Sunday, 10 July 2016

Taking a deep breath, and dipping my toe in the sea, allows me to keep my head!

Antoine Lavoisier died by the guillotine. He had been found guilty of crimes against the state. These included adulterating the nation’s tobacco with water, supplying the enemies of France with large donations of tax payers cash and generally plundering the people and treasury of France. Unhelpfully (for him and his wife) his convictions were overturned a year after he died. I mention this story for 2 reasons. The first reason arises from the fact that at his trial the presiding Judge would not allow Antoine to mount a defence or actually speak at all. He noted that the emergent Republic had no need of scientists or chemists (Antoine was widely considered to be the Father of Modern Chemistry). As such his contribution to society had little value, and so there was no requirement for leniency when deciding to pass the death penalty. He was tried, convicted and guillotined on the same day.

All of this was going on during a time of great uncertainty, the French Revolution was at its height and there was enormous political and economic turbulence and much social change. In the UK today, as the post Brexit turmoil continues, particularly for vulnerable and innocent people, shades of what it must have been like in that Spring of 1794 Paris, can be glimpsed. And just like then, there are views held as to what and who might be considered critical and/or trustworthy in the making of their contribution to society. Last week YouGov published a survey on who people in the UK trusted to guide them through the current political and economic turbulence. 49% said the people they most trust were academics, followed by 28% family, and 23% friends. Only 10% trusted our political leaders.

Returning to our hero for a moment, the second reason for mentioning Antoines story was his discoveries. In 1778 he recognised and named 'oxygen' and went on to discover the role oxygen plays in combustion. His discovery also gave rise to a number of popular theories about the benefits of sea air, which back then was thought to be better and purer than that found anywhere else. This was the time of the Industrial Revolution and rapid industrialisation was starting to result in air pollution. Going to the beach for a holiday started to become a very popular choice during the late 18th century.

There were perceived health benefits associated with the sea, and sea air. I can remember from my nurse training, being introduced to the ancient theory of the 4 humors, substances which when in a state of balance, will keep a person healthy. Of course once medical research and our understanding of the human body reached an advanced stage, such theories fell into disuse. However, at the time, one of these so called humors, black bile (and there is no modern equivalent really) was said to cause melancholy (depression), and a quick dip in the cold sea was seen to be the best cure!

Indeed, in 1621, Robert Burton (author of the Anatomy of Melancholy) described depression as one of mankind's 'chief maladies', and his recommended 'cure' involved travelling and taking holidays, including holidays by the seaside. Today, depression remains the second leading cause of disability worldwide, and a major contributor to the levels of suicide and ischemic heart disease. Currently the 'cures' available in mental health care feature sophisticated anti-depressant medication as well as very effective talking therapies. 

As a Professor of mental health care I am no more insulated from feelings of stress, anxiety and sometimes depressive thoughts than anyone else. My approach to dealing with such feelings reflects the concept of mindfulness. I have an image I draw upon in focusing my thoughts in times of stress, anxiety and or despair. The image is of me sitting on favourite bench, a bench that looks out over a local beach. I often sit there for a while when taking Cello for a walk. I find it totally relaxing and up-lifting to just stop for a while and appreciate the world around me. It is this experience that I bring to mind when dealing with my own negative thoughts. 

Yesterday I found myself having to deal with such thoughts. It was the annual Village Boules Championships, and the only major sporting event of any real interest this weekend. We all get to dress up in traditional French outfits, mutter vague French phrases and drink lots of red wine, Oh and throw a few boules around. Last year I was the champion, this year I didn’t win. Some may say it was the red wine, some might say I was complacent and perhaps ill-prepared, or just distracted.  Well done to Caroline and David - worthy winners both, but I can say, without reservation, I will be back. I didn’t lose my head, just my crown. I will take a deep breath, and carry on...