…must come to an end, so the saying goes. And, unfortunately, the same is true of Blue Devilism. We’re not there yet but yesterday marked a significant milestone on the road to completing the project – my Year 3 Annual Progress Review.
It was a very positive experience, everyone is happy with the progress I’m making on the project and the results I’m generating, so I’m all signed off to continue into Year 4 (I am forever grateful for the luxury of a 4-year scholarship!)
But it was also bittersweet – I’ve set myself the target of Friday 25th January 2019 for submission of the thesis for examination, so it also means that this was my last APR. The next time I sit in a room with three senior people who’ve read my work in detail, I’ll be facing the grilling that is the thesis defence that marks the end of every PhD.
I’ve always enjoyed APR though – the process makes you reflect on what you’ve achieved in the past year and plan for the coming 12 months
And it’s been a very busy 12 months! I now have half of the thesis in first draft (with the aim of having a full draft by the end of September); I’ve been able to visit several different archives to access new material which adds evidence to the bigger picture of Burns’s mental health; I’ve presented at various conferences including our World Congress in Vancouver back in July; I’ve got another three conference papers in the pipeline, including another international conference (although it’s being hosted in Glasgow this year, so less jet lag involved!); I’ve had a substantial article published in this year’s Burns Chronicle, and I have another in the Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh due for publication in June; and I’ve been building collaborations with colleagues in other areas, including linguistics, to explore further ways of studying Burns’s life and work in relation to his mental health which we’re hoping to present at conference in France in November as well as publish in an appropriate journal.
So I think I’ve got plenty to be proud of there!
As well as reflection, APR involves submitting a substantial piece of writing for scrutiny.
This year, I submitted Chapter 4 of the thesis which focuses on Burns’s own understanding of his mental health, how he rationalised it in his head, how he felt about his moods, and how he handled the more severe episodes. It’s quite timely that APR fell during this week as it’s also Mental Health Awareness Week. Re-reading the chapter in preparation, I’ve had to think a lot about Burns’s own awareness, renewing my appreciation for the strategies he uses to manage his mental health. Many of his strategies which would not be unfamiliar today – having a particular friend he can turn to in the especially difficult times, using creative writing as an outlet to explore his feelings, getting out into the fresh air for some exercise. Burns is acutely aware of his mental health, especially his tendency towards lowered mood and depression. He restricts himself in who he discusses it with but he does talk about it.
Burns lived in a time where mental health issues were stigmatised. There was a certain fashion about melancholy, associated as it was with intelligence and a better class of person, so some people would put on melancholic airs to fit into this image, but real melancholy, what we would recognise as depression, was much riskier – it could land you in the asylum. (The idea of a thin line between madness and genius is a very old one!) So it’s no surprise that Burns was careful about how open he was – he wasn’t putting anything on and he feared what may happen (to him and his family) if people got the wrong idea about just how serious his condition was.
But that’s the whole point about Mental Health Awareness Week – it’s about getting people talking about the issues generally, even their own specific conditions if they feel comfortable doing so. It’s about bringing them out of the shadows and the shame, recognising them as being as valid as any physical condition that we wouldn’t think twice about discussing. And it’s about showing that mental health issues are only one aspect of any one individual’s character, not the defining feature.
While it’s wrong that Burns’s mental health has been largely ignored, it does mean it hasn’t shaped his public perception in the way it has for other writers. What that means is that he can now become (another) force for good in demonstrating the heights that can be achieved while living with a mental health condition.
If I can get to this point next year, and have people talking openly about Burns’s mental health, and thinking about their own, my job, in some way, will be done.