Opening doors and breaking down walls

Today is World Mental Health Day. I turned on the breakfast news this morning to find that the UK government has appointed a minister for suicide prevention, charged with tackling the stigma around mental health. The interview with the UK Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, went on to clarify that this was part of their wider programme to tackle issues around social attitudes to and provision of support for those with mental health issues. Yet, he then also went on to say that the new minister would first have to secure the funding she needs to undertake her brief.

Confused? So am I! Either we need the minister because there is a need for this issue to be addressed ergo there is a need for funding or it’s simply a tokenistic gesture, she’ll quietly disappear back to whatever job she came from, and the politicians will stop talking about tackling the stigma of mental health until it serves some purpose for them again.

Meanwhile, thousands of people up and down the country deal with mental health issues. Thousands more of family members, friends, colleagues and health professionals work to support them. And that stigma still persists.

One aspect of the Blue Devilism project for which I was completely unprepared is how people would react me within that context of society’s shifting attitudes to mental health issues. Yes, it was a goal of the team that we add something to the conversation, to highlight that conditions such as depression and bipolar disorder don’t make a person any less likely to be successful or significant, but, perhaps naively, I had thought this would be through publications or involvement with support groups.

What I hadn’t anticipated is just how often I would go out to talk about my work and, afterwards, be approached by people who would share that they or a loved one had been affected by a diagnosis of a mental illness. Sometimes they want to tell me how they recognise their experience in Burns’s symptoms and behaviours, sometimes they want to tell me how they’re going to go back to his poetry and read it in a new light. Often, they just want to say thank you for talking about his mental health at all, that it’s something they’ve often wondered but that it’s an area that’s never been studied.

I’ve written a lot about Burns’s relationship with Frances Dunlop, how their correspondence becomes a safe space for him to discuss his difficulties without fear of judgement or criticism. I think this is what is happening to me now. Just by talking openly about someone’s mental health, people view me as a ‘safe’ person they can talk to. For me, at the moment, that’s a huge privelege and an honour, and I am grateful to those who have trusted me enough to share. But they shouldn’t have to measure who is and isn’t safe to confide in.

It really signals to me that simply speaking to one another and speaking about mental health is the single most powerful tool we have to counter the ongoing stigma. And it doesn’t cost a penny or need a special minister.

Every day should be World Mental Health Day.


All good things…

…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.


Burns and belonging

I had planned to have this entry posted more than a week ago but, surprisingly, the intended content has given me more to think about than anticipated.

Working in Burns studies is a little different to other academic fields, in terms of the engagement we have with the public. There is a worldwide network of enthusiasts and lay researchers, underpinned by the  hundreds of Burns clubs, who are a vital resource for those of us working in the academic setting. The Burns community is, to my newcomer’s eyes, also one where everyone know everyone else. Go along to any event and there are hearty handshakes, friendly greetings and, as we approach January, discussion of who is delivering which toast at the many suppers which will be taking place.

So no-one was more surprised than me when, back in July 2017, I was  asked to deliver the Toast to the Immortal Memory for Greenock Burns Club at their 2018 Annual Celebration. Greenock is known as ‘The Mother Club’, being the oldest of all Burns Clubs, founded in 1801 and hosts of the very first Burns supper. The Immortal Memory is intended to be a personal celebration by the speaker of some aspect of Burns’s life or works, and is one of the centrepieces of any supper.

Top table
Greenock Burns Club 2018 Annual Celebration Speakers and Performers

However, not content with conferring the prestige of delivering the memory for the oldest club, Greenock also confer the honour of installing their speaker as honorary president of the club. You only need to take one look at this list of luminaries to realise why my delight quickly turned to terror! There are big names from literature, academia and all areas of Scottish public life – how was I going to write something that would do justice to both the memory of the bard and the people who had come before me, while also being the ‘something different’ that Club President Jamie Donnelly had requested? To my mind, I simply didn’t belong on that list.

Badge 6
I also get a certificate which lists all the past Honorary Presidents – it’s still a really scary list!

But, in that funny way that my mind works sometimes, this idea of belonging became the theme of my memory. It’s something I’ve done a lot of thinking about since I made the decision to return to university – the idea of fitting in as a career-changer, as someone who has a good ten years on many of my fellow PhD students, as someone looking to come into such a tight-knit group as the Burns community – would I be good enough to live up to the expectations of all these various people?

Memory 4
I’m sure I’m asking “What am I even doing here?”

This was, I realised, something that Burns also tussled with. The farm boy from Ayrshire, educated but not in the way a son of the gentry would have been, already castigated by his community and his church for various transgressions, trying to make an entry into the literary circles of Edinburgh – seat of Enlightenment knowledge and learning – and demonstrate that he was deserving of the praise and attention being heaped upon him.

We see him write in various letters about his concern that people had an inflated sense of his poetic talent, that it did not merit the compliments being paid, that it would not meet the expectations of these judges of cultural tastes. He writes about his anxieties of being subjected to the glare of the spotlight that fame would shine on him, that the roughness of his rural manners and the faults of his character would be dragged out for everyone to comment and criticise.

Underpinning all this, however, is a love of what he does and a determination to carry on doing it. He keeps writing poetry, he keeps collecting and editing songs for Johnson and Thomson – anything to allow him to flex his creative muscles and share it with the world.

It’s only with hindsight, something Burns’s early death prevented him from benefiting from, that we see that his anxiety and uncertainty was misplaced, that he does belong on the list on great poets of the Scottish and English languages.

But thinking about Burns and his own sense of belonging has also allowed me to think about my own. Like Burns, I love what I do and love sharing what I do; there will always be critics and detractors but I shouldn’t give up for fear of what they might say. Far more numerous are those who support and are interested in my work, not least those who make up the Burns community. As far as they’re concerned, sharing their love of the man and his work is enough to make me one of them. Just as Edinburgh society took Burns into their midst, faults and foibles and all, so too have Greenock Burns Club taken me into their embrace, risky as it might have been.

And I can’t think of a better embodiment of Burns’s sentiments of universality than that.

Badge of office
Burns bling – my much-treasured badge of office



Degrees and doctorates

It’s been a while since my last post and I’ve been fairly quiet on Twitter lately, so a project update is definitely needed. And there’s no better time than now as we celebrate a significant milestone – last week I submitted the first draft of the first full chapter of my thesis for review by Gerry and Danny.

At 22,500 words, it’s big (the other chapters will probably be in the region of 10,000 words), and it’s been a long time coming, but it does cover the 15 months of work that has gone into analysing Burns’s letters for evidence of mood disorder. Quite simply, the rest of the project can’t happen without it, so the time taken to get it right is time well-invested.

But that’s not the only reason I’ve been quiet lately and not the only milestone I’m celebrating. Almost five years ago, and with much apprehension, I took up taekwondo; this weekend, I finally achieved my 1st degree black belt.

Trust me, no-one is more surprised at this than I am! I never expected to stick it out so long or to make it so far, so it really is a huge achievement for me.

As I’ve been preparing for grading, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the connections between my taekwondo training and my research work. They have a lot in common: they have both been new starts for me; I’ve come to them both later in life than many others; the end goal of both (or what you think it is the end goal) takes a long time to reach and you don’t realise how much work it takes until after you’ve done it.

What has resonated with me most though are the tenets of taekwondo – courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit. The more I thought about them over the past few months, the more I realised that just as they worked in getting a creaky old thing like me through to black belt, so too do they help in getting me closer to a doctorate.

For those who don’t know, taekwondo is a Korean martial art created in the 1950s by General Choi Hong Hi. Literally translated, it means the ‘art of the hand and the foot’. But the –do of taekwondo – the art – isn’t just about learning how to perform the moves and use them correctly. It’s also about a way of thinking. Within taekwondo, this is defined by the student oath, the first line of which is a promise to observe the tenets.

So, to celebrate my first chapter and my first degree, I thought I’d share a little of my thinking – what do the tenets mean in my taekwondo and how they connect to my research life.


This is about treating those of a higher grade with respect – bowing to instructors at the start and end of classes, thanking them for teaching points, addressing them as ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’, turning up to class on time.

And the same is true of research – you treat those with more knowledge and experience courteously. You never know when you might need their help or find yourself collaborating with them or have them sitting on your viva panel. However, the idea of courtesy should extend to everyone; regardless of their position or status, others can bring valuable skills and knowledge. Things can be achieved much more easily if people don’t think of you as rude or abusive or difficult to work with. So it’s courtesy that always makes me double-check that email before I send it – is the tone appropriate? Is my request reasonable? Am I asking someone to take time out to find me an answer when I could do it myself?

Besides, what goes around, comes around – you want to be treated courteously too.

(Although I might draw the line at bowing when I go for supervision meetings!)


This is about knowing right from wrong, acting appropriately, and being able to admit guilt when you’ve been wrong. In class, it might be apologising when you’ve been too rough during sparring, being honest when critiquing a fellow student’s performance, admitting you’ve not learned your theory or practised your patterns at home.

In research, integrity is a fundamental requirement. Peers expect that your work and your results are reported and represented honestly and accurately. It’s the assumption of integrity that gives research-generated knowledge its value. It might be about calling out the failure of others’ integrity (hopefully not something I’ll ever have to do!) It can be a difficult path to tread – sometimes it involves admitting a hypothesis is flawed, that a methodology doesn’t work, that results don’t show what you wanted. But it’s a much better personal reflection to admit these things that to try to fudge it to get the data you want…you’ll always be found out in the end.


Perseverance is all about patience and sticking with things. It’s the grind, the hard work for the small gains. For me, this is always true when I’m learning a new pattern in class. It takes a while for me just to get the basic sequence of movements memorised. Then I have to start refining the small details. I’ll never be perfect but I can always be better if I keep working at it, one step at a time. For me, this is the most important of the tenets – it’s the ‘one step at a time’ approach that has got me through to black belt.

The same has been absolutely true of producing this first thesis chapter I’ve submitted. Fifteen months is a long time to spend on one aspect of a doctoral project, especially when you’re looking to complete in less than 4 years. And there were times where this was VERY difficult – three rounds of analysis, looking back over the same letters repeatedly, refining the results. Again, it was all about ‘one step at a time’, breaking it into manageable chunks, whether it was getting a particular group of letters done or a particular section of the chapter written. Perseverance got me there in the end. And perseverance will get me through to completion.


Within taekwondo, each belt colour also has a symbolic meaning. The red belt, which comes before black, symbolises danger. It warns the opponent to stay away but also cautions the student to exercise self-control. Learning taekwondo isn’t just about learning how to perform the techniques but also when to perform them. Losing control turns you into a scrapper, a street fighter, rather than a trained martial artist. (Although if anyone has seen me spar, this distinction is quite dubious…sparring is probably my least favourite bit of training.)

In research life, it’s self-control that underpins being self-directed, developing the discipline to set your own targets and work towards them under your own steam. It’s also self-control that’s got me through my first attempt at submitting an article to a peer-reviewed journal – tightening the writing up to squeeze what could have been 8000 words into a 5000-word limit; not taking the reviewer comments (too) personally, putting in the extra hours to revise the article and respond to those comments. And it’s definitely self-control that is stopping me chewing my fingernails down to the quick as we wait for a final decision. (Fingers crossed we’ll hear back soon and it’ll be good news!)

Indomitable Spirit

Indomitable spirit is about not giving up, about getting back on the bike when you fall off, even if lying on the ground seems much more attractive. Never has this been truer that with my grading at the weekend. The final thing I had to do was break a board with a side kick. I’d done it plenty of times before in class, but a combination of nerves and exhaustions (we’d already spent 12 hours training across the weekend before the grading) meant I failed to break three times. A step to the side, a few deep breaths, and a stern talking to myself about how disappointed I would feel if I didn’t do this led to success on the fourth attempt.

Time and patience and determination had got me through the grading and secured me my black belt. It’s been difficult journey but I’ve shown myself that I can do it.

In comparison, finishing the research and turning out a 100,000-word thesis seems like a walk in the park.

World Bipolar Day: Blue devils and mad tornadoes

In my paper presented at the January Burns conference, for the first time, I shared some of my research that points fairly strongly to Robert Burns having been affected by bipolar disorder in his life.

Since today is World Bipolar Day, established to bring awareness and work towards the elimination of stigma associated with the condition, I thought it would be a great chance to write a little more about what bipolar disorder is and how it affected Burns’s life.

I’ve been tweeting snippets through the day (on @bluedevilism) but this fills out the picture.

So…bipolar disorder…what is it? It’s one of the group of conditions known as mood disorders (along with recurrent depression and cyclothymia). It’s characterised by episodes of abnormally lowered mood or abnormally elevated mood. People affected by Type I bipolar will experience depression and mania – severe elevation of mood which can include delusions and hallucinations, and severely impairs daily life; Type II bipolar disorder also has depression but alongside less severe hypomania (this is the type Burns was likely affected by).

Organisations such as Bipolar Scotland are a great source of additional information about both types of bipolar disorder, support for people and their families who are affected by a bipolar diagnosis and details of other organisations who can help. Well worth a look!

So what can we say about Robert Burns and bipolar disorder? Well, eventually, quite a lot. It’s really taken the past 18 months just to sift through all his letters and personal writing, exploring whether there was enough evidence to come to a conclusion about a possible diagnosis. Work is ongoing to add in further evidence that comes from his friends and family, and I’m also now starting to properly explore the impact that Burns’s mental health has on his life.

But even now, at this relatively early stage, it’s clear that both his depressed and elevated moods had an impact on his life and his creativity.

Sometimes we see Burns in particularly dark places. He perfectly captures the despair that is characteristic of his depression when he writes to Agnes McLehose:

“Sick of the world, and all its joy,

My soul in pining sadness mourns:

Dark scene of woe my mind employ

The past and present in their turns.”

(20th January 1788)

But at other times, he proudly declares his brilliance in grandiose language that captures the energy and high spirits of his hypomania:

“By all probability I shall soon be the tenth Worthy, and the eighth Wise Man, of the world.”

(To Gavin Hamilton, 7th December 1786)

Most of the letters written by Burns that still exist were written in the last 10 years of his life, so this is the window of time that I’m focusing on, and within this period there are several episodes of both depressed and elevated mood. Through his letters, it becomes clear that, as well as affecting his day-to-day life in terms of how much work he felt capable of undertaking (if any! There are some depressions which leave him unable to get out of bed), Burns’s moods also affected his creativity.

This is an aspect I’m particularly interested and will be spending some time exploring in more depth. And the starting points will be Burns’s own words.

To his mind, he sees his depression reflected in his poetry:

“I am so harassed with Care and Anxiety…my Muse has degenerated into the veriest prose-wench that ever picked cinders.”

(To Robert Cleghorn, 31st March 1788)

But also realises that at its most severe, it can silence his Muse altogether:

“I have, all this winter, been plagued with low spirits & blue devils, so that I have almost hung my harp on the willow-trees.”

(To James Johnson, February 1794)

In contrast, his hypomania can be a tinder spark, heightening his senses and his creativity, irresistibly driving his to new compositions:

“My passions when once they were lighted up, raged like so many devils, till they got vent in rhyme.”

(To John Moore, 2nd August 1787)

There are tantalising hints that Tam O’Shanter, the poem that Burns himself felt was his finest piece of work, came, at least in part, from just such a raging passion.

But in writing these words to John Moore, Burns also shows us that he had an awareness of the variations of the moods that he experienced. Other letters also show that he had a sense of not being on control of them, that the instability was something that wasn’t always related to whatever else was going on in his life. At one point, he tries to rationalise it as an effect of the moon:

“For me, I am just the same will-o’-wisp being I used to be. – About the first, and fourth quarters of the moon, I generally set in for the trade-winds of wisdom; but about the full, and change, I am the luckless victim of mad tornadoes, which blow me into chaos.-“

(To Richard Brown, 30th December 1787)

As strange as it may sound, he’s perhaps not too far off the mark. There are seasonal connections with phases of bipolar disorder, and initial analysis suggests that this also played a role in Burns’s condition.

Perhaps more interesting is Burns’s perception of the interconnectedness of his moods and his poetic propensity:

“I am, as most people of my trade are, a strange will o’ wisp being;”

(To Agnes McLehose, 28th December 1787)

“I need not recount the fairy pleasures the Muse, to counterbalance this catalogue of evils, bestows on her Votaries.”

(To Helen Craik, 9th August 1790)

For Burns, his moods were both a blessing and a curse. They affected his daily life, for better or worse, and without them, he would not have been the poet he was. His moods were simply part and parcel of who he was, as much an aspect of his character as his religion, his politics or his rural upbringing.

And so it is for those affected by bipolar disorder today. Their condition is only one aspect of who they are; while it shapes them, it does not define them. And it certainly does not exclude them from being valuable contributors to all areas of life.

At the end of the day, to misquote Burns, a man is just a man for a’ that.

All in the mind

Every now and then, the Robot Hugs graphic about treating physical illness like mental illness pops up on one of my social media feeds.

I was reminded of it again this morning when I switched on the TV to find the top story has been the publication of the report from the NHS England Mental Health task force.

The central argument of the task force (chaired by Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of Mind) is that “we must provide equal status to mental and physical health”.

That’s what made me think about the cartoon strip. The ridiculousness of telling someone with cancer or diabetes or a broken leg to pull themselves together or get themselves back to work or that it’s all in their head. Yet, these are things that people with mental illness hear every day.

In talking about the work of the project recently, I was asked if we were running the risk of medicalising Burns’s behaviour by exploring it from the perspective of modern psychiatry. Yet, no-one asked why modern medical knowledge and understanding had been used to develop a better understanding of the cause of Burns’s premature death.

It’s an example of exactly the same thing. The stigmatisation of mental health as something that is not medical, not serious and not to be talked about. Not in the same way as cancer or diabetes or a broken leg.

However, someone with mental illness does have a medical condition. Something is not functioning within medically-accepted normal parameters. The condition will almost certainly be life-altering in some way; it will become life-threatening for too many.

Not talking about mental health hides it from view, makes it a something to be feared and shameful. Not talking only makes these problems worse.

The task force report acknowledges “public attitudes to mental health are improving” but it also shows there is a long way to go in providing “parity of esteem” for mental health – having it viewed and treated as seriously as physical illness. The importance of this is only emphasised by the fact that 1 in 4 people will be affected by mental illness in their life; take into account the wider impact involving families and friends, and that’s pretty much all of us.

I’m not making any grand claims about the project solving the problem of stigmatisation. But I do hope to add to the dialogue that is reducing the stigma by developing public understanding of mental illness and its effects. Talking about mental illness and talking to those with mental illness banishes the fear and misunderstanding that surrounds these conditions.

And sometimes it helps. All it takes is three little words…”How are you?”