Managing mental health
By Dr Ella Gale.
A paper on creativity found that high achievers in academia tended to have a higher than average rate of mental health issues. There is the idea that mental health issues are correlated with creativity, and, this is something I personally believe. The last few years with the pandemic, enforced isolation, war in Europe and financial uncertainty are obviously taking a toll, and researchers generally, but especially those who work on computers and thus were the last to return to the lab/office have been disproportionately affected. In this blog post, I will talk about managing mental health based on my personal experience.
How not to manage your mental health
My PhD was in the area of computational chemistry, and it was while doing this that I taught myself coding and wrote my first large piece of software - a molecular dynamics simulation software. I was the first in my family to go to university, and I got into a top-flight university where I mostly excelled (I narrowly missed out on a first due to a bout of depression, though) and then landed a PhD there.
The working culture was toxic. I worked 80 hour weeks, which I managed by doing 12-13 hour days. I would get up around 7ish, cycle to work, eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at my desk and then made sure I left at 10pm at the latest, as the department shut at 10:30, and you will always forget something if you’re working that hard. I cut back on my hobbies, quitting the ballroom dancing, martial arts, art and writing societies I used to be a member of. The only thing I did allow was going to the gym a few times a week at 3pm (the part of the day when my brain was at its lowest ebb). The pressure from the group was intense: they made comments about my leaving to go to the gym, thought I was odd to not be in on weekends and I remember trying to get them to go to the pub on a Friday and after asking for the fifth time, getting told it was only 8pm and that I should do some more work.
Do not do this.
When I think back to that time, I just remember feeling grey and things being dark (as in literally, I saw very little sunlight in the winter).
I don’t think it is surprising that I started to feel depressed. Being honest with you, I collapsed into the deepest and darkest depression of my life at the end of it and I felt suicidal. I finished the PhD, but (to save my life, it felt like) I gave up on the idea of a scientific career, despite this being what I had wanted for most of my life. I spent my time trying to heal and decided to try my hand at the other thing I wanted to do as a child: be an author. I wrote several novels and took up photography. I read a lot of self-help books to decide what to do with my life and to try to get to grips with my mental health. I got into (perhaps overly into) exercise, going on long runs and practising martial arts again. I had therapy and was taught CBT, which I don’t think helped me particularly (but it does help some people, so please do not take that as a reason not to try it yourself).
How to manage your mental health
At some point, I realised that I felt resentful that my bad PhD experience had caused me to wash out of a career that I thought I would love, and I didn’t want to feel resentful, so I decided to dip a toe back into the world of science and try getting a post-doc. As I was not entirely sure what the problem had been, I decided to change everything about the job: I chose to go to a former polytechnic that focuses on teaching (rather than a research-focussed Russell Group university), I took a job working with my hands in a laboratory (rather than coding) and I moved away from computational chemistry towards computing.
This worked well for me. I worked hard but I did not do the crazy hours, I think I did closer to 6-8 hours of solid work a day and I discovered that working in this way that I was far more innovative, creative and resulted in more research outputs, and mentally, I was recovered.
Around four years passed, and I started to feel depressed again. I felt like the depression was creeping up on me and would return. And as this happened, I ran out of money on my grant and failed to secure follow-on funding so I was made redundant. I took the redundancy pay and went trekking in the Far East, and then managed to land a job at a university abroad. The job was OK, but I was feeling depressed. People often think the main problem with depression is feeling sad, but it’s not. The problem is the lack of vitality, you don’t feel alive, you haven’t got an interest in things that you used to, and you don’t have the energy or interest in doing anything – including a job.
I was lucky, I had access to high quality health care via my job, and I managed to see a psychiatrist who was able to spend the time with me to properly diagnose my problem. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Bipolar is an illness where the sufferer experiences depression and mania or hypomania (the less serious version of mania). It is very hard to diagnose in a 15 minute consultation with a G.P., as you may need to dig into your history to discover it. For example, questions are asked about your mood and behaviour that obviously ask you to compare to normal behaviour (as everyone gets low and high moods). As I strongly believe that some members of my family also suffer from bipolar, I needed the psychiatrist to dig into what I had actually done so I could learn that some things I’d felt were not normal. Also, bipolar is a disorder with a time-based component, it is quite common for the depressive periods to come back with a rough schedule. Mine seems to be about a year or more of a depressive period, following by 4-5 years of normality.
The best thing about getting diagnosed was that I got access to medicine. I had long believed that my depression was a price for my creativity and intelligence, and I feared that if I were treated for it I would lose that spark. As a result, I had never taken anti-depressants: this was a very good thing as some anti-depressants that are prescribed to unipolar depressives can cause bipolar depressives to swing into mania. However, getting prescribed Lamotrigine was a game-changer, I was able to get out of bed and go to work. I still didn’t feel happy, but I was able to function and keep myself employed, allowing me to ride out the depression.
After I returned to the UK, and roughly a year or so had passed, I was able to take myself off the drugs. And I was fine for around four years, until I started to feel that I was getting depressed again. At this point, I had a name for what I was going through, had been through it several times and I had a treatment that worked, so the return of the depression was far less scary (although I obviously dreaded it). In March 2020, I contracted Covid which fatigued me for months. Lockdowns were brought in, and I was working remotely. Covid made it hard to manage my mood as I couldn’t use exercise to do so until I recovered. I asked the G.P. to prescribe me the meds.
As someone who had suffered from depression before, who had been unemployed whilst doing so, and who was good at working in a self-directed manner (writing those novels), I was well equipped to handle the privations of lockdown. As I also caught Covid straight away, I was concentrating on trying to get better, rather than terrified. But, lockdown was still hard. I walked. I tried not to beat myself up for not being able to run. I met up with friends in the freezing cold to have our Friday drinks. I talked on the telephone and did 'watch parties' with friends (although I discovered that I hate Zoom socials). It’s a been a few years and I have recently come off the anti-depressants again.
Advice for managing your mental health
The following list are things that have worked for me, some are for bipolar but most apply to the more common unipolar depression.
- Don’t overwork:
People talk about work-life balance. It is important to view yourself as a whole person, and as a whole person you need downtime. Without time to think about something else, or sleep, or pick up some new information, you will be less effective. Also, you need to accept that non-work things are as important and valid uses of your time as work things.
- Support network:
You need friends/family. If you have something like bipolar, especially, you need friends who know you and know about your condition to keep an eye on you. Mine are skilled at knowing when to try to calm me down and when to force me out the house. Also, you need to make sure that they check up on you when you’re depressed and that they understand that you might need them but not feel that you can ask them to help. You also need a wider community, they don’t necessarily need to know about your mental health issues, just other researchers to talk to about research issues, or people who do the same hobbies as you with whom you can enjoy those pursuits - they all help.
- Don’t beat yourself up:
It is very easy to get into a downward spiral. For example, when depressed I often smoke, and then I beat myself up for smoking, which makes me more depressed and gets me focussing on negative things (like death and cancer), none of which helps. Try to be kind to yourself.
- Understand that thoughts are not truth:
Feeling depressed can lead to suicidal ideation (literally, the idea of suicide comes in to your mind). It can be very scary, especially if the idea just appears out of nothing. It is important to realise that this is just a thought, not a suggestion. I personally view such thoughts and feelings as a symptom of my bipolar disorder and I view it as something separate from the core part of myself (my ego or conscious mind), something imposed from without and something that I can just ignore. I don’t fight it or fixate on it, it’s more a ‘oh, that thing again, OK, I know how to deal with this’.
If you are someone who finds exercise useful, it is a good idea to do it. It can release endorphins and make you feel better, it can pull you out of a funk and it can help you to be fitter and feel better able to cope. I find that feeling physically strong helps me feel in control. You can overdo it though and use exercise to punish yourself. And, you need to have more than one way to manage yourself, in case you need to exercise to cheer yourself up but you can’t due to an injury or illness.
- Creative work/hobbies/games:
Coding is obviously creative, but if you are someone who enjoys creative work then it is a good idea to make sure there is some of that in your life. Writing fiction, doing art, playing with a new technology / language, playing computer or board games, doing crafts etc. All these things can offer an interactive and immersive experience, which is good for stopping you from ruminating and gives your mind a break.
Taking prescribed drugs is a good idea. It is important to keep a mood diary to see how they are working, and check back with the doctor to adjust dosage or try different options, but antidepressants are a good idea.
I think it helps to walk in a wood, and making time to do things like this can help.
In my case, I am certain that I would have become bipolar regardless of my life events, I think it is genetic. And, in my case, I found that CBT didn’t help me much. But I did find that therapy was helpful for me to talk over my feelings with the diagnosis and what that meant in my life.
- Self-help books:
I found these very useful as they are written in a positive manner, they offer to help you, and can make you feel optimistic, as you feel you’re doing something about problems in your life. I find it odd that I concentrated on learning to be more productive and organised when I was depressed and unemployed, but those skills did help me. (And I suspect that CBT sessions didn’t help me much as I learned most of the techniques from the books I read first).
If you’re someone that is religious or spiritual, then making sure that you have that in your life helps. It also provides community and a support network. Any activities that involve volunteering some of your time and focussing on someone else can help. And, of course, prayer or meditation can help.
- Schedule and organise:
If you’re having problems with depression due to, or as well as having a high workload or pressure then scheduling and organising can help. Having a schedule allows you to fit in the things in this list, and writing them into your diary can help give you something to look forward to, and a habit to do something makes it easier to motivate yourself to do it. Being organised can help. Having a to do list and a done list helps to remind you of what you’ve done (it’s easy to forget when overwhelmed) and helps you to size things. Also, if you do have a problem with work life balance, this will help identify it. A lot of coders work alone or they might work from home, so scheduling coffee meetings and attending them will help.