Tag: mental health

World Mental Health Day: my story

Note: This is a slightly modified version of a post I made to the Moodle HQ forum earlier today as part of our Wellbeing Week.


According to Heads Up, an Australian organisation focused on mental health at work, there are nine attributes of a healthy workplace:

  1. Prioritising mental health
  2. Trusting, fair & respectful culture
  3. Open & honest leadership
  4. Good job
  5. Workload management
  6. Employee development
  7. Inclusion & influence
  8. Work/Life balance
  9. Mental health support

Just over a decade ago, I burned myself out while teaching, spending a few weeks signed off work and on antidepressants. It was undoubtedly the lowest point of my life. The experience has made me realise how fragile mental health can be, as other members of staff were struggling too. Ultimately, it was our workplace environment that was to blame, not individual human failings.

These days, I’m pleased to say that, most of the time everything is fine. Just like anyone who identifies strongly with the work they’re doing, it can be difficult to put into practice wisdom such as “prioritising family” and “putting health first”. Good places to work, however, encourage you to do this, which is part of what Wellbeing Week at Moodle is all about.

Currently, I work remotely for Moodle four days per week. I travel regularly, but have been based from home in various roles for the past six years. While others might find it lonely, boring, or too quiet, I find that, overall, it suits my temperament.

When I worked in offices and classrooms, I had an idea of remote working that was completely different from the reality of it. Being based in somewhere other than your colleagues can be stressful, as an article on Hacker Noon makes very clear. I haven’t experienced all of the following issues listed in the article, but I know people who have.

  • Dehumanisation: “communication tends to stick to structured channels”
  • Interruptions and multitasking: “being responsive on the chat accomplishes the same as being on time at work in an office: it gives an image of reliability”
  • Overworking: “this all amounts for me to the question of trust: your employer trusted you a lot, allowing you to work on your own terms , and in exchange, I have always felt compelled to actually work a lot more than if I was in an office.”
  • Being a stay at home dad: “When you spend a good part of your time at home, your family sees you as more available than they should.”
  • Loneliness: “I do enjoy being alone quite a lot, but even for me, after two weeks of only seeing colleagues through my screen, and then my family at night, I end up feeling quite sad. I miss feeling integrated in a community of pairs.”
  • Deciding where to work every day: “not knowing where I will be working everyday, and having to think about which hardware I need to take with me”
  • You never leave ‘work’: “working at home does not leave you time to cool off while coming back home from work”
  • Career risk: “working remotely makes you less visible in your company”

Wherever you spend the majority of your time, the physical environment only goes so far. That’s why the work the Culture Champs are doing at Moodle HQ is so important. Feeling supported to do a manageable job in a trusting and respectful culture is something independent of where your chair happens to be located.

So, I’d like to encourage everyone reading this to open up about your mental health. Talk about it with your family and friends, of course, but also to your colleagues. How are you feeling?


Image by Johan Blomström used under a Creative Commons license

Battening down the hatches (again)

Towards the end of last September I wrote a post entitled Battening down the hatches. In it, I explained how I dread the coming of this time of year:

[As] the days get shorter so does my temper…. my productivity and motivation goes down at the same rate as the thermometer.

If it’s not the lack of sun then why (seemingly all of a sudden in the middle of September) every year do I get that feeling that gnaws away inside me?

It’s a really difficult emotion to describe but it’s one I’ve heard others reference: one that says “you’re not good enough”. It’s just an overwhelming feeling of sadness that seems to creep up on me from nowhere.

Autumn seems to be coming earlier. Usually, as my hayfever tails off, the need to start taking my asthma inhaler begins – but this year, they’re overlapping. That can only mean one thing: I need to start battening down the hatches earlier.

Reviewing the things I listed last year that tend to help means I can prepare myself for what is to come:

  • Cold showers – unfortunately the house we’ve moved to doesn’t have a shower and it’s going to be awkward to put one in until we convert the loft. It’s high on my list of priorities, though.
  • Autumn half-term holiday to somewhere sunny – not currently booked as we went away in the summer holidays. However, I am speaking at a conference in Miami in early December.
  • Schedule less time away from home – a lot easier this year than last because of the changing nature of my role at Mozilla.
  • Vitamin D tablets – purchasing today.
  • SAD light – already out of its box in preparation. I may take some preventative ‘doses’ on grey days during this coming week.
  • Daily walks – I’ve started walking every morning, although I may need to change this to midday later in the year.

Of course, the best thing would be to split my time between our home in Northumberland and somewhere like California or the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to be happening anytime, as our children get older and we ‘put down roots’.

Managing my mental health is one of the most important things I can do – for myself, my family, and my employers. It’s all too easy to get into a spiral from which it’s extremely difficult to escape. Hopefully, being mindful, starting earlier, and taking the steps above will make the next six months manageable.

Thanks to those who commented on my post last year with some suggestions:

  • Joel mentioned that changing his diet, getting outside more, and altering some of his activities (less Facebook, less fiction reading) helped.
  • Mark suggested fitting daylight CFL’s around the house to brighten the place up.
  • Jade recommended St. John’s Wort and Evening Primrose to fight off depression – as well as waking up with sunlight.
  • Clint swears by feeling the full force of nature by standing on the beach during a gale, writing more, and watching fun movies.

To finish, a quotation:

In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.

(Albert Camus)

Battening down the hatches

…but it was sunny yesterday so you can’t use that as an exc…

My wife tailed off, leaving her sentence unfinished. I finished it for her:

It was sunny yesterday so I can’t use that as an excuse.

[…]

I know.

She’s right, of course.

I claim that as the days get shorter so does my temper. That my productivity and motivation goes down at the same rate as the thermometer.

If it’s not the lack of sun then why (seemingly all of a sudden in the middle of September) every year do I get that feeling that gnaws away inside me?

It’s a really difficult emotion to describe but it’s one I’ve heard others reference: one that says “you’re not good enough”. It’s just an overwhelming feeling of sadness that seems to creep up on me from nowhere.

While I’m neither bipolar nor suicidal (thank goodness) I’m really glad Stephen Fry wrote this post after the media found out he tried to take his own life last year. People wondered why someone of his fame and success would feel down?

His response:

[W]hat the fuck right do I have to be lonely, unhappy or forlorn? I don’t have the right. But there again I don’t have the right not to have those feelings. Feelings are not something to which one does or does not have rights.

I have migraines now and again, a condition closely linked to mental illnesses. So I can spiral if I’m not careful – just as success breeds success, so negative emotions feed off one another to pull you to the depths of despair.

And I’ve been to those depths before. Almost ten years ago I was off work due to ‘anxiety and depression’. Back in 2009/2010 (my last job in a school) I felt those feelings coming back – so I got out as quickly as I could.

Since having positions that allow me to be more in charge of how I allocate my time I’ve learned to build up some defences. To me it’s like battening down the hatches for winter.

Here’s what I do:

  • Take cold showers every morning because they’re supposed to help stave off depression.
  • Take our annual family holiday to somewhere sunny (Gozo) in October/November half-term.
  • Schedule less time away from home between October and February –  it seems to drain me of energy.**
  • Take Vitamin D every day as it may help with depression.
  • Use a Lumie Arabica SAD light to simulate sunshine for up to an hour a day while I’m working.
  • Update: I also have a Lumie Bodyclock alarm clock that simulates sunrise at a specified time.
  • Go for walks at midday when the sun is at its highest point.

I’m sure there’s more I can be doing. Including, probably, just moving somewhere sunnier. But then, as my wife indicated, it’s not all about external factors, is it?

If this resonates I’d love to hear what you do to help yourself through these periods.

Image of storm at Druridge Bay CC BY Byrnsey


*Until reading Oliver Sacks’ book on the subject I probably would have said that I ‘suffer’ from migraines. I’ve now come to accept that I’m a ‘migraneur’. It’s very much part of who I am.

**Which is odd, given that I seem to gain energy from attending events between March and September.

The Vortex of Uncompetence

I had Monday and Tuesday this week off school. I had a cold, felt lousy, and felt my recently-self-diagnosed SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) kicking in. Just as I didn’t believe that children were born with personalities before we had Ben, I used to think that ‘disorders’ were ways to label avoidable abnormal behaviours. I don’t think that any more. 😮

In schools and businesses we pay very little attention to the fact that it is human beings involved in these institutions and who, as such, fluctuate, change, and are affected by external factors. As I’ve blogged about before, one disorder I suffer from is migraines. There’s no way that those who don’t suffer from these can know what they’re like, of the way fluorescent lighting affects the way I see and think sometimes, and the ‘fuzziness’ associated with it. Likewise, those who don’t suffer from something I’m labelling SAD for convenience can understand what it’s like for a usually energetic and enthusiastic person to completely lack all motivation. 🙁

The stimulus for this post came from reading Dan Meyer’s blog post Wherever You Can Find It, signposted on Twitter by Darren Draper, who stated, “I’m telling you: 5 years ago, I was @ddmeyer. Absolutely no doubt about it” – linking to this comment in particular. The first part of it reads:

And maybe that kind of leadership is enough to staunch some of this new teacher blood, but it isn’t enough to staunch mine.

Because I came here to do a job, just a job. I wasn’t “called” here but I knew that job was essential to the future and polity of our country. That job was too hard. I failed. Then I learned. Then I started blogging. I torched a lot of terrible personality defects on the altar of better teaching. I sacrificed a lot of time to improve. Now I’m good at this job.

How many other professions would tie that kind of growth to zero extrinsic (and particularly financial) reward?

There is no promotion. There is no pay raise. There is no bonus. And lately, most obviously, there is nothing to compensate me for the time I spend elevating student achievement, time which other teachers spend throwing frisbees on the beaches of Santa Cruz with their wives.

As I commented on Dan’s blog, I’ve suffered burnout, depression and the effect it can have on the relationships with those around you whom you love. My advice to Dan and to all young teachers working all hours for the benefit of students is to beware of the Vortex of Uncompetence. It goes a little something like this:

If you can’t see the above clearly (it’s meant to be a little trippy), then here’s the stages:

  1. Identify deficiency – you feel as a teacher that there’s something not right with the system.
  2. Discover community – either in school, socially or online, you realise you’re not the only one to feel this way.
  3. Attempt to remedy situation – you decide to do something about it, working hard to make your lessons and the learning experiences of students, different.
  4. Face barriers – there are problems regarding student behaviour, assessment schemes, line manager comments, or you’ve not got enough time to do what you want to do.
  5. Work at solutions – you work harder and harder, trying to convince others, meanwhile attempting to be radically different.
  6. More barriers – becoming almost zealot-like, you meet a lot of resistance.
  7. BURNOUT – unable to take on the might of the educational system, your physical and/or mental health suffers, along with relationships with people who matter to you.

Some may wonder why I’ve included the ‘discovering community’ part in step two. It’s a case of wanting to be seen to ‘walk the walk’ as well as ‘talk the talk’. When you’ve committed to something, staked out your claim as a believer, you’ve got to act in a way that’s befitting. Sometimes, this can engender more problems than if you’d slowly tried chipping away at things over time – evolution, not revolution.

Why Vortex of Uncompetence? It’s a tongue-in-cheek term I’ve made up, probably after reading too much Dilbert. Teachers who go down this road are not incompetent – far from it. But then, they’re not competent in the ways expected for traditional teachers. They’re uncompetent: they refuse to be held to the standards set by the majority view in education. It’s easy to get sucked into the vortex and, as a husband and father I can’t afford to be pulled into it again. I’m trying to position myself as a catalyst for fast-paced evolution. Almost everyone resists revolution – the status quo is just too comfortable… :-p

Do YOU recognise yourself or anyone else entering the Vortex of Uncompetence?

(the Vortex of Uncompetence is based on an original image by ClintJCL @ Flickr)

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