Fellows of the Royal Society are human too

Guest post by Jonathan Gregory (with thanks to Meteorology’s Weather and Climate Blog where this originally appeared).

In early May I was surprised and honoured, as well as happy, to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. One of the best consequences of this so far has been that I was allowed the opportunity to give a speech to members of the department one afternoon at an informal celebration. Actually I had requested this occasion, following the admirable departmental tradition of celebrating successful PhD vivas etc., because I wanted to share with my colleagues some thoughts, which I’m writing down here in case they’re useful to others as well. First among these was to thank those who proposed me for the fellowship, and my bosses of the last 28 years, who recruited me into excellent research institutions and gave me the freedom to work on subjects which seemed useful and interesting to me.

It turns out that FRSs are human too. Nothing has magically changed since my election. There are still lots of things I can’t understand. I’m still worried that I won’t be able to think of enough good ideas. I still feel near to despair about the large number of things I want or need to do at work, and my inadequacy in tackling them. In fact for much of my adult life I have suffered from recurrent depression. Many of the thoughts that cause me difficulties are sometimes described as symptoms of imposter syndrome, which is a fear that you are in a position that you don’t deserve to have reached, and that any moment you might be unmasked as a fraud who has misled people into thinking that you are actually quite clever.

It is probable that some colleagues have similar fears, and it’s good to know you’re not alone. Most people need encouragement, I guess. I value my election as FRS because it’s an external recognition of climate science and the value of my contribution to it, and I’ll try to use this knowledge to help myself when I’m feeling depressed. It’s useful to remind yourself in those circumstances of positive things that others have said, and in fact I’ve compiled a list of them, to look at when in need. Because I know that positive remarks are useful to me, I advocate that we should all offer positive comments to our colleagues, staff and bosses whenever we think they’ve done something good. Positive feedback should not be lagged!

One of my jobs is to make such comments myself. My other important function is to ask questions that I feel stupid in asking, especially in group meetings etc. where there might be others who’d rather like to know the answers too but don’t feel confident to ask. It’s easier for a professor to do this job than a new PhD student, because (presuming that I am actually not altogether an imposter) I can have some confidence that I am not being unusually stupid if I don’t understand something. Actually ignorance is not the same as stupidity anyway. Ignorance is not necessarily a bad thing. Socrates said that he knew nothing except that he knew nothing, and in Nineteen Eighty-Four one of the ruling party’s slogans is “Ignorance is strength.” Maybe that’s going too far, but ignorance can certainly be useful, because it avoids preconceptions. Asking questions when you feel that the answer ought to be obvious, but doesn’t seem to be, can be a way to change people’s thinking. In his book, The structure of scientific revolutions, in which he put forward the idea of paradigm shifts, Thomas Kuhn points out that radical progress is often made by people who are new to a subject, presumably for this reason.

If people seem blank when you explain something to them, it might just be because you haven’t been clear enough, but on the other hand it could be because the subject you are dealing with is not yet properly appreciated, and you’re speaking a new language. If a subject seems unclear and confused to you, it might be because no-one properly understands it, and everyone’s been skirting round it, thinking it’s someone else’s business. So perhaps it would be a good idea to head straight in that direction and see what there is to be discovered, because there may be unknown mountains hidden in the mists of ignorance, and amazing panoramas can occasionally be glimpsed through the gaps.

“Biggest Fight of my Life”: Frank Bruno and Mental Health

By Claire Gregor and Suzanne James  (Student Wellbeing) with an introduction by Ellie Highwood

Sometimes my role as Dean for Diversity and Inclusion feels like doing a giant dot-to-dot picture. There are great ideas and initiatives going on across campus that just need that little extra help to shine. ONe way we do this is by using some funds originally given by the Vice Chancellor, to support projects proposed by staff and students. We recently asked for applications and funded 7 very different activities of which you will hear more over the next few months as they progress. However, I am delighted to be able to share here a review of the first activity, designed and delivered by Student Wellbeing in March 2017.

Frank Bruno MBE visit and University Mental Health Week Activities

This project, organised and run by Student Wellbeing, used a national event, University Mental Health Day – whose theme was ‘Active in sport’ – to raise awareness among students of the links between mental and physical health. The theme had a positive message that appealed cross-gender, to all ages and ethnicities and resonated with a general ‘look after yourself’ message.

Funding was provided by a grant from Diversity and Inclusion Deans to pay for a high profile speaker (Frank Bruno, MBE), who is a strong and positive role model coming as he does from a BME background and who has publicly spoken about his own personal mental health struggles. Frank was invited to address the students at a specially organised ‘A conversation with’ lunchtime event.  An additional activity was developed so that Frank appeared for a Super Circuits event at the Sportspark prior to this, to maximise the publicity opportunities that his visit afforded.

 

Using this speaker opened up conversations among students about the relationship between mental and physical wellbeing. It inspired students to put steps in place to include activity in their lives, to support their mental and physical health.  It increased awareness of mental health difficulties and provided social contact activities that were open to all. The ‘In Conversation with ‘event also provided a high profile positive focus for the University of Reading’s Mental Health Day, during which a number of other planned activities took place.

Project Highlights:

  1. 230 staff and students attended ‘In Conversation’ in Van Emden lecture theatre
  2. 140 students and staff attended Super Circuits event at Sportspark
  3. Over 800 YouTube hits on ‘Biggest Fight of my Life’ Video uploaded on 2/03/2017
  4. 111 views of full interview and q and a session in 5 days
  5. 75 entries to Instagram competition: some individual images receiving in excess of 400 ‘likes’
  6. In Conversation Event Livestreamed via Facebook
  7. Multiple positive publicity opportunities generated promoting Reading as a university concerned about mental health issues
  8. Nearly £500 raised in 2 days for two charities: Sport in Mind and the Cameron Grant Memorial Trust

Legacy

  1. Visible presence on campus to show that the University ‘cares’ about student and staff mental well-being.
  2. Promotion of Student Wellbeing to hard-to-reach target groups.
  3. Professionally produced Counselling & Wellbeing video clip which can be uploaded to provide permanent resource via web pages and Blackboard

 

Crafting mental health

depression-photo-2By Ellie Highwood

The increase in demand for support for mental wellbeing in universities is well documented. A recent YouGov report suggested that 1 in 4 university students suffer from mental health problems, whilst the Guardian has a series of articles suggesting that staff are still reluctant to disclose mental-health problems and that mental health problems affect up to half of staff in academia. Whilst the reasons behind these considerable numbers are complex and challenging, and universities, including ours, have support services in place, any preventative action we can take as a community, however small, can only help.

20161201_091700Being involved in creative activities, either alone or together with others, can, for many, enhance mental well-being or indeed aid recovery from mental illness. I am something of a crochet addict, and when I heard about Mind’s campaign to raise funds by holding “Crafternoons” I wondered about organising something but felt it would be too much for me to do. Having mentioned it in passing to some of our Executive Support team, I was surprised and overwhelmed when a couple of weeks later they announced that they had decided to organise one for me! And so it was that just before Christmas we filled the Vice Chancellor’s office with craft supplies provided using donations from the senior management group, and invited everyone to an hour of crafting and cake.

Around 50 people dropped in during our “opening hours”. As well as IMG_4565crocheting and making decorations for our MIND Christmas tree, we had a tombola, sold home-crafted bird boxes and mini-stockings donated by staff and their families, talked and laughed a lot. I now know that one of our Pro Vice Chancellors makes fantastic banana cake, and that colouring is a surprisingly popular activity that appeals across all genders, ages and occupations. Perhaps a University of Reading colouring book is in order?

Many of the attendees commented that it was great to do something really different during the working day, and that they were surprised by how they felt after doing something so obviously creative for even a short time.

A huge thank you to everyone who got involved, mentioned us on Instagram, and especially those who organised it. Let us know if you would like to see more events like this!