Category Archives: Lifestyle

Depression as a Continuum

Medicine often functions by dichotomizing: ill or healthy, good or bad, normal or abnormal. In doing so, it allows those making decisions to feel that particular courses of action are correct.  It is rare that things are so clear-cut, yet medical discourse commonly frames them as if they were. In fact, this is often the only option. 

A pertinent analogy may be the difference between passing and failing an exam. A student with a 42% isn’t much more knowledgeable than one with a 39%, yet one passes while the other is marked as a failure. An extra percentage may affect the way a student sees themselves or the way in which future employers judge their worth. Does this make them a different person? Someone who is more or less intelligent, or even more hardworking? Not necessarily. Yet, the cut off must be placed somewhere. Clearly someone who gets 98% in every exam has done better and probably tried harder than one who receives 12%, but this is an ‘obvious’ case. As outliers, they are easily definable. It is those who are ‘normal’ – those who fall in the middle – who have the most to gain or lose.

In the case of physical health, these differentiations between what is normal and abnormal clearly carry their own costs, but I suggest that this argument is particularly crucial in the case of mental health – in no small part as a result of the way mental illnesses are viewed.

depression 2What do you imagine when you think of depression? Public perceptions appear to be changing. More celebrities are ‘coming out’ about their own experiences with depression. It is almost fashionable – as long as one is rich and successful, and has gotten better.

A study published in 2014, conducted in Australia, suggested that stigma towards those with mental illness may be divided into two main categories: ‘weak-not-sick’ and ‘dangerous/unpredictable’. That is, people with mental health problems are viewed either as malingerers or as a threat to society. Certainly, there are individuals who pose a risk to others at times and there are individuals who choose to exaggerate symptoms in order to gain material benefits, such as time off work. However, these people are the minority. These views could also be applied to physical illnesses, yet this appears to be a less common phenomenon. A recent study conducted in Italy found that 75% of those surveyed believed that people with depression should avoid talking about their illness, and 52% thought primary care physicians were too busy to treat patients with depression, presumably because they are dealing with ‘more important’ physical illnesses.

In addition to social stigma, there may be costs to admitting to depression in other contexts, particularly the workplace. There is a significant economic burden due to loss of productivity as a result of depression. A study looking at attitudes towards depression in association with time taken off work in seven European countries showed that the attitudes of managers affected the amount of time employees took off, and whether they felt able to disclose their diagnosis.

Developed by Drs. Robert L. Spitzer, Janet B.W. Williams, Kurt Kroenke and colleagues, with an educational grant from Pfizer Inc.

The questionnaire used to help doctors diagnose depression and grade its severity contains a range of symptoms that must be familiar to many people. For example: Over the last two weeks how often have you been bothered by feeling tired or having little energy? By feeling bad about yourself, that you are a failure, or have let yourself or your family down? Treatments, such as talking therapies or antidepressants, rather than active monitoring are advised based on criteria including symptom duration, the impact of symptoms on a patient’s life, a previous history of depression, and a lack of social support. Thus, it is immediately evident that the difference between a diagnosis of mild or moderate depression depends on some rather subjective reporting of symptoms by a patient.

Is it possible to view depression not as a dichotomy, but as a spectrum? There has been increasing interest among researchers in viewing depression on a continuum. For instance, a 2010 article in the British Journal of Psychiatry reported that:

Symptoms that do not meet the threshold for depression produce significant decrements in health and the experience of them is not qualitatively different from an illness which would meet the diagnostic criteria.

Further, a 2014 study found that there was an association between a belief in a continuum of symptoms in mental health and a positive attitude towards those with mental illness.

So, if you notice any of the symptoms of depression in yourself or in someone close to you, it would be helpful to view these feelings not as abnormal, but in a more accepting way. Mental health is not as simple as ill or healthy. If you have lost interest in the things you normally enjoy, have negative feelings about yourself, or experience any ‘somatic’ symptoms, including a loss or gain of appetite, a change in sleep pattern, or excessive tiredness, then it may be worth seeking medical advice.

It is estimated that between 8-12% of the UK population experiences depression each year. Talking therapies and antidepressants can help, and using them should not be viewed as a sign of weakness. Additionally, the Mental Health Foundation has useful information on other approaches to treatment on its website. A diagnosis of depression need not be feared or avoided. In short, symptoms of depression are very common, and there is often a fine line between the diagnosis of a depressive illness with subsequent treatment and a lack of diagnosis. People should be treated with equal sympathy and respect regardless of what side of the line they fall on.

Returning to Study: Peaks and Valleys

I’ll be frank: the first year of my master’s degree was abysmal.

Having found myself with copious amounts of time on my hands (in the evenings, after work, when the kids had gone to bed, when I had only Facebook and its hundreds of photos and posts from people having better lives than me for company), I decided to ‘do something with my life’. I tried online dating for a bit, but I don’t think my Mr Right had signed up to the same website as me. Besides, I found no matter how strict I attempted to set my ‘requirements’ I kept getting fobbed off with my ultimate turn-offs.

Work was okay, but it wasn’t going anywhere. It was a ‘mum’s’ job that had been a real blessing when I first landed it, but was now growing old, stale, and very, very boring.

My love for the arts has always been such a constant that I don’t really distinguish it as something separate from myself. I wouldn’t list it as a hobby (a passion, maybe). It’s not just something I do; it’s something I am. And so, as I was still dabbling in community arts (setting up workshops, hanging out with creatives) and I believed I was good enough to be paid for my efforts, I decided that the MA in Arts Management and Policy was just what I needed.

Birkbeck was the obvious choice. It held classes in the evenings, or at the weekends, so I could still do everything else. It was central, it was a ‘proper’ uni with a reputable name (otherwise why bother?) and also, I was fortunate enough to get a bursary, so job done, I was in!

October arrived, and all my fears and anxieties about returning to study after almost 20 years were realised, in triplicate. Don’t get me wrong – I found the lectures stimulating; never being one to keep my mouth shut, I contributed well and expressed my opinions, so the 6-9pm graveyard shift was mostly bearable. But the combined shock of having to do research, write essays, and grapple with theory and subject matter (which often seemed to have little to do with the practicalities of the arts world today), whilst being very much in the minority amongst the other students, made me seriously question whether I had made the right decision.

There’s a reason those introductory sessions are called ‘core modules’: they shake you to your very core. Much whinging, debating and soul-searching took place over that first term, and I’m thankful to my friends who listened, encouraged and supported me through what was quite a stressful period. It was really touch and go at one point, but I held on, like some crazy rodeo rider, determined not to be shaken off.

And how glad I am that I stuck with it! I am now in my 2nd and final year, and with ‘only’ one more essay to go (plus a dissertation, but how hard could that be?), I feel as if I have reached the peak of a great, big mountain. Yes, from this vantage point, I can see there are a few more valleys to cross, but I also see the finishing line clearly within my sights.

I’d say to any of you struggling with readapting to life as a student: hang on and hold on! It may take a term for you to get into it; it may take a year; it may take the ‘right’ lecturer or module, but give it longer than you ordinarily would with new things to prove itself. If you do, you may just love it.

Yes, a master’s degree is a bit of an insanity/vanity project, there’s no promise of a job at the end of it, at least not in my chosen field, and it wreaks havoc with your social and family life (please, just forget about Christmas!). But you’ll get such an enormous sense of achievement when you get those essays done, and, if you truly relish learning and delving into your chosen subject, then those cursed papers could become the optimum time for unearthing reams of information that only ignite your fire further.

Time-sensitive opportunity: Dig Deep fundraising challenge

Dig Deep, a charity founded by student volunteers in 2012 which provides clean water supplies to communities across East Africa, is  looking for a committed student from Birkbeck University to join their team and lead their next fundraising challenge: climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in summer 2015.

The deadline for applications is 15th May 2014.

The role:

  • Kilimanjaro Challenge Leader – leading a team of students to the roof of Africa;
  • Raising money to provide clean water to thousands of people;
  • All travel expenses provided via corporate sponsorship.

The trip:

Mount Kilimanjaro is one of the most impressive sights in Africa and
climbing it is one of the all-time great achievements. It’s the largest
free-standing mountain in the world and the trek encompasses terrains from jungle to glacier. Reaching the summit and watching the sun rise over the plains is the experience of a lifetime.

The sponsorship raised by the group completing this epic challenge will transform thousands of lives.

The challenge is going to take place in the summer of 2015 and  they are now recruiting for the Challenge Leader. The responsibilities of the role will include:

  • Running a recruitment campaign to select a team of dedicated students to attempt the challenge;
  • Facilitating the group’s fundraising and ensuring the social cohesion of the group in the build-up to the challenge;
  • Leading the group to the summit ensuring the welfare and morale of your team.

Skilled local guides will be there on the ground to arrange logistics and take care of all health and safety aspects, so you will not need mountaineering experience to take on the role. What is essential however is drive, confidence and the ability to motivate others.

In return for this vital work the charity’s corporate partners will cover the Challenge Leader’s travel and mountain costs for completing the challenge.

You will also gain leadership and project management experience crucial for any CV – and most importantly you will know that your work has provided clean water to thousands.

Dig Deep will be there to support you every step of the way. They have years of experience in co-ordinating challenges and many of us have been challenge leaders in the past. For more information see

To apply for this life-changing experience,  fill out the form at

Lamp and Owl is not affiliated with this charity. You may wish to delve deeper into their activities to ensure that their priorities align with yours. We are passing this on as an interesting opportunity for students to get involved with the charity sector.

Conquering the Croydon Mile for Sports Relief

Of all the  sponsored walks I have done so far, the Sports Relief was one of the easiest.
After watching an entire week of Sports Relief activities,  including Davina McCall’s gruelling  triathlon,  the Croydon Mile turned out to be quite easy in terms of distance.  (The only drawback was that I walked all over Brighton the day before,  so jogging or running was out of the question.)
Dozens of people turned up for the Croydon Mile, which took place at Croydon Sports Arena. We were lucky with the weather,  despite a few showers. Unlike the Cancer Research Race For Life,  which is  on public roads, the Sports Mile takes place on a track. You could choose to do one mile as I did,  three miles or six miles.
I found it was easy to lose count of how many laps I had done, but there were people posted along the route who kept track of our progress and told us how many laps we had completed.  We were also treated to a warm-up session before the “race”, and a bottle of water along with our Sports Relief medals.
My next outing will be the Race for Life with Team Heart again this year.  In fact, all my “races” or rather walks have been women-only Race for Life events. It was nice to be in a family atmosphere and not have to run or walk on public roads.

Pretty Muddy and the Race for Life

Tania Rahman is a Visitor Services Assistant at the British Museum and is studying creative writing at Birkbeck. In her spare time she volunteers for  Global Charities and Cancer Research UK. With this in mind we thought that Tania was pretty well placed to talk about how to juggle all these competing activities. Her first article for the lamp and owl describes her experience of taking part in last year’s Pretty Muddy event…

I had the opportunity to take part in Pretty Muddy in Finsbury Park, a 5km obstacle course introduced this year. Of course, like the original Race for Life, the series of events for cancer charity, participants can walk, jog or run it, and it’s for women only! That is the easy part. Finsbury Park is an uphill park which added yet another dimension.

The obstacles included: running or walking around traffic cones, climbing up and over a (thankfully) low climbing wall, and scrambling under a net through mud. It did wonders for my hair, and if you did not feel muddy and challenged enough you could run through a mud pit and get completely drenched in mud.

There were actually two nets on the course. I avoided the first one, but felt that I should at least try the second one. The net was a lot heavier than it looked and had been sitting in mud, which made it even heavier. A friend later questioned whether or not there was “anything else” in the mud, which I really did not want to think about, and another friend told me that people had told her how tough the course was. Of course being a Race for Life / Cancer Research event, it was really all about talking part and they did not mind if you skipped any obstacles as long as you “had a go”.

On the way to Finsbury Park I encountered a lot of women dressed in pink making their way there, and a lot of mud-drenched women on the way back (most of them wearing their medals).

Despite this being only my second year involved in the Race for Life, taking part in a charity sports challenge has always been on my “to do” list. I go jogging and to the gym to keep fit and lose weight (the usual goals) so training for Race for Life events helps me to aim for something else and makes sure that I keep up my training.

While I was still at school I took part in the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. The required hike was one of my favourite parts (but I found camping surprisingly tough) because it was something that I always wanted to do. Even now living and working in a city means that I have little opportunity to find activities like this and activity holidays can be expensive.

For more information visit the Race For Life / Pretty Muddy on the Cancer Research UK website.

Tania will be following this article up with a series of articles as she prepares for the challenges that she is taking part in later this year.

Ramen: a potted history of the world’s favourite instant meal

Soup bowls filled with juicy Japanese nuggets are the world favourite instant meal. Lifelong Ramen devotee Kittie Walker explains why…

Steam filled with the aromas of oriental spices wafts across the room towards me. The anticipation builds as I sit and wait for my bowl to arrive. There’s nothing quite like stimulating all of your senses before indulging in comfort food that’ll drive away the winter chill. In fact, ramen is so versatile, it doesn’t matter how you’re feeling, what the weather is like or if you’re rushed for time – there’s a ramen for every occasion.

Like many office workers – and the entire universe, surely – I’m a fan of ramen. Not just the bowls filled with juicy nuggets. But even the instant packets of oriental noodles you reconstitute with boiling water.

It’s eaten all over the world including in Japan where it’s a cultural phenomenon and a celebrity in itself with manga, anime, songs, TV shows, films and events dedicated to it.

It’s always felt like you’re not indulging in a naughty snack. But rather consuming a hearty meal to keep you fuelled – mind, body and soul. I don’t feel guilty when inhaling ramen, because it’s a traditional food from one of the healthiest cuisines on the planet. Or is it? I hadn’t really given that question much thought, until I met Barak Kushner, author of Slurp! A culinary and social history of ramen – Japan’s favourite noodle soup, who has completely changed my perception of the dish.

Kushner is an academic from Cambridge University who hails from America. He is open, jovial and passionate about his field of study – all things Japanese. Talking to him about the culinary evolution of Japan – and more importantly ramen – over the last two centuries is a real treat.

“It’s important to understand ramen is not a usual food on many levels for Japanese society,” says Kushner “Think about their food aesthetics – everything is visually pleasing and simple with each component of the meal coming in a bowl or dish of its own – ramen is the antithesis of this.

“And that’s because it isn’t a traditional Japanese dish at all. It’s a dish that’s evolved over the past two centuries as Japan attempted to forge a separate cultural identity from China.”

It turns out – somewhat ironically considering some of the most famous ramen dishes are pork-based broths with pork belly on top, for hundreds of years the Japanese consumed very little pork – only the very rich or those needing protein on medical grounds consumed it regularly. The Japanese often used imagery of the pig to denigrate their Chinese neighbours. “The Japanese associated food tastes with specific cultures and they despised foods like pork, chocolate and butter, looking down upon the countries that consumed them.”

It’s strange, considering the Japanese were trying to set themselves apart from the Chinese, that they adopted a dish that’s intrinsically Chinese in origin. “Nanking Soba, Nagasaki Champon and Shina Soba, all forerunners of ramen appeared in Japan from the mid-nineteenth century. They originally sprang up in Chinese restaurants in Japan. They were aimed at Chinese students and businessmen, but soon the chefs of these restaurants realised they could start to widen their audience by creating dishes that would appeal to the Chinese and Japanese alike,” reported Kushner enthusiastically, “and because as a nation the Japanese had gone through much of their history malnourished, this new hardy dish appealed to them. Over the next hundred years, they adopted and made it their own.”

During the 1920s, the immediate forerunner of ramen took off in a big way. It was served in small pop up restaurants, in Chinese restaurants and from food carts in the more disreputable parts of town. It was a dish specifically for the underclasses. “Proper people did not eat ramen. Women certainly did not eat noodles and were considered low class prostitutes if they were seen to be consuming them,” continues an animated Kushner.

“It’s not until after the Second World War that we start to see the ramen and sticky white rice that we all instantly recognise as Japanese today. In fact, there’s an interesting story behind the ramen that was born out of the post-war period. Japan was devastated during the Second World War. There was severe rationing, which led to food riots in the streets. America stepped in to ease the crisis and to stop them from going communist – a real concern at the time. They sent them vast amounts of wheat, not realising that the Japanese did not eat bread or cook using ovens.”

This cultural faux pas spawned a “food group that has entwined itself with modern pop culture like no other, instant ramen was born to solve post-war starvation and malnutrition. It took ten years to develop, by which time, economically Japan was doing a lot better. Ramen was an instant hit.”

Kushner is an animated raconteur. As we sit there, he goes on to describe how the ramen is still evolving today, with no sign of it abating as the world’s favourite instant or comfort food. The latest marketing innovations are tailoring the flavours by gender – lighter and citrus tastes for women and heavier styles for men. There are even “light” versions for the health conscious, because, as a carbohydrate-based dish, they are highly calorific.

Noodle bars in Japan go to extremes to get people lining up around the block to get in. The shops make your visit a cultural event and an experience that you’ll be sure to pass on to your friends. This has not yet appeared in venues outside of Japan, but with many more Ramen restaurants opening in the UK, maybe we’ll see one hear soon.

I’ve come across many ramen snobs in my time, declaring this ramen or that ramen not to be traditional or authentic and therefore beneath their consideration. I am now fully equipped to counter their condescension with a factual history lesson. With all my senses fully satiated, I’m ready to take on the world. As I leave the restaurant, I give a brief nod to the Japanese women who went before me, willing to brave the scorn of their society just because they fancied a bowl of noodle soup.

Barak Kushner was a guest speaker at a meeting of the Birkbeck Food Group. Thanks go to Alex Colas and the Birkbeck Food Group for existing and arranging such informative and entertaining sessions. If you like to go to future events or join the groups mailing list email Alex Colas.

p.s. The book Slurp! A culinary and social history of ramen – Japan’s favourite noodle soup is outrageously expensive, but Barak advises that it will be available at a more accessible price in paperback soon. Ed. the book is actually coming out in paperback in February 2014 see the order form below for details. It costs 25 EUR, but you can get a 20% discount up until April 2014 by using this form:



image courtesy of By Sun Taro (Flickr: Honkamado@Sendai) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons