Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Managing my mental health

I have received positive feedback about previous posts about mental health and so I share some recent experiences in the hope it may be helpful to some.

I have had three significant times where my mental health deteriorated to the point I could not function “normally”. The first was during my Ph.D and the second about 15 years ago. The most recent experience was roughly six months ago. Here are a few things I learnt [or re-learnt] from this last experience.

The decline is often gradual and not perceived or denied.
It is like the proverbial frog in boiling water. It does not notice how the temperature is increasing and never jumps out.

The longer you wait to address the issue the slower the recovery.
Don't think things will get better on their own.

Mental illness is irrational.
That's the point. When I now think about some of the thoughts and perceptions that seemed “real” and “true” to me 6-12 months ago it is sad and bizarre.

Relapse is not uncommon.
If you have had previous incidents and recovered don't think it will never happen again.

There is high causal density. Diverse circumstances and stresses, whether work, family, social, or relational, may all contribute to varying degrees. Hence, the most effective solutions and treatments are likely to be multi-faceted.

Professional help.
Get it sooner than later.
Don’t self-diagnose.
Getting help also relieves the burden on family and friends.

Aside: In Australia (which is blessed with a reasonable national health scheme) a GP doctor can prescribe a mental health treatment plan which entitles the patient to subsidised sessions with a psychologist or psychiatrist.
[Mind you due to bureaucratic errors it took several phone calls and two visits to the Medicare office before the paperwork was actually processed properly…].

I went to see the same psychologist who I saw 15 years ago. This was helpful because she knew my history and issues. Also, I trusted her and knew she could help. I think one simple but significant value of these visits is the accountability to be making changes and addressing issues.

It does not work for everyone. Some people have bad side effects.
There is a debate about whether antidepressants are over-prescribed. Medication should not be a substitute for talking therapies and lifestyle changes. However, medication sure works for me! After several years without, I went back on a small dose of an antidepressant. I still find it amazing the difference it makes. Just a little fine tuning of the brain chemistry....

Some of these meditation exercises may seem like New Age mumbo jumbo. However, when I did them 15 years ago, I learnt for the first time in my life to control my thoughts.
Again, going back to them really helped.

You will get better.
When you are physically ill, whether from flu or surgery, life can seem pretty bleak and it is hard to remember what normal was, and you may wonder whether you will ever get better. It is the same with mental illness. With appropriate treatment, healing usually does occur. But hope and patience are key.

Postscript (14 October).
Things are really getting better.
Thanks for the kind messages from people, including those who have shared some of their own stories.
It is encouraging that the President of University of British Columbia, Santa Ono, is speaking about his own struggles.


  1. Ross, thank you for sharing this personal story about a topic that is incredibly important but rarely openly discussed. Please know that I (and I am sure many of this blog's readers) wish you all the best in every aspect of your life.

  2. Academics is no more as it was some 25 yrs back. Here is an article

    Wish you a speedy reovery.

  3. Ross, Thank you for your honesty.
    It takes courage to tell about these things. I learn about myself reading about this - thank you for that.
    I hope your path has converged to one that is leading up again, and that you'll be able to handle this even better (earlier) in the future, if it comes across your path again.

    I wish you strength to deal with this.

  4. Thanks for the kind comments and best wishes. Things are going a lot better and I feel pretty "normal" now. I am really enjoying my Long Service Leave (more on that later).

  5. Thinking of you often, old friend, and hope you're enjoying the new season of Utopia.

  6. Just huge thank you and sending very best wishes! Mental health is huge issue in academia normally not mentioned - thanks for helping break the silence!

    Support for our PhD students is absolutely vital and the bit about the Australian mental health treatment plan needs to be very widely publicised!