PhD Students and Mental Health


Recently, there have been numerous stories in the mainstream media and in social media about the mental health problems suffered by PhD students.  I’ve been intrigued by the stories partly because I research the history of mental health, partly because I supervise PhD students and want them to do well, but also because my experience as a PhD student was so very different.

The three years I spent on my PhD thesis were easily the best three years of my life up until that point.  I really did have a wonderful time and, had I never forged an academic career after my viva, I would not have regretted a moment.  In fact, that was my plan all along.

Unlike many PhD students, who go straight from BA to MA to PhD, I was 32 when I started my PhD at the University of Exeter.  The notion of completing a PhD, which would have baffled, bemused, and bewhildered the 22-year-old me, gradually came to me as I hit my early 30s and crashed into something of a early-career crisis. I had been working as a careers advisor for a few years and, while my job was rewarding in many respects, the very nature of my job forced me to reflect on whether it was really satisfying me.

When the opportunity came to come to England from Canada in the form of a Wellcome Trust Doctoral Studentship, I saw it not so much as a career change or a way in which to accelerate my previous career, but a career pause.  I wanted to do well – and ultimately did – but I had absolutely no expectations of a career in academia.  Spending three years in a new country, studying something that fascinated me and meeting new people – that would be reward in itself.  And as I came to the end of my studies in 2009, in the midst of the Great Recession and with every academic opportunity seemingly slipping through my fingers, I wasn’t happy that an academic job didn’t seem likely, but I still basked in the glow of what had been a great ride.

And it was a great ride, but not just because of the academic stuff. I promised myself prior to coming to England that I was going to make the most of these three years.  I was ready to work hard, but play even harder.  My week tended to break down as follows:

Monday – get to my cubicle in the Amory Building for 9 and try to work until 5. Take a break for lunch and maybe go to the gym.  If I felt burnt out or jaded, stop.  Attend any seminar series going unless it seemed tremendously dull.

Tuesday – repeat.

Wednesday – meet up with my friend Tindy and go on a bike ride into the Devon hills. Work during the afternoon until about 5.

Thursday – Work between 9 and 4.  At 4, go sing in the World Music Choir for a couple of hours, then go home or to a film at the Picturehouse with my friend JJ.  Or head to London for the day for research at the Wellcome Library.

Friday – instead of working on thesis, work on abstracts for conferences, articles or other things, like the postgraduate journal, Ex Historia. Then go play football on the Flowerpot Field down near the Exe.  Drink and be merry at the Mill on the Exe thereafter.

Having a little too much fun after Friday football

Having a little too much fun after Friday football

Saturday – go on a walk with the Out Of Doors Club.

Sunday – do some volunteering with the Exeter National Trust.

I also took every opportunity to go to every conference and workshop I could, seeing much of the UK and many other countries in the process.  Of course, Wellcome Trust funding came in handy for such travels.

I say that I usually worked from 9 to 4 or 5 (depending on the day), but I know for a fact that many days I wasn’t really working for more than 5 hours.  I didn’t see the point.  I was making good progress from the outset and saw pretty quickly that after about 5 hours, I simply got stupid and needed to stop. During my third year, this routine changed a little as I took on some teaching (unpaid, if I am not mistaken), but I was often only putting in 25-hour weeks.  Despite that, I managed to submit after about two years and eight months.  I don’t say this to brag, but mainly to emphasise that it is the quality of the work you put in that matters and that having a good work-life balance makes most people much more efficient.

I should also say that my progress was aided by three indispensible factors.  First, I managed to get a good start on my PhD by doing a thesis-based Masters and by doing a good deal of preparation prior to coming to England.  This made the 3-year, thesis-only approach of a British PhD much more sensible than spending the first two years of my PhD studies taking classes and preparing for comprehensive exams, as is the way in North America.  I had seen my wife go through this and shuddered, but do think that this model might be prefereable for many British PhD students who do not have a solid PhD research proposal

Second, I had a brilliant supervisor: Mark Jackson. I left every meeting with Mark feeling elated, positive, and knowing exactly what I had to do.  I was fortunate in having a superb supervisor, but it wasn’t just dumb luck.  I had researched potential supervisors very carefully in the year leading up to my PhD, knowing that it was essential to a good experience.  I had met a few possible supervisors, too, and came away not particularly impressed.  I even flew over to Exeter to meet up with Mark and present my research at a conference prior to even applying.  This gave me the confidence that Exeter was the place for me (a cycle up into Dartmoor helped on that score) and that Mark and I would hit it off.  I know that many others are not so lucky.  Indeed, I got a sense of what a bad supervisory experience could be from my second supervisor, who shall remain nameless.

Third, I developed a great support network of friends.  Most of these were not in History.  Although I got on with most of my fellow historians, my closest friends were in Classics and Sociology and a smattering of other subjects.  These were the people I played football with, walked and cycled with and sang with.  I also had my wife, Michelle, who I dragged along with me, despite the fact she was stil undertaking her own PhD studies at the University of Alberta.  The first couple of years weren’t easy for us, and amounted to the only sort of mental strife I experienced.  But, as we travelled throughout Europe together and as she began to make friends and her own career took off, things got much better.

In June 2009, on a bus to Exmouth with a close friend from Canada, I got a call from Mark Jackson.  He said that my Wellcome Trust Fellowship application was successful.  I had had to wait 3 months for this news, as the recession had wreaked havoc with the Trust’s finances, forcing them to limit their spending. As nothing else that I had applied for had been successful, this was my last kick at the can.  I had decided that, if the Wellcome Trust didn’t come through, I would head back to Canada, possibly to my old job and possibly to start my own business (if you can complete a PhD thesis, you can run a business).  I had come to terms with this likelihood, but I was overjoyed that things turned out otherwise.

I write all this not to undermine what other PhD students are going through, but rather to indicate what I think made my PhD years so enjoyable and fulfilling.  I know from personal experience that things do not always go so swimmingly.  During my mid-twenties, my goal was to become a teacher.  It did not go so well.  I worked too many long hours, had no peer support network, had lousy supervisors and eventually got unwell.  I stuck it out and eventually got my degree, but I knew that it was not the career for me.  A litany of failed job applications for teaching jobs sealed the deal.  I went into my PhD studies not desperate for a job, as I had been during my Education degree, but eager to have a fabulous three years.  And I did.

If there are any take-away points from my experience, I think they are the following:

  • Don’t do a PhD because you want to get an academic job (even though they do exist); do it because you’re passionate about something and want to devote yourself to it for three or four years.
  • Take the time to prepare.  Take a year off – the three years between my MA and my PhD not only allowed me to prepare, but also fuelled my desire to continue my studies.
  • Once you know what you want to do, go whereever is the best place to research that topic, which will be where the best supervisor is (and hopefully also where you’ll enjoy living).  Meet your supervisor and ensure that you will get along with them.
  • Don’t drown in your PhD research: go to seminars, join clubs, develop hobbies, take breaks – have fun!  Then, if the PhD turns out to be a disaster, at least you’ve had a good time.
  • Finally, if you can complete a PhD thesis, realise that you can probably do anything else you set your mind to.  It is a hell of an accomplishment that only a small fraction of people can hope to achieve.  Take pride in that.

I have written this in the chance it may help people thinking about or going through the PhD process.  Maybe it won’t help everyone, but at least that has been my intention.  Ultimately, completing a PhD is not for everyone and there is nothing wrong with that.  Life is too short to think otherwise.


The Magic Years


This blog is a shortened form of my BBC Radio 3 ‘Free thinking’ talk.

In the archives of the American Psychiatric Association, is an unfinished manuscript called ‘The Magic Years: The History of Psychiatry, Mental Health and Mental Retardation, 1945-1970’.  As its title suggests, The Magic Years cast post-war psychiatry in a warm, rosy glow, describing how psychiatry had moved ahead unprecedentedly during this period.

Its pages describe how the experience of the Second World War had convinced both psychiatrists and politicians that mental illness was much more widespread than previously thought.  Psychiatry was now thrust into the forefront of public health and psychiatrists were empowered by the development of the first antipsychotic drugs.  Such drugs also gave psychiatrists and politicians confidence that outdated asylums could be replaced with community mental health care centres, allowing patients to reintegrate into society.  It was also a time when psychoanalysis was at its zenith in both psychiatry and popular culture.

Crucially, the manuscript suggests increased awareness of mental illness led to federal funding for new initiatives, which promised to elucidate the specific environmental causes of mental illness, resulting in the very prevention of mental illness.  These were magic years, indeed.

A time of hope and promise?

Describing these magic years was psychiatrist Daniel Blain, who served as medical director and president of the American Psychiatric Association.  Blain embarked upon his writing project in retirement, but never finished it; the manuscript was filed along with his other papers and promptly forgotten.

Daniel Blain, courtesy of National Library of Medicine

Daniel Blain, courtesy of National Library of Medicine

So why was I so excited to find a mouldering, unfinished manuscript written by some establishment psychiatrist as a doomed retirement project?  The first clue is in the title: The Magic Years.  Unlike Blain’s characterisation, most historians who have explored the post-war period have described it as anything but magical for mental health.

Some have bemoaned it for being dominated by pseudoscientific psychoanalysis which stunted the onward progress of biological psychiatry.  Others, have decried the dominance of psychopharmacology, with drugs to treat every slight aberration in human behaviour, from sad feelings to hyperactivity.  In retrospect, the closure of asylums has been described as a disaster, resulting in unprecedented levels of homelessness.  Last, but not least, this was also the heyday of radical psychiatry and anti-psychiatry, where psychiatrists questioned the legitimacy of their profession, its approach to mental illness and, the very notion of mental illness itself.

How could these years be called magic?

The best way to answer this question is to turn to the approach to psychiatry that characterised The Magic Years; specifically to: social psychiatry.  While psychoanalysis was more culturally relevant and psychopharmacology more scientifically legitimate, social psychiatry, a preventive approach to psychiatry which focussed on the relationship between socioeconomic factors and mental health, was the most politically influential approach to emerge in the post war period.  Social psychiatric theory influenced presidents and state governors, prompted mental health legislation and dominated the thinking of leading psychiatrists. However, today it has been largely forgotten, especially in the US, where it had the most political traction.

Rather bluntly, The Magic Years provides me, a historian interested in rejuvenating social psychiatry, the opportunity to reassess and shift the prevailing idea that post-war American psychiatry was a complete disaster.  It supports my claim that, though the implementation of social psychiatry might have been flawed, this was more to do with the broader political, economic, and social context, rather than the basic principle of social psychiatry itself: that socioeconomic factors have an enormous bearing on mental health.

So, why did Daniel Blain choose to write The Magic Years?

Fortunately, I have had help in answering this question.  Blain did not attempt to write the definitive history of post-war American psychiatry on his own. He was assisted by Michael Barton, a PhD student, who went on to become a Professor of American History and recently retired.  I tracked him down to ask him about the project.

Barton described how Blain felt duty-bound to write his history of psychiatry because of his position at the heart of the American psychiatric establishment. Blain was ‘on the top of the mountain, watching everything happen’. He wanted to write a definitive account, an official history that would be taken seriously. Blain’s history was to be a contextualised political, social and economic history, encompassing not only medical advancements and legislation, but also themes such as architecture and voluntary organisations.

Blain saw psychiatry progressing in parallel with other rapidly advancing sciences, from atomic sciences and space science to antibiotic research and surgery.  No doubt there were challenges afoot, but the unfinished history Blain wrote was essentially an optimistic story of progress, advancement, opportunity and success.

Unfinished and unblemished

Sadly, The Magic Years was never completed, nor published.  Grant funding ran out and Barton got another job. Blain had hoped to carry on, but his wife fell ill and died.  He would die himself soon after, his definitive history confined to the archives.

It is a sad story in many ways, but perhaps a fortunate one for historians.  Had Blain continued working on the project, it is possible that his opinions would have changed with the benefit of hindsight, and become jaded.  Had Blain lived longer, he might have seen the fruitful developments he witnessed wilt on the vine, as psychiatry became increasingly biological, psychopharmacological and uninterested in the social context.

Thankfully, in Blain’s unfinished account, we have a valuable perspective, unblemished by what we know now. We can revisit the period and learn lessons about the social determinants of mental health, community mental health, adopting a pluralistic approach to psychiatry and tackling mental illness through prevention.  The lessons are about genuine and full-throttled interdisciplinary academic research and open-mindedness when it comes to mental health.  There was plenty of magic in The Magic Years – Blain’s account helps us to remember that.

Career Opportunities


In a former life, I was a careers advisor, among many other things.  For about eight years, on and off, I provided career advice to high school drop outs, ex-cons, plumbers with bad backs, disgruntled medical students, aspiring medical students, rudderless university students and many, many people who were just seeking a change (eventually I realised I needed a change, too).  While I was working at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (or NAIT), I even published articles on the subject in the peerless publication, the NAIT Nugget, between 2003 and 2006.  I stumbled across these articles recently and had a look at them.  I realised that: 1) even though they are a little dated (Donald Trump was still a glorified game show host back then), much of the information is relevant; and 2) they’re kind of funny (at least to me).  So, here they are, compiled for you!  If you take the advice and it works, please let me know.  If it doesn’t, caveat emptor, you know about free advice, don’t you?

Helping at-risk academics develop their job search skills in Oxford

Helping at-risk academics develop their job search skills in Oxford

A Compendium of Career and Job Search Advice

Life in the UK


I’ll admit it: I have a wee bit of a problem with authority.  Not as big of a problem as some, that’s for certain.  I was able to survive a few months in the Canadian Armed Forces without getting court-martialled, but needless, paternalistic, arbitrary authority does irk me.  It gets my hackles up, makes me defensive and probably not very nice to be around.  As such, I try to avoid it whenever possible (I should say, one of the reasons I enjoy working at Strathclyde is that we don’t, generally speaking, have that kind of authoritarian culture).

As an immigrant, however, authority looms large.  You feel as though you are being constantly monitored, assessed, tested, poked and prodded.  It doesn’t feel good and I don’t like it.  Given all this, I was less than enthused about having to take the ‘Life in the UK’ test, one of the many, many, many requirements of becoming settled in the good old United Kingdom.

But take it I had to, so I paid the £50 for the privilege, as well as £15 for the guidebook, without which, I discovered, it would be difficult for the average immigrant to pass the test, and got my date with destiny.  I was told to show up 15 minutes before my allotted time or have to pay another £50 and to bring the required ID and proof of address.  Now, if you ask me, simply finding the test centre should qualify you for a test.  For a start, the google map provided on the Visas and Immigration website showed that the centre was somewhere south of the M74, about 2 miles away from the actual site in the Gorbals, which is used primarily as a centre for charities dealing with many of the most desperate Glasgwegians.  If you decide to ignore the map and find the Adelphi Centre, where the test centre is located, you are not home free.  There are no signs indicating that there is such a test centre upon arrival.  There are signs indicating all the other services provided on site, but not the Life in the UK test.  Asking at reception got me where I needed to go, but would it hurt to have a sign outside?  Heck, get some local graffiti artists to do something creative.413dVQr53WS._SX350_BO1,204,203,200_

Once you find the test centre, you discover that it is a three-room affair, consisting of waiting room, interview room and test room, complete with computers for taking the test.  As I entered, a lady of African (I presume) origin was in discussion with one of the staff, who was telling her that the bill that she provided as proof of address was not recent enough.  Now, I don’t know about you, but I thought we were meant to be going paper-free.  How many paper bills do we get every month anyway?  We’ve been getting bank statements mailed to us for the exclusive purpose of showing to the Home Office that we still live in Milngavie.  After a few minutes trying to explain the rule to the African woman’s justifiably raised eyebrow, the staff person called in someone from the other room, who informed this poor woman that she’d have to come back again, once she had been paid another £50 and scheduled another date. With a rather embarrassed simile, the staff person then attended to me.  My ID was fine and I was told to take a seat.  I thought about saying something about the ridiculous of the rules for proof of address, but noticed a sign telling me that (and I am paraphrasing) that smartarses would not be tolerated.

As I waited for my interview, I overheard and tried not to see a discussion occurring in the interview room.  A Muslim woman was being told that she had to take her headscarf off so that the interviewer could determine that she did not in fact have any James Bond-style cheating devices secreted away.  ‘Don’t worry, no one can see you in here,’ the interviewer lied through her teeth.  Not only did one of the windows lack any blinds altogether, the venetian blinds on the other window were half-open.  I averted my eyes while the flustered and mortified woman took off her scarf.

Preventing cheating, along with requiring endless proof that you are who you say you are, appears to be the raison d’etre of the people running the test centre are.  When it was my turn, in addition to stating my full name and date and place of birth for the umpteenth time (as if that is really going to stymie someone who really wants to beat the system), I was told to roll up my sleeves, take off my watch and hand my glasses over for inspection.  Now, I, from time to time, invigilate tests.  I don’t particularly like the job, but I take it a little more seriously than most.  Rather than read the Guardian on my computer, I walk around, lazily taking note of what’s happening in the sports hall and breathing in the anxiety.  It is not difficult to spot unusual behaviour even in a test consisting of hundreds.  Why the Life in the UK test staff can’t manage 8-10 people in a small room without humiliating people by getting them to take off their headscarves and smudging their glasses, I can’t for the life of me understand.

It was my turn to take the test.  And all the sudden I was nervous.  What if I, a professor of history who had lived here for 10 years and was a citizen of an English-speaking Commonwealth country failed?  God, how humiliating!  But then I realised that it is not people like me that the test (which has a pass rate of only 70%) is meant to weed out.  No, of course not.  It is meant to trip up immigrants with more barriers to assimilation (read: less desirable).  But, rather than helping these immigrants, who do the shit jobs and have the most work to do to fit in and get by, we add another hurdle by making them pass an idiotic test.

And it is idiotic.  Half of it is history, for a start.  Now, as a historian, I am all for history, really I am, but I don’t think knowing that Oliver Cromwell defeated the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar is really a necessary condition for becoming a permanent resident of the UK.  And I love British sport, but I don’t think knowing that the 6 Nations is a rugby union tournament is really going to predict who will become a productive member of society.  How could that ever be the case?

I finished the test, feeling somewhat confident, but not at all cocky, and awaited my return to the interview room.  After giving my date of birth and favourite colour for the 97th time, I was told that I passed.  ‘Congratulations,’ she said.  As I left the centre, passing drug addicts, ex-cons and the mentally ill, I thought, ‘For what?’  To be able to join a country that focusses more on testing those who want to contribute to it than it does trying to help those have clearly failed to thrive in it?  For a second, I wondered how many people using the services of the Adelphi Centre that day would be able to pass the test, but then quickly realised that that was not the point.  The New Labour politicians and bureaucrats who thought it was necessary to put one more barrier in place to those hoping to immigrate to this country had done bugger all for the strugglers I passed in the corridor.  How disingenuous it was to test newcomers about how tolerant and welcoming the UK was and how ‘illustrious’ its history was when they were failing their own so miserably.

I walked down the Clyde, across St Andrew’s Bridge and over to Glasgow Green feeling angry, frustrated and impotent (emotions that have not been absent as of late given recent events).  I must have had quite a look on my face for the builders and the neds who passed me gave me plenty of space.  But, as I passed the landmarks that had become so familiar, I slowly realised that, although I was immigrating to the UK, it was really Glasgow, East Dunbartonshire and Scotland that I now called home.  It was here that my family and I felt welcome, despite all the messages, subtle or otherwise, that we were not.  And, despite all the aggravation, that is what’s more important.

Justin (time) Trudeau or Trudeamania Mark II


I caught up with some good friends for a drink at the Wellcome Trust recently during a research trip. There were a few new faces and once basic introductions were made, a new face to me – someone late of Scandinavia –turned conversation to politics and Canadian politics in particular. She was wholeheartedly impressed by the new Canadian PM, Justin Trudeau, and his response to forming a gender equal cabinet. ‘Because it’s 2015’, was his very Trudeau-esque rebuttal.
The remark might not quite have had the defiance or, indeed, inherent threat of ‘just watch me’, the most infamous words uttered by JT’s father Pierre, but it showed that something had certainly changed in Canadian politics, but in a back to the future sort of way. I should readily admit to being an unapologetic Trudeauophile. Although the Liberal party is the only major Canadian party I have never voted for (I was even a youthful dabbler in Preston Manning’s Reform movement), I always liked Trudeau, even as a kid. What I knew of his policies, I liked, and his personality seemed to balance all the qualities needed of a leader in a parliamentary democracy where majority governments are common: he was thoughtful and was willing to change his mind about things when appropriate (unlike Thatcher, he did not have the bloody-mindedness of an aircraft carrier without a rudder), but he could also be stubborn when the situation demanded it, such as during the FLQ crisis, and he clearly did not suffer fools gladly. For me, he was far and away Canada’s best prime minister.
PET also loved Canada and had a vision for making it better. He was a quintessentially Canadian prime minister. One of the things that has struck me about non-Canadians commenting about the new Trudeau at 22 Sussex is how very un-Canadian they saw the previous Harper regime to be. What they probably meant is Harper’s mean, parsimonious, conservative approach to everything. While I accept all of that, I also think that the really un-Canadian aspect of Harper’s regime was his complete and utter lack of vision. Even with a massive majority, his masterplan reached only as far as mindless cuts and asserting the sort of tired, unimaginative and dogmatic policies that people on the right unceasingly toss out: deny climate change; get cosy with Israel; ridicule the arts; decimate academia (even the sciences). I might not agree with much of what Manning’s Reform movement stood for now (though Manning was one of the first Canadian politicians to speak out about climate change), but at least they had a vision; at least they wanted to do something! Harper’s modus operandi was neoliberal inertia.
So what of JT? Ever since he delivered his tearful eulogy at his father’s funeral, his path to PM has been clearly marked. Indeed, Richard Nixon predicted his calling long before that. But, rather than becoming a policy wonk like Harper, and nearly every single British party leader, or even a lawyer, as is the pattern in Canada, he went and got a job as a teacher. He got at least a taste of normal life, just as his father did, travelling through India and protesting with nascent nationalists in Quebec during the ‘40s. And while the dynastic nature of his rise to power – not to mention the tragedies faced by the Trudeau family – have a Kennedy-esque quality, I think it’s clear he lacks their unbridled arrogance and ambition. He seems to have been drawn to politics for the right reasons, which is a rare thing. While he appears to have some of his father’s steel, he also has his mother’s humanity, a quality to which Canadians relate.
Like most Canadians, I am hopeful. I also wonder what JT’s influence will be beyond Canada’s three shores. Will he be the first PM since his father to have an impact on the world stage? Will his election, like the last 35 years of Canadian political history, foreshadow what will come to pass in Britain, as it has tended to of late? For Britons who scoff or despair at the election of Jeremy Corbyn, take heed at what’s happened in Canada, not just federally, but also in provinces such as Alberta. Change may well be afoot. Perhaps just in time.

Big Number 5


Tomorrow, I am heading off with my daughter to buy my son a birthday present.  Not just any birthday present, but his 5th birthday present.  Number 5.  It’s hard to believe.  Yes, I know he’s been in school for nearly two months now, enough time to warrant having an autumn break (which he is spending with his mum in Pitlochry), but something about 5 seems big.

I think I remember my 5th birthday.  I am pretty sure we had a party in my basement and that my cousin threw a plastic fork at me that ended up in my eye.  I had to wear a patch for a few days and, every time I go to the optometrist, they tell me that the scar is still there.   I hope Dashiell’s party will not be quite as scarring.  Rather than inviting every kid in school to a soft play circus, he’s decided just to invite his best bud, Aaron.  Unfortunately – for me – we will be going to a soft play place, but I will count my blessings!  We’ll head back to ours for some lunch and cake with Aaron’s family – much nicer than 30 screaming kids in a smelly function room somewhere.

But I’m veering away from the point.  Dashiell is about to be 5.  Half way to 10.  How is it possible?  Five years ago, I had a full life.  I did my work, did my playing, did a lot of volunteering, a lot of singing and had a lot of ‘me’ time.  There’s not so much of that these days, but it is getting a little better.  Dashiell is starting to like some of the stuff I like.  We do RSPB volunteering together and he is the star volunteer: ‘He just gets down to work with no complaints’, the coordinator says.  He is also starting to like a wide range of music.  I played South Pacific for him recently with no complaint, along with Weather Report, Jersusalem Ridge and the Clash.  Stan Rogers and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf are his favourites.  He is a natural on the bike and already is better than me at lego – that’s not saying much, but like I keep saying – he’s not even 5!  While his palette isn’t developing as quickly as we’d like, we have our little victories – yesterday it was sweet potato.  And, quite importantly, he appears to be liking school.

So, tomorrow it’s off to the shops to get some presents. Presents for a 5-year-old.  Scary and exhilarating, but true.

Mental Health in Historical Perspective


After spending a few years editing book reviews for History of Psychiatry journal, I realised that there was a need for a new book series.  You see, I am not someone who is on the pulse, on the ball or particularly clued in.  And I am fairly lazy.  So, if I want to find some books on the history of mental health to commission, I don’t want to go all over the place searching as if I were trying to find a picture of myself at a Dr Who convention.  I’d much prefer going to one place and getting what I need there.Voices in the history of madness

Well, that isn’t really possible as a book reviews editor.  One does have to snuffle about for books to review.  But it is now easier with the launch of Mental Health in Historical Perspective, a new book series with Palgrave, edited by myself and Professor Catharine Coleborne of the University of Newcastle in Australia.  We hope that the series will be the first port of call for anyone looking for monographs or edited volumes in the history of mental health, broadly defined.  The first book we’ll launch is Psychiatry in Communist Europe and we hope many more will follow.  Please do get in touch if you have any other ideas.

Now, I really won’t have an excuse if a book on the history of mental health passes me by…

The Pinkie Resilience Project

Pinkie St Peters School in Musselburgh

Pinkie St Peters School in Musselburgh

It’s been a wee while since my last post (thanks, Nisha, for reminding me – this post is dedicated to you!). But there are some good reasons for that. One can be found in the title of this post. What is the Pinkie Resilience Project, you ask? Well, it’s a bit of a long story…

It all started when a child psychiatrist named Iain McClure heard me give a 5-minute talk on the histor of hyperactivity on Radio 3. I think he said later that he was in the shower, which I didn’t really need to know. Anyway, he was intrigued by my take on ADHD and we stayed in touch, eventually presenting a paper together at a conference here at Strathclyde. One of those in attendance was the head teacher of Pinkie St Peter’s Primary in Musselburgh, with whom Iain works on a regular basis. She liked what she heard from me, Iain and the others on the panel and wondered if we could all collaborate to develop a pilot project promoting good mental health in very young children.

At the time, I thought, uh, sure, I guess so, but didn’t really think anything would come of it (I am quite the pessimist, really). But a day or so later, I saw a call for proposals from the Scottish Universities Insight Initiative addressing reducing inequalities in post-referendum Scotland (this was just before the big day) and I figured we’d give it a shot. Four months later we have £15,000 to run a series of events aimed at developing a pilot project at Pinkie. It’s a great opportunity to make a real difference (dare I say impact) in the community, or at least raise some awareness about child mental health and all its various determinants. For more on the specifics, go here:

Although I really shouldn’t be heading the project (for a great number of reasons), I am, and, as such, I get a say in what gets covered in our programme of events. My main focus as been to ensure that as many determinants of mental health are discussed, particularly at our symposium in April. Nutrition, exercise, exposure to nature and music will be on the agenda, along with some of the more usual suspects. After the symposium, we will hold a workshop where we select the initiatives most suited to Pinkie and think about applying for funding for a pilot. While my expectations, as ever, are not particularly high, you never know what might happen. Maybe we will start to get more clever about child mental health, and children/childhood, more generally in Scotland.

Hyde Park, Chicago


It’s my birthday and I am far, far, far away from home. I’d much rather be at home in Glasgow with my family, but I am in Chicago instead on a research trip that culminates in a conference (more on that later). Where I am specifically is in Hyde Park, a neighbourhood made famous by the current president of the USA, Barack Obama, who is anxiously monitoring exit polls as I type. Or maybe he’s playing basketball. That’s what I’d do if I were him.

Anyway, I’m in Hyde Park, which is probably about the same size as that other Hyde Park. On balance I’d rather be in the latter, though I can see the merits of where I am right now. Hyde Park is a racially diverse, attractive neighbourhood that houses the University of Chicago. It’s the sort of place that makes you forget that 40 people were killed in Chicago on the July 4th weekend alone this summer in gun violence. So far in 2014 over 1500 people have been shot in Chicago. I imagine a few more have been stabbed, bludgeoned and strangled as well. It’s hard to imagine this until you walk into the University of Chicago library and note the sign that asks you politely not to smoke or bring your firearm into the building. In fact, however, you don’t have to wander far from here to enter the neighbourhoods where said guns are as common as wooly hats in November. A reminder that, like in much of the USA, Chicago has its good, its bad and its ugly. It is good to be in a neighbourhood where African Americans appear to be thriving, it makes you wonder about what will take to help all of those living not so far from here to make something of their lives as well.

Of course, such issues have long been acknowledged in Chicago. That’s why I’m here, examining archival material about social psychiatry, an approach to mental health that focussed on socioeconomic inequalities above all. I wonder what the proponents of social psychiatry would make of matters today. Appalled, of course, but equally convinced that they were right.

The Saltire Blues


I don’t tend to get depressed.  Or at least I haven’t gotten depressed very often in the last twenty years or so.  Certainly deaths, the weather and supporting the Edmonton Oilers for the last twenty years can get a person down, but such troughs have never lasted long with me (though the Oilers loss in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006 was a monumental bummer).

This week I was depressed.saltire

It was the 55% that got me down.  The percentage of Scotland’s electorate that opted not to take a chance on change.  While my gloom wasn’t as intense as a colleague who concluded that ‘Scotland is dead’, it was pretty intense.  I thought I could rely on my kids to cheer me up, but they only made me think of their future, and that it wouldn’t be in an independent Scotland.  All that hope that had built in the weeks leading up to the 18th transmuted into just a dead, empty feeling.  I could see it in others, too.  Not surprising, seeing that more Glaswegians than not had voted Yes.

I also felt angry, which in my experience can be a nasty sidekick to the blues.   During the week, I heard of many people whose employers had warned them that a Yes vote might cost them their jobs.  They, understandably perhaps, voted accordingly.  How was that democratic, I asked myself?  And of course those who felt the least secure in their jobs were probably the easiest to convince.  If that happened in a general election, they’d be calling for UN observers.

The real low point, however, came early.  On Friday, we went next door for a party – their daughter was heading for university in England.  We were there with the kids and, after about an hour, Michelle and I decided to head to ours to put them to bed.  She followed suit, but I headed back.  Bad decision.  I caught up with a cadre of fellow mourners (all men – it seemed as though most the women had voted no) and we drank and kvetched and kvetched and drank.  All of the sudden it was early the next morning and I staggered home.  I didn’t think I had drunk that much, but the hangover said otherwise.  I did my best impression of a fire hydrant for the next 15 hours, making me a perfectly useful father and husband.  No, it didn’t feel good.

The gloom finally lifted when I headed off to the library on Thursday to officially start my new research project on social psychiatry.  Maybe it was the smell of musty old American Journal of Psychiatry volumes, maybe it was finally starting a project I’ve wanted to do for a decade, maybe it was the fact that two of my students were in the quiet part of the library with me, starting on their dissertations; whatever it was, I was smiling again.  Hopeful.  The next day I played a game of basketball and the other players commented on my energy.  I thought it was probably that my body had been purged of damn near everything on Saturday, but perhaps it was also a fresh start of sorts.

So, if we’re starting again, where are we going?  Well, having just watched some of the highlights of the Ryder Cup, I have an idea.  It was amazing to see the joy on the faces of the victorious Europeans when they realised they had won.  These, the most solitary and independent of sportspeople, in the most exclusive of games, usually have to celebrate solo.  But the Ryder Cup gives them the chance to compete, struggle, lose and win together.  When they triumph, they triumph as one.  When they lose, no one is alone.  And so it should be.  In life as it is in the Ryder Cup.  That’s why I voted Yes.  And that’s the way forward.