Having retired early due to mental illness, Mark is now a consultant and an advocate for inclusion in the workplace.
Inspired by chemistry from a young age
From a young age Mark had a keen interest in science and nature, enjoying discovering how things worked. Like a lot of children, he had a chemistry set and at junior school he became part of a science club. His secondary school science teacher, Mr Langford, had a real passion for chemistry and ran the science club that Mark attended; here they were free to explore any questions they had:
“I always remember his demonstrations, and if for some reason the experiment did not work, he would ascertain why and take us with him in his problem solving.”
Outside school Mark attended the Royal Institution lectures, which he remembers as awe inspiring. His interest in chemistry led him to continue his studies, gaining a degree from the University of Kent. Following this, he was offered a PhD position but instead took a job at the Laboratory of the Government Chemist, working on chemical sensing and laboratory robotics. Later, he specialised in water and environmental sciences.
Dealing with mental health problems
15 years ago, when Mark was in his mid-thirties, he had to take two years off work due to ill health, stress and anxiety, which had continued to build over several years.“Sometimes I didn’t know who I was or where I was,” he explains.
Finally, he was diagnosed with a dissociative disorder, which was causing his acute anxiety and depression. He was offered ill-health early retirement at only 38 years old. Mark felt unsupported when he became ill and thinks that, in those days, people did not consider mental health - particularly stress and anxiety - to be a serious issue:
“No one noticed it; no one said anything, even though my behaviour was getting a bit strange. If you’re good at what you do and you’re passionate about what you’re doing then perhaps mental illness is often looked upon as a little bit of eccentricity.”
Having to retire early due to ill health was something that surprised Mark: “it isn’t something you think will affect you, which means you aren’t prepared for how it can affect you."
Although Mark still feels there is a stigma attached to mental health, he thinks that things are improving. More companies are now addressing these issues and employees suffering from problems such as stress and anxiety are being offered greater support.
“I think more can, and should, be done because it stops people from fulfilling their potential. I would hope that, with a better understanding of mental health problems, my managers would have been able to spot my illness worsening, which may have prevented me having to retire. However, it relies on being able to be open and honest with your manager and feeling comfortable in the environment.”
Because of his experiences, Mark is passionate about ensuring that people are supported, regardless of their health, and that they are able to progress in a career in the chemical sciences if they desire it.
In 2014, Mark was appointed on to the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Inclusion and Diversity Committee. He hopes this will make a difference to the stigma attached to mental health issues - something that needs to be acknowledged and addressed.
“I am pleased to be on the committee as someone with a disability who doesn’t have a PhD. I want to help make the Royal Society of Chemistry a more inclusive organisation by representing disabled members and members beyond academia. Inclusivity isn’t just about the protected characteristics, such as race, gender, disability, religion, and sexuality: it’s also about being inclusive of our industrial members, as well as our academic members and people at all levels of education - those with PhDs and those without.”
Mark is now a Chartered Chemist and works as a consultant in analytical chemistry, quality assurance and quality control. He also lectures at schools, universities and professional bodies about mental health, managing health problems and how to tackle stigma.
Words by Geri Kitley
Images © Stephen Lake / Royal Society of Chemistry
Published June 2015