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Mania

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 27 May 2022, 11:53

I have just blogged about my recent depression but now I want to tell you about mania, as I guess most people don’t really understand what it is like.

I consider hypo-mania, that is, low grade mania, a normal part of my every day life. When I am hypomanic, I have constant racing thoughts in my head, like a dialogue with myself (just to be clear, I’m not hearing voices; I’ve never had auditory hallucinations). I have a heightened awareness of my surroundings, of colour and noise, and it is often an enjoyable experience, though the discourse can cause anxiety when you replay conversations and mistakes from 30 years ago.

It is hard to say when hypomania tips into mania, I think it is when I start feeling tipsy and my thoughts become more grandiose. My internal discourse contains grand speeches where I share my words of wisdom with the world and everyone hangs on my every word. I see myself as charming and engaging, with my eyes twinkling like diamonds (and I can understand how someone with psychosis might be deluded enough to imagine they are diamonds). I am excitable, wanting to engage with the world, to run down paths with my arms outstretched. I am lucky that I have a lot of insight and control when in a manic state so I don’t do anything to embarrass myself in public; this is how I manage to continue as high functioning within society. I’m also lucky to have seldom experienced psychosis, though I understand and appreciate the thin line between reality and delusion in mental illness.

I can tell my moods from my shopping habits; I told my GP when my depression started by looking at my PayPal account. When I am manic, I shop more and buy frivolous items or several pairs of identical shoes in different colours. This morning I started browsing for colourful tops for my summer holiday, yellows and corals. My Mad March Mania is very late this year.

If you want to read a book about experiencing bipolar disorder, I recommend Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind, an autobiography of a manic depressive written by an academic expert on manic depression. I don’t agree with everything she says from a medical perspective but her descriptions of her emotional states and behaviour were very recognisable to me, as well as the vulnerability of academics/medical professionals declaring their mental illness.

Annie


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Depression

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 27 May 2022, 11:05

I haven’t blogged for a while as I have had a major bout of depression and didn’t want it to be a distraction for my students (though I did record it in my research journal). But EMAs are done so it is time to talk about it.

I always have a bout of depression in February and have recorded about it previously in my blog. Like many people with bipolar disorder, I also get seasonal affective disorder and this usually means a couple of weeks when I am down followed by a seasonal burst of mania in March (mad March amongst manic depressives is a common phenomenon). But this year my depression hit the same week as war broke out in Ukraine and I already had a sort of post-pandemic malaise. Consequently, my depression was deeper than normal and accompanied by a severe worsening of my generalised anxiety, ranging from being convinced that my office floor would give way due to the heavy shelves, to an overwhelming fear of my sons being sent to war and our world being destroyed by imminent nuclear strikes. For the first time in over 20 years, I made contact with my GP to discuss my mental health. The GP clearly knew less than me about mental health and appropriate treatments (she spoke to a psychiatrist who recommended fluoxetine, which the GP didn’t know was Prozac. Prozac is not an appropriate medication for someone who has mania). I still haven’t got an appointment to see the psychiatrist. But I also contacted NHS psychological and wellbeing services who were quick to assess me for low grade CBT, which I will start next week.

My depression lasted nearly 3 months and has gradually improved over the last few weeks. During that time, I have kept up with a heavy marking load and teaching commitments but this has meant increased tiredness and my research has been a bit neglected, though obviously the practice part of my action research has continued. I had wanted to start data analysis in February but that was not possible with my mental state which continued into March and April, when I also had my methodology chapter assignment and NVivo training to do. April is, of course, an intensive marking month. So here I am in May, familiarising myself with my transcripts ready to start coding next week.

I have felt ‘normal’ for a couple of weeks now, though normal is a somewhat loose concept for a manic depressive. As my next blog will discuss.

Annie


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The highs and lows

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I had a bout of depression for a week or so after Christmas. This is not unusual, in fact, it is a feature of the Christmas holiday for me. But I thought I would unpack it a little.

The most obvious reason for depression during December is seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Like many manic depressive, I do have SAD. As well as the lack of happy inducing sunlight, with the resultant low vitamin D levels, I am very responsive to changes in mood and routine and the changes in the seasons are a cycle of this. Mania will come in Mad March, as it always does. But it is more than SAD, over Christmas my routine is altered in many ways and this impacts on my moods.

I really like the excitement of Christmas. I love buying people presents, planning and making the food, decorating the tree and making people happy. And I start my Christmas planning early as my anxiety does not like last minute rushes. But, of course, after Christmas this winds down and it is then the depression comes. This mirrors my normal bipolar cycle; after a period of mania I have a short period of depression. It reminds me how important a regular routine is to maintain my mental equilibrium.

This week my depression has lifted. I am back into my work routine and, despite my husband having been away on business in the US for 10 days from New Year, I have managed to keep everything at home running like clockwork. Today I went for my morning walk in the cold frosty morning with a clear blue sky and saw buds appearing on some trees. Spring will soon be with us.

Annie

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OU Mental Health and wellbeing Conference

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Wednesday, 12 Jan 2022, 10:32

Wednesday and Thursday I was at the the OU Mental Health and wellbeing Conference and what an amazing event it was. There was a wide range of interesting speakers with different perspectives, some great opportunities to share ideas with colleagues and the atmosphere warm and supportive. It is so encouraging to see hundreds of colleagues getting together to discuss how we can improve the health and wellbeing of staff and students. I really enjoyed attending and hope this event becomes an annual one. Many thanks to the organisers, speakers and participants for making it an enjoyable and worthwhile event.

However, 2 days of discussing mental health, with the anxiety of presenting my own work, has left me exhausted and hypomanic, with racing thoughts. This is hardly surprising after such intense activity. So I decided to opt out of the AL conference today and tomorrow (I knew this was a risk when signing up) to give my brain a chance to settle down and I might skip the mental health workshop next Tuesday. You can have too much of a good thing.

Annie

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Presenting at conferences

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Last week I was accepted to present at the OU’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Conference and this led me to reflect on how much my confidence in presenting my ideas has increased over the last 2 years. Presenting at conferences was part of my development plan in year 1 and was quite apprehensive as I have social anxiety as part of my bipolar disorder.

Some people misunderstand how social anxiety can present and assume that I am a confident speaker because they think I am an extrovert, when I am actually a sociable introvert with hypomania. I don’t like being the focus of attention; during my nursing training I actually failed practical assignments because of anxiety with being watched.

Unusually, the pandemic has played to my advantage here as conferences were moved online. I’ve been teaching in online rooms for almost a decade so this is a comfortable environment for me and the screen interface means I feel less in the spotlight. Consequently, I have presented my research  at internal post-graduate research conferences and at the annual AdvanceHE Teaching and Learning Conference in 2021, where I also did a Q and A. So, although I still have anxiety at presenting at the conference, I am now much more confident in my voice when speaking about the subject I am passionate about; supporting students with mental health challenges. I look forward to the conference in December.

Annie


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The joy of like minds

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 29 Oct 2021, 16:28

I realise that my last few blogging attempts might have given the impression that I am currently dwelling in a well of despond but really, nothing could be further from the truth. I want my reflections to be accurate accounts of my feelings about my research studies and consequently they can seem to be focused on how I might overcome challenges. But my research is actually something that brings me fulfilment and satisfaction, as I discover more aspects about a subject I feel passionate about; student mental health.

So today I would like to share how wonderful it was to attend a workshop yesterday looking at emotional resilience in students as part of current research focused on exploring how students might be supported when studying emotive and sensitive content. I won't discuss the research itself as it is still a work in progress but what was heartening was to see colleagues (and some students) from a variety of disciplines coming together to share ideas on a subject which is much neglected and urgently needs addressing. The fact that emotional resilience in online learning is a neglected territory has parallels with my own research into the support needs of online students with mental health challenges, and I found hearing about this research personally encouraging and it made me think about my own investigations; I will need to follow up this study when it is completed. I think this research study is one of the most important in educational research in the last few years and I was left feeling very positive at the end of the workshop about the future of learner support.

Annie

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Anxiety

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 29 Oct 2021, 16:29

I was quite unnecessarily anxious about doing my first interview, despite having been doing telephone tutorials for 14 years. As a manic-depressive, I am often anxious about new experiences but I also get anxiety prior to regular intense occurrences, like when I give an online tutorial (which I have also been doing for years) or start a batch of marking. This anxiety expressed itself in many ways, for instance, rechecking recording equipment to make sure it works and revising and practising my questions repeatedly. On the day it showed in a mild depression during my morning walk, a feeling of nausea and fear, and pacing around the house. I am used to managing anxiety on a daily basis so lots of deep breathing, CBT and positive thoughts and no attempt to avoid or delay the inevitable.

What I experienced can be similar to what students experience when invited for a telephone tutorial, with the anxiety of not knowing the person calling or what to expect, and the anticipation of the event. Some will overcome this and welcome the opportunity to share their experiences and support needs with their tutor whilst others will find the barrier more difficult to climb. What is important, then, is that tutors work to establish positive relationships with their students at the beginning of the module and that they keep that door open for communication. I think regular communication from a tutor is vital in this process, especially early in the module, and communication is one of the things I will be exploring in my research on how students with mental health challenges can be supported to reach their potential. This includes proactive support that intervenes before crisis point so that students are supported when they are at their most vulnerable.

These issues also have implications for my research study in that I am inviting participants to have telephone interviews and not everyone will be comfortable with this, especially at the beginning of the module. I hope that as my students get to know me better, several will have the confidence to come forward and volunteer so that their voices will be heard.

Annie


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Want to know more about my research?

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 29 Oct 2021, 16:29

A couple of students have enquired about my research so I thought I would share what it is about and what it will mean for my students.

I am currently doing a Professional Doctorate in Education, exploring how students with mental health challenges can be empowered to be independent learners in the online learning environment. My choice of investigation was prompted by reading the research of Richardson (2015) which found that distance learning students with mental health challenges were significantly less likely to complete and pass their modules than other students. This concerned me as an Associate Lecturer who wanted all her students to reach their full potential, but also as someone who has bipolar disorder; I, too, dropped out of my first degree when I had a mental health crisis 25 years ago. I want to understand the barriers these students face and how they might be overcome so that I can support my students in their learning journeys.

Whilst there is some research into the barriers faced by these students, there is also an assumption that it is up to academics to decide how to overcome the challenges. But my knowledge of health and social care tells me that we need to go to the service user for their expertise on their needs. I am doing emancipatory action research study with an emphasis on student voice to explore the lived experience of students with mental health challenges, using case study interviews to plan, implement, evaluate and reflect on the support needs of these students, alongside data analytics to identify students at risk and intervene as necesary. It uses the affirmative model of disability, an inclusive and collective approach emphasising positive social identities, to develop relationships and deliver individual and proactive support. Participants are offered an initial telephone interview to discuss their experiences of studying with mental health challenges, the barriers they face, the resilience they bring and to negotiate the support they would like to receive from their tutor. The follow up interview happens at the end of the module when we evaluate and reflect on the experience of studying and being supported.

Doing research with my own students brings up ethical dilemmas that needed addressing. For instance, my research needs to be fair to all my students so I am careful to reassure that any student can have an interview about their support needs; they don’t have to take part in my research to be supported in their studies and whether they take part or not will not influence their assessment. My sample of students also needed approving by the Student Research Project Panel to ensure that students who have opted out of research invitations or have recently been invited to take part in research were removed from the sample. This means that not all my students will have received an invitation to take part. Taking part is voluntary and all students who participate are provided with information about the study and are required to sign a consent form detailing the purpose of the research and the use of data. The issue of consent is revisited throughout the research.

What I hope to achieve from my research is a greater understanding of the experiences of students with mental health challenges and the support they would like in achieving their learning goals. This is an exciting opportunity to influence how student support is provided and I look forward to working with my participants in developing new knowledge.

Annie


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Research sample

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 29 Oct 2021, 16:29

Last week I got authorisation for my research sample and it was surprisingly straightforward, if somewhat nerve-racking.

To do research with OU students you need permission from the Student Research Project Panel (SRPP) and they will authorise a sample of participants. In many cases they will produce the original sample for the researcher but some researchers will request to draw their own sample, which needs approving. The latter is my situation as I want to research my own students so last Thursday I submitted a prospective sample for approval.

This process is necessary as some students may have opted out of contact about research and others would have already been involved in recent projects or even multiple studies. But it is anxiety inducing for the researcher when your initial sample is already very limited in scope. As it was, the process reduced my sample by a third. But I am glad to say that my response was positive and practical; the process is necessary and ethically right, and this is my sample and I am going to work with it. It is so nice to finally be contacting potential participants and to have the opportunity for 2 years of work to finally bear fruit.

Annie


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Getting back into a routine

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 17 Sep 2021, 13:45

I always find it exciting when new academic year beckons, and not just because of the interesting students I will be meeting and the new challenges ahead. I also look forward to getting back into a routine again.

I have high functioning bipolar disorder and hypo-mania is pretty much part of my daily life experience. I manage my bipolar disorder and the inevitable ups and downs using cognitive behavioural techniques and an organised routine is very important to me as it helps to manage expectations and brings much needed structure to the day. Like most associate lecturers I am not employed by the university over the summer, at least not until the new contract comes in, and my teaching responsibilities are mainly in term-time. My doctorate also has term-based deadlines, though there is plenty of reading to do over the summer. As much as I love having a nice long break from the day job from mid-June to mid-September, I can sometimes feel unsettled and disorientated with the lack of structure to my day. Obviously, my doctorate is helpful at the moment for giving me something to focus on but I decided that I needed to establish a firm routine early before the new term starts to help the transition back to work.

So, on the first of September I got back at my desk and organised myself. As I have some tight deadlines this year (it’s my research data collection this year, alongside my usual teaching, and I also have draft chapters of my thesis to write) I gave myself writing deadlines and planned ahead with my studies. This has really paid off; I am back to my regular routine of a walk in the morning then at my desk at 9.30 to check the emails before setting into the day’s work. It’s been very productive due to the lack of interruptions; I’ve re-drafted two thesis chapters, done my annual admin and research planning, as well as some mentoring work and writing teaching resources. Getting all this done early has made me feel more confident and relaxed about the new term starting and I’ve also been able to reflect on what I want to achieve in the year ahead. It’s going to be a great year.

Annie


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Stress, anxiety and depression

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 3 Dec 2021, 13:47

Unless you are someone with a mental illness, it can be difficult to comprehend how stress, anxiety and depression are so intricately linked and why it is so difficult to manage.

Yesterday morning I received a phone call to tell me that a close family relative was seriously ill in hospital. I am very experienced at dealing with anxiety-inducing situations so set about limiting my risks. I contacted my husband so he was aware, fulfilled my duties in contacting further relatives and then looked at my workload. I decided that my marking workload was manageable for the day and that clearing it would be a good move in case I needed to take a break. I kept my evening appointment and informed my manager of my situation. A phone call from another relative late in the evening informed me that the situation was much improved and was no longer as serious as first thought. A win-win for me, you might think, with improved outcome for said relative and mental health well managed.

Except today I have depression. Only mild depression, my bipolar disorder tends to swing its extremes more in the other direction. But depression, none the less, and clearly a response to yesterday. Luckily I am in a situation where I work flexibly so I can take a step back from work temporarily if I wish; other people have a much difficult time without family and work support. But it does make me reflect on the fact that even good management of stresses won't necessarily prevent a poor mental health response. 

A well meaning friend recently said to me that mental health was caused by society and that what is needed was to support people to change behaviours (they also mentioned trusting in God and I pointed out that my mental health has never negatively impacted on my faith, and perhaps the church might approach Christians who have experienced mental health challenges to learn from them about keeping faith when times are hard). But, much as I believe that society does impact on mental health and that behaviour change is important (my doctoral research looks at motivational support for people with mental health challenges), there is a risk in blaming the person here. Behavioural approaches are very helpful, in my experience, but the mental illness is still there and needs managing; it doesn't go away. I can get by without medication as I have an unusually supportive and flexible lifestyle but for many people this isn't a possibility and I think people often underestimate the impact of daily stresses, from minor work or home challenges to the big issues of loneliness. Things build up and even a small thing can trigger a major response. One of my main stressors is conflict as I have social anxiety.

Onwards and upwards. I start the day by giving thanks for the health of my brother and now I'm going to spend some time reading some papers for my literature review.

Annie

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Anxiety in context

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 29 Oct 2021, 16:43

I had a mammogram yesterday, just a routine call up because I am 50. The leaflet that arrived with my appointment was very detailed about the pros and cons of screening, as a part of the informed consent. I found it an interesting read as we explore the ethics of screening as part of K219 'Critical issues in health and wellbeing'. My husband was quick to ask how I felt about going for screening and whether I wanted to.

But I have no anxiety at all about health screening. My anxiety in my bipolar disorder is caused by unfamiliar environments and I've worked in health and social care, practice and teaching, for over 30 years. There is nothing unfamiliar about anything health related, I live and breathe it. I have no fear of dentists either, I see being jabbed with needles in the mouth as a parallel with me having spent years jabbing needles in people's eyes. 

But, obviously, many people with mental health challenges do find screening a cause for anxiety. This is because people's experiences of disability and mental illness are individual and contextual. This is one of the criticisms of the social model of disability, that it sees disability in the form of barriers that society creates but neglects the individual and how they see the world. And it's the reason why I'm a fan of a more emancipatory approach, which promotes voice and participation. The social model is very useful for breaking down barriers, especially physical ones, but its time to empower disabled people to take control and this can only be done by respecting their individual needs.

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My research proposal

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 29 Oct 2021, 16:42

One of the tasks on the Prof doc programme was to write 300-500 describing your proposal. So here it is!

My research proposal has a working title of ‘How can students with mental health challenges be empowered to become independent learners within the technology-enhanced learning environment?’. It is emancipatory action research; emancipatory because it has an aim of giving a voice to a disadvantaged group, and action research because it will be undertaken as part of my work as an Associate Lecturer with the Open University.  The subject has a personal interest for me as I have bipolar disorder and have a strong sense of empathy for my students who are studying whilst experiencing mental health challenges.

Technology-enhanced learning has the potential to make distance learning more accessible to students with mental health challenges as it offers a flexible format where the student has control over their social engagement and schedule. Consequently, more Open University students disclose mental health challenges than any other UK university (The Open University, 2018). But research by Richardson (2015) shows that students with mental health challenges are less likely to complete and pass modules than non-disabled students, though they attain just as good grades when they do pass.  Distance learning can be isolating and people with mental health challenges may need extra support to maintain their studying progress and reach their goals. Developing the skills to become independent learners can empower students to take control of their learning, build self-confidence and achieve their potential.

Using a flexible and participatory voice-led approach within an emancipatory action research framework, my research will use case study interviews to investigate the learning experiences of students with mental health challenges, alongside individual study skills support which includes positive reflection. It will be collaborative, encouraging participation in decision making and seeking negotiated meanings, whilst empowering participants to take control of their learning and influence teaching with the aim of developing an inclusive distance learning approach which is beneficial for those with mental health challenges and potentially other students within the university.

I will use interpretative phenomenological analysis to interpret my results. This is a qualitative approach which examines and interprets how the individual makes sense of lived experience and is particularly helpful in examining complex and personal perspectives which are highly subjective. I will encourage students to review transcripts and my subsequent analysis, enabling them to participate in the research process as a form of transformatory critique to question knowledge and inform practice.

Whilst research into the technology-enhanced learning environment is a dynamic field, there is little research into how those with mental health challenges respond to and develop within this environment. By developing greater understanding of their learning needs, this research can influence educational policy and practice within the university, and in the wider academic sphere, so that module development and delivery is more inclusive and retention improved. As emancipatory action research, this research has application at grass roots level, providing the opportunity for students with mental health challenges to be empowered through participation whilst building on skills for independent learning.

The Open University (2018) ‘The OU has the highest number of students declaring a mental health condition in the UK’, University News, The Open University, Milton Keynes [Online] Available at: https://ounews.co/around-ou/university-news/the-ou-has-the-highest-number-of-students-declaring-a-mental-health-condition-in-the-uk/ (Accessed 14th October 2019)

Richardson, J. (2015) ‘Academic attainment in students with mental health difficulties in Distance Education’, International Journal of Mental Health, vol. 44, no. 3, pp.231-240. [Online] Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00207411.2015.1035084 (Accessed 29th November 2018)


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Revelations in literature searching

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 29 Oct 2021, 16:44

During the Prof doc residential weekend I was able to attend a couple of sessions with a librarian which I found really helpful. I've been an AL for 12 years and during this time I have taught students how to do literature searches and completed my own for my history degree and master's research. But it was nice to sit down with an expert and explore the functionality of the library and the other resources available for research studies.

The session introduced me to time saving software for storing articles and referencing. I'm very much a creature of habit and am actually very good at manually referencing but it was time to up my game and I have now downloaded Mendeley as a tool for citations. An organised and easily accessed storage system for articles will make my literature searching so much easier for my doctorate.

The other bonus for the session is that I found an article which fits in perfectly with my research. It is 'Barriers to learning online experienced by students with a mental health disability' (McManus et al, 2017). A lovely article because it is so rare to find academic studies which are so close to my own (distance learning and mental health disability being a niche combination, unfortunately, that's why I'm doing my research) yet from an different perspective. This article focuses on identifying barriers whereas I want to overcome barriers and empower students so it gives a good background for my own research to build on. It also considers the social model of disability and its critics which is relevant to my own philosophical approach to disability. As the first article in my literature search it is an encouraging start.

So, tomorrow afternoon's work is to critically review the article.

Annie

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Starting professional doctorate studies

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 29 Oct 2021, 16:43

Most OU modules start this week so it is always busy for an Associate Lecturer in the first few weeks of October but this year was extra busy for me as I started my Professional Doctorate in Education. Don't know what this is? Well, it is basically a part time doctorate for people in professional practice. Unlike most doctorates which are done at the beginning of a career, a professional doctorate is done later in a career within your own work environment. The OU offers a Professional Doctorate programme in Education or Health and Social Care  http://wels.open.ac.uk/research/postgraduate-research/edd

The year 1 residential was last weekend and what an intensive time it was. Not only was it a fantastic opportunity to meet fellow students (it's a distance learning course so meeting others is a valuable experience) and to share ideas and interests, but it was a helpful approach to cementing identity at the beginning of doctoral studies. I was able to explore what it means to be a research professional, reflect on the ethics of research and learn more about critical review of literature. I saw a research project in action which had many similarities to my own. The library session was immensely useful; I may be an AL but it was very helpful to have one to one assistance from a librarian and to learn about relevant software to aid my studies.

Now I'm off on my research journey. I am lucky in that I have a firm structure to work within: 3 days of OU work punctuated by two days for study, an obvious necessity for a manic depressive who needs to plan her schedule clearly to avoid stress. There will be some overlap though as I am doing action research. My current working title is 'How can Students with Mental Health Challenges be Empowered to become Independent Learners within the Technology-enhanced Learning Environment?' but more on that another time.

Now to start my Researching professional development Plan.

Annie


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March mania

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 12 Jun 2020, 12:04

Having blogged about the February blues a month ago I thought I'd speak about the antidote now. For whilst February is a dark month for me, March is an altogether different thing. You see, there is a recognised rise in hypomania amongst people with bipolar disorder in March.

This shouldn't be surprising as many people with bipolar disorder also have seasonal affective disorder. But I think it goes beyond just having longer days with more sun. March is full of bright new things; the flowers are out, the blossom is on the trees, the birds are singing, the days are warmer... and people prone to mania tend to react to stimuli. I love March, I love walking in the sun and looking at nature in bud all around me. I find walking both a grounding experience and a joyful one. My love of March is matched by my love of September, 6 months later, when the seasons again go through a dramatic change.

The clocks will change tomorrow and British Summertime begins. Rejoice!


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Managing lows

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 3 Dec 2021, 13:47

I openly discuss my bipolar disorder so it sometimes comes up in tutorials when we are discussing health theory or disability. Recently I was discussing the concept of 'curing' in a K219 tutorial and one of the examples being discussed was mental health so I gave my personal opinion. I enjoy the positive reactions I get from students when I discuss my mental health, students are very encouraging on the need to reduce stigma and often come out with their own experiences. Someone mentioned how mental illness can creep up on you and I acknowledged this, pointing out I often don't realise I'm manic until well into an episode, partly because it is enjoyable, and the need to have a confidant who is able to recognise and discuss it with you. A student then said 'What about the lows?' and I realised that I very seldom discuss the lows.

I don't have lows very often, my bipolar mainly features hypomania and I seldom have deep lows since the first ones I experienced when I was first diagnosed 20 years ago. Manic depressives are often diagnosed during a depressive episode, mania can be enjoyable but depression isn't. McKeon (1995) suggests that the first depressive episode is often triggered by emotional stress switching on a genetic mechanism. Mine was triggered by my father becoming seriously ill and almost dying. 

I discussed my mental illness at a church meeting this week and my husband said that he could detect my mood swings and we then worked together on strategies to manage them. Later I challenged him on this; he actually identifies my manic periods but not my depressive ones. Mania is a very public thing, it is outward in its appearance, but depression is quite private and inward. I can't always tell I'm depressed myself until well into a period, it creeps up on you as noted earlier but it is also difficult to tell what normal is if your moods are usually abnormal. 

I've had marking over the last few weeks and I've been prevaricating over it. Now, finding displacement activities to avoid marking is quite normal, I'm sure, for most ALs. But it was when I was crying at the thought of it that I realised that I was depressed not just avoiding work. Recognising it meant I could develop strategies to manage it. Firstly, giving myself very small goals, perhaps 2 papers to do,  to make it manageable. I often find if I set myself to mark 2 papers I actually mark 4 as starting is often the hardest thing and once I'm into an activity it provides a welcome distraction from my emotions. I also prepare myself mentally, physically and spiritually. I make sure I go for two walks a day and get some fresh air and exercise. I eat healthily and take vitamins. I meditate and say a prayer before working (non-religious people might consider an activity such as writing down some positive things to be thankful for and some short term, achievable goals). I take regular breaks and have a cup of tea.

So, why I am I writing this? Well, in my experience, students with mental health challenges often face similar struggles when writing an assignment; it becomes a big wall that seems impossible to get over. As ALs we need to recognise these hurdles are real issues and work with our students to overcome them. Acknowledgement and empathy is the first priority alongside open channels of communication so that students can voice their fears and anxieties; this does much to reduce the burden. Work with students to come up with achievable goals over a period of time, perhaps just listing key points at first, then developing a plan for an essay, then tackling a paragraph a day so it does not become overwhelming. Plan ahead to the next assignment so that they are prepared in advance. Encourage them to look after their physical health too, to take regular breaks and get some rest. Most of all, let them know that you value them and you are on their side, even if their decision is to take a break from their studies. 

Most importantly, listen to their voice so you can empower and support them to achieve their potential in whatever way they can.


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It's done!

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 29 Oct 2021, 16:46

I've finally submitted my application for doctoral research. And i don't even feel anxious about it (that may well change!), just an overwhelming feeling that this is the right time and what I need to do. It helps that it is a subject that I feel passionate about - students with mental health challenges. I feel very happy to take this next step on my journey.

And it's just occurred to me that I am sharing my 50th birthday with the OU this year. What a good year for both of us.

Annie

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Reflecting on 2018

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 3 Dec 2021, 13:47

2018 was a turning point for me. It was the 20 year anniversary of my diagnosis with bipolar disorder, the year my life was turned upside down and which led me to give up my dream job as a university lecturer, move away from London and start again.

So, in 2018 the time was right to reclaim my academic career at the age of 49. I doubled my working hours from 13 to 26 and took on higher modules to teach. I became more active in the university online community, starting my blog and generally contributing more in forums and community discussions. I also became more vocal about health issues outside the university, giving a talk to my church about mental health (which has led to a higher profile of the needs of disabled members) and I’m in discussion with community leaders about starting a local death café. I planned and wrote a research proposal for a doctorate which I hope will benefit students with mental health challenges.

I used a year off from study to reflect on what I learnt on the Masters in Education and put new ideas into practice, including improving how I maintain dialogue with students via email and the PT3 form. I recommend the Masters programme to other ALs, I learnt so much from it, especially about conducting research and transforming practice, though it was very hard work.

2019? I want to write more about the experience of living with bipolar disorder and start my doctorate research. I know I go on about my future studies but I find studying truly exciting as I came from a working class background and never went to college; my life has been changed by the Open University in many ways.

Have a happy new year

Annie


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New blog post

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 29 Oct 2021, 16:47

Last week I finished writing up my research proposal for my Doctorate application. This is a big milestone for me as it represents something that that I once would not have a imagined I could achieve.

I left school after my O' levels to go on a Youth Training Scheme (YTS) scheme in a care home. But this wasn't the career I wanted as a child; I'd always wanted to be an English teacher. But such a job was completely out of reach for someone from a rough council estate in Luton. Whilst I wanted to be a teacher it was something I knew was out of my league, it was an impossible dream. I didn't know anyone who worked in a professional job; my father worked in a dairy factory, my mother was a canteen cook, and all my family worked in either factories, shops or child care. I didn't know anyone with a degree and my friends and boyfriend went on to do apprenticeships, even the ones with A' levels. Besides, my parents wanted me to get a job and pay rent so it was the YTS scheme for me. I lacked the social and cultural capital (key concepts in KE322) to make my dream come true.

So how did I get here, a middle class academic working in Cambridge? Well, even on the YTS I was discerning on what I wanted to do and requested elderly care not child care as I felt that would offer more opportunities. And it was in a small private residential home that I was empowered to change my life. The home was owned by a lovely pair of best friends, a nurse and a home economist who had previous taught teenage mums, who saw in me a potential for reaching higher. Their support and influence provided the social and cultural capital to successfully apply for nurse training in my local hospital. My nursing qualifications then enabled me to move to London, opening myself up to new world views. In the language of Goodhart (2017), also from KE322, I moved from being a 'Somewhere' to an 'Anywhere' person. Moving to London offered me a wider scope for developing as a professional but also introduced me to a wider range of people from different classes, especially when I started attending a large city church. Meanwhile I started an Open University module on research methodology, which then led to a degree. Having friends with Doctorates normalised academia in my life (back to social and cultural capital again) and I knew I wanted to teach nursing (my bipolar mania also contributed to my professional progress but that is a different story). I now teach health and social care undergraduates, live in in a city which has twice the number of graduates than the national average and my son attends the top state sixth form college in the country. How life has changed.

I now straddle two universes; the middle class world where I live and the working class world where I came from. When I did my Masters in Education I found the alien language frustrating and wrote on a bit of paper by my computer 'Academic language exists to disempower the working classes'. It has got easier over the years to bridge the cognitive divide but I still have a deep empathy for students who enter this new world with its of unfamiliar language and rules. My research will look at one of the groups who have more hurdles to overcome than most, those with mental health challenges, and I am excited for the opportunities this research might bring for empowering this group of students, just as I was empowered as a young girl to reach outside my socio-cultural boundaries.

Annie

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Time out

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 12 Jun 2020, 12:08

Well, I've just finished the marking marathon of November so thought it might be a good time to reflect on how I am getting on with my increased workload.

October is a month of welcoming and signposting, phoning students and getting to grips with module structures; a busy but enjoyable time as you meet new people and learn new things. November is a different beast - virtually every module has an assignment due in November which needs marking.  Marking is by far the most labour-intensive parts of an associate lecturer's role and also one of the most important. Not only is it part of a student's continuous assessment, it is also one of the main ways ALs use to communicate with students and advise them of their progress. So it is important to do it properly, hence the time consuming nature.  In my case I had 4 lots of assignments over a 3 week period from the end of October. I'm now on a week's break from marking before more 3 lots of assignments submitted over 2 weeks. It's a bit hectic!

Of course, by break I don't mean a rest; I have 3 tutorials to plan and deliver in the next 2 weeks as well as as the usual emails, forums, admin and telephone calls as well as staying up to date with the 3 new modules I'm teaching. But it does mean the pressure is off and I can relax and take stock. Being a great believer in the connection between physical and mental health I'm also using this week to detox and take some mental health walks.

So, on reflection, how has the last month gone? Well, I got all the assignments back on time. The first ones were returned very early due to my increased hours allowing for more efficient timetabling. My last lot only just got back in time but that's how they fitted in the bigger picture so that's okay. I paced myself well; I decided in the end not to fill whole days with marking but break my days up which will have implications how I manage this period next year when I hope to be studying a PhD alongside my teaching. 

Most importantly, my bipolar disorder seems to be under control with no adverse effects from the increased hours. I am neither more manic nor more depressed than usual, despite being tired by the end of the last marking period. The last lot of marking was a slog and I had to give myself several pep talks but it worked. I am approaching my work this week with a positive mental attitude and am also keen to get back to work on my research proposal tomorrow. So all in all a win.

Annie

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Reflecting on my new timetable

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 12 Jun 2020, 12:09

Well, I'm a month into my new increased schedule and I thought I'd have a reflection on how it is going.

I'm surprised how smoothly the new routine has fitted into my life. I'm not having any problems arranging my work and I have noticed several improvements as well as noted a few areas where my homelife is having to adapt.

Firstly, my initial fears that I wouldn't be able to switch off on my days off has proved unfounded. After the first few weeks of constantly checking emails and forums I have settled down and can switch off. Not only has it not increased my mania but I've had a few days where I'm not hypomanic (unusual for me as I'm I have high functioning bipolar disorder so hypomania is a prominent feature of my life). Obviously, due to the nature of OU tutoring I do have to sometimes teach or speak to students during my downtime but I am balancing this well.

Some things have actually improved. When I only worked 13 hours a week teaching 2 modules I always found marking weeks hit and miss as they took up 12-15 hours of time and did not slot naturally into my life, leading to prevarication. But now I work 26 hours I can schedule these better and have days available for marking; for the first time have actually managed to mark straight away after the submission date. This improved scheduling is very important as, obviously, I also have far more marking to do but I do feel more efficient. We will see how this progresses as marking and teaching increases.

The impact on my home life is interesting. Being an early bird, I'm making an effort to sit down to work before my night owl husband leaves for his work. This gives me a visible presence as a working person which can be missing from home working and I'm noticing him acknowledging this in his attitude at home. He's also leaving earlier for work rather than rolling in late and staying late (he owns his own business)!

My children are old enough not to disrupt me at work too much but dinner has definitely got later and less fancier (I love cooking). But I still have days off to get things done.

So, all in all a positive change. I looked at it again in a month to see if 4 lots of marking have changed my opinion!

Annie

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Happy mania

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 29 Oct 2021, 16:49

This afternoon, I went for a walk across a nature reserve in the blustery wind and it was wonderful, I felt so alive and part of the landscape. I could feel the wind around me and was filled with joy to experience the wonderful world we live in. I have 'happy mania'.

One of the main consequences of self-managing my bipolar disorder is that my normal mental state is one of mild hypomania. Whilst this has some drawbacks, including potential lack of concentration and slow processing of information, it is also a wonderfully creative place to be. A bipolar friend describes my normal state as 'happy mania' and professes her jealousy of it.

You see, whilst my 'happy mania' can hamper my ability to comprehend if it gets out of control, it expresses itself in an enormous capacity to feel. When I was a child my mother used to say I had second sight; that I could feel atmospheres and read situations. Later in life, when my father had respiratory failure and my mother had to make that difficult decision for the ambulance men not to resuscitate him, it was me she asked afterwards if it had been the right decision (it was). I can still read people like books and I genuinely like people and find them interesting, even those I vehemently disagree with. My empathy shows in quirky ways, like unconsciously changing my accent according to who I speak to. What my happy mania gives me is a heightened perception of what is around me and for that I am glad; it's a feature not a bug. 

Nature has a great capacity to bring healing to those with mental health challenges and I recommend daily walking as a means of escaping the stresses of everyday life. You might not come home as buzzing as me but the exercise will do you good and you might find some spiritual solace.

have a great weekend

Annie

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New blog post

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 29 Oct 2021, 16:49

I recently decided to increase my work hours. It was something I had wanted to do for a while and this year finally presented an opportunity for me to apply for several appropriate modules. I had a firm idea of the number of hours I wanted to do and was lucky enough to get offered modules that met this requirement; in fact, I had to turn two modules down.

So why did I want to increase my hours? Well, the most straightforward answer was that I had time on my hands. My children are now teenagers so I need to be around less for them and I wasn’t studying last year so I was bored. I needed something more challenging to do with my life, which brings me on to my main reason for taking on more work; I wanted a career again. I now had the time and opportunity to make a serious career in academia, I was applying for a Doctorate and the time was right to make a big step forward.

I also hoped that increasing my workload would provide more structure to my life. Only working a few hours a week can create a feeling of being disconnected but by increasing my hours I could formalise my days. This isn’t just important for getting my own work done and managing my own haphazard mental processes but also also ensures my new workload is recognised at home. Like many work-at-home parents, most of my work is hidden. My family need to know that I have work to do, that I can’t just drop everything to pop to the shops for them. So, by having firm perimeters my status at home changes. If I want to successfully build my career my work must be visible at home as well as among colleagues.

To do this I have given myself 3 full working days plus the necessary flexibility for the odd evening or weekend tutorial to make up my hours. I also have a day set aside for study; this year it is used for background reading and small projects, next year it will be part of my PhD timetable. I’m only 2 weeks into it but I can see how it will be effective in organising my time and I feel purposeful. What I hadn’t anticipated is the difficulty switching off in between work days, I have a constant urge to check my work email and forums. As someone prone to hypo-mania this probably isn’t surprising but I’m hoping this will settle down as I get used to the pattern and as my students settle into their modules – routine is the key. But yesterday (my day off, otherwise known as the day I do the housework) I managed to switch off completely. I will keep monitoring how I am keeping to my timetable as the academic year progresses and the workload varies from week to week.

Annie


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Don't shoot - I'm disabled

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 12 Jun 2020, 12:11
I had intended my first blog of the academic year to be about the trials and tribulations of being an AL, preparing for new modules and incoming students and then having your pc die a sudden death during an online meeting on the first day back (agonising enough for anyone but especially for a manic depressive who keeps her anxiety at bay by having an impeccably structured life unhindered by nasty surprises). But today I read an article on the BBC was website which moved me deeply and I felt I had to write on that instead.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/stories-45739335 This article is both shocking and very, very sad. These people who died were unarmed and not committing any crime; one was naked in his shower. What they all have in common is lack of communication, some of them had learning difficulties or mental health challenges which meant they did not understand the commands they were given, one of them was deaf. 

Hey, wait, let me back track a little. It wasn't these communication difficulties which caused their deaths but the poor communication skills of the police.

This is not a blog on guns or police policy in the US, I value my sanity far too much for those discussions. But these police officers seemed to go into situations using aggression from the outset, shouting at the person even in the situations when they knew the person was disabled. Were they not taught any communications skills during their training? Do they act like this in their everyday lives? Do they not know anyone disabled: do they fear them or think them sub-human?

I've had bipolar disorder for 20 years and know lots of other people with the same condition. If someone is in a manic state, aggression will just heighten it and stress can be a big trigger. Manic depressives can also have problems processing instruction so even if they are listening to you they still might not have the foggiest what you want them to do. Similar issues happen with other mental health issues. But this goes far beyond disability, it seems that some people in authority think aggression is an acceptable way to carry out their job and that challenges can be met with violence. There needs to be far greater education on understanding the needs and experiences of people with disabilities, especially mental health and learning disabilities, and the communication skills needed to communicate effectively with them. But these are skills which will benefit all people, they are basic rules for engaging others in all walks of life in a respectful way. We need to resist a culture which thinks 'shoot first, ask questions later'. A little empathy will go a long way

Annie

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