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Why we need our academics.

Several times recently, the fears of learned men and women have fuelled my own fears regarding academia in post-Brexit Britain. During this week’s House of Lords debate, Professor of Science and Society, Lord Robert Winston, spoke passionately about how the UK was “bleeding great minds” as academics left the country. On Tuesday The Guardian newspaper reported the story of a French scientist who’d lived and worked here for the last 20 years but with no certainty in the future he is taking his family to settle in Scandinavia.

This country has rightly held it’s head high in a world where knowledge is power, yet the continued justification of that sense of pride is uncertain now that politicians are turning their backs on academic integrity. The future needs academia in general and science in particular, yet on recent US and UK political platforms truth was replaced with alternative facts and we were told that the we were all “tired of experts”.

This dumbing down of intellect is insulting to us as human beings and toxic to our futures.

There is hope. We still have a great many intelligent and creative individuals who call the UK home. We all need to get behind them and give them our support. We need to raise them up as role models who will inspire young people to emulate them. Fortunately some of these have become regulars on our TV screens, presenting exciting and informative documentaries on a wide range of subjects through the sciences, arts and humanities.

Some of these presenters buck academic traditions by having youth and good looks on their side, some have memorable voices, excitement, good humour or wisdom as part of the package. What they all have in common is a passion for their subjects and a strong desire to communicate to others. These people are not just dry academics, they are teachers with the rare skill of being able to deliver difficult concepts in a meaningful way. They are not just popularising a subject, they are democratising it. Their passion is infectious and we buy into their world just as we would any high street brand. We get to know them, like them and follow them. Of course once we are following them we are able to share the love by becoming advocates for them and their topics. Who among us has not spent a lifetime learning about the natural world from Sir David Attenborough? His knowledge, passion and schoolboy enthusiasm have inspired us and of course have sold dozens of awesome tv series and millions of beautiful books.

It was people like David Attenborough, Jacob Bronowski, Carl Sagan, and Patrick Moore who inspired me to become a scientist and a school teacher, but these are different times. Now, more than ever we need young people to follow academic pursuits. The current breed of tv academics are true celebrities and we need to raise them up so that they can continue to teach and inspire as many others as possible. It is fortunate that this group are quite representative of the diverse UK population. Although most were born in Britain, they represent diverse genders and cultural backgrounds thus breaking academic stereotypes too.

Below are a few of my favourites, but I’m sure you could all add more.

For History we have: @Lucy_worsley, @wmarybeard, Dan Snow @thehistoryguy, Dan Jones @dgjones, and @DrJaninaRamirez

 

For science, we have: Astrophysicist, @ProfBrianCox, Physicist, @jimalkhalili, Medic, @Kevin_Fong, Ethnobotanist, James Wong – @botanygeek, Anatomist, @DrAliceRoberts Mathematician, @MarcusduSautoy and astronomer Maddie Aderin-Pocock.

This last scientist is not only an astronomer and engineer but as a black, dyslexic, woman, she has broken so many preconceptions in her field and is a true inspiration to so many people. Maddie is the current anchor woman on the long running Sky at Night tv series.

As you may have deduced from the lists above, there is a new facet to the life of the celebrity academic, namely their use of social media. Regular readers will know the importance I put on social media as a means of communicating with a wide variety of people. Likewise those academics who create a proper social media platform are able to promote both their personal ‘brand’ and their subject. This works on the ‘know me, like me, follow me’ principle where loyal followers come to know their person of interest in a way that previous generations could not. These followers then become true advocates, spreading the message to an ever wider audience.

I personally follow a great many academics across a wide spread of subjects. Once I am certain of their academic integrity and their passion for sharing, I am happy to become an advocate for them and their work. As an author myself (@TJMasters) I have benefitted enormously from the advocacy of my many loyal readers on social media so it’s only fair that I use my platform to share the work of those I admire. It’s hard to single out any favourites but I would like to end by spotlighting two of my hero academics: Janina Ramirez and James Wong. This choice is based on the fact that aside from all other considerations, these two engage with their social media followers on a daily basis. Both are young, good looking and passionate about their respective subjects. Both are great tv presenters/broadcasters who smile continuously while speaking. Both follow the facts methodically and endorse their teaching with evidence. At the same time neither one is shy about delivering an educated opinion.

James Wong (@botanygeek) is an ethnobotanist, broadcaster and science writer with a passion for plants and food. Currently on a mission to sweep away misinformation about nutrition from plants, James is a scientist grounded in the traditions of scientific facts, derived from rigorous enquiry and experimentation. Having heard James lecture and met him personally I can attest to his great charm, easy personality and a devotion to his subject which makes him a natural educator. Follow James on his website and for daily updates on Facebook and Twitter.

Dr Janina Ramirez is an Oxford based, Art & Cultural Historian who is the antithesis of most people’s idea of an historian. Whether sharing her expertise in art, Literature, or medieval history, her style is fresh, informed and enthusiastic. Another daily communicator on Twitter and Facebook, Dr Ramirez balances rearing a young family with an enviable work ethic and a ready smile. Her recent tv appearance presenting The Search for the Lost Manuscript: Julian of Norwich was a wonderful, scholarly,yet very human story. (Website)

For me, James and Jenina represent just the type of young, passionate academics that this country needs many more of  and we need to value them all, not drive them away.

Blue Monday Survival Tips

As the third Monday in January, today is designated as Blue Monday, the most depressing day of the year.

Following all the merrymaking in December, January is usually cold, grey and bleak. You set off to work in the dark and you return home in the dark. All the overspending and overindulgence of Christmas starts to come back and bite us. We attempt to eat healthy, spend less and drink little. The credit card bills are dropping through the letterbox and the rest of the month still seems far away. Energy levels are low, sadness and depression descend and a lack of motivation puts paid to those resolutions, thus adding guilt to the mix.

This is no time for lectures so here are just a few simple ideas to inspire you to rise above the gloom:

  1. Keep those resolutions simple, realistic and achievable.
  2. Make the most of any natural light by going out for a lunchtime stroll.
  3. Eat a balanced diet avoiding short term stimulants such as coffee, sugar or alcohol.
  4. Get plenty of good quality sleep.
  5. Build some physical activity into every day.
  6. Change your physical environment at work or at home. Avoid shadows and work near windows.
  7. Get creative. Write, draw, paint, colour, sew, knit, craft, dance, SING!
  8. Engage with others. Listen more than you talk. Laugh a lot.
  9. Have music in your life.
  10. Read for enjoyment, for relaxation, for development.

No Day HAS TO BE blue!

Mindful Monday: You Don’t understand.

I have written a lot about depression this year. There has also been much more publicity about the subject in the past year and yet for too many people it remains a taboo subject, poorly understood and readily dismissed. This situation makes it difficult for those suffering from depression to talk about it. Most people still don’t fully understand depression unless they have experienced it first hand and so there are many misconceptions about it:

  1. You don’t look depressed. Depressed people are very good at hiding their symptoms so don’t be surprised that you didn’t know.  For some this causes it’s own challenge because those who find the strength to talk about their depression may find that others discount it because have not seen and signs of it.
  2. That’s not what depression is. Just because you have read about depression or a depressed friend has described their symptoms to you, don’t assume that you understand all depressions. This condition comes in many different forms and may not always present itself in the way that you think it should. Many people still think that the depressed have no interest in anything, are completely withdrawn and are unable to get out of bed. where depression sufferers don’t fit this image they are often not believed.
  3. So are you always sad? Sadness can often accompany depressionMan-with-depression but most depressed people describe themselves as detached from everything and simply feeling nothing at all.
  4. You are a positive thinker so just decide to be happy. It does not work like that. Depression is a real medical illness, an imbalance in the chemistry of the brain. You can lessen the symptoms but you cannot just wish it away or think your way out of it.
  5. Come on just get up you’ll be okay. If only it was that easy. As already described, a common symptom of depression, is having a numb feeling with no interest in anything at all. For this reason it often appears as if there is no point in getting up. In fact this can lead to a feeling of chronic fatigue leaving you without the physical strength to do anything.
  6. I thought you were going to talk to someone about this? For many sufferers the desire to ask for help comes and goes with many thinking that to do so will mean appearing weak. Unfortunately that feeling is all too often confirmed by the reactions of others. The depressed need to understand that there is strength in disclosure.
  7. But I love you so let me fix you. Love cannot fix a head cold or a broken rib so it cannot cure depression. Loved ones however can be an enormous positive support just by being there without judging. The flip side of this is that the depressed person may already be feeling guilty because they want to get better for the one they love.
  8. I’ve heard that exercise can cure it? There is no magic bullet so no exercise will not cure it. For some it does help since it increases serotonin levels in the brain. Putting this kind of pressure on a sufferer who is unable to exercise can feel like blame and add to the stress.
  9. Why are you scared of it? Because I hate not being in control. I hate not feeling myself, but I just don’t know how to get over it. It really frightens me.
  10. What do you mean you want to give up? The suicide rates are really high among the depressed because they just become exhausted struggling against this thing every day. They can tire of fighting a battle that they don’t seem to be winning. The sufferer may end up feeling that it would be better for everyone if they just gave up.

Mindful Monday: Take a Breath

A couple of weeks ago I talked about some simple techniques for focusing the mind (Season of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness) Those techniques took advantage of nature and the beautiful Autumn season. Today I want to describe a simple, easy to master, technique which also dispels the notion that you need to set aside long periods of time for mindfulness meditation.

The Three Minute Breathing Space.3

First minute: First of all you need to focus on your location. Whether you are sitting on a cold garden bench or a warm fireside chair just pay close attention to where you are and what bodily sensations you are feeling.

Second minute: Now shift your attention to your breathing. Be aware of it but if your mind wanders (perfectly normal) first acknowledge where it has drifted too and then gently pull it back to the present moment.

Third minute: Once your attention has settled on your breathing, the next minute is spent moving your attention to the effects of your breathing has on your body as a whole. Notice the feeling of your lungs filling and emptying and the way that you chest and ribs expand and contract.

That’s all there is to it. Three minutes of your time and a breathing space just for you. Let it become a regular daily activity. Go on, give it a go.

Mindful Monday: Coping with Stress

I have written before about strategies for coping with stress and there are probably as many hints about this as there are stressed people. When I came across a teacher’s list a couple of months ago I knew it would be worth reproducing at some point.

Psychology teacher Brett Phillips has been handing out this typewritten list to his new class at the start of the school year for many years now. He understands how stressful teenage life can be and wants to help them to learn simple ways of coping. The difference this year is that one of his California High school pupils shared the list on Twitter and it quickly went viral.

I am reproducing the complete list here with grateful thanks to Mr Phillips and to his student, Alina Ramirez who brought his work to our attention. I believe that this applies to a lot more people that just Californian teenagers:-
  • Get up 15 minutes earlier
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    SMILE!

  • Prepare for the morning the night before
  • Avoid tight-fitting clothes
  • Avoid relying on chemical aids
  • Set appointments ahead
  • Don’t rely on your memory… write it down
  • Practice preventative maintenance
  • Make duplicate keys
  • Say “no” more often
  • Set priorities in your life
  • Avoid negative people
  • Use time wisely
  • Simplify meal times
  • Always make copies of important papers
  • Anticipate your needs
  • Repair anything that doesn’t work properly
  • Ask for help with the jobs you dislike
  • Break large tasks into bite-size portions
  • Look at problems as challenges
  • Look at challenges differently
  • Unclutter your life
  • Smile
  • Be prepared for rain
  • Tickle a baby
  • Pet a friendly dog/cat
  • Don’t know all the answers
  • Look for a silver lining
  • Say something nice to someone
  • Teach a kid to fly a kite
  • Walk in the rain
  • Schedule play time into every day
  • Take a bubble bath
  • Be aware of the decisions you make
  • Believe in yourself
  • Stop saying negative things to yourself
  • Visualize yourself winning
  • Develop your sense of humor
  • Stop thinking tomorrow will be a better day
  • Have goals for yourself
  • Dance a jig
  • Say “hello” to a stranger
  • Ask a friend for a hug
  • Look up at the stars
  • Practice breathing slowly
  • Learn to whistle a tune
  • Read a poem
  • Listen to a symphony
  • Watch a ballet
  • Read a story curled up in bed
  • Do a brand new thing
  • Stop a bad habit
  • Buy yourself a flower
  • Take time to smell the flowers
  • Find support from others
  • Ask someone to be your “vent-partner”
  • Do it today
  • Work at being cheerful and optimistic
  • Put safety first
  • Do everything in moderation
  • Pay attention to your appearance
  • Strive for excellence NOT perfection
  • Stretch your limits a little each day
  • Look at a work of art
  • Hum a jingle
  • Maintain your weight
  • Plant a tree
  • Feed the birds
  • Practice grace under pressure
  • Strand up and stretch
  • Always have a plan “B”
  • Learn a new doodle
  • Memorize a joke
  • Be responsible for your feelings
  • Learn to meet your own needs
  • Become a better listener
  • Know our own limitations and let others know them, too
  • Tell someone to have a good day in pig Latin
  • Throw a paper airplane
  • Exercise every day
  • Learn the words to a new song
  • Get to work early
  • Clean out one closet
  • Play patty cake with a toddler
  • Go on a picnic
  • Take a different route to work
  • Leave work early (with permission)
  • Put air freshener in your car
  • Watch a move and eat popcorn
  • Write a note to a faraway friend
  • Go to a ball game and scream
  • Cook a meal and eat it by candlelight
  • Recognize the importance of unconditional love
  • Remember that stress is an attitude
  • Keep a journal
  • Practice a monster smile
  • Remember you always have options
  • Have a support network of people, places and things
  • Quit trying to fix other people
  • Get enough sleep
  • Talk less and listen more
  • Freely praise other people

Bonus: Relax, take each day at a time… you have the rest of your life to live.

Season of Mists and Mellow Mindfulness

Mindful Monday: Autumn (with apologies to John Keats).7ed7db5c469d22bc3a21b807d664f8e8

After a busy Summer season, Autumn/Fall is the ideal time to slow down and still our minds. In a feast for the senses we are made aware of our surroundings. Rich leaf colours or flocks of migrating birds flood the sight. The sound of leaves underfoot while frost glistens on the grass and mist pools in hollows and along waterways. All these things call us to be mindful of our surroundings and our place in the here and now.

Mindfulness not only helps to keep us grounded but it has proven benefits to both mental and physical health. Simple techniques can teach us to focus in on the present moment rather than shutting it out as more traditional meditation might do.

Perhaps the simplest of these techniques is the walking meditation. Just take a leisurely stroll even if you only allow an extra few minutes going to or from work. Be aware of those things which stimulate the senses. What is it which catches your eye or triggers some memory or sensation? Don’t try to change these thoughts, just observe them and be aware of the feelings that they create in you.

Another simple technique involves using just one of your senses. While you are out walking or even when sitting relaxing quietly, be aware of all the sounds around you. Outdoors it may be the sounds of rustling leaves, tree branches moving in the wind, birdsong or flowing water. Try shifting your attention just to the area in front of you. Now to the area behind you. Try shifting it to the right and then the left of you. How do the sounds change?  Of course these natural sounds change in time and so are different at any one moment. This is a great way to attend to the present moment before it moves on to the next.

Try these simple things and let me know how you get on.

The Gift of Time

 

This summer I was fortunate enough to cross the Atlantic9c9d2cd02e699e189d853f42585334df on the incomparable ocean liner Queen Mary 2. Every morning on the ship’s TV channel  our Cruise Director Paul O’ Loughlin had a breakfast show and he always ended it with a positive thought for the day, just as I try to do with my morning Facebook posts. One morning he read a piece called Value The Present which struck a chord with me. I’ve heard the content before in other forms but I liked this and sought Paul out. He was more than happy to give me a copy which he said came from a business conference he’d been on although he did not know its origin. I’ve read it several times since but would really like to share it with you, my friends.

 

Imagine there is a bank that credits your account each morning with £86,400.

It carries over no balance from day to day.

Every evening it deletes whatever part of the balance you failed to use during the day.

What would you do?

Draw out every penny, of course!

Each of us has such a bank.

Its name is TIME.

Every morning, it credits you with 86,400 seconds

Every night, it writes off as lost, whatever of this you have failed to invest to good purpose.

It carries over no balance.

It allows no overdraft.

Each day it opens a new account for you.

Each night it burns the remains of the day.

If you fail to use that day’s deposits, the loss is yours.

There is no going back.

There is no drawing against ‘tomorrow’

You must live in the present day’s deposits.

Invest it so as to get from it the utmost in health, happiness and success.

The clock is running.

Make the most of today.

To realise the value of ONE YEAR, ask a student who failed an exam.

To realise the value of ONE MONTH, ask the mother who gave birth to a premature baby.

To realise the value of ONE WEEK, ask the editor of a weekly newspaper.

To realise the value of ONE HOUR, ask the lovers who are waiting to meet.

To realise the value of ONE MINUTE, ask a person who just missed a train.

To realise the value of ONE SECOND, ask the person who just avoided an accident.

To realise the value of ONE MILLISECOND, ask the person who won a silver medal at the Olympics.
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Treasure every moment that you have.

Treasure it more when you have shared it with someone special,  special enough to spend your time with.

Remember that time waits for no-one.

Yesterday is history.

Tomorrow is a mystery.

Today is a gift.

That’s why we call it THE PRESENT.

Goal Setting

Or – Tell me what you want, what you really really want.1424555_604448232945474_114601826_n

How are you doing with those New Years resolutions? This weekend marks the time of the month where statistically speaking, most people start to fail on those resolutions made just ten days ago. Resolutions are soft fluffy things that just don’t survive in the real world. We need something stronger and more resilient, something in which we can engage with and have an emotional investment in. We need solid goals.

We live in a rapidly changing world which can generate a feeling of helplessness when we are not in control of our own path through the craziness! As a life coach it is my job to be your guide on that journey and the first thing we must establish are the goals, so that your journey has a destination.

To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you are going, so that you better understand where you are now and so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.

-Steven Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Without Goals we cannot be in control of our own destiny and we will tend to drift from crisis to crisis on waves of uninspired intuition. Once we set some goals we have purpose, drive and we can make good choices. We can start to develop our own path towards happiness and fulfilment. These goals must not be vague or woolly. So often when we ask anyone what they want the first response we get is a list of what they DON’T want! We need to delve deeper and ask searching questions to get to ‘what you really really want!’ It is essential that your goals are challenging, achievable and measurable.

Are you in earnest, seek this very minute. Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Just begin and the mind grows heated. Continue and the task will be completed.

-Goethe, Faust.

Our goals must be SMART:

SPECIFIC – This can be the most challenging part of the process, requiring deep questioning to arrive at one clear phrase or sentence which is personal and  positive so that it fires the imagination.

MEASURABLE – It makes sense that any meaningful goal must have some measurable objective, such as weight loss achieved, book written or salary earned. Some goals may not have such a clearly defined end point, but it may help to set the goal in the present tense so that you can say that the goal is achieved “When I am …” One example for a confidence goal might be “When I am speaking to people in a much more confident and relaxed way”

AGREED – Goals should be written down. They must be congruent with your personal values and beliefs and they must be morally and legally acceptable. There should be an understanding of why your goals are important to you. Of course, just setting goals will improve nothing unless there is a commitment to action. Part of the process must be a set of actions that you need to take in order to achieve your goals.

REALISTIC – There is nothing to be gained by setting goals which are not achievable. If you are a heavy smoker, very overweight and not used to physical training, would it be realistic to set a goal to compete this years Olympic Games in Rio?

TIMED – All goals should have a start date date and a finish date in order to focus the mind and fire the imagination. It may also be useful to set specific  ‘step goals’ along the way in order to measure progress towards the end goal and fulfilment.

 I dream my painting and then I paint my dream – Vincent van Gogh

Going through life without goals is like trying to sail a boat without a rudder. You will be at the mercy of outside forces controlling your destiny for you.  How often have you heard the phrase ‘Fail to plan and you plan to fail’ ? Take all the time you need to set meaningful goals which have emotional power for you, then take action to achieve your dreams.

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Mindful Monday: Men and Depression #5

Getting help and helping yourself.

In this final part of my look at anxiety, depression and suicide in men, I intend to cover what you can do once you have recognised that there is a problem. In the first four parts I tried to give an evidence-based overview of the issues. While this final part is also based on my research of the subject, it is also a quite personal view based on my own experiences.

It will surprise many who know me to learn that I have been suffering from depression for the past two years. I spent most of that time trying to convince myself that as a life coach I should be able to talk myself out of it. I finally sought the help of my GP just two months ago and now wish that I had done it a lot sooner.

Men need UHT.

No, I don’t mean UHT milk. I have stolen the acronymbigstock-depressed-man-sitting-on-top-o-48751034 to explain the process which I believe all depressed men need to go through:

  • Understand
  • Help
  • Talk

First you need to understand what is happening. You are not weak or less manly. You have certainly not failed anyone. Your depression is most likely to be the result of chemical changes in your brain. It could also be the result of your efforts to cope with life in an increasingly demanding and stressful world or it could be a mix of both of these elements.

Once you understand the nature of your depression as an illness it should be easier to seek help. If you broke your leg or contracted some disease you would seek professional help. Depression should be seen in exactly the same way and it is nothing to be ashamed about.

Talking about your feelings is without doubt the single most important step on the road to recovery. I would say that the two most important people you need on your side will be your partner or a close friend and your GP. It is important to talk openly and honestly with both of them.

My partner had no idea that I was suffering with depression until I told him two months ago. Since then he has been an absolute star and way more supportive than I had expected. I do believe that even if they are not directly part of your recovery plan it is wise to have somebody who is at least aware of what is happening. When you are ready to ask for professional help, put some thought as to which doctor in your practice you can see most regularly and who you feel most comfortable with.

Be aware that doctors are often slow to diagnose depression in men simply because the patient is more likely to describe his physical symptoms and not his feelings or anxieties.

Self-help

There is quite a lot that most men can do to help themselves. None of the following things are a cure and they should not to replace medical help.

  1. Talk to someone. Tell somebody how you are feeling and what is happening. This is especially important if there has been any kind of trauma such as a bereavement or a relationship split which has caused a major upset in your life.
  2. Sleep. For many people with depression this can be a great cause of anxiety. You need to rest and get as much uninterrupted sleep as you can. If you can’t sleep don’t try to force it. Do something relaxing that you enjoy. Try reading, listening to music or the radio but avoid watching television if possible. You might also get some positive results from light exercise, massage or even some light yoga.
  3. Treat yourself. Try to build in some regular time in your daily life to do something which you really enjoy whether it be a hobby, exercising or simply reading a good book.
  4. Drinking is not the answer. Alcohol may make you feel better for a short while but in the long run it will increase your depression. Of course, the same applies to illegal drugs, particularly amphetamines, ecstasy or cocaine.
  5. Try to get out of doors and do something active when you can. This is not just for the sake of your fitness but it can help to distract you from depressing thoughts and feelings and will also help you to sleep better.
  6. You should try to eat a balanced diet with plenty of healthy nutritional foods even if you are not feeling particularly hungry. Depression can lead to not eating and therefore missing out on essential vitamins, or it can lead to binge eating or the consumption of junk food causing weight problems.
  7. Take a look at your work load. Can you set yourself more realistic targets? Can you structure your day or your week to be kinder to yourself? Are you the kind of perfectionist who tries to lose yourself in your work in order to avoid the real world?
  8. Get away. Taking time out for yourself can be hugely beneficial whether it’s getting away from your normal routine for a few hours or better still a few days. Check out those weekend breaks.
  9. There are many books and websites where you can read about depression. Sometimes researching medical conditions online can appear to make things worse than they really are, but in the case of anxiety and depression these sites and books can be very beneficial. Not only can they give you a variety of strategies to use, but they may also help friends, relatives or colleagues to understand what you are going through.
  10. Sometimes when you are depressed, self-help is not so easy. It may be beneficial for you to seek out a support group where you can talk to other men in similar situations. Your GP may be able to point you in the right direction or you may find local organisations who can help with this.

Man-with-depressionEven if you engage in any or all of these self-help strategies you should at some point see your GP. Be completely transparent and honest since this will help the doctor to deliver the best help for you. Depending on the severity of your illness the GP may suggest one of three basic options, or a combination of these.

  • Self-help: this may be in the form of an exercise program, reading, or online therapy course.
  • Talking therapies, such as psychotherapist or counsellor.
  • Medication

Many men dislike the idea of psychotherapy or antidepressant medication but I have found both to be highly effective and neither has to be permanent.

Of course your GP is also best placed to know if your depression is linked to any physical condition which is often the case.

Self-harm and suicide are tragic consequences of untreated depression. As we have already seen, men are three times more likely to kill themselves than women. It is also more likely among men who are separated, widowed, or divorced. Suicide is much more likely among men who drink heavily too.

This is where the support of a friend, colleague, or partner may be vital. If you suspect that somebody is harbouring suicidal thoughts, then ask him. You will not be putting the idea into his head, but you may just save his life. If your depressed man talks, then listen and take what he says seriously. There is nothing more demoralising than a man plucking up the courage to talk to somebody only to find himself not being believed or not supported.

Finally, maintain hope. Things will get better and many men come out of depression much stronger than they were before. You may even have a better understanding of yourself, of relationships and of stressful situations. It is true that some people continue to suffer periods of depression but they become more resilient and learn to live with them. Remember that anxiety and depression are very common you are not alone and you can get help. Just ask for it.

As for me, counselling and medication are helping. I have to accept that some of the root causes of my depression will not go away overnight. What I am learning to do however is to manage the way I feel about them. For those of you who know me by the positive messages which I post on Facebook every morning, you should know that they are helping me as much as they are my readers. Yes, things are getting better.

Mindful Monday: When gay does not mean happy

Today I’m going to look at the very specific issues5562 of mental health in the gay community. First, let me say that when looking at anxiety, depression and suicide in men I could have chosen any one of the number of sub-groups. These days it would be easy to single out black men, Asian men, Muslim men, military men, transgender men, young men, old men, married men or fathers etc. Each of these groups has specific issues and needs, and all do need attention. I chose gay men because that is the area that I feel most qualified to address. I will include bisexual men in this, although I am in no way endorsing the notion that they are really undecided gay men.

Of course for women, read all of the above too!

Recent victories in equality can lead many people both gay and straight to think that the gay cause is winning. That may be true in some areas but there is no room for complacency yet. Several recent studies confirm that LGBT people are much more likely to suffer from issues of anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide. Some studies show as many as half of all gay men having at some point contemplated suicide and almost half of those have actually attempted to kill themselves.

We have already examined the mental health issues encountered by men in general. We’ve also looked at many of the factors preventing men from admitting to the problems or seeking help for them. Our health services are failing to meet the needs of the population in general with regards to mental health issues. With gay people already feeling that their needs go unmet, those with mental health issues just have their worries amplified.

Surveys and studies carried out over the last five years or so have shown many results in common. Lists of the causes of depression in gay and bisexual men are very similar both in content and in the rankings of the issues. Many of the factors are not unique to gay men but some of them definitely are.

Very few people would list only one causal factor and as mentioned last time, there is more likely to be a toxic cycle of factors all feeding into the problem. The top scorer from most studies seems to be that of low self-esteem, closely followed by relationship issues and feelings of isolation. Low self-esteem can take many forms but in young gay men it is often related to concerns about body image and ‘fitting in’.

Working our way down the list the next group of issues include sexuality, finances, employment and homophobic bullying. Although it is usually young gay or bisexual men or teens who suffer directly from bullying, its effects can linger into much later life. There may in fact be lifelong anxieties which often lead to poor relationships, addictions and in far too many men, to suicide.

A third group of factors include sex, difficulties with coming out, other forms of bullying, family rejection and living with HIV/AIDS. Some of these are clearly related to each other and there are for example, still far too many homeless young LGBT people who have been rejected and turned out by their own parents.

The final group covers a wide range of factors12011233_831151810317550_6546850233210408206_n from the death of loved ones to prejudice and even rejection by the gay community itself. This group also includes alcohol and drug addictions, fear of HIV infection and religious reasons.

Rejection by the gay community may seem a surprising factor, but ageism, racism and the prejudice against bisexual men all feature in this and the victims often describe feelings of invisibility in gay settings or groups.

I have already talked about the cultural pressure which leads to perceptions of weakness or of diminished masculinity in depressed men. This is a much greater issue for gay men. It’s not particularly to do with any overtly anti-gay behaviour, but comments like ‘man up’ or ‘grow a pair’ cut much deeper for gay men. Many are already struggling to have their masculinity accepted and feel that any admission of mental illness will be seen as simply stereotypical.

Many men already feel that seeking help with their problems will be seen as an affront to their masculinity. For gay men it may form a solid barrier to treatment.

For young men in particular, gay culture can put a lot of pressure on them to conform. This can be the peer pressures of fashion, body type, socialising, alcohol consumption, drug taking, hobbies and sexual behaviour. Any of these areas can lead to problems, but together they can add up to a very destructive cocktail.

The toxic cycle of peer pressure can also lead to money problems, eating disorders, feelings of inadequacy and stress. If unchecked and untreated, any of the factors mentioned so far can precipitate problems in the daily lives of anxious gay men just as it does in the heterosexual world.

Social anxiety and isolation, self-isolation, panic attacks, mood swings, inadequacy in the workplace and at home, insomnia, promiscuity and addictions are all signs of trouble. The toxic cycle means that these manifestations will all deepen the depression over time and become self-fulfilling, possibly to the point of self-destruction.

Having laid out a lot of background detail to the challenges of anxiety depression and suicide in men it’s time now to move on. Next time I will take a look at some options for help, support and treatment. I will also include some insights into my own battle with depression in the hope that all others may benefit from my recent experiences.

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