, and producing the best book ever on consciousness. I was tired and worn out and lucky enough to have alternatives. But if I had been mentally stronger I might have carried on for longer.

The news that people with mental health problems suffer at work will not come as a surprise to anyone with those problems. In my experience it isn’t down to malice on any one’s part, but clearly something isn’t right if so much talent and money is wasted. Remember that people with mental health problems include some of the most creative people around.

One major problem at work is that mental illness is often not considered to be a “real” illness or disability. I know of many people with problems (including myself) who have never been asked what reasonable adjustments could be made to their work environment, and indeed whose requests for relatively minor changes have been met with something between pained resignation and aggressive exasperation. This aspect of things could be improved by better training of managers.

But the power of institutions and employers is limited: institutions and businesses are made up out of people. Generally instititions in the UK at least now have very good rules, and often there’s not much more they can do apart from making sure that they implement those rules, and to help change the attitudes of their employees.

It’s that final bit that’s difficult. How do you change centuries of stigma and ignorance? On the bright side things have changed for the better very quickly, but there is still a long way to go.

We can learn by looking at three areas where there have been enormous strides over the last fifty years: women’s rights, LGBT issues, and race. Again, I am not saying that everything is now perfect – clearly it isn’t, and there are still massive changes in attitudes to be made. They have all though made progress because those discriminated against have formed strong movements and taken direct action. We lunatics are hardly among the strongest people in society, but perhaps we have a duty to stand up and say we are ill, we are disabled, we need help at work. You wouldn’t treat someone with cancer or in a wheelchair this way, so don’t treat me like it.

I’ve lost track of how many mental health support groups and societies there are; there are too many. We need to unite, and we also need to mobilise. It’s difficult when you’re too depressed to move, and difficult when you’re worried everyone is going to mock you, but if you have the strength, it’s time to come out and be counted, and not let yourself be pushed around. Sing if you’re proud to be mad.

 

 

 

Winter is coming

The autumn equinox this year was 22 September. From then on the sun peaks at midday overhead somewhere in the southern hemisphere until the spring equinox late next March. In practice, day and night are of equal length on the equinox, or would be if our earth fortunately didn’t have an atmosphere. In London, on 21 June the sun rises at 4.43 and sets at 21.21; on 21 December the corresponding times are 8.03 and 15.53. That’s nearly nine hours more light in the summer. With such a dramatic difference at this latitude, no wonder so many react to the difference.

Light plays a central role in regulating our biological clock. …

Winter is here – almost.

The autumn equinox this year was 22 September. From then on the sun peaks at midday overhead somewhere in the southern hemisphere until the spring equinox late next March. In practice, day and night are of equal length on the equinox, or would be if our earth fortunately didn’t have an atmosphere. In London, on 21 June the sun rises at 4.43 and sets at 21.21; on 21 December the corresponding times are 8.03 and 15.53. That’s nearly nine hours more light in the summer. With such a dramatic difference at this latitude, no wonder so many react to the difference.

Light plays a central role in regulating our biological clock. We live on a natural rhythm called the circadian rhythm, and our internal clock is set by the action of light on the retina of the eye, transmitted by special tracts of nerve cells to the pineal gland. The pineal gland, situated near the centre of the brain, manufactures a hormone called melatonin. Melatonin helps send us to sleep, so much so that in some counties it is available without prescription as a sleep aid, and melatonin is also used in overcoming jet lag.

Light then is essential for keeping us awake, and sleep plays an important role in maintaining our mood. Most people have heard of seasonal affect disorder (SAD). The definitive mental illness diagnostic system, the American Psychiatric association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM, now in its fifth edition) officially classifies seasonal effects on mood as “recurrent major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern”. In winter people with SAD are – well, sad. Some people become depressed only in the winter months, and maybe autumn and spring too, and for some people their pre-existing depression becomes worse. Unsurprisingly, given that in winter days are shorter the further north (and south in the southern hemisphere) you go, there are substantial geographical variations in the incidence of SAD, In the USA, in Florida the figure is very low, just over 1%, and in Alaska nearly 10% of the population is affected. Pity the three hundred thousand inhabitants of Murmansk, situated north of the Arctic Circle, which does not see the sun at all between 2 December and 10 January.

I should point out that not ever researcher accepts the existence of SAD. Some studies have failed to find any correlation between mood and time of the year. As with all studies on this sort of subject, much depends on the detail of exactly how mood is measured, how many people are studied, and whether or not they are receiving any treatment.

If people’s moods are affected by the amount of sunlight available then you would expect the suicide rate to vary with the seasons. It does, but not in the simple way you might expect. In the northern hemisphere the suicide rate increases dramatically in May and to a lesser extent June, and in the southern hemisphere in November. This pattern is strange and there is no accepted account of why it happens. One explanation is that when people are very depressed they are too ill to kill themselves, and need the upsurge in energy when they are starting to feel better. I don’t find this explanation wholly satisfactory because I have always felt most suicidal when I feel most depressed; it’s then that I want the pain to end. Most people when they start to recover feel relief. Another possibility is that when people are improving there is a surge in the chemical, or neurotransmitter, serotonin in the brain, and serotonin is associated with aggression as well as mood. In depressed people aggression can be directed towards themselves, leading to self-harm and suicide.

Suicide rates also vary across regions. If you look at a map of Europe there is an increase as you go from the south and west to the north and east, and again it is not simply the case that suicide is always more common in cold, dark regions; socio-economic and cultural factors play a large role too,

I graph my own mood, as I suggest everyone with a depressive disorder does, and have noticed a slight seasonality effect, but it is much less pronounced now I that I am on fairly effective medication.

We are not completely helpless when the nights start drawing in. Those fortunate to be able to overwinter in southern California should now start thinking about packing their bags. Those a bit less fortunate should book their winter holidays, going somewhere likely to have as much sunshine as possible. For the rest of us, there are still things we can do. SAD lights, which emit very bright light (look for at least 10,000 lux) and which produce light in the shorter, bluer frequency range, are now cheaper and much more widely available than they were just a few years ago. But one of the best therapies is free: being outside in natural light as much as possible, particularly in the morning, especially if it’s sunny. Wrap up and get outside.

(The above is an expanded version of my new column in What’s hot London!)

Student depression

University terms are starting all over the country. When I was an undergraduate, the Cambridge term started late, in early October, and our terms were only eight weeks long. That first one was seven weeks six days too long for me.

I have had several responses from students to my blog on dysthymia – low-level persistent depression, or what is now called persistent depressive disorder. The people who contacted me are just the tip of the iceberg. In your class of a hundred fellow students it could be that as many as nearly twenty of them are mentally ill, to some degree, right now. That’s a lot of sick people; imagine a class where twenty people were sneezing and coughing non-stop. Who are these people? Can you tell? Are you perhaps one of them? And a couple of lecturers are probably depressed right now, too.

What’s the leading cause of death for young people aged 20-35 in the UK? Those risky boys speeding round blind bends in their sporty cars? Drugs? Falling under a bus blind drunk? Being mugged and murdered? No, by some way, it’s suicide. Suicide is also the leading cause of death for men under 50. And most people kill themselves because they can’t take the hopelessness and pain of depression any longer. And if suicide doesn’t kill you, depression is associated with a host of disorders, such as heart disease, cancer,  and dementia, which might get you later.

Depression and anxiety are closely related, and usually go together. Epidemiological studies show that anxiety and mood disorders are remarkably common: it’s estimated that one in three people will suffer in their lifetime, and between one in six and one in ten are ill now. The reporting of mental illness has increased, but whether that’s because of better understanding of the disease, better diagnosis, reduced stigmatisation of the ill, increased pressure of contemporary life, or, most likely, all of these, is unclear.

When I was young (under twenty, say), I didn’t know what depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder were, although in retrospect I suffered from all of them. I was aware of something my relatives talked about in rather hushed tones called “a nervous breakdown”. I’m still not entirely sure what one of these was, but I think it was a sudden mental illness requiring some kind of treatment, and even incarceration in an “asylum”. Treatments were very limited back in the 70s; remember that chlorpromazine wasn’t released to the market until 1953, the first benzodiazepine, Librium, in 1960; and the first antidepressants in 1957 (iproniazid, a MAO inhibitor) and 1958 (imipramine, a tricyclic), although these drugs have many serious side-effects. The relatively more benign Prozac (fluoxetine) wasn’t available until 1987. I don’t think I knew about these drugs until I switched as a student from Natural Sciences Physical to Psychology. Indeed when I was a teenager, I thought of treatment as shock treatment; that’s about all there was.

Attitudes started to change when Prozac became widely available; perhaps that’s generally true – diseases only begin to lose their stigma when there is some hope. When I was young “cancer” was another dirty word, sometimes just called the “c word”. Don’t ask my younger self about swearing though; when I was ten, I thought the filthiest word in English was “pub” (where my father went Sunday lunchtime).

I was the first person in my family to go to university, and I had no idea what was involved, no idea really what a degree was (although I knew students “read” for it on University Challenge), no idea how to manage money (fortunately credit cards weren’t available then), no idea how to manage my time, no idea how to study independently, no idea how to live, no idea how to make use of what was available, no idea what a girl was, and no idea of how to cope when I was a raving loony without realising it. I was extraordinarily shy, which didn’t help. I wasn’t lazy; I tried my best, but I had no idea how to organise my time. I expected university to be like school, which of course it isn’t.

I stuck out the first year, mostly because I drift through things and staying was the easiest thing to do, and I was just clever enough to get by in spite of my deficits. The turning point was joining a society where I met other people. I still can’t say that I felt at home, and at the end of the first year I got a summer job where I did. I was earning good money, I had friends of sorts, I seemed to have some purpose, I felt like I was part of a community, and I wondered why go back to Cambridge. At that point I nearly gave up.

I don’t really know why I didn’t; it was easier to stay than not. And when I went back to Cambridge I discovered psychology, and things started to look up.

If I knew then what I know now I would have got professional help. I would have started with meta learning rather than learning. I would have been bolder about asking questions. Mostly I would have realised that I was ill, I wasn’t alone, and that I should talk to people.

What is “normal” for a depressed person?

“Dysthymia, now known as persistent depressive disorder (PDD), is a mood disorder consisting of the same cognitive and physical problems as depression, with less severe but longer-lasting symptoms … dysthymia is a serious state of chronic depression”. Wikipedia.

As part of my mental maintenance, I keep a mood diary. I’ve experimented with several kinds, including apps, but now just use the very simple system of noting one number at the end of each day, on a scale of 1 (extremely, suicidally depressed) to 7 (ecstatically happy), with 4 being “average”. Here is my chart for the last 18 months or so.

moodgraph

The first point to note is that this graph is by no means representative of my life. It begins in April 2016, when I had already been in weekly therapy for well over a year and had at last found the medication that worked (to some extent) for me. I’ve shown the trend line (a guess at the average) which shows a continuing slight improvement over time, although I think this is line is affected by a prolonged and severe relapse I had in the summer of last year. To complete the statistical background, my scores do seem to follow an approximate Gaussian (“normal”) distribution, with my mean score in the middle of the range, at about 4. (Actually it’s very slightly beneath, at 3.8.)

It’s the word “normal” that causes me trouble. What is normal? How can I gauge my mood and experience against what other people feel? And is it reasonable to expect mood scores to follow a Gaussian distribution, and if so what will the mean be?

To give a concrete example, consider someone with PDD (persistent depressive disorder). Their daily mood ratings will presumably be low every day, for long periods of time. Hence compared with people without PDD you would expect their mood rating, if they were comparing themselves with the rest of the population, to be low (as they’re not severely depressed, probably in the 2 to 3 range).

But how do people give ratings of their behaviour? Maybe, completely reasonably, people compare their mood with what they think other people experience – so the moods are relative to the population rather than the individual. But how do we know what others feel?

I use a strategy between the two. And I’m not happy about treating a rating in this inconsistent if not incoherent way. I think a 7 should be “extremely, unusually happy”, although no one should expect to be ecstatic all day long. A 4 should be average for me but not too bad. When I rate a day as “average” I mean I’ve been a bit depressed that today, but no more so than average for me

If you have PDD, your normal is low. I don’t know how other people feel most of the time, but I suspect it must be better than I do. Do you wake up looking forward to the day? Does a day pass without you thinking about suicide and death? Does your day bounce along when you’d say you feel happy? Does your life have meaning? Can you sleep naturally? Do you feel like you have the energy to do everything you want to do? Does the thought of emptying the dishwasher or taking a shower fill you with despair? If so I envy you. Your 4 is not my 4.

The opposite is also presumably true: someone who isn’t depressed has no idea how those of us who are feel. So please keep your comments about “when I’m down I always find going for a good run sorts me out” to yourself.

As I have said before, being depressed steals your life.