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.

Courtesy

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!)

Integrity

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

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.

Self-Control

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.

Post-conference update

I am about three weeks later than promised with this post! I can only apologise and blame it on the busyness of the height of Burns season (lesson learned – promise nothing in January!)

Anyway, following on from my last post, the team were delighted by the pick-up of our Sunday Herald article printed on the 8th January (link goes to a PDF copy for those who can’t access the Herald online). The article was further picked up and re-printed online by The Scotsman, The Scottish Sun and the Evening Times newspapers, as well as websites in India and the USA. As a result, we received letters, emails and tweets from around the world. In a surprise turn of events, Monday afternoon saw me heading over to the BBC Radio Scotland studios at Pacific Quay for a live interview with Mhairi Stuart on that day’s NewsDrive show. (I’m waiting on a copy of the sound file but I will post it once it’s available).

Danny Smith then recorded a follow-up interview with Ricky Ross which was broadcast on Ricky’s Sunday morning show on the 15th January. You can listen to Danny talking about the project, mental health and creativity, and mental health awareness here.

The main event though, was the delivery of the full paper at the annual Centre for Robert Burns Studies conference on the 14th January. Again, the conference was wonderfully hosted by the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, although no snow this year!

I will admit to having been anxious about speaking. I was worried about getting my message across clearly, about the hype the media coverage may have generated, about the potential upset that may have arisen around tackling such a controversial aspect of the bard’s life.

CRBS Annual Conference 2017. The sun was glorious but right in my eyes for the first 10 minutes!
CRBS Annual Conference 2017.
The sun was glorious but right in my eyes for the first 10 minutes!

But I shouldn’t have been. The paper was incredibly well received. I had some lovely comments from colleagues and delegates about my delivery and the clarity of the story I told. I had some powerful messages of support from people who are affected in some way by mental health issues, both in the resonance that Burns’s experiences have for their own lives and in talking openly about such issues in relation to such a public (and successful) figure. Colleagues spoke to me later of the many lunchtime conversations they overheard around the paper and, more importantly, around mental health issues.

There were intriguing questions, both in the panel discussion, and during lunch and coffee breaks, about Burns’s posturing within his letters, the clues that his poetry might hold and about the nature of the ‘Irvine episode’* These were particularly valuable as these are all aspects which later stages of the project will be exploring; thus, questions on these justify us including them in project plan and confirm that there is, and will be, ongoing interest in the project’s progress and findings.

And I’m reliably informed by Gerry and Danny that, as a result of the paper, they’re not going to get rid of me just yet. Everyone’s a winner!

I hope to be able to share some of the actual detail of the paper with you soon but we have to work within the rules for academic publishing which means getting it into a journal first.

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And so, it was from one conference to another, and to a very different audience. Every year, the British Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nitrition (BSPGHAN) hold their annual meeting in a different location. This year, it was being hosted in Glasgow between the 25th and 27th January. Given the timing, having a Burns Supper for their Gala Dinner on the Thursday evening was the obvious option. I was delighted to have been asked by the organising team to deliver the Immortal Memory.

It was only after I had said ‘Yes’ that I actually thought about what my focus should be. 250 paediatricians, nurses, nutritionists, dieticians, pharmacists and scientists – not my usual audience and not likely to feel much of a connection if I stood up and talked about Burns’s mental health. Nevertheless, inspiration struck as I was reading the poet’s letters to and from George Thomson; I realised this in collecting, editing and preparing for publication songs and poems, Burns was undertaking a project in a fashion which would be recognisable by any researching academic.

And so, through the life of Burns, we shared the journey, the challenges and the pitfalls of collecting data, preparing for publication and seeking an outlet, of giving time and effort freely for a cause we believe in and, in the words of Burns, seeking ‘to wipe all tears from all eyes’. I’m told there were tears in the eyes of several people by the end, some of whom I’ve known for many years and are definitely NOT the crying type, so I think I hit the right note.

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And finally, two more exciting bits of news.

I was delighted to be asked to attend the Hunterian’s Burns Night at the Museum on the 27th January. These nights are great fun, with atmospheric lighting, special exhibits and a non-stop whirlwind of pop-up talks and performances over the course of the 3 hours of the event. I was manning the CRBS stand so I had plenty of opportunity to chat with the public about the work of the centre, the new online courses being offered, and a little about my own work. A particular highlight was the event being opened by Fiona Hyslop, Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs; afterwards, she spent considerable time chatting with the team about various aspects of the Centre, including 20 minutes with me discussing the Blue Devilism project and the wider issues of mental health awareness. As an Ayrshire lass, she knows her Burns!

This week has also seen another project abstract be accepted, so in April, I’ll be heading down to Nottingham for ‘Reading Bodies, Writing Minds’, a one-day conference exploring various aspects of mental health within the field of medical humanities. I’ll be presenting a paper entitled “‘O wad some pow’r the gift tae gie us’: redefining the melancholy of Robert Burns’.

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*This refers to the period in Burns’s life when, at the age of 22 Burns had moved to Irvine to learn the trade of flax dressing. He invested in a flax dressing business there but lost everything when the the business premises and everything in them burned down. This may have been one precipitating factor in a significant episode of illness, severe enough that Burns was attended five times over eight days by Dr Charles Fleeming, and that his father, William Burnes, should make the 10-mile journey from Lochlie to Irvine to visit his son. Burns writes about this episode in a letter to his father, dated 27 December 1781, and in the famous autobiographical letter to Dr John Moore, now held in the British Library. It is variously suggested that the episode was a bout of the rheumatic fever which would damage his heart and lead to his early death, or a severe episode of mental disturbance resulting from the stress and shock of the loss of his investment. Of course, it may also have been neither or both of these….

Pre-conference publicity

Ahead of Saturday’s annual CRBS conference where I’m presenting the initial findings of the project, today’s Sunday Herald have run a great article on the project’s work so far.

Of course, I’m pleased to see coverage of what makes our project novel and interesting but I’m particularly delighted by the emphasis within the article about the bigger picture – raising awareness of and reducing stigma related to mental health issues.

Please do consider coming along to next week’s conference to hear the full story behind the article. I can also vouch for the excellent scones that the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum serves.

I’ll blog again next week, about the conference generally but particularly about the reception and reaction to today’s article and the full paper.

First publication!

A little bit of excitement today with the publication of my first piece of project-related writing here.

Following my trip to South Carolina, I was delighted to be asked to write an article for Robert Burns Lives! to introduce the project to the website’s US readership. 

Curated by Frank Shaw, a passionate Burnsian and enthusiastic supporter of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies, the RBL! pages are a mine of information on many aspects of the poet’s life and contain contributions from lay and academic experts from around the world – well worth a little exploration. 

It’s truly a special moment for me to be given a small space among them. Hopefully, it also marks the first of many project-related publications!
(Thanks go to Prof. Patrick Scott of University of South Carolina for his editorial support.)

Homeward Bound

Last week I posted from Glasgow Airport as I waited to head out to South Carolina, so it seems only right that I write again while I wait on the return flight.

It’s been a fantastic week, for me and for the project. I’ve been able to spend hours of really focused time working with resources not available in Scotland, such as Burns’s (allegedly) tear-stained letter to Clarinda and a range of pamphlets from the 19th century when phrenology (the study of the lumps and bumps of the skull to determine a person’s character and temperament) really was considered a science.

I’ve also had the chance to make new contacts with various people within the USC community, particularly Professor Patrick Scott (hugely knowledgeable on Burns, Scottish Literature and the wider literary field) and Dr. Elizabeth Sudduth (Director of the Irvin Rare Books and Special Collections, and passionate about all things bookish).

A particular highlight was finishing up yesterday with an impromptu tour of the Rare Books vault with Elizabeth, where they keep their most precious holdings. Shelves and shelves of Burns, Milton, Darwin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway; bindings that are hundreds of years old, medieval illuminated manuscripts that have colours as fresh as the day they were added; an insight into the wonderful work that Elizabeth and her team undertake with students, particularly Honours students, to explore the collection and have them involved with valuable research on the texts; and some surprising items such as Fitzgerald’s walking cane and a cast of Burns’s skull. It really was a treasure trove, and I’m already looking forward to my next visit(s) where I can explore more of it.

Travelling solo has also meant lots of time to work without the day-to-day distractions/commitments of campus life in Glasgow. As a result, I’ve managed to finish a fairly major data-crunching task which seems to be showing some interesting results in relation to the mapping of Burns’s moods. This still needs a full analysis so more on this another time. I’ve also been able to work on a couple of side projects and write the first draft of a conference abstract which I hope to submit for next year’s World Congress in Vancouver.

However, more than the sheer pleasure of being able to immerse myself completely in research, the best thing about this week has been the welcome. The people of USC have been wonderful, more than willing to go for a coffee or a beer to chat about my work and start building new relationships. I’ve been overwhelmed by their enthusiasm and offers of support, and I look forward to seeing some of them in Glasgow in coming months. For a new researcher, building these contacts is an important stepping stone to becoming established in a field and I feel I’ve made real progress this week.

I’m sad to be leaving it all behind, even though I know I’ll be back. As my first proper research trip, I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to academic travel. These trips are what you make of them but the people of USC have made it so much easier.

But I am looking forward to being home again.

1788_01_12-clarinda-1-of-1

Burns’s letter to Clarinda (‘scuse the shadows)

Blue Devilism goes international

I’m writing this while I sit in the lounge at Glasgow airport, waiting for a gate for the flight that will take the project on its first international foray.

This week, I’m off to visit the University of South Carolina’s Thomas Cooper Library, home to the largest collection of Burns related materials outside Scotland.

The trip is to be an exciting mix of establishing my own working relationships with people who are already good friends of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies, and various tasks relating to different aspects of the project – some work with manuscripts, texts dealing with Burns’s personality and biographies which shaped the way the poet was viewed after his death. There should be time for some sight-seeing too.

It’s an exciting prospect but a little daunting too. It’s going to be the longest and furthest I’ve travelled on my own, so there has been much girding of the loins in recent weeks. First impressions are always important, so I’m keen to give a good account of myself and the project, and show that it’s of the same high standard of anything from my Burns colleagues.

On the whole though, it’s a great opportunity that’s only come about through the project, so it’s something else I’m hugely thankful for, and I look forward to sharing it with you all next week.

One year on

On Monday, I received an email telling me it was time to register for the 2016-17 academic session. Which means it’s almost a whole year since the project officially started. This got me thinking about what this year has been – the progress, the achievements, the hurdles – and what the next year will bring.

First and foremost, this year has been fun. Whether it’s been getting to know Burns better or getting to know new colleagues, other PhD students or new contacts within the Burns community, I’ve loved being immersed in academia and in my subject.

All this means it’s also been a busy year – reading, writing, meetings, conferences, talks, workshops and seminars – the past 12 months have been pretty jam-packed with activity. And it’s all been juggled with the demands of family life (not to mention an house move this summer.)

However, it’s been a draining year – physically, mentally and emotionally tiring. Keeping the brain switched on to read an article or book chapter (usually several), ploughing on until a conference paper or talk is written, standing in front of an audience asking very helpful-but-challenging questions, laying the foundations of an academic profile, coming to terms with the demands of the academic role and the shift in how that fits in with the rest of my life (that’s been the really tricky one for me) – they all take their toll. It’s been important to have other things in life to provide a change of pace and focus, and accepting that taking time out can be more beneficial than just trying to push on.

But more than anything, it’s been a year of success! The project is well and truly off the ground, with a pile of work having gone into generating the first data relating to evidence of mood disorder in Burns’s letters. Thousands of words have been written, drawing together background reading, methodology, results analysis and forward planning. Important contacts have been made at various conferences and events. Exciting collaborations and side projects are being discussed and explored. And everyone seems happy with how things are going.

So here’s to the next year. Tomorrow will see me get my hands on some real Burns manuscripts for the first time (I am SUPER excited about this!). September is my first major research trip, taking me to visit colleagues at the University of South Carolina. Hopefully, we’ll see the first publication of work from the project and maybe another conference paper or two. And who knows what else….but I can’t wait!

Games and grinding, research and RPGs

As a literature specialist who spent her teenage years negotiating the 1990s, it’s perhaps no surprise that I’m a fan of computer consoles and that I particularly love role-playing games (RPGs). I’ve spent countless hours immersed in a narrative, guiding my character through missions and tasks. My absolute favourite still has to be Final Fantasy VII (FFVII) – playing as Cloud, leading his band of rebels against the might of the Shinra Corporation and the ultimate power of Sephiroth. The narrative running through this massive 4-disc epic (hey, in 1997, that was huge!) was utterly compelling, with characters provoking genuine emotional responses as you played, hooking you for the full 100+ hours required to complete the game (I wish I still had that kind of time!) This was the first time the storyline in a computer game made me cry. (I won’t spoil it for you, especially if you’re waiting on the re-vamped update due in 2017.)

But RPGs are also about putting the hours in. You start off with a fairly steep curve of learning new skills, meeting new characters and completing straightforward tasks to introduce you to the controls and functions of the game. Afterwards though, comes the hard work. They don’t call it grinding for nothing! Hours spent completing a long thread of minimal tasks or trading with in-game characters or collecting a list of items, usually involving a LOT of wandering around the massive game map and all working towards a single, bigger achievement which is essential to continue your progress through the story line. It feels like everything slows down and it takes real commitment to stick with it. But once you finish that, what a rush! And you keep going.

And that, I have learned, is what research is like.

You’ve read the first few posts, where I’m pretty busy and everything is all new and shiny – meeting new people, attending workshops and seminars, discovering lots of new reading – but lately I’ve been very quiet.

I’m sorry for that but, quite simply, I’ve been grinding.

The first phase of the project has been to create a methodology for charting the signs and symptoms of abnormal mood in Robert Burns’s letters, to test it, tweak it and then apply it across the body of correspondence. At over 740 letters, this has been no mean feat!

It has taken a fair amount of time but, I’m delighted to say, it’s done now. It definitely feels like the first really big milestone of the project. A bit like when you have the first battle with a big boss, knowing that it’s going to unlock the next chapter of the story.

And what is the next chapter? Now I start analysing the results of the charting to look for any patterns that have emerged, as well as thinking about how I start incorporating the evidence from Burns’s friends and family into the analysis. And, of course, sharing the findings.

So onwards. As with FFVII, there’s plenty more grinding to come, but I also know there’s plenty more compelling moments in the storyline. There’s plenty more hours and probably plenty more tears.

Something tells me ‘Academia: A Researcher’s Tale’ wouldn’t sell as well as FFVII…

 

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?”