Stand by your man

On the evening of Sunday 18th November, I was putting the finishing touches to my blog on men’s mental health and suicide, which was to be posted first thing the following day for International Men’s Day.  I was also preparing a talk that I was due to deliver on the same topic that week.  As I tweaked my slides and notes that evening, my husband and I fell silent upon receiving the devastating news that two of our oldest and most loved friends – and neighbours for over 20 years – had lost their son to suicide.  Not only did it somehow seem inappropriate to post my blog as planned the next day, I felt completely unable to finish what I had started to write.  

A week later, and I still feel almost unable to process their terrible news, or to write with respectable distance on the subject.  However, I have decided to edit my original blog, and post it a little later than planned. The brutal reality is that, since the 18th November, approximately 84 more men will have ended their own lives in the UK. In 2017, 4694 men and 1519 women died by suicide. It is positive news that the overall rate since 2017 has decreased by 2.9%, and that the Government has appointed a Minister for Suicide Prevention; however, these figures are still shocking, and also mask regional variations. Wales, for example, saw a rise of 11.5%, and a recent study suggested that Polish men living in Scotland seem to be particularly at risk.  Overall, suicide is still three times more common in men than in women (Samaritans, 2018).

The longer view

When I began research on male mental health back in 2009, few people were talking about it. Debates focused on the long-held, popular link between femininity and irrationality, and on studies which suggested that women were more likely than men to be diagnosed with depressive and anxiety disorders.  During the 1990s, and following on from the emergence of women’s studies, academics had begun to explore the concept of ‘masculinity’. However, even this was controversial from the outset, because, in a world where women still had so much yet to gain in terms of equality with men, the risk was that it might be viewed somehow as anti-feminist. Despite such tensions, a burgeoning scholarship emerged on what it means (and has meant), to ‘be’ a man. Yet, the ways in which men have coped with professional, personal and emotional pressures are still less well understood. My work, which focused on the period from the 1950s onward, sought to examine these factors. In brief, I concluded that there were a number of reasons why male emotional and psychological distress has often remained undetected in the community, leading to the risk that men are likely to reach crisis point without intervention.  For a start, the association between psychological disorder and ‘weakness’ has been particularly problematic for men who most likely feel stigma more acutely than women and are reluctant to admit to vulnerability.  Men have historically been more likely to present with physical symptoms, such as backache, insomnia or stomach disorders, that often have a psychological cause. Sometimes these are misdiagnosed, since they are often ill-defined and do not fit well within the clinical parameters for psychological disorder. Men are also more likely than women to use alcohol or drugs to self-medicate for emotional distress.  These problems often remain hidden, until they begin to cause physical illness or social problems.  If men do seek help for emotional problems, gender stereotyping still compounds difficulties in diagnosis. Female gender still predicts prescription of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication.  In the UK, training for GPs has remained largely unaltered for 30 years – most GPs receive very little training in psychological medicine and are largely unprepared for the kinds of psychological illness they will face in the community. Historically, there have also been widescale missed opportunities to detect poor male mental health at work.   The occupational health model in the UK has focused largely on specific occupational diseases with a lack of emphasis on prevention – exacerbated by a focus on productivity and absenteeism.

Current concerns

Recent research suggests that relationship breakdown, debt, unemployment and economic downturn present particular difficulties for men, leading to the risk of a mental health crisis. It also suggests that services might be inherently feminised, in that women greatly outnumber men as psychological service providers, which might be off-putting to men who seek help. Yet knowing all this means that there is much that we can do and much that is being done.  We know the arenas in which men are particularly at risk, and can therefore educate staff working in Jobcentre Plus, local housing offices and for debt counselling organisations. Currently, various packages of suicide awareness training are available, offered by different providers.  All employers should think about providing this (see links below).  And for those of us not working for an organisation, there is a useful online course, that only takes 20 minutes. For those working in universities and colleges, we should be aware that poor mental health might present very differently in male and female students.  From my experience, female students were more likely to seek pastoral advice and engage with support; whereas, male students were more likely to skip class, fail to submit work or fail to respond to emails. I investigated these students – and those whose grades suddenly dropped unexpectedly – with perhaps greater concern than those who had taken the first step in coming to see me.  We can all play a role in prompting change – as colleagues, neighbours, friends and family members, we can keep an eye on people we’re concerned about, and never be frightened to ask specifically if they have thought about taking their own life. 

And finally

In recent years, the rhetoric of ‘toxic masculinity’ has been hugely counterproductive.  Associating ‘masculinity’ per se with misogyny, lad culture, dominance, violence and sexual aggression means that we risk demonising all men instead of asking important questions about the cultural, social and emotional causes which invariably lead to ‘damaged’ men.  We underemphasise the negative impact of poverty, poor education and lack of positive role models on boys and men.  Collectively, these factors contribute to poor outcomes in male life expectancy and health literacy – and help explain why 95% of the prison population is male.  The current context is also acutely sensitive. The #MeToo movement has rightly exposed longstanding abuses against women that are gravely serious and will hopefully lead to a culture change in some behaviours.  However, there is a risk that the ‘Weinstein moment’ might have the unintended consequence of propelling men and women (and scholarly interest) further in different directions. This would have serious ramifications. Recent debates about the wellbeing of trans and non-binary people have also made these concerns even more urgent. Bullying – and the trend in self harm and attempted suicide among these groups is worryingly high. 

Ultimately, we must not feel afraid, or feel that it is somehow politically incorrect, to highlight the needs of boys and men, wherever they are currently not being met. Drawing attention to areas where men need support is not anti-feminist and does not mean that we cannot keep lobbying for women’s rights in parallel. I stand in agreement with the Samaritans when they say that we can choose to stand together in the face of a society which may often feel like a lonely and disconnected place, and we can choose to make a difference by making lives more livable for anyone who struggles to cope.  

Useful links:

The Men and Boys Coalition

Men’s Health Forum

CALM

The Male Psychology Network

Samaritans

Grassroots suicide prevention training

Pete’s Dragons

Papyrus

Values, skills and purpose

In my second blog, I had planned to write about the skills I’d developed from working in academia. As academics, we know we are great at working to deadlines; brilliant at problem solving; and efficient at prioritising 💪. We ask important questions and understand the relevance of context. We communicate well – and those of us in the humanities usually have a gift for writing and arguing (my husband would agree on that final point).

But as I began thinking about this, I realised that there are now many excellent blogs, websites and podcasts that help grad students and postdocs identify the transferable skills developed through doctorate degrees and beyond (see links at the bottom of the page).  So instead, I’m going to focus on the process I went through trying to establish why I had begun to feel poorly suited to academia and how I could work out what might inspire me instead.  Initially, I was completely confused!  I appeared to have the skills to succeed in Higher Education and seemed to be performing well.  Although the workload was demanding, that wasn’t the core problem. I was managing.  I enjoyed teaching and loved my research.  Why did I feel empty and exhausted? To answer these questions, I sought the advice of Juliette Dyke, a career coach, who turned out to be instrumental in my decision to leave.  The fog and confusion gradually began to lift. Through a series of thought-provoking exercises, I was prompted to reflect, not only on my skills, but also on my values and my broader purpose.  These were difficult exercises and being guided through them by someone who had distance from my circumstances was essential to the success of the process. 

Values

What emerged was revelatory to me. I realised that I’d focused for too long on my skills – I could do the job, therefore things should be fine! I’d wrongly assumed that my values were implicit in all that I did; however, I’d never really taken time to identify what they actually were. From a long list of values, I was tasked with choosing those that were most important to me. In no particular order, they were: integrity, acceptance, connectedness, compassion and humour. The need for continued growth/learning; the importance of leading a healthy lifestyle; and the need for joy were highly rated too. I realised that only one of those – the need for continued growth and learning – was being fulfilled effectively.

Looking back, I seem to have something of a chequered past when it comes to ‘values’.  When I passed my PhD, my Father, in typically offbeat style, marked the occasion by sending me a large parcel containing my old school reports. He said this was to remind me that ‘they were bloody awful’. As the Headmaster noted in my final school report (pictured), intellectual development wasn’t something I prioritised at the appropriate age. What he didn’t mention here though, was the volunteer work I did every weekend during term time.  Pupils were given the opportunity to sign up for ‘social service’ and were paired with a local residential home to befriend residents who felt isolated and alone.  My friend and I visited an elderly lady once a week, providing companionship and support.  I remember walking across the Clifton Downs, every Sunday morning, eating a packet of Garibaldi biscuits, and spending a good hour with this wonderful lady who had no family, and with whom we became very attached.  Evidently, my values didn’t chime particularly well with the Headmaster’s – and combined with my fiercely independent spirit, I got into plenty of trouble. But I’m not sure I agree with him that personal development should necessarily come second to intellectual achievement.  You’ll not be surprised to learn that, in the end, I was ‘better off somewhere else’. 

 1986

1986

In recent years, I began to realise that my need for integrity – and authenticity – was being obstructed by the broad trends in Higher Education. The myriad agendas that drive the direction of research and teaching; national and institutional processes and policies; and the corporatisation of education had led to huge changes, some of which seemed arbitrary or inequitable and left me feeling uneasy. I also struggled with my need for acceptance and connection.  Academia is fiercely elitist/competitive, and I’m not!  I ask a huge amount of myself but have never been particularly worried whether or not that makes me more or less successful than anyone else.  Aiming for ‘stellar’ was exhausting. Let’s face it, at heart I’m just Devon’s worst female driver – an eccentric cat lady, with six children, who loves ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’ and openly admits to seeing Riverdance on stage live seven times all over the UK and Ireland 🤭.  

As William Deresiewicz noted in his controversial article ‘The disadvantages of an elite education’, top universities focus on the brightest and the best, but the ‘brightest’, perhaps only in one sense.  Those with no university education, or those who attend less prestigious institutions, often have a more independent spirit, and may not excel academically because they are focused on projects and priorities outside the intellectual sphere. Graduates of elite institutions are not more valuable than those with no university education or anyone else. As Deresiewicz points out, ‘their pain does not hurt more. Their souls do not weigh more’. These observations had begun to jar with me at a level deep within; however, they were hard to excavate and articulate, because few people speak out openly. I found myself wanting students to experience more ‘real world’ activities as part of their degree - and also to value rest and recreational time.

Finally, on a basic level, academia was frustrating my ability to look after my own health and spend time with my family.  Dina Glouberman, writing on burnout, suggests that we may lose heart in what we are doing because either we change, or the work changes.  From my perspective both were true.  On the one hand, my Mother’s death brought the importance of family, health and joy into sharp focus; on the other hand, academia was moving in a direction that increasingly clashed with my values.  As Glouberman pertinently noted, a lifestyle that once fitted, may no longer do so. ‘This way had come to an end’.  

Purpose

In order to move forward, we worked on my ‘purpose’.  What motivated me? And how I could best use my skills to good use in an alternative field? Connecting with people to promote wellbeing and being an advocate for those who need social support emerged as things that motivate me. I also realised that my unusual journey through the education system had left me wondering what we mean by ‘intellectual’, or indeed ‘education’ -  and keen to raise important questions about this.  The coaching process marked the beginning of something new and prompted me to think of ways to use my skills working in the community - and in freelance writing and speaking. 

*For useful sites on transferable skills, see Jobs on Toast Beyond the Professoriate and The Recovering Academic

 

*My next blog will be in time for International Men’s Day, and I’ll be drawing on some of my past research to look historically at the important topic of men’s mental health and wellbeing.  

Educating Ali

The 21st September 2018 was my last day working as an academic at one of the UK’s top universities.  Unlike many on precarious temporary contracts, my post was permanent, and I consider myself very fortunate to have experienced a remarkably smooth journey through academia.  I was awarded prestigious fellowships; mentored by one of the top scholars in my field; and presented with a host of wonderful professional opportunities – all of which I embraced with passion. I’m therefore mindful of the fact that I resigned from a post that many would gladly seize – and I’m sure that, to some, my decision to leave must be a mystery. I’m deeply grateful to those who supported me and to colleagues I worked alongside for ten years. My journey has by and large been a positive one, so I hope that by the end of this post, my decision will be shrouded in a little less mystery. In future posts, I look forward to revisiting many of these themes again in more detail.

 From hairdresser to scholar

You might notice that the title of this blog is wordplay on Educating Rita – the brilliant stage play by Willy Russell, released as a motion film in 1985, starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters. I first watched this film in 1999, when studying on an ‘Access to Higher Education’ course.  ‘Access’ gave mature students, who wanted to return to education but had not completed A’ Levels, the opportunity to apply to university by an alternative route. Aside from the fact that Educating Rita was a brilliant film, my interest in it originated from a connection with ‘Rita’ (Julie Walters), who begins working life as a hairdresser, but yearns for a more fulfilling life and joins the Open University to study literature.  Frank (Michael Caine), her eccentric and alcoholic tutor, mentors Rita through this emotional journey, which changes her life irrevocably. I too left school at 16 and trained to be a hairdresser on the Youth Training Scheme (‘YTS’), as it was known then.  I married and had my first child at 19, and a second was born by the time I was 22. I can’t say I was as disillusioned with my life as Rita. Hairdressing was fun and convivial, and fulfilled my need for a creative outlet. We laughed a lot and were responsible for many shocking mullet haircuts and terrible perms! At 29, out of curiosity more than anything else, I decided I needed a change of direction. And so it was, at nearly 30, I completed my Access course and embarked upon a BA, joining several hundred other 18-year-olds to read history, full-time, as an undergraduate.  By this time, I had re-married and gained four step-children. My husband had been married twice before and our blended family comprised six children from three marriages, all with different routines, needs, likes and dislikes.  I’m not sure my husband and I quite understood the enormity of the task that faced us, but mostly it has been hilarious – and remarkably, we are still married 18 years later. (That story will be the subject of a forthcoming book!).

 The ‘chalk board’, which has had pride of place in my kitchen for twenty years, documents each episode in the Haggett family drama. The boards will be making regular appearances on the blog!

The ‘chalk board’, which has had pride of place in my kitchen for twenty years, documents each episode in the Haggett family drama. The boards will be making regular appearances on the blog!

 As the only mature student, I felt isolated at university.  However, it wasn’t long before I was captivated by new ideas and theories, which overturned my existing perceptions about life and the world around me.  At times this was exhilarating – at other times disquieting. Like Rita, I was totally absorbed by the process of self-change and intellectual advancement. Like Rita too, this change began to shake my foundations.  Although my family and friends were very supportive of my pursuits, I began to feel distant from them.  They were business people. Why didn’t they want to read the books I’d discovered?  Why wouldn’t they ‘think like me’?  I remember crying at the point in Educating Rita, the movie, when Rita returns home to find that her husband Denny had burned all her books, fearful that he had ‘lost’ the girl he married.

 Life of the mind

Many years later in 2008, having been fortunate enough to secure studentships for a Masters and a PhD, I began work on a Research Fellowship, gradually extending my experience of teaching, research and academic administrative duties.  I settled well into the role, but always had a sense of restlessness and unease that I would forever be that square peg in the round hole.  My domestic life had moved into the new and noisy phase of teenagers.  With boyfriends and girlfriends in tow – overnight numbers sometimes peaked at fourteen. On a Friday or Saturday night, you never knew who you’d bump into in the bathroom. However, I was lucky that my husband did not resemble Rita’s Denny.  He didn’t burn my books; instead, he spent many hours erecting IKEA Billy Bookshelves for me to house my expanding collection. He was outstandingly supportive of my professional pursuits, working long hours himself running our village butchers/deli, while still tolerating my exhaustion, my general crabbiness and my patronising philosophical and political outbursts over dinner.  I can relate to Rita though, when she reflected sadly that ‘I see [Denny] lookin’ at me sometimes, an’ I know what he’s thinkin’ . . . he’s wonderin’ where the girl he married has gone to’.  Indeed, I often caught my husband looking at me wistfully – and on rare occasions (mostly likely when I was being particularly sanctimonious), he used to say that he wanted his ‘old Ali’ back.

 Increasingly, I found that my time available for hobbies and charity work reduced.  I resigned from a charity trustee role that was important to me.  I abandoned my fitness plan – Dr Haggett slowly morphed into Dr Blobby, because there was always something to grade, or something to write that was overdue.  There was always ‘that email’, or a reference request, or the book review that I’d promised ages ago. The research and publication targets loomed large, and the idea that our research should resonate more effectively in the real world emerged as the ‘Impact and Public Engagement’ agenda.  This was something that I loved and instinctively connected with but felt other obligations at work left me with little time to engage effectively with the world outside university. Administration systems that were implemented to make life simpler, in fact made life more complicated. At the same time, professional support services contracted.  Students appeared to be struggling with increasingly serious mental health problems, and the pastoral role that I loved became emotionally demanding. Understandably, the EU Referendum and two general elections generated a tense political atmosphere, which I found hard to endure. I was uncomfortable with the discourse of the ‘expert’ – the outpourings of opinion, which increasingly prioritised intellectual knowledge over the experiences of ordinary people – an approach which, to me, seemed destined to divide opinions further. During this period, my elderly, divorced parents fell ill.  My Mother sustained a frontal lobe brain injury from a fall. She died eighteen months later in considerable distress.  Our house fell down (more on that in future posts) and my 85-year-old Father contracted sepsis.  I drank a lot of wine. My waistline expanded further, and my hair went completely grey. (Thankfully, like Rita, I possessed the skills to dye my own hair.)

 I began to feel disconnected with the ‘life of the mind’.  Although I had developed a formidable set of skills, the work began to feel abstruse and obscure.  My intellectual intelligence was in danger of damaging my emotional intelligence and my creative ability. As John Stuart Mill once said of his own mental crisis, I felt stranded, ‘with a well-equipped ship and rudder, but no sail - without any real desire for the ends which I had been so carefully fitted out to work for’. 

 New directions

My community work, which aimed to improve the psychological and physical health of older men in the local area, kept me grounded. I came home from our group sessions every week feeling nourished and rewarded. I began to realise that I had learned as much, if not more, from those I encountered outside the ivory tower – from those passionate people in the third sector with whom I’d collaborated; from those with the lived experience of mental illness who had so generously donated their time to my projects; from the participants who had contributed to my oral history projects; from my Mother’s elderly friends and health workers who were so kind during her illness – and from my Husband, my friends and my children. I began to wonder if Frank had been right to warn Rita that, in order to become an intellectual, she might have to suppress, or even abandon, her uniqueness. She would have to change.  I had certainly changed and abandoned some of my uniqueness. My old life was less learned, but more honest. I had cultivated ‘knowledge’; however, my wisdom had come from elsewhere. 

 One morning in July, I got up feeling exhausted, to make the 120-mile journey to visit my Father in hospital. I realised that my soul was quietly asking me to change my life. I knew that morning that I needed to leave academia to prioritise my own wellbeing and to work in a field that harmonised with not only my skills, but my values too.  There is much that I will miss about university and remain associated in an honorary capacity.  I will continue with freelance research and publishing but look forward to developing my community work on wellbeing.  I shall be expanding on some of these issues in future blogs and will also be documenting my journey into alternative work.  The blogs will be infused with humour, as I bring back some of that ‘uniqueness’.  Laughter has been my medicine through this memorable journey.

 Does my experience resonate with anyone?  Do you find yourself well-equipped for a role that you don’t feel ‘fits’ you very well? I’d be pleased to hear from you!