Get out of my head!

For the first installment of our collaboration with ‘This Space’ we hear from ALEX OBT, a psychology student with a secret

ethics friends lizard phd psychiatric study psychology reptilian Student

They say, when it comes to psychiatric research, that you are what you study.

It’s hard to know whether certain underlying traits have drawn researchers to study conditions that they sympathize with on some level, or whether focussing your working life on a certain mental illness inevitably lends it a contagious quality.

Either way, as a PhD student who’s been submerged in the world of schizophrenia for the last two years, I’ve more than once had to take a good long look at myself in the mirror, to see if there’s a shapeshifting lizard staring back. So far, so mammalian.

Lizard or man

However, my PhD work in Cambridge has woven its subtle influence on me in other ways, (and I don’t just mean in coaxing my apathy towards statistics into full-blown detestation).

Thanks to the questionnaires I’ve given to many of my friends, I now know exactly how schizophrenic they all are, and how likely it is that their future will bring them a major psychotic episode.

This is knowledge, of course, that I am sworn by the code of medical and research ethics to keep secret, so I won’t be sharing it here. But this is a weighty burden of information to carry with me nonetheless.

Inevitably, discussion of mental illness has become completely normal to me. The first things I ask of any of my research participants are their name, age, and what their mental health is like.

I’m duty bound to ask people I’ve just met a range of probing questions to establish just how psychotic they are.

Flying bats or childhood trauma?

This is a habit that I’ve found seeping into my regular social interactions with alarming regularity. It’s led to a number of different reactions, ranging from silent shock to an unexpected deluge of information.

My sudden probing questions towards relative strangers tend to be accompanied by my trademark intense stare – probably learned from pretending I have any idea what’s going on in our lab discussions – meaning people probably start to wonder whether I’m showing early signs of schizophrenia.

I’m quick to reassure people that I’m not in any way schizophrenic, and actually have a fairly typical number of psychotic traits, which in retrospect may not be helping the whole situation.

But don’t think for a second I’m about to change my ways. Asking about someone’s mental health is far more interesting than asking about their subject, or year, or where they’re from, or any of the other irrelevant life details that I instinctively forget as soon as I’ve turned away.

It’s led to some fascinating conversations, and even some lasting friendships. There has been nobody (once the initial surprise has faded) who’s had nothing interesting to say in response to such a question, whether they themselves have personal experience or not.

Friends or bad dream

I’ve gained a unique insight into many aspects of that person: their hopes, their fears, and their core values are often bound up in their attitudes towards and personal experiences of mental illness.

It’s become a cliché to chastise ourselves, both as individuals and as a culture, for keeping our mouths shut when it comes to personal issues. And mental illness is certainly one of the more personal of the personal issues to broach inappropriately at the pub.

But what’s stopping you, other than a sense of social decorum that I’ve gladly long dispensed with? Get out there and start having this conversation. It’s certainly a conversation worth having.

This article is written in collaboration with This Space, a submissions-based blog dedicated to mental health and reducing stigma surrounding the topic. You can check them out here, and if you’d like to submit, please email [email protected].