Getting Started

Starting a blog seems only marginally less terrifying than starting a PhD! Committing words to the screen for public consumption (and possibly comment)…is this the 21st century equivalent of standing on the street corner with a sandwich board?

In May 2014, I went along to a symposium on the theme of ‘Robert Burns and Medicine’ (some might see this as an odd choice for a day out, but there we go). The main aim of the symposium was to explore the interest and appetite for further work on Robert Burns and his health; although much has been done to examine the circumstances surrounding his death at only 37, almost nothing has been done to look at his mental health and the periods of depression he reported. Together, Gerry and Danny hoped to initiate a research project to explore this aspect of Burns’s life.

I’m not sure if the day was meant to be one big advert, but they certainly got my interest! A chat at coffee break, a few emails later and I was in. I found myself with a project, a supervisory team and a swathe of funding applications to write. Not a bad return for the 20 quid the symposium cost me!

So, 18 months on from that day out, officially starting my research (and this blog) is a huge milestone in what has already been a lengthy progress. So where am I going and why?

The original intention of the project still stands. I’m going to be looking at the mental health of Robert Burns, scouring his letters, journals and notebooks for evidence of signs and symptoms which supports the theory that, had he been alive today, he would be diagnosed as suffering from depression or bipolar disorder. From there, I’ll be looking at the impact his mental health had on his life and on his creativity.

That make is sound quite easy, doesn’t it? If only! It’s going to be a challenging process: we can’t speak to Burns or his friends and family the way a psychiatrist would today; some of his letters, especially from his late teens and early twenties, are lost; even where there are letters, there’s going to be a lot of interpretation, looking for clues in the language Burns used, his subject matter, his sentence structure and flow of ideas. It’s a bit like trying to assemble a jigsaw with no box – you’re not sure all the pieces are there and only a rough idea of what the picture might look like when you’re done.

So what? What’s the point? He’s been dead for over 200 years, after all.

That’s true, but in that 200 years, Rabbie has taken a bit of a pounding for his personal life. The results of this research might go some way to providing some explanation for his behaviour (not an excuse though!). It also provides another piece for another jigsaw – there is a fair amount of research published which makes strong links between bipolar disorder and creativity, and this research could add to that picture. By helping to improve our understanding of how these are connected, this project also goes towards helping the wider public understanding of the implications of mental health disorders, understanding that such a condition can bring advantages too.

But let’s not run before we can walk. The first stage for the project is to get a good understanding of what has already been written about Burns’s behaviour and mental health, and what kind of picture it paints of the Bard, then to use this understanding to help develop a strong method for exploring and analysing his personal writing for signs and symptoms. In short, what we’re doing before we start doing it.

So there it is! The project has made it out of the starting blocks, the team are all excited that we’re finally in the race. We just have to remember it’s going to be a marathon rather than a sprint.