People across the world are facing unprecedented times. The novel coronavirus Covid-19 has been designated as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation. We all are affected, whether directly by the illness (ourselves or someone we know), or by policies and guidance being enacted by the government; or very possibly both.
Psychologists for Social Change’s previous briefing paper on austerity notes five key ways that mental health can be impacted by public policy. We believe these also come into play at times of huge social uncertainty such as during the current pandemic:
1. Being trapped and powerless
It is no understatement to say that the uncertainty around what will happen feels overwhelming at times. High levels of uncertainty can lead to more physiological stress than a known negative outcome. So the sense of powerlessness that many people are feeling in the face of the virus has led to increased levels of anxiety and distress. Some people who have been most detrimentally affected by austerity and cuts will struggle even more.
2. Fear and distrust
It is understandable that there is a very high level of fear for those of us with health conditions or loved ones who are more vulnerable. The UK government has warned that we should expect loved ones tol die, and death rates are mounting around the world each day. There is also heightened fear around how the NHS and other services will cope. This has been exacerbated by many years of cuts to health services, and a social care system which remains woefully underfunded even without the context of the current Covid-19 crisis. With beds requisitioned from the private sector, there are still question marks over who will profit from the current crisis. At times like these, distrust of those in power is likely to mount, especially for people who already feel let down by the government. There needs to be scrutiny around the new coronavirus bill to ensure that it does not undermine human rights.
3. Humiliation and shame
As humans we are naturally concerned about our status relative to others. The growing inequality gap across the UK is thought to have increased our risk to ‘social anxiety’ as a nation. This is said to be partly responsible for the breakdown in cohesion across communities and society. As the rich get richer the spread of wealth becomes polarised. This causes greater distancing between groups and a breakdown in ‘bridging relationships’ which support people to access resources beyond their immediate social position.
When under threat like this, our defenses come up, cohesion breaks down and it is easy to blame or stigmatise others. Rising inequality over at least the last decade has eroded our social ties causing division which has contributed to a rise in populist nationalism. Against this backdrop we have already seen a rise in racially aggravated incidents as people come to terms with the virus. The out-of-our-control nature of the unfolding situation can fly in the face of some of our deeply-held values as people who want to help or support others. Sitting with these values whilst feeling powerless may make us feel torn about what to do. We could feel shameful because the right answer isn’t going to always be clear.
The election result could be changed by people shifting their opinions on specific issues, which is why it is worth engaging others on issues you care about. But what if you’re starting from very different positions?
Sinead Peacock-Brennan and Laura McGrath
It feels like this election is taking place in polarised - and impenetrable - bubbles. The Brexit referendum has reorganised British politics, not least through providing powerful new social identity categories of ‘Remainer’ and ‘Leaver’, then forcing people to both pick and defend a side. Despite the EU being conspicuously absent from public priorities in 2015, one fallout from the Brexit vote has been a fracturing of existing political tribes. Speculation abounds over how ‘Labour Leavers’ and ‘Tory Remainers’ could upturn long held safe seats and reshape our political landscape.
Rather than fluidity in politics opening new spaces for dialogue and understanding, our changing political times have instead entrenched division. Moral and emotive language, of treachery and surrender, in a social media landscape, which reinforces our existing views rather than challenging them, has only acted to heighten hostility. Throw into this mix the impact of a decade of funding cuts, the climate emergency, floods, accusations of racism in both Corbyn's Labour and Johnson's Conservatives, and no wonder it can seem harder than ever to listen to, never mind understand, people with different views.
At Psychologists for Social Change, we use psychological research to inform political debate, policy and social action. We have highlighted the damaging impact of austerity on mental health and examined alternatives such as universal basic income or services. We have also critically analysed the ‘happiness’ or ‘wellbeing’ agenda in British politics, as well as considered what better education and children’s mental health services might look like.
These briefing papers and commentary might inform your conversations with friends, family and colleagues in the run up to the election. In these divided times, however, we realise it is not enough to work out what the issues are and where you stand. What happens if you realise mid conversation that you are in a different bubble to the person you are talking to? You might shut down and decide that it is a lost cause, or engage in a heated discussion which leaves you both irate and frustrated, holding even more firmly onto your existing beliefs. Or is there another approach? One that encourages discussion, and could possibly build consensus for political change? Here are some ideas.
South Wales PSC are on the case to make sure the Welsh government’s approach to mental health is focused on creating mentally healthy communities so that everyone can thrive
Photo by David Chubb on Unsplash
My name is Lyndsey and I was born in 1988 to a Welsh mother and father. My father left when I was two and my mum raised me and my two older brothers alone. Mum worked really long hours to provide for us the best she could, but with three children and a house to run, she struggled. Both financially and mentally.I was brought up on a well-known housing estate in south Wales. As a young child, it was a scary place to be. Emergency services were always around because of burnt-out cars, always gang trouble and issues with drugs. As I got older, I became oblivious to the trouble and found the community spirit amazing. Everyone would help each other out with anything needed.
I enjoyed primary school for a time but I experienced personal trauma and school then became a struggle for me. I never felt like I belonged there, like I was different. I used to “act out” because I never had the confidence to speak out. Going to secondary school, I no longer had the escape I needed. I struggled with my anger and felt I had nobody to turn to. I channelled my frustrations in the wrong way, which resulted in me being excluded from school with no qualifications at 15. I struggled for the next few years.
I started full time work at 19. It was there I met my now husband. Things happened quickly and I fell pregnant. Once the baby arrived, I moved areas to be a family. I moved to Abertillery and struggled with the different way of life. I also had postnatal depression and had no knowledge of any support networks that could help. Being so far from my family’s help, I felt isolated and couldn’t see a way out.
My mental health took a beating and I struggled to be a parent. I’ve continued to struggle, but it took my son being born in 2017 to finally get help. After battling postnatal again, my health visitor put us in touch with Families First. The help and support we’ve received from them has been phenomenal. Without the support of everyone involved at Families First, I genuinely fear my children wouldn’t have had a mother. Having them on hand has been a brilliant opportunity for me. I’ve done Circle of Security with them and that has given me the tools I need to be a better parent. They also got me onto a childcare course to give me a chance to better myself. It’s something I always wanted to do but never had the financial means.
Due to my husband starting his own business, we are not entitled to any benefits. We only receive child tax credits, which means that once the bills are paid there’s barely enough money left to feed the children. We get by on £100 a week. That’s £100 to pay the mortgage, utility bills, feed and clothe our children.
Your clearest explanation of the New Economy yet - plus how it connects to wellbeing and Extinction Rebellion
Confused about what exactly Community Wealth Building is? Like the sound of the latest Green New Deal but unsure what it means? Let Miles Thompson be your guide as he reflects on a rousing first Stir to Action festival
In July, I rather surprised my tent which had only just been taken down from Glastonbury, by putting it up again just outside of Frome. The occasion was the inaugural Stir to Action festival. Its title: “Playground for the New Economy”.
Stir to Action, founded by Jonny Gordon-Farleigh, produces both STIR, a quarterly magazine, and a nationwide series of workshops informing the public about aspects of the “New Economy”. But what is the New Economy? Hopefully this blog, summarising some of the content presented at the festival, will give you an overview if the term is new to you. It is also hoped the blog will map out a terrain where we can build more links between those interested in New Economies and those interested in Psychologists for Social Change (PSC). Both seem passionate about reforming the structures that create and maintain inequality, advancing alternatives to austerity and tackling the social determinants of distress.
Obese and high-weight individuals are stigmatised and blamed for their poor health. This bullying approach is further harming these individuals and is not the solution to this complex health challenge
Last month in the US WW (formally Weight Watchers), launched Kurbo, a nutrition and weight loss app aimed at children aged 8 to 17. The app uses a traffic light system, nudging children towards consuming ‘green light foods’ (fruits and vegetables), limiting ‘amber light foods’ (protein and dairy) and avoiding ‘red light foods’ (sweets, chocolate etc).
Gary Foster, chief scientific officer at WW told the Huffington Post “This isn’t a weight loss app. This is an app that teaches in a game-ified, fun, engaging way what are the basics of a healthy eating pattern.” The app has received widespread backlash in the media, with parents across the UK arguing that the focus on weight loss puts children at risk of eating disorders and life-long body dissatisfaction. As a psychologist working in a bariatric servicer, I would argue that this risk doesn’t end when the child grows into an adult. That weight-based stigma has negative mental health impacts and that the responsibility and blame placed on the individual for their poor health is both harmful and over simplified.
Around a third of children in the UK aged 2 to 15 are already labeled as overweight or obese. Children are becoming obese at an earlier age, and staying obese for longer. Regardless of how we might feel about an 8-year-old logging their fish fingers into an app, weight based stigma which emphasises individual responsibility for weight is still a widely accepted basis for discrimination and humiliation, It is an approach to viewing weight that children are socialised to think is normal through culture, entertainment, advertising, health policy, as well as mainstream and social media.
Violent youth crime won’t change until we start speaking about it differently. We need to recognise the psychosocial factors that contribute towards violence and the ineffectiveness of our current response towards crime
In the past 18 months, the UK has seen a spike in violent crime. Recent figures released by the Home Office suggest that offences involving knives have increased by two thirds since 2014. The use of these weapons by young people against other young people, in particular, is rising. Although the issue has been addressed by the media and politicians, discussions have focused on criticising police cuts and promoting tougher sentences for individuals caught carrying offensive weapons. This public narrative doesn’t include consideration of how wider social and psychological factors impact the act of committing a crime.
When knife crime is reported to the public, the emphasis is almost solely on the incident itself. Media outlets spare no detail recounting the events and condemning the perpetrators for what is seen as a senseless act of violence. In political debates, these incidents of violence have been used to highlight the impact of austerity, including police having reduced capacity to deter and respond to these events. While some journalists have highlighted the closure of youth clubs as a relevant precursor to the upsurge in crime, this consideration of broader context tends to be the exception rather than the norm. For the most part, the media decontextualizes acts of violence from the wider influences on behaviour - the conversations only begin in the moment a crime is committed. The myriad other influencing factors remain in the margins.
Yet, there is a large body of evidence to suggest that offending behaviour can have its roots long before the act occurs. Young people who are exposed to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), such as physical, verbal or sexual abuse, or whose parents are in prison or going through divorce are more likely to become involved in crime. And, though we are all susceptible to experiencing ACEs, poverty acts as a risk factor - people living in the most deprived areas report the highest levels of ACEs. The more ACEs a young person has, the more likely they will be criminally involved by the time they reach their teenage years. This evidence shouts loudly that youth violence is influenced by factors that emerge or are present long before the act of crime itself. It is clear that current narratives focusing only on the act of violence itself are ignoring a range of social and psychological factors that are also a part of each young person’s story.
Where do we focus our efforts is often a question that new PSC groups ask. In this series of blogs, we attempt to provide some answers. Here PSC Oxford explain their thinking
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash
Psychologists for Social Change in Oxford started a little under a year ago. Much of its infancy was spent trying to find its identity, which was shaped by the shared values of branch attendees. With Oxford being in the midst of a homelessness crisis, we naturally wanted to start here as our initial focus. Our journey began by reaching out to local homeless shelters to offer support where we could. Some of our members have been attending events to link in with ongoing projects, such as the development of a women’s homelessness shelter in Oxford.
We decided also to focus on change through dissemination, publishing an article in The Oxford Mail. Our article emphasised the urgency of bolder and braver approaches to homelessness in Oxford, and the benefits of psychologically informed perspectives on the issue. More recently, we reached out to an innovative local charity ‘Greater Change’, which you can learn about here. With Greater Change, we brainstormed potential collaborations, such as investigating the factors which contribute to the stigmatisation of people who are homeless.
How do we move beyond platitudes and empty words in our response as a society to the systematic and widespread abuse of people with learning difficulties?
The BBC Panorama programme ‘Undercover Hospital Abuse Scandal’ shown on 22.05.19 shows devastating treatment of people with learning difficulties and a lack of respect for their human rights. The Position Statement below is PSC's response.
The issues documented in the programme in long-stay hospitals are recurring and therefore cannot only be attributed to an individual failure of care by a specific group of staff in a particular institution. They must be seen as reflecting a range of failures of health, education and social services throughout the lifespan of the person who needs support. Of course, those involved need to be held accountable for the horrific nature of their actions in accordance with the law. However, there is a pattern to the continued abuse of people with learning difficulties (*please scroll down for a discussion on language) that silences, marginalises and excludes them from vast sections of society and makes abuse more likely.
More children are being admitted to long-stay hospitals. This increase coincides with the government’s austerity agenda, where there has been a reduction of funding in real terms for social care and education. This equates to cuts in services, with families being unable to access respite support such as short breaks or community activities which meet the needs of children and young people with learning difficulties or autism. In the education system, the focus on a narrow range of academic educational outcomes, alongside less money, has led to a curriculum environment that cannot tolerate diversity in children’s approaches to learning, and staff who do not have the training and support to make sense of the behaviour of children whose needs may be harder to understand. Children with learning difficulties are being off-rolled or excluded if they cannot meet the behavioural expectations of the classroom. Such actions do not always lead to the child being able to access a more suitable placement.
Campaigns that raise awareness, normalise mental health difficulties and encourage people to tell their story enable the underlying sources of stigma to go unchallenged and the status quo to remain
In recent years, public conversation around mental health has been dominated by the topic of stigma, defined as “a strong feeling of disapproval that most people in a society have about something, especially when this is unfair”. Other than occasional mentions of underfunding of services, stigma is the primary focus of the media and of campaigning efforts by charities. In these contexts, stigma is usually framed as incidences such as strangers hurling verbal abuse or workplace bullying.
There is no doubt that these kinds of interactions happen and that they can be hurtful and traumatic. I have experienced this from the public I encounter in my job and also A&E staff during a mental health assessment. I have met people who use residential mental health services who have been verbally abused by the neighbours that live nearby.
However, I believe that this narrow focus on interpersonal stigma distracts from the underlying purveyors of stigma - mental health services and the medical model of distress. Before examining how these entities contribute to creating far more stigma than random bad eggs encountered out and about, we must first ask ourselves a question. Is this an intentional move, and if so who benefits and how?
Ofsted is changing the way it conducts inspections. Drawing on the views of students, we take the opportunity to think about how the education system could go from coercive to nourishing
In a previous blog, Psychologists for Social Change (PSC) responded to the announcement that the education regulator, Ofsted, are to update the framework they use to inspect schools in England. Having looked at the changes that Ofsted are proposing and finding them extremely narrow, the purpose of this article is to go further and envision an alternative future for the education system. It is based on PSC’s joint submission to the public consultation on Ofsted's proposals changes.
When thinking about change in a democratic society, it is only right to begin by asking the people that will be directly affected. To this end, we spent time with States of Mind, a social enterprise that gives young people a platform to discuss issues related to education and mental health. Since January, States of Mind has conducted focus groups with 80 young people to elicit their views about the impact of Ofsted’s inspection framework on their education. Those involved were very keen to share their views:
“We feel that our voices and experiences are constantly overlooked and neglected... we believe that it is our right to tell the true story of how the current system is failing us.”
The students have written a powerful letter to the head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, communicating their deep concerns about the system’s negative impact on students. They also put forward psychological healthy ways of doing things differently. We draw on some of their ideas for this article. We also heard from parents and mined our own experience as teachers and educational psychologists.
PSC is a network of people interested in applying psychology to generate social and political action. You don't have to be a member of PSC to contribute to the blog