A psychiatry professor who wants to know why stress makes us ill and wants to help people achieving better mental health
I am a Professor of Biological Psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King's College London, and Consultant Perinatal Psychiatrist at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust.
I am trying to understand the role of stress in mental disorders and in the response to psychotropic medications, both in clinical studies and in the laboratory. I am particularly interested in depression, fatigue, and mental health in pregnancy and postpartum.
My dream is that new treatments targeting the stress system will soon be available to alleviate the suffering of patients with mental health problems.
A few weeks ago, Crystal and I, with many other students, joined the grading to our next level of Kung Fu training. Kung Fu grading is a stressful business, and it is difficult for everybody. But for Crystal, it should have been impossible. Or at least so it seemed, last year.
Since the enjoyment of school is almost totally governed by whether a student is perceived as weak or strong by their peers, any public displays of emotion, whether crying, anxiety, or even extreme happiness, are to be avoided. Thus, suppression of feelings is essential to having a good time at school.
Public attitudes towards mental health have also improved thanks to efforts from psychiatrists through the Time for Change anti-stigma campaign; for example, in the last five years, fewer people with mental health problems have experienced discrimination in their social life or in securing a job.
The debate on Mind vs. Brain has figured prominently in the recent public press. But the debate is misleading: few dispute that mental life is grounded in the complex circuits of connections between neurons (brain cells) and in their constant interaction with the world outside.
I met Lynn Lu, a visual artist from Singapore, in November last year. Lynn was working on an interactive performance/installation art project inspired by her own recent experience of depression during pregnancy and the postpartum.
So, how does stress affect the brain? We seem to forget - certainly the audience was surprised to hear - that the stress response is an automatic survival response, designed to save our lives during life-threatening situations.
Exactly a year ago, hundreds of kids misbehaved really badly, so why has nobody asked the question? Have we - society, government, family - done something wrong? Why the loud silence? Oh, sorry, I forgot - they are they just nasty little rioters, and should go to prison. There is nothing else to ask. Where is the reflection, the understanding, the questions? Those arrested during the riots mainly came from deprived areas and had the poorest educational backgrounds. They set fire to their own communities, and looted consumerist goods − plasma TVs, "branded" fashionable electronics and expensive shoes. Why did they do what they did?
06/08/2012 17:29 BST
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