Saturday, 19 January 2019

Joint Mathematics Meetings 2019, Baltimore

This week was this year's Joint Mathematics Meetings in Baltimore. The JMM is the world's largest mathematics conference -- the joint annual conference of two of the three mathematical societies in the USA (MAA [Mathematical Association of America] and AMS [American Mathematical Society]; the third - SIAM [Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics] meets in the summer).

I have been talking to people in the leadership of AMS and MAA about mental health in the last couple of years, the last couple of JMMs. I want the societies to step up and help build a support network, or some sort of supportive community, for mathematicians with mental health problems.

After last year, the suggestion came up to organize an event at the JMM as a way to raise visibility and to find other mathematicians willing to help build a community. So together with Ian Gent, I put together an application for a panel discussion and recruited speakers for the panel.

Panel Discussion

In the end, there were four of us on the panel:
1. Myself, a tenure-track professor of mathematics
2. Justin Curry, a tenure-track professor of mathematics (attended over phone, because he fell ill just before the conference)
3. Julie Corrigan, who had to drop out of her PhD studies over depression and anxiety
4. Kate Farinholt, executive director of NAMI Maryland.

The panel was moderated by Helen Grundman (AMS Director for Education and Diversity) and by Chris Goff (Spectra; the organization for LGBT mathematicians)

The discussion started out with everyone introducing themselves, and giving some personal background. For me, Justin and Julie, this meant describing our own struggles.
We went on to talk about what colleagues can do to help. I brought up support from my chair, especially when it comes to scheduling so that I can maintain my health management routines. Understanding and respect from colleagues and supervisors was one theme running through the conversation.

Towards the end, the conversation veered into questions of how to handle students with issues or in distress.

Other events

This year the JMM saw a lot of diversity related events, and mental health was included in several other contexts. While I had to miss a lot of what was going on at the conference (by necessity when there are dozens of parallel sessions at any given time), I did go to a SIAM-organized session on diversity among students. One of the talks in that session was entitled Recognizing and Responding to STEM students in Distress. This talk started out with walking the audience through depressive and anxiety-spectrum mental disorders, and how they can manifest - and continued talking about how we, as teachers, can support students that we do notice are going through distressing or traumatic episodes.

Going forward

I have had many small chats with people at the conference: students and faculty coming up to me and talking to me, both immediately after the panel, but also in the corridors of the conference. One graduate student told me he was already trying to organize something similar to our panel discussion, but focused on struggling graduate students. Several have approached me eager to help get the community up and running and to organize us - both senior community members and undergraduate students.

I am planning on setting up a handful of mailing lists, and then to see if I can organize another panel discussion next year. If you are willing to join a panel conversation, contact me.

It has been somewhat nervewracking to organize and participate in this, but it has been incredibly rewarding, and it has been very clear that what we did resonates with a lot of people, and starts work that the community needs.

Saturday, 22 December 2018

Ghost Town

I start to feel on edge a couple of motorway junctions away. This is the town I grew up in, but it’s not home.

I’m here visiting my brother – he and I are what’s left of our family. We walk through the town centre, where the air is full of familiar accents and bad memories. He says I seem distracted, asks if I’m OK.

I’m remembering the smell of the market that isn’t here any more, the name of the shop where we got our school uniforms, the taste of cheap fishsticks. I’m thinking that this is the street we walked down pretty much every Saturday except the one when the bomb went off. How lucky we were not to be there. How lucky we were that the violence was all nonlethal and contained at home. I’m remembering that he’s dead now. We sold his house to a developer, and the developer gutted it to make it sellable. If we drive past it later, it will be different. Maybe there’s another young family in there now. Maybe the dad is violent. Maybe not.

And I’m angry that my mind is going to these places. I resent the space that these thoughts are taking up. I’m furious with myself – why haven’t I done a better job of moving on? I feel guilty for raking over this again when so many people have had it so much worse. I’m ashamed of allowing the past to run riot in my head. I’m embarrassed about startling at every unexpected noise.

Then, finally, I'm allowing it all to wash over me.

I say “Yeah. It’s just weird to be back.”

To Belong

Back to the psychiatrist this week, for a go at a formal diagnosis. I wasn’t expecting this to fix everything, of course. But I had hoped that it would help me make sense of my situation and maybe arm me with some coping strategies. (like Rebecca here)

So here are the diagnoses that were under consideration 6 weeks ago.

(c-)PTSD: Nah. I startle like nobody else I know and the smell of wet pavements gives me an overwhelming sense of dread for some reason but I don’t have the right kind of hyper-vigilance or intrusive memory.

Autism Spectrum Disorder: Inconclusive. I am autistic enough for a psychiatrist to say that I “clearly have autistic traits” and recommend me some self-help books on living with autism, but not enough to be referred to an autism specialist. I wish I were kidding. I really do.

Avoidant Personality Disorder: Yes, according to the psychiatrist. Though I wouldn’t call it that. I’d call it: “I’ve found a way to survive, and it involves plenty of alone time and not having romantic partnerships.” It doesn’t really matter which of us is right, though, because the recommendations for treatment are the same: talking therapy, or nothing.

Dysthymia: Ding ding ding! We have a winner! It wasn’t a big revelation. I’ve known for years that dysthymia seemed to fit, and I have known for ages that the treatments for dysthymia are very much like the treatments for depression, which I was already trying. But now that a psychiatrist has said it, it’s official, and it opens up some new drug treatment options that a GP wouldn’t have given me.

So that’s a start.

Friday, 21 December 2018

A Guide to the Academic Job Market, by Lyra Swann

Just a quick one to present this cheerful guide from Lyra Swann

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

My Dad loves me

This is another guest post by Lyra Swann. Her first post is here
My dad loves me. 

He emails me, he wants to know how I'm doing, he cares about me, he wants me to be happy. 

He offers me advice, he offers money, he reminds me that if I need help then I can call on him. He cries when I leave.

He jokes, he uses sarcasm and play-irritation. He feigns anger for laughs. I laugh along. It's less scary that way.

I can't tell when his mood switches. Perhaps he was always angry. Perhaps he never was. His irritation is genuine now.

I put my head down. I minimise my presence, just as I did as a child. Even the wrong look used to provoke a harsh word, a smack.

I've spent my life trying to please him. And he wants to see me, to have a relationship with me. He'll be very upset if I don’t. It seems like the easiest option.

My dad loves me.

Monday, 3 December 2018

December’s traditions: guest post by Dorothy Donald

This is another guest post by Dorothy Donald

I only went and got sick, didn’t I? I have been as sick as a metaphorical dog. For a week.

And I had been doing OK at the whole juggling-gyroscopes-on-a-unicycle act that is maintaining my mental health. Now my lovely sensible routine is all disastered up and I live in a cocoon of pain and nausea in which I do two things: 1) buy more Lucozade, and 2) tell people I’m sorry but I’m not going to do that thing I promised.

This happens every bloody winter. I think my immune system hibernates.

And this, now, is the dangerous time. When I’m not quite well enough to Do All The Things again but well enough to convince myself that I should. When I start beating myself up for being flaky. When I get overwhelmed with all the stuff I’ve let slide and it becomes too much. When something in me has shifted in a way I can’t explain and everything just feels that little bit harder. When the head-fog that comes with sickness hangs back, thickens, takes on another character. When I can’t quite envisage feeling OK again.

This, now, is the dangerous time. I’m calling in reinforcements.

Friday, 30 November 2018

This Year: Guest post by Dorothy Donald

This is another guest post by Dorothy Donald

Please list publications since last review and planned outputs
Here are a couple of papers that came out just before I… stopped working. My planned outputs are the same as last year’s.

Please list your outputs for REF2020
What? No I can’t I don’t I – what? OK. OK, breathe. I’ve already got this list somewhere and it’s been OK’d by someone above my pay grade. Copy, paste.

List current grant funding, applications made and applications planned
I have no grant funding. I haven’t made any applications this year. My plan is my plan my plan my plan is I can’t I can’t OK come back to this later

Discuss teaching activities
They’re the same as last year. Oh, except we were on strike a few months back, then I did teach-outs. That was good.

Discuss student feedback – highlight examples of excellence
Some of my students like my teaching, some of them don’t. I’m not excellent.

Discuss contributions to the Department, Faculty, University and the wider academic community
Oh Christ, what counts as a ‘contribution’? I hate this.

Discuss other activities and esteem
…esteem…esteem… sounds nice

List your main objectives for the next 12 months
Fuck, I DON’T KNOW. Stay alive? I mean I know last year I said some optimistic shit about promotion and world-leading research group but honestly I just want to do stuff that I am proud of and not feel scared and hurt all the time. Will that do? Of course it won’t.

Any other points for discussion
I’m so tired

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