What a bloody mess!

This post is about periods. It is personal and somewhat more visceral than the things I usually write, so if you don’t like descriptions of blood and gynaecological issues, you might want to skip it. It does feel a bit uncomfortable to share something that feels quite private, so I have waited a while to click post. But I want the information to be out there for other people to find, and to encourage research about the impacts of hormonal contraceptives on women’s wellbeing, so I wanted to share my personal experience. And I figured that I wanted to support other people who have spoken out, like Caitlin Moran and Naga Munchetty.

I’ve never had easy periods. Since being a teenager I’ve had marked PMS the day before, with aching belly and back, tearfulness, labile mood, moments of anxiety and irritability, as well as an increased risk of migraine. Over the decade since having children (which my Mum had always told me was the end of her period pains) they got worse. I would often experiencing clusters of sharp “spike” pains as my period approached, which seemed as if they sent needles from womb to bowel and could double me over in pain, and make it impossible to get comfortable, but were thankfully intermittent and would rarely stick around for more than a few hours. During the actual period days I would get disconcerting numbness in my upper legs, as well as abdominal pains which were almost disabling on the first day of my period, and would often transmit through my lower back. They were also associated with changes to my energy level, appetite and mood. Doctors didn’t seem to think this was a medical issue, and the only medication I tried led to cramps so severe I was curled foetal on the floor for an hour, so I never took a second dose. By trial and error I learnt that heat around my midriff seems to help, so at times I would need to retreat to bed, or my last resort of sitting in a hot bath for hours on end. When it comes to medication Ibuprofen helps the most, but I often need to combine it with prescription strength co-codamol to manage the first day.

I never really thought about how my periods compared to other women, or whether my experience was normal or a condition like dysmenorrhea or menorrhagia. I guess I just accepted that I would always have period pains, and tried to schedule my life so I didn’t put anything important on the day my period was due or anything that might need a level head the day beforehand. I’d been brought up that periods were something private, that you didn’t talk about with others, so I generally tried not to complain about it. This was reinforced by a head of year that would make me run around the school field if I asked to be excused from class in secondary school when my legs went numb and the level of discomfort prohibited me from being able to sit in the classroom. She said exercise was good for period pains, which may be true, but I suspect she just wanted the overweight girl to stop complaining and get extra exercise.

After having twins I had heavier periods with more marked blood clots, so I joked to my husband about bleeding for two. I become anaemic a few times, perhaps because I’m vegetarian and my iron stores were depleted by the twin pregnancy and never fully restored. I don’t know for sure, but I was told to take vitamins with iron every day, and have done so reliably for several years now. On the good side my periods were always as predictable as clockwork, and using a menstrual cup has helped a lot with the discomfort and length of my periods, as well as reducing the risk of embarrassing leaks (and being more ecologically sound). As a result the pain rarely lasts after the first day or two, and the period itself is short and usually tails off after three days. That gives me 24 good days per month, and only two days that seriously interfere with my functioning. I can normally manage to do some work even on the worst days if I take painkillers and wear soft warm clothing around my abdomen, but my functioning is definitely reduced and given the choice a warm bath, or a duvet day is better.

However, in 2017 I mentioned my heavy periods and the fact I get marked period pain to my GP, who suggested I try a hormonal IUD, telling me these much reduce bleeding and stop it altogether for a large proportion of women. I had previously tried the Mirena in 2002, long before having children, but had found it uncomfortable and asked for it to be removed after a few weeks. However this time the GP said it would be much more comfortable since I had carried twins and delivered them naturally (albeit prematurely) so I agreed to give it another go. After a ridiculous delay of nearly a year to find an appointment when it could be fitted at my GP practice, I found a sexual health clinic and booked an appointment during June 2018. My GP had prescribed a Mirena and a Jaydess, and I had collected both and took them to be fitted. There was no mention of potential side-effects in any of the conversations I had with the GP or the clinic where it was fitted, although I was told to take a painkiller just before it was fitted, as they said “for some people it isn’t a comfortable process”. I think I had also read that there might be some cramps whilst my body adjusted to it.

The first problem was the fitting. It hurt. Enough to make me considerably uncomfortable. It was a right-to-the-nerves-at-the-core-of-my-being-do-not-pass-go pain that was different to ordinary pain, of which I’m normally pretty tolerant. The nurse and care assistant tried to make conversation to distract me, but the pain meant I kept losing concentration and wasn’t really able to talk properly, and I felt like I was going to faint at several points. It hurt being dilated. It hurt being measured. It hurt when the nurse tried to fit the Mirena and removed it when it didn’t fit correctly, and then it hurt when he inserted the Jaydess. He said my cervix spasmed, and that the whole area is very near the vasovagal nerve and can be very sensitive. But once he had finished and removed the speculum I had high hopes that I’d done the hardest part. As I drove home the painkillers kicked in and the pain settled to much like the level of period pains.

However, that period pain feeling stuck around in variable intensity for much of the time I had the Jaydess in, which ended up being nearly four months. I also had aches and spike pains throughout the month, to the point I needed painkillers on more days than not. There were times it felt painful to stand, or that I couldn’t sleep for the pain. I got hot flushes. My boobs ached for three weeks out of every four, to the point they were tender to the touch and hurt if I took my bra off. There was severe bloating and intermittent nausea, and a feeling like having a perpetual bug of some kind. I had loose bowels and painful stomach cramps after eating that meant I couldn’t enjoy food. I had lots of headaches, and a kind of aching in my bones and joints (particularly my hip joints) that made me feel old and unwell. My hair became really greasy, to the point it was visible by the end of the day, and looked awful on day two, when previously it was fine for two or three days and I never had to think about it between the times I went swimming. I got painful cystic acne on my face, shoulders, back and bum. Not in huge numbers, but there was always a new zit or two visible in the mirror each day, they took several days to rise to the surface of my skin, and it increasingly felt uncomfortable (when prior to the IUD I’d only get a couple of visible spots per month, and they were never painful).

It also changed my mood. Like the worst examples of how I had been on the day before my period before, I found myself on the verge of tears about anything sentimental or sad, and my feelings felt less rational and less within my control. I had patches of acute anxiety, and generally lower mood, with greater irritability. That may have been compounded by the fact I had weird dreams and disrupted sleep, and would often wake in the night with stomach pains, cramps or aching and find it hard to get back to sleep. And to cap it all my periods were longer and heavier than before, with a shorter gap in between, leaving me only one week of feeling relatively good, and even that was characterised with lots of low level aches and pains. A minor additional problem was I couldn’t reach the coil’s strings to check it. I don’t know if that is my short fingers or inflexibility, my slightly retroverted cervix, or whether they were clipped a bit short. But it was a bit unnerving to be told to check it and not to be able to.

Weirdly, I was prepared to tolerate all that for month after month on the basis that it might get better over time and reach a point where the side effects disappeared and the promised effects appeared. They had told me to stick with it, and that things would get better, and I was determined to do so. But the symptoms seemed to get worse month by month, rather than reduce or resolve. The final straw was that my vision started to blur. I noticed that I couldn’t see the TV properly from the sofa, and was moving forwards to sit on the floor closer to the screen. I couldn’t see the road signs or number plates when driving until much closer to them than usual. And anything at a distance seemed fuzzy and indistinct. That made no sense, given I’d just had an eye test that said my vision was fine only a couple of weeks before I got the IUD. In fact, my prescription had not changed for over a decade, and I’d been wearing the same contact lenses and glasses for as long as I could remember. My eyes started to feel dry in the evening, and my contact lenses also started to feel uncomfortable, after being almost unaware of wearing them for most of the last thirty years. I read online that levonorgestrel can affect your eyes. So I went back to the optician. He said there was nothing overt wrong that he could measure, except that my astigmatism, which had previously been below the level at which they correct it, had markedly increased and I now needed toric lenses to compensate for this. He didn’t think it was related to the Jaydess, but the sudden change seemed very strange.

Looking up the side effects of Jaydess/Mirena made me realise quite how many I was experiencing, and how this wasn’t typical of the official reported level of side effects, or the miraculously lighter and easier periods I had been promised. So I phoned the GP, who tried to get me to persist, promising it would settle, and really didn’t seem to listen to or appreciate the level of discomfort it was causing. After nearly four months I insisted it was removed. That actually went pretty smoothly. I managed to get an appointment with the one female GP with an interest in contraception. She listened and said it didn’t seem to suit me and agreed to remove it on the spot as I had not had unprotected sex in the prior seven days (to be honest, it had been a pretty effective contraceptive in that it put me off sex altogether for the entire time that sharp anchor of metal was inside me). The removal was equivalent to having a smear test. The awkwardness and discomfort of the speculum, then one second of that direct-to-the-vagus-nerve pain and it was done. Afterwards mild aching that was relieved by analgesics. So I figured it had gone pretty well. Again, there was no warning from the GP or in anything I was given to read of any symptoms likely to appear because of the artificial hormones disappearing from my body.

However, that mild aching came and went for the next few days, and then I started to get cramps and traces of dark brown blood as my period approached. That developed into a fairly typical PMS level of discomfort, but the volume of blood was still very small and much darker than usual. Typically my periods arrive quite quickly after the PMS and cramps, with two days of moderately heavy flow (about 40-60ml per 24 hours) and the bleeding then tapers off during the third day (making a total volume of about 80-120ml shed during the whole period). Hence the use of a femmecup, which can normally see me through the night, or through a working day, without any problems. However this time around my period started slowly, but then on day three there was suddenly large volumes of thin bright red liquid blood like the stuff they squirt around for a horror b-movie. At times it filled the 30ml of my menstrual cup in under an hour and if I didn’t catch it, this unusually liquid blood then leaked out onto my clothing or bedding spreading obvious bright red stains. No form of sanitary protection helped. I had more leaks and mess in that two days than in the last decade of periods combined, and had to change enough clothing and launder enough bedding to run the washing machine twice (both times having to interrupt it to add more items after the wash cycle had started). I’d estimate I bled 250ml of this thin bright red blood over 48 hours – that’s seven times the volume of an average woman’s period, and more than double my usual total in a very short period of time. It was incapacitating because of the need to empty the cup so often and the risk of embarrassing leaks, but it didn’t hurt at all. I just felt a little nauseous and faint, which might just have been a reaction to seeing so much blood. And no matter how careful I was it kept creating crime scenes for a low budget horror movie.

It would have utterly freaked me out, and perhaps even sent me running to A&E, except that I found other reports of similar bleeding after the removal of Mirena on the internet. Thankfully after the second day of flooding it petered out. I’d guess I bled near 300ml in total, which is ten times a typical period and nearly the amount I donate from my veins when I give blood as a donor. I really think they should warn women about that, as that much blood without warning has the potential to be pretty traumatic.

By then I had read about the “Mirena crash” and was prepared for massive emotional symptoms that might spiral me into a depression, but thankfully they were not too bad compared to what others report – perhaps because (like any review site) it is only the more extreme experiences that motivate people to write about them, or perhaps I’m normalised to some hormonal symptoms, or because the Jaydess uses lower doses of hormone, or because it had only been in for three months. I did have increased emotional lability, to an extent that was very out of character for me and created a couple of protracted emotional confrontations with family members about minor things I would normally have let pass without comment. Plus for a week or two I was in a generally more negative headspace. Possibly the most disconcerting element was patches of free-floating anxiety; I’d get a sudden sense of having remembered something I should have done, or had done really badly, or that had made someone else react really negatively to me, or foreboding about something terrible happening, but without anything to pin it to. And then, gradually, it settled back down to more or less how things had been before. The breast ache, abdominal pain and cystic acne dispersed and I went back to the prior level of period pain I had been having for the decades before.

About 18 months ago I finally saw an endocrinologist who tested lots of things and didn’t find anything he needed to treat, but referred me on to a gynecologist. Whilst I hadn’t had symptoms I’d associate with menopause, like hot flushes or cessation of periods, loss of libido or vaginal dryness, she seemed particularly swayed by the fact I was 45, had missed one period (albeit with timing that seemed related to other stress/health issues) and had experienced anxiety, minor memory issues, and joint stiffness (though the latter has been present since an RTA in 2015), and concluded the underlying cause of all my symptoms was probably perimenopause. She recommended I try HRT – even though most of the symptoms I reported had been the same throughout the prior decade, and many had been fairly consistent since I was about 15 years old. I was cautious, given the one ingredient in the HRT is the same as the hormone used in the coil, but I didn’t have any better options and decided to give it a go.

I went onto HRT just as the nation went into lockdown for the coronavirus pandemic, so it was hard to pick out what was the result of the acute anxiety I felt at that point and what was side effects of starting the meds. Subsequently it has been hard to unpick the impact of the HRT from the impact of pandemic lifestyle changes. When I weigh up the positive and negative changes I have observed, it is a fairly close-run contest, but overall I think it has more benefits than costs, particularly in my mental state. On the good side, I have less marked emotional swings prior to my period, and my anxiety has reduced. My periods are slightly less heavy, and there has been a small reduction in pain. On the down side, my skin is now very dry and I seem much more prone to heat rash in my armpits and groin, and thrush-like discomfort. I’ve also put on some extra (and very much unwanted) weight – but I’ve been much less physically active as I haven’t been swimming or to the gym. Given the risk of stroke, I decided I’d rather be on patches than tablets, but was closed to gynecology and none of the GPs felt able to review my HRT since the female partner left. However, I kept pushing and eventually did get the patches, and they seem to have continued the positive effects whilst they have reduced the heat rash (and risk of stroke). I can also slightly extend the days I use the first type (which don’t have negative effects) and shorten the other type. And I have returned to predictable as clockwork menstrual cycle.

Whilst clearly everyone’s experiences of health conditions and treatments are different (and I’ve known several colleagues who raved about Mirena) there are some wider themes that I think are more universal. I’d say my experience of putting up and shutting up is probably quite typical, in that lots of women just get on with things. We are taught not to moan. Women’s reports of pain are taken less seriously, and conditions like PCOS and endometriosis are massively underserved with unreasonably delayed diagnosis and limited treatment options. Medical research treats men as the default, and sees women as innately skewed by our hormones. The funders setting priorities and the people leading the research are more often male, so they don’t give women’s health issues the same level of priority. Contraception is seen as a problem women must shoulder the burden of, and menopause something shameful we must hide and suffer in silence (Davina McCall’s TV program on this topic captured it well). These issues really aren’t things men would be expected to tolerate. I was really struck by the furore about the few awful cases in which people had blood clots after receiving their covid vaccination, and how the probability was a fraction of that caused by the contraceptive pills millions of women take without the same level of public or professional concern. Women’s health is too often forgotten and devalued. No wonder periods and contraception are so poorly addressed, and so many women suffer in silence. So I’ve broken my silence, and I hope I can encourage you to break yours, because talking about this stuff will show that it exists and impacts millions of people.

Our relationship with alcohol

Today an article from WHO about reducing the harm caused by alcohol around the world has got people all fired up on social media. The article has slightly clumsy wording about prevention of harm to unborn babies from alcohol, that some people have interpreted as a recommendation to prevent women of child bearing age from being allowed to drink. In response people have jumped in as much to defend/normalise drinking as to stick up for women’s rights (and to rightly criticise the way certain other types of risks from alcohol are only mentioned by reference to other documents, such as the risk of interpersonal violence, or not mentioned at all, such as the risk of perpetrating or becoming a victim of sexual assault). Having tried to reply on twitter but ended up with a mega-thread, I thought it might be preferable to respond fully in a blog post about our relationship to alcohol, including some links to relevant psychological theory.

Before I begin, I should note that I’m not an unbiased observer on this topic. For the last 30 years or so, I have chosen to drink very little alcohol (typically about 5 units per year) as I don’t particularly like the taste of most alcoholic drinks, or the way I feel after the effects have worn off. I also had a very negative experience of being drunk early in my life (see this blog entry, which comes with a trigger warning about sexual assault). That led me to often choose to be the driver or the person who stayed sober on nights out, which also gave me a rather atypical perspective on alcohol – as I was often the person who was looking after the person who had puked up or passed out, or was vulnerable to sexual assault. Speaking of which, I have previously expressed some strong opinions about whether alcohol is an excuse for behaviour (it isn’t; blog also deals with sexual assualt).

So, I am fully on board with the criticism that any global policy about alcohol needs to mention its association with interpersonal violence and sexual assault. We know that drugs and alcohol are often the source of disinhibition for abusers (and can be a step used in overcoming inhibitions for those who feel guilt or social pressure, such as in Finkelhor’s model of factors neceesary for child sexual abuse to occur). We also know that they are often used to create vulnerability in victims (eg with use of drugs in alcoholic drinks by rapists like John Warboys and Reynhard Sinaga) and that the vulnerability of intoxication is frequently exploited as an opportunity for sexual assault. As BPAS say in their response to the document “In the UK alone, more than a third of sexual assaults, more than 39% of all violent crimes, and nearly 1 in 5 incidents of domestic abuse are committed under the influence of alcohol” and this clearly needs to be mentioned in a document about reducing the harm caused by alcohol around the world, more than by passing references to other WHO documents about violence.

However, I’m also someone that believes in preventative and health promotion interventions like schemes to provide healthy food for pregnant women and young children, or the tax on sugary drinks. So it should come as no surprise that I’m broadly in support of measures to reduce problem/excessive drinking and tackle the culture of binge drinking amongst young people. I think a minimum price per unit of alcohol, and more education about alcohol (and drugs) and their risks and benefits would be a good starting point. This should ideally be part of the national curriculum for children, and something that is revisited at developmentally appropriate levels.

So, with my general opinions laid out, let us return to today’s publication. The WHO document is called “Global alcohol action plan 2022-2030 to strengthen implementation of the Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol” and is clearly marked as a first draft. The statement that has been perceived as controversial is that they recommend we “raise awareness among decision-makers and the general public about the risks and harms associated with alcohol consumption. Appropriate attention should be given to… prevention of drinking among pregnant women and women of childbearing age”.

To state something I hope would be obvious: Taking a literal interpretation of this sentence to mean that all women of fertile age should be prevented from drinking alcohol would be ridiculous and awful. I strongly agree with the critics that women are more than just breeding vessels, and that it would be massively disproportionate and set back women’s rights to prevent all women of fertile age from drinking on the basis of potential harm to a foetus. There are many complex and interwoven issues here, the way that gender and fertility have been conflated ignores the presence of anyone trans, intersex or with any of numerous medical conditions that can create infertility. It also assumes that all women are sexually active and none are using contraception or taking any control over their ability to conceive. Taken literally this therefore extends guidance that is perfectly logical for sexually active women who are fertile and not using contraception to every person identifying as female under the age of 50. However, I hope is a thoughtless omission in their wording rather than the intended meaning. It also assumes that any consumption of alcohol at any stage of the pregnancy is potentially harmful to a foetus, which does not appear to be entirely supported by science (where to the best of my current knowledge it would appear that low consumptions of alcohol have not been associated with harm and there are particular windows during pregnancy in which harm to the developing foetus is more or less likely to occur). Thus advice to avoid excessive or chronic consumption of alcohol during pregnancy appears to have been extrapolated into advice for all women of fertile age to consume no alcohol at all. And that clearly needs to be clarified as this first draft is developed into the final published document.

However, I genuinely don’t think that is the intended meaning here. The document doesn’t mention the rights of the foetus being more important than those of the mother as some critics have inferred (in fact it doesn’t even use the word foetus). Nor does it call for bans on the sale of alcohol to women (in fact it doesn’t even expand on the topic of female alcohol use at all). It only uses the word “women” four times, twice in that sentence, once in relation to mortality and once when talking about the incidence of alcohol use disorders. It literally just says the one sentence I quoted above.

I can see that the wording of the relevant sentence is slightly clumsy, perhaps because of international authors, but It is my belief having read the full guidance that this document is not advocating an unreasonable curtailment of the freedoms of women. Whilst it mentions “prevention” of women drinking, this is in a section entitled “Advocacy, awareness and commitment”. It is written in the context of preventing harm by reducing the social pressures encouraging excessive drinking and providing information about risks that would lead to informational campaigns discouraging children and pregnant women from drinking. It is not an assault on feminism or suggesting that states increase authoritarianism.

And importantly, this isn’t a personal message to individual female readers. It isn’t some jumped up know-it-all judging you for having glass of wine or two in the evening to unwind. It is a draft policy statement proposing educating people around the world about the risks of drinking whilst pregnant in the hope that more women choose to abstain. If you are past menopause, or not sexually active, or use contraception, or drink little/no alcohol, or for any of a myriad of other reasons aren’t going to end up binge drinking before realising you are pregnant, this message to reduce or cease alcohol consumption is not for you. You can let go the anticipated reproach and stand down.

Whilst the tabloids are trying to make this into a big deal, this fits with their xenophobic British exceptionalism agenda, whereby they are dismissive of international bodies, experts and science and try to frame them as limiting personal freedom and autonomy. So when they use stories like this to fuel the “nanny state curtails our rights, its political correctness gone mad” narrative, remember that each of these little fires is built to distract from the way the government are slowly attacking our rights and the safeguards over their power like the right to call for judicial review of government actions, GDPR and the protection of our data from commercial exploitation. Like the fantasy that conservative voices are being cancelled/silenced by an oversensitive generation of woke snowflakes rather than that market forces mean racists and sexists are increasingly feeling the rightful consequences of their repugnant views, or the way that taking the knee to acknowledge racism exists and needs to be tackled has become some unpatriotic politicising of football, this is just a distraction technique. These stories distract from the unlawful crony contracts that have funnelled public funds to friends of cabinet members, the way politicians no longer resign when they are found to have been dishonest, the failure of Brexit, growing inequality, the mess they have made of the pandemic and all the other ways the Overton window has shifted right and the current pack of corrupt incompetents are making a mess of governing the nation.

I think the best way to look objectively at the issue here is to let go of the wording and look at the overall tone of the message. WHO advisors are trying to reduce rates of death, disability and children harmed by foetal alcohol exposure. Surely that is a good thing? It is directly parallel to trying to prevent cancers/disease and harm to others from smoking (including during pregnancy or around young children) – something that was socially acceptable until surprisingly recently. Smoking is (or at least was) another choice that some people find enjoyable, but scientific studies associated with excess mortality. If we saw a publication warning women about smoking harming an unborn child it would probably not immediately make people want to post “oh just reading this makes me want to smoke a whole box of cigarettes”. So I wonder, objectively, why a twitter post replying to the report saying “I’m not sure where to start with this. Maybe by opening a bottle of wine?” has received so many likes?

For context: Alcohol causes 3 million premature deaths a year – that is more than tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and diabetes. This includes 13.5% of all deaths among 20 to 39-year-olds in the world. In Russia and eastern Europe, nearly a third of people’s lives are shortened by alcohol use, though the rate in the UK is about 3.4%. In the USA research shows that alcohol contributes to about 18.5 percent of emergency room visits and 22.1 percent of overdose deaths related to prescription opioids. Around the world about 1.4% of people are considered to have an alcohol use disorder, with the highest prevalence in Russia and neighbouring states, where it is about 5%, and Brazil and Greenland, where it is about 3%. In America the diagnostic rate is higher (at about 5%), but it is unclear whether the prevalence is higher or the thresholds for diagnosis are lower. Globally, alcohol use disorders lead to 185,000 deaths per year, with around 2300 in the UK. This number has increased considerably since the 1990s, but has been fairly steady for the past 15 years. Few of these people receive formal treatment, with only 5-6% getting treatment in the UK. The incidence of alcohol use disorders increases significantly for those with mental health problems, showing that either the same stressors can lead to both outcomes, or that mental health problems can increase the risk of alcoholism or vice versa.

Problematic alcohol use can either take the form of binge drinking – where the drinking is excessive in quantity, but happens intermittently, perhaps once or twice a week, or on particular occasions or where the individual gets together with a particular social group – or chronic and excessive consumption (where the individual drinks every or almost every day over a protracted period of time). Both patterns are surprisingly common.

About 25% of the population meet the criteria for binge drinking on surveys about alcohol consumption, whilst around 7% report heavy drinking (5 or more units per day on 5 or more days during the last month). Even within geographic regions, there is a high level of variation between countries: in Italy, only 6 percent of drinkers had a heavy episode of drinking during the past month in contrast to nearly half in Ireland; 42 percent in Belgium one-third in the UK and France; and 20 percent in Spain. Binge drinking is particularly common amongst students and young adults, with around 50% of those who have ever drunk alcohol reporting in surveys they had drunk to the point of blacking out at least once, and 10% reporting a blackout associated with drinking in the prior two weeks. If some of those young women are becoming pregnant (perhaps due to sexual encounters when intoxicated), that level of drinking could potentially be a significant risk factor for the unborn babies.

Drinking alcohol to excess can also lead to other additional risks for the drinker. Whilst the immediate effects of alcohol are usually perceived as pleasant, and resolve fairly quickly when drinking stops, they can lead to memory lapses, poor judgements and an increased risk of accident and injury (as well an increased risk of sexual assault). Blackouts can involve potentially dangerous behaviour and loss of consciousness. Binge drinking is known to increase the risk of medical crises, and is a significant contributor to the number of people who present at A&E. Studies show that compared with people who did not binge drink, people who drank alcohol at twice the recommended thresholds were 70 times more likely to have an alcohol-related A&E visit, and those who drank three times as much as the recommended limit were 93 times more likely to present there.

Alcohol also presents other less acute risks of harm. The effects of alcohol on the body become more severe with larger volumes consumed over extended periods of time – with particular risk to the liver, heart and brain. Changes to the brain can eventually disrupt memory and lead to Korsakoff’s syndrome. Alcohol is also physically addictive, with greater risks associated with sudden withdrawal than most drugs.

There are no hard and fast rules, but chronic excessive use appears to follow a different pattern to binge drinking, which is typically social – perhaps because the cost of alcohol in quantity soon prohibits this being consumed at pubs and clubs, or because of the pattern of drinking, or the impact of the level of intoxication on social functioning. The reality of problem drinking is, like most things in life, a bit more complicated than simply being the upper section of a spectrum of consumption. It seems to have some biological components, marked social components (eg when alcohol is used to cope with social situations or fit with peers) and is often cumulative over time. As with most addictions serious alcohol issues are often rooted in combinations of learnt behaviour and exposure to trauma. Impoverished or abusive relationships in childhood set a harmful template that can lead to dysfunctional coping strategies and relationships later on. These can create patterns that reinforce problem drinking, and masking the drinking can disrupt supportive relationships.

However, it is not just in the context of alcohol misuse disorders that alcohol causes harm and excess mortality. Alcohol also increases mortality via road traffic accidents. In South Africa and Papua New Guinea more than half of all traffic deaths are attributable to alcohol consumption. In the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and many European countries alcohol is responsible for around a third of all traffic deaths. Alcohol is also implicated in more than half of all crimes in the UK – either because the crime involves alcohol (eg drink driving, drunk and disorderly, theft of alcohol) or because the person committing the crime had consumed alcohol (eg in violent crime, assault or criminal damage). This is higher than elsewhere in the world where this has been studied.

Alcohol also causes Foetal Alcohol conditions that can have a lifelong impact on the brain. NICE say the exact incidence is unknown, but it was thought that about 7.7 people per 1,000 worldwide are affected, and 32.4 per 1,000 population in the UK. A study following up a cohort of births looking at possible symptoms suggested the prevalence could be as much as 6 to 17% of the population. The official UK advice is that the safest approach for women who are pregnant is not to drink alcohol to minimise risks to a baby. However, multiple sources suggest that 41% of pregnant women in the UK consume alcohol, and research shows women are not universally given information about the risks of alcohol during pregnancy (with 30% of those who drank before pregnancy reporting getting no information on this topic from maternity services, and only 29% of midwives saying they routinely share this information). The messages about how much alcohol is safe are unclear. There is a consensus from the stakeholders that NICE consulted that education and raising awareness of the risks of drinking alcohol in pregnancy is necessary, and 91% of alcohol bottles sold in the UK now warn against drinking during pregnancy. So it should be no surprise that the WHO also feel that women around the world who are pregnant or who may become pregnant (because they are of fertile age and are having sex without contraception) need to be aware of the risk posed to a baby by excessive alcohol consumption. Reducing alcohol consumption in these groups will reduce harm.

Yet as soon as reduced consumption of alcohol is mentioned, it brings out an almost reflexive response. I think some of that is “anticipated reproach” – the defensive (but often antagonistic) response people have to anyone they feel may judge them negatively, which can sometimes be combined with “do-gooder derogation” the feeling that anyone taking the higher moral ground about an issue personally, or taking action to resolve it, must be pompous and judgemental. Anticipated reproach has been studied by Benoit Monin, who has shown the effect in relation to everything from vegans to racism. We can see that playing out in the response to this WHO report. People want to speak out for their right to consume alcohol, and don’t perceive it as harmful (except in others with obviously excessive drinking).

The pandemic has also conflated unrestricted access to alcohol with the idea of personal freedom and agency. Closing pubs has been seen as more of an imposition on our rights than closing schools – particularly for the vocal anti-mask/anti-vax brigade (I wonder if there is some overlap between views about pub-drinking and a rejection of broader progressive values? It certainly seems to be associated with covid denial, Brexit-voting, and dismissal of expert advice, which I associate with a kind of disenchanted malaise that comes from underachievement and a feeling of being cheated by the changing social contract that makes people vulnerable to alt-right propaganda).

But I think this positive and normalising view of alcohol long predates the more recent changes to the socio-political environment, and the increasing polarisation of society. Alcohol has been embedded in our culture for thousands of years, and it holds an important role in social engagement and special occasions. So for most people it has positive associations. It is also an example of something where many people use the substance, yet comparatively few are harmed by it (the same could be said of illegal drugs like cannabis). So (as with the “just say no” campaigns that portrayed illegal drugs in entirely negative terms) dramatic warnings about potential harms don’t tend to chime with personal experience, which may be another reason for the defensive response.

The annual global average alcohol consumption is equivalent to 6.4 litres of 100% proof alcohol per adult per year. This is equivalent to 53 bottles of wine or 225 pints of beer (a bottle of wine or 4.5 pints of beer per week). In the Middle East and north Africa (which contain many Muslim nations where alcohol is frequently prohibited for religious reasons), consumption is much lower than average and often close to zero. In eastern Europe (and Nigeria) consumption is typically double the global average, and western Europe is not far behind. The UK, Russia and Australia are also well above the global average. However the type of alcohol, age and gender of drinkers, and the patterns of consumption vary from place to place. Broadly beer is quite widely consumed outside of the middle east, wine is most popular in Europe, Australia and southern South American nations, whilst spirits are most popular in Asia and Russia. In the UK the consumption of wine has increased steadily over the past three decades, whilst consumption of beer has reduced. The highest percentage of income is spent on alcohol in Europe and Australia – with Ireland being an outlier where around 7% of income is spent on alcohol. In general wealthier individuals drink more, although there is not a higher incidence of problem drinking.

For most people alcohol is a pleasurable mild intoxicant. And most people consume alcohol in moderation, where the impacts on health are more debatable (and in some cases even suggested to be positive – especially when it comes to wine as a component of a Mediterranean diet). So we do have to set the concerns about harm in context with the fact that many people derive pleasure and little or no harm from their alcohol consumption.

However, even when it comes to foods, consumers are increasingly given a warning of the fat, salt and sugar content, so that they can make informed decisions about their health. This balancing of benefits and risks is also something we are familiar with when it comes to the leaflets enclosed with prescribed medications, and has been in the spotlight in relation to the coronavirus vaccinations – where potential harms, like the tiny proportion of people who have had blot clot related complications, have dominated the discourse, despite the fact that for the vast majority of people it is protective and side effects are relatively trivial. Perhaps it is a good precedent that the benefits and risks of something have to be clearly explained even when there is widespread consumption?

After all, alcohol gets lots of positive messages to the public every day. There are numerous adverts showing beautiful, healthy, happy people engaging in social drinking. But on top of this, alcohol gets advertised from peer to peer. I see lots of social media posts about drinking, and almost all have a positive or light-hearted tone. Research corroborates this – surveys of social media show that posts which picture or talk about alcohol use show happy social occasions, groups of people interacting, romantic settings and chilled nights in. They talk about fun and exciting experiences, celebrating, dancing, dating. Posts rarely show risks or consequences. There are numerous memes like “wine o’clock” or “just a little glass” with a picture of an enormous glass of wine, as well as many references to alcohol as a survival strategy or a means to cope with parenting. Comedians joke about binge drinking and Irish weddings. I’m not sure people think about the impact before sharing posts or memes that feature alcohol, but studies show that exposure to alcohol posts on social media leads to increased alcohol consumption (why else would alcohol companies spend billions on advertising?). This means that seemingly harmless posts can potentially have negative impacts on others. This might particularly be an issue for those who have a problematic relationship with alcohol. Studies have also shown that people who post about alcohol consume more of it.

Yet it seems we each normalise our own consumption. Alcohol consumption and related risk is influenced by how the person perceives they compare to others in the population (if they believe others drink as much/more than they do, they believe their drinking is less risky). This is compounded by overestimating norms. So the more we drink, the more we assume others drink to subconsciously justify our own drinking (the same pattern also appears to be true of drug use, or sexual behaviours). The influence of social norms is a whole field of psychological research.

But I think that this can also happen at the societal as well as the interpersonal level. There has long been a tendency to encourage/normalise drinking in the UK that leads to people not recognising excessive/harmful use. Perception of alcohol use varies by drink, context, time and characteristics of the drinker. Adults typically regard themselves as moderate drinkers and disapprove of excessive drinking by others. We are not very good at judging the threshold at which alcohol use can be harmful, particularly when we are amongst others who consume alcohol in large quantities. I’ve met many who normalise drinking vast amounts (eg >40 units in a day). So maybe, like smoking and sugar consumption, and our lack of physical activity and increasing obesity, we do need to think more about harm minimisation?

Alcohol causes 24,000 deaths and over 1.1m hospital admissions each year in England, at a cost of £3.5bn to the NHS. Yet at the moment, the only labelling of alcohol to indicate risks is voluntary, as is the industry funded Drink Aware campaign (which sprung from the Campaign for Smarter Drinking instigated by my business mentor and NED Richard Evans before he left the drinks industry). Like the similar Gamble Aware campaign, the aim springs from corporate social responsibility and is intended to maintain profits and consumption whilst reducing harm – which could be considered to be competing interests. Experts say that the drinks industry would lose 38% of their income if drinkers kept to recommended guidelines, losing £13 billion per year of sales, which is why they are so reluctant to promote accurate information about the risks involved. So once again, there is a weighing up of corporate profits against public health. A minimum price per unit of alcohol and increased duty to subsidise costs to the NHS and the impact of alcohol-fuelled crime (eg police, services for sexual assault, refuges for survivors escaping domestic violence) might seem to be appropriate steps towards getting that balance right, but the public really don’t seem to like the idea of raising the cost of their simple pleasures….

Coping in a time of coronavirus

Are you finding it hard to adjust to the impact of Coronavirus policies on daily life? If so, you are not alone.

If you aren’t too saturated with top tips for wellbeing type posts, I thought I should share a little bit of basic advice compiled from my knowledge as a clinical psychologist and what I have read on science twitter, in case others are also struggling with the impact of social distancing and experiencing changes to their daily life that are causing high levels of anxiety.

Note: This blog is mainly targeted at those people who are staying at home and trying to comply with social distancing, rather than those of you who are doing the kind of essential work that has to continue to involve direct contact with others. If you are in that group, I’m incredibly grateful to you, but I don’t feel skilled enough to provide specific advice. If you have greater knowledge than me and would like to improve this blog (particularly in terms of the physical elements, which I appreciate will change as the situation and our knowledge base evolves) please let me know and I can fix things.

So, with that said, on with the blog.

It is a worrying time for many people, and there is a real threat that we have very little control over, and a lot of misinformation on social media. However, there are things that we can do, and you are not alone – we are all facing this together. So this is my very simple advice of where to start to ground yourself and remain as psychologically healthy as possible in these challenging times.

First the physical health stuff:

1) Do everything you can to remain safe and protect those around you. First and foremost: Get your vaccination when it is offered. Don’t be put off by scare stories about side effects, as a day or two of aches in your arm or a few hours of flu-like symptoms are a small price to pay to reduce the risks of a deadly disease. Staying safe also means following the latest guidance about lockdowns, masks and social distancing. This applies even after you have had your jab! It is still possible to get covid after you have been immunised, and whilst it is much more likely to be symptomless or very mild, you can still be part of the chain of transmission to others, especially with more contagious variants like the delta strain.

So what do we need to do? The government have put a focus on hand washing with soap for 20 seconds (make sure to wash between fingers, around thumbs and wrists and under fingernails if you have had any contact with someone who may be contagious), and remind us to cough or sneeze into a tissue or your elbow rather than onto your hands. There has also been a focus on cleaning surfaces – however the evidence of fomite transmission (droplets on surfaces) has been minimal, whilst the evidence for aerosols (tiny particles exhaled by an infected person that are airborne for several hours and accumulate in enclosed spaces) has become overwhelming. Thus the key prevention strategies are to wear a mask when entering shops or public indoor spaces, and to follow the rules about physical distancing. This means not greeting people with handshakes, hugs or kisses and standing or sitting further away from them than we would previously have done. Minimise your face-to-face social interactions with people outside your household bubble, and try to ensure you only interact with larger groups of people in a safe way – ideally outdoors or in a well-ventilated space. Unless you work in an essential role this means avoiding crowded events and places, not meeting up in large groups, and trying to remain 6 feet away from others, especially anyone outside of your minimum necessary network. Wear a well-fitted mask in any enclosed space apart from your home – try not to put it on and take it off more than you have to, and avoid touching the mask except by the strings.

2) Be aware that Covid-19 is potentially dangerous, so it is really worth preventing contagion if possible. Even if you are not concerned about the impact of covid on yourself, each of us interacts with people who are older or clinically vulnerable – whether that is elderly parents or grandparents, people with chronic or acute medical conditions (eg cancer, heart disease, diabetes, immune disorders, physical or learning disability, obesity, asthma) whether we are aware of them or not. People we know might also be carers for individuals with these clinical vulnerabilities. In fact 3.7 million people in the UK are regarded as clinically extremely vulnerable, and many of them remain very anxious about the risk of catching covid, even if immunised, despite the fact that the official advice to shield has been lifted.

Covid is worth avoiding as even if you are not in a vulnerable group you can pass it on to others, plus – even within the group that are considered to have had only mild symptoms – it makes some people feel like a very bad flu with aches and serious chest pain/breathing problems, and can lead to weeks or even months of tiredness or recurrent symptoms in some people known as “long covid”. However, for many/most people it may not be obvious that you are ill at all, let alone with a serious condition.

If you test positive, or if you have a dry cough or fever, or if you lose your sense of smell or taste, or if you feel suddenly exhausted/weak, you need to get rested and to self-isolate to prevent spread of the virus. You must also minimise risk of transmission until you have been tested if you have had contact with someone else who has subsequently tested positive for covid, to break the chain of transmission. If you have school aged children you will be asked to complete lateral flow tests twice a week, but be aware these are not as reliable as other tests and can lead to both false positives and false negatives.

3) Take extra care over social distancing if you have an existing health condition or are elderly, or if this applies to anyone else in your household or if you are interacting with or providing services to someone vulnerable (as well as older age this could include more serious medical conditions like cancer, but also ones that are not normally seen as a big impairment to daily life like asthma, heart disease or obesity, particularly in combination). Ensure you have enough medication, and keep taking preventers if you are asthmatic. If you are in a high risk category and there is a high level of prevalence in your area, then where possible have deliveries dropped off without interpersonal contact. If you need to interact with others or use shared facilities, wash your hands and surfaces that others touch frequently (eg door handles, railings, keypads, taps, etc) with soap or sanitiser regularly and wash your hands after using them.

4) Remember that viral load may be important in how severely people experience the virus, and ensure that you take precautions when caring for a dependent with possible coronavirus, or if you think you have it, even if the symptoms are mild. A mask is particularly important in this situation, along with good ventilation, careful handwashing and ensuring you avoid physical contact, which can be challenging with a loved one or small child. Anyone ill or who knows they have been exposed to someone who definitely had Covid-19 should stay separate from the rest of the family as much as possible. This needs to be for at least 7 days after testing positive if you have had no symptoms, or for 7 days after you stop having symptoms. Where someone is ill but needs care use PPE such as a well fitted mask and disposable gloves, use as much ventilation as possible, and keep washing your hands.

5) Although the government are telling us to act as if covid is no longer a problem, we don’t know if there will be additional waves of new variants of covid, or whether future variants will break through the protection offered by immunisations. Covid is also still causing preventable deaths and lasting health impacts for large numbers of people, as well as causing large numbers of people (including health and care staff) to self-isolate. Combined with the impact of Brexit and chronic underfunding the NHS is creaking at the seams. We need to ensure that the NHS can catch up with the level of need for other conditions, and is ready to cope with an increase in demand if required.

Politicians and NHS managers need to act to grow the capacity of the NHS by addressing the funding and recruitment issues. However, each of us can play our part by reducing our risk of spreading the virus or adding to NHS demands in other ways. This means we should aim to slow the spread of coronavirus (by getting immunised and using sensible precautions) so that the rate of people requiring hospital treatment doesn’t exceed NHS resources, and lower the baseline demand for NHS services. We can do this by avoiding preventable reasons for requiring hospital care. This means taking care of your physical health and existing health conditions (eg taking preventative medication/inhalers, following dietary advice for diabetes or high blood pressure), being mindful to reduce risk of accidents (eg drive slowly in built up areas, be extra cautious to avoid falls and injuries) and improving your respiratory and cardiovascular health (eg give up smoking, increase exercise, eat healthily, and attempt to lose weight if you are obese).

But importantly you need to care for your psychological health too.

6) Connect with loved ones (physically if you are in the same household and nobody has symptoms, but virtually or with social distancing precautions otherwise) so that you do not feel alone. Hug your kids or your partner if you are together, or speak to them as frequently as possible if you are apart, and listen to how they are feeling. Check in with people who might be isolated and with those who have been bereaved or have had serious ill-health, traumatic experiences, or have lasting symptoms from covid. Keep in touch with your relatives and usual network via phone, social media, email or video chat. Make the effort to speak to your colleagues even if you are all working from home, keep in contact with your friends even if you can’t gather in person. Confide in the people that you trust.

7) Acknowledge that what we are going through is tough, even if you feel lucky not to be having to deal with it face on like those working in health and social care or doing supply chain or deliveries. Trust your own gut about what level of potential exposure to the virus you feel comfortable with, and don’t let anyone make you feel bad if you don’t want to go back to face-to-face work or social events. Change is challenging, the perceived threat is intangible and unknown, so it is hard to reason with the anxiety it provokes, and uncertainty is stressful. The changes imposed on us to manage the outbreak take away some of our comforting routines and our expectations of the immediate future, and it is normal to worry about the impact on ourselves and loved ones. It is absolutely normal to feel shock, denial, anger, fear, grief, or a mixture of feelings and for these feelings to ebb and flow or change unpredictably (think about the Kubler-Ross stages of grief). You might find yourself literally shaking and/or crying at the idea of having to do something you don’t feel ready for, or you might feel nothing at all. Be kind to yourself, and give yourself time to adjust.

8) Manage your own anxiety. First and foremost, breathe (there are some good little graphics and apps about). Then make sure that you take care of yourself by doing all the basic things that we need; eat, sleep, exercise. Try to avoid increased use of alcohol or drugs, including smoking. Give yourself a routine. Confide your feelings in those you trust, or seek out support if you need it. Join in online mindfulness or therapy groups, or – if the anxiety is becoming a problem for you – seek out personal therapy from a suitably qualified professional. If you have a garden or safe outside space, get out there and appreciate the elements. If you don’t, try to sit near a window and let some fresh air in as often as possible, and leave the window open when the weather isn’t too cold. Exercise and relaxation are both important. The former can burn off negative neurochemicals and produce more positive ones, and the latter can help you to soothe yourself (so indulge in a long bath, or listen to a relaxation video). Likewise sex (or masturbation) is good for our neurochemistry, can maintain intimacy in a relationship through a stressful period and/or help you to sleep.

9) Limit news consumption and stick to reliable sources. If you are feeling anxious you might want to learn everything about Covid-19, but whilst this can bring some temporary relief, too much focus on the potential threat can be counterproductive and increase your anxiety. So try to limit how much time you spend on news sites or social media, and ensure that you check the sources of what you do read as there are many seemingly plausible articles and posts that are not true doing the rounds. The BBC, World Health Organisation, official government sources or a trusted newspaper (for me that means the Guardian or the Independent) are probably more trustworthy than celebrities, social media influencers or some politicians. Don’t get your information about the outbreak from social media unless you have personal connections with medical/epidemiology experts and are very skilled at evaluating the quality of the sources and understanding the limitations to individual studies. If covid content makes you anxious but you like connecting over social media, you might wish to use your preferences to tune out posts using terms like “pandemic”, “coronavirus” and “covid”, so that you can focus on more positive content.

10) Keep busy. Give yourself small goals and structure your time into small chunks, rewarding yourself for small achievements. Be mindful about what you are doing, and give it your full attention. Don’t let yourself ruminate, or slouch about in your pajamas all day. If possible, make sure that you sleep when it is dark and are awake for natural daylight. Stick to routines of mealtimes and maintain as many of your normal activities as possible. If you are unable to work or have less work to do, see this as an opportunity to do things you wouldn’t otherwise have time for. Try to find enjoyable activities or those that keep your mind occupied, whether that is arts/crafts, reading, gaming, sorting/tidying, decorating, programming, writing, making or listening to music, watching films/telly or learning something new (there are loads of fab free courses online).

11) Turn your focus towards the practical things you can do. For me that means trying to increase my cardiovascular fitness and lose some weight, because my pre-existing conditions mean I’m at greater risk, and my lack of fitness compounds this – so I’ve been trying to run up and down the stairs first and last thing each day, and each time I feel particularly anxious. This gives me a sense of doing something positive and it can be rewarding to see yourself making progress. You can choose an activity that suits your starting level of fitness, get out and walk or cycle or there are fantastic exercise videos of all sorts on youtube, so why not try some zumba or yoga or calisthenics. Or improve your living environment, or create or improve a garden or vegetable bed. These kinds of things will give you a tangible feeling of achievement and improve your quality of life.

12) Be kind to others. Manage your anxieties before you speak to children, answer any questions they might have and help them to feel safe and loved. Try to be kind and patient if children are off school, and don’t put too much pressure on them to do academic work until they are in a calm enough emotional state to do so. Listen to loved ones and empathise with their experiences, even if they feel differently or are responding in a different way to you. If there is a spate of panic-buying (whether of toilet rolls, fuel or fresh produce) try not to buy more than you need, so that others can get some of key items too. Thank delivery workers, supermarket staff, carers and other essential workers, and don’t pass on frustrations about lack of stock or delayed/cancelled deliveries to them as they are doing their best. Reach out and make connections to those who might be lonely. If you are young and healthy try to be particularly considerate towards those who are not – keeping in touch with older relatives and friends or those with disabilities and/or health conditions whilst keeping them away from contagions. Join neighbourhood networks or the NHS volunteers list. Leave a note with contact details for vulnerable neighbours in case they need help with shopping or collecting prescriptions, or someone they can speak to on the phone or through the window if they feel isolated. Donate to food banks and local charities if you can afford to do so. Shop with smaller companies and local traders where possible.

13) Take time to be grateful for what we have. If you have people who love and care about you, appreciate them. If you have pets that share your life, pamper them. If you can access nature, take time to enjoy that. If you have had the opportunity of education and can continue to learn, value that. Remember that we live lives of relative plenty. Most of us have relatively secure places to live in locations with relatively good health services to fall back on if we need them. Many of us have meaningful work to be involved in, and live in developed nations with some form of social security to fall back on and/or within networks that would support us in a crisis. So although there are greater challenges in our daily lives due to the pandemic (or Brexit and an inept/corrupt government), we still have a lot to feel grateful for. Focusing on the positives helps you put the challenges into perspective.

14) Know that we’ll solve this in time. So many brilliant people are working together to address this new disease. Health care professionals are doing brilliant work all around the world. Scientists are hard at work exploring faster and more effective tests and treatments. New drugs are being developed at a faster pace than ever before, and well-established medicines have been found with positive effects on disease severity/duration. Uptake for immunisations has been good enough to massively reduce mortality. We have tests to show who is contagious. Immunised people (and those who have had covid) are less likely to be a vector for transmission, so rates of infection are likely to fall over time. Air filtration devices are being tailored to removing the aerosols that increase risk of transmission in indoor spaces. Advances are being made all the time.

15) We all know the death rates and current numbers of people infected. The negative stories are spread far and wide, but some good things will come out of this too. Pollution has been reduced by the decreased travel and factory activity, saving lives of vulnerable people, especially in the developing world, as well as helping the environment. Reduced car journeys might mean reductions in accidents. Political recognition of changing public perceptions should lead to greater investment in health and social care, as well as increased funding for medical research and response-readiness for the future. The pandemic has also shown that all nations face the same threats, and all people are the same, so (with the exception of some racist idiots) it has increased international cooperation and the knowledge that we are all interconnected. This has the potential to allow greater collaboration on international issues in future. Mass working from home has shown that it is possible for more people to work remotely, meaning there are likely to be reductions in travel and more adjustments for people who need it available in the future. It has also highlighted the value of essential workers in supply chains and delivery as well as in health and social care, raising their status and priority in public perception. The economic impacts have shown the value of universal health coverage, social safety nets, and minimum income guarantees. It has reduced the mindless consumerism of recent years, and made us conserve resources and reduce food waste. So hopefully we will come out the other side having learnt some important lessons and can genuinely build back better (and not just use this as a vacuous slogan to cover for government inaction).

The Emperor’s new clothes

I used to believe that the more you read, the more you would know, and the the greater the insights that would open to you. That was before I stumbled into the world of online influencers, and their self-improvement and entrepreneurship blogs. The first few seem interesting enough, with their generic advice to do what you love, to take risks, to work hard, to seek feedback and to do something with meaning. By the time you have read ten you start to see the same themes being regurgitated again and again, and to notice the gaping holes in the evidence or ideas presented. Read a hundred and you realise how many entries are a thin veneer of received wisdom over recycled content and self-promotion. A lot of people seem to be posturing about their finery, but not to have much substance underneath, and I really don’t want to be one of them, or to support that culture. So I have been reflecting about why they have rubbed me the wrong way.

Many blogs and “channels” of thematically promoted content tell you that to become successful (read popular or wealthy) you need to emulate the tried and trusted pattern of becoming a social media self-improvement guru, and to learn to do that best you’ll need to subscribe to the premium products or insights from the person writing, and those that they have attached themselves to (and probably get affiliate fees from). It suddenly feels like a pyramid scheme without any substance. Others tell the story of the remarkable success of mould-breaking ventures, and then at the bottom of the piece acknowledge that the author is involved in these examples financially or benefits from their success, and has therefore shaped the narrative in a way that promotes their interests rather than maximises learning by admitting the real stumbling blocks along the way.

Most post from a position of privilege, and entirely fail to recognise that their success would not have been possible without their wealth, social networks, safety nets, confidence, marketable appearance or demographics. I’ve read several that think that the ability to take financial risks is a personality trait that leads to success, rather than recognising that starting at a point successful enough for that to be possible is a precursor to that ability. It is much easier to work for a year without pay or gamble your savings if you have means to still pay the rent and bills, and no dependents. To pick one example that typifies the genre, “Only do work that is incentive-based… be part of the results economy” implies you have a choice of work available to you, and that it is in a format other than a minimum wage or zero-hours contract. The same with challenges to step out of transactional relationships and into transformational ones. To say “If you’re afraid of losing what you’ve currently got, you probably won’t risk it. You’ll probably do everything you can to AVOID losing it. And therefore, you’ll have given up your WHY. You’ll have stunted your progression” blames people who are stuck in the poverty trap for not being able to take the risks of the author’s middle class educated peers with much wider opportunities open to them, and a safety net to catch them if they fall. “Increase your motivation” implies that you aren’t highly motivated to avoid the adverse effects of not being able to pay the rent or bills, or to feed your dependents. So whilst he says “one decision separates the wealthy from the non-wealthy” I think he has the causality reversed. Being wealthy and privileged allows you to position yourself where further success is more likely, and makes taking risks easier.

Or consider the claim that “extreme frugality enabled her to retire at 32” that has led this wealthy white American woman to have a Guardian article, long-standing blog and a book deal about being frugal and less attached to wealth and material possessions as a marker of success. It sounds great. Until you learn of the fact she and her husband own a million dollar plus property that is let out, as well as their 66 acre detached “homestead in the woods”, and that he works earning $200k+ per year as a non-profit executive, whilst she earns a substantial income from her writing and media work. So really they are people who have chosen to work from home more, but who are still in the top 1% for income and assets. Reducing their spend on artisanal cheese, eating out and make-up, and wearing hand-me-down and second-hand clothing does not make these people role models for frugality, because as Jarvis Cocker said so well, you can play at being poor:

But still you’ll never get it right,
‘Cause when you’re laid in bed at night,
Watching roaches climb the wall,
If you called your Dad* he could stop it all.
You’ll never live like common people,
You’ll never do whatever common people do,
You’ll never fail like common people,
You’ll never watch your life slide out of view,
And dance and drink and screw,
Because there’s nothing else to do.
*banker also works here

And that is one of the key things missing from many of these blogs. The idea that being able to save up, or use your spare time, or take risks implies that you already have those resources of money, time or energy to spare. That you aren’t living from hand to mouth, and don’t need to keep an emergency fund for if the car breaks down, or your benefits are sanctioned, or you need time off work because you are sick and get no pay because you are on a zero-hours contract or working in the gig economy. Socioeconomic status affects our perception of the world, with lower earners seeing the world as more challenging, and higher earners being more solipsistic and having a sense of being able to change the world. Autonomy is more attractive and comfortable to wealthier people, whilst those who are in lower socioeconomic groups value greater interdependence. Research shows that richer people have less empathy and less awareness of the external factors that affect success. Having an easier life means many people are more confident they will become successful, and expecting a yes based on past experience can help that confidence become socially persuasive to others (in an extreme example, it can get a business to a $9 billion valuation with $700 million of investment, without the claimed technology).

The idea that we can all “make our fortune” places systemic inequality in the background and personal attributes and effort into the foreground. The same thinking shows up with the perception that people can snap out of depression or mental health problems if they choose to do so, or put in more effort. It rests on the belief that these personality traits are under our control and can be created with the right mindset. I suspect that comes from only looking backwards from success, rather than forward from an equal starting point. It fits with the egocentric perspectives of those who have the status to give advice to others, rather than the evidence or the experience of those who have struggled with their mental health. It leads to superficially plausible ideas that we can change our mindset and then sort out all the difficulties in our lives if we choose to. Sure, there is fairly solid evidence that lifestyle changes such as increased exercise or social connection can impact upon mood, and the success of CBT shows us that challenging our thinking can also make positive impacts to quality of life. However, it ignores the external constraints. The idea that you can address your own low mood by going to the gym more, or getting out into nature or socialising suggests the funds for gym memberships, or travel, or eating/drinking out, and the time to do it in, as well as the lack of current stressors to deal with. It also suggests a frame of mind that has the capacity to plan ahead, rather than constantly fire-fighting in the present.

In the entrepreneurial world, bloggers often add in the assumption that a good idea and hard work is enough. That presupposes that you are an educated white (or possibly Asian) male, who will be taken seriously by investors or industry peers, and that you have the knowledge, resources and networks to build your minimum viable product or service, and bring it to market. That’s a lot of assumptions, particularly for women and BME entrepreneurs who find many more systemic barriers to success, and often struggle to even get a seat at the table. Take it from me, as a highly educated and relatively privileged white woman, that having the knowledge skills and networks to be an entrepreneur is really hard. Finding the right support takes time, energy, social networking, and means/willingness to travel, as well as practical support like childcare. It would be very hard to wrap around a day job, let alone shift work, unpredictable hours, multiple jobs or being a single parent or carer. So if you can make it despite these things you are an amazing exception, and running a whole different race to most of these bloggers. In fact, you’ve probably run a metaphorical marathon before reaching their starting line.

That same mentality fools people into thinking that success (and therefore wealth) is somehow a meritocracy. That the people whose ideas make it into a mass market or getting bought out by a big name player are somehow the best of the bunch. I suspect the reality is that equally good ideas and products fail all the time, because of the lack of access to the resources required to get through the early stages of development and in front of the right people. Because there is a publication bias, we hear about the success stories disproportionately, whilst the companies that fail only get mentioned if their instigator goes on to do something bigger and better that becomes a success. Then they can be spun into a narrative of persistence and resilience in retrospect, rather than the crushing and all-consuming catastrophes they feel at the time. That leads to a false belief that success is earned, and therefore open to anyone. Whilst people do acknowledge barriers to attainment, the perception is that your background is a relatively minor variable in your success, whilst hard work and ambition are the true determinants of social outcome – that is, most people believe wealth is a meritocracy. The reality is that the UK has relatively low levels of social mobility, and both here and in the USA, the meritocracy myth has been used to justify policies that increase inequality.

At the same time, we have developed a culture that increasingly exploits the more vulnerable demographics in the population in other ways, from marketing cheap unhealthy food options to them with aisle end promotions, brand tie-ins and toys, to the four times higher incidence of smoking in lower socioeconomic groups, or the ridiculous cost of credit for those who cannot access bank loans, which has become one of the primary elements of the “poverty premium” in which poorer people have to spend more to access the same services. Because decisions are made by people who have success and power, they often share the illusions that they earned their status, and thus that anyone who hasn’t gained success has somehow failed to earn it.  To quote an article I’ve linked above:

In David Cameron’s “aspiration nation”, you were either a striver or a skiver; the very act of hoping to reach upwards became a moral obligation. Those who could not draw on existing reservoirs of privilege were told to worker harder to catch up.

That’s a toxic narrative that increases inequality and blames those born into deprivation or adversity for its impact. True equality is to change things so that no matter what context someone comes from they can run the same race.
I think that is my take away from reflecting on this topic – that it is hard to recognise the impact of experiences that differ from our own, and easy to assume that our own attainments come from effort rather than privilege. I’m sure I’ve done that before, in both my personal and professional life. As a blogger I can only share from my own experience and reflections, I can’t be certain my own learnings will generalise to others. So it is another reminder to “check my privilege” and to ask a lot and listen a lot to those who really know about an issue before forming opinions. As a therapist and someone people come to for advice it is all to easy to feel like you have strategies to hand out like sweets to recipients, and to end up replaying advice that worked for someone else without considering the specific situation and history of the individual you are dealing with. In the desire to be helpful we can end up missing a core facet of what is going on for that person, or giving vacuous advice that doesn’t apply to someone from different circumstances. So it is really important not to fill in the blanks with assumptions or from your own experience, but to really listen to the experiences, ideas and beliefs of the person you are working with. That is the start of an authentic and respectful relationship, and in my view the feeling of being understood, accepted and valued is the core attribute in helping empower people to make positive changes in their lives.

Why and what next?

Let me nail my colours to the mast. On balance, I am in favour of remaining in the EU, and in the USA I’d have voted for Hillary Clinton. I can see some problems with each of these positions, but I can see many many more problems with the option that has actually been chosen. In each case my pros and cons list strongly favoured the progressive choice, because of the potential negative consequences of the other option. But I was in the minority in both cases, and so were half of the electorate (maybe more in the case of Clinton). So rather than just be fed up about that, I want to understand it.

When it comes to Brexit I think it is wrong for the UK to leave the EU for a number of reasons. The unity of many nations ensures that we all maintain basic human rights and the fair rule of law. It prevents the rise of extremists and reduces the risk of international conflict. It was a large single market, and am important strategic alliance. I believe that calling the referendum was a foolish whim from a complacent leader who was too cowardly to face the consequences of his actions. It was supported by xenophobic self-serving politicians and by far-too-influential media moguls with a right wing agenda. I think it has been divisive and stoked xenophobia, as well as causing enormous economic fallout. However, I’m not saying that the EU doesn’t have excessive bureaucracy, or that it hasn’t been excessively harsh on southern European nations like Greece, Portugal and Italy, or that it doesn’t enshrine market capitalism in doctrine.

Likewise I think Donald Trump is a repugnant man whose attitudes to women and minorities are repulsive. He is a sex pest and a tax avoider. His business practices are dishonest, he is a blatant liar and his much touted business acumen is such that he would be three times as rich if he’d just stuck his inheritance into index funds. I find his racist rhetoric abhorrent, and I think he will foster international conflict and unhealthy alliances. So I could never vote for him, and would have voted strategically to avoid him reaching power. However, in choosing Clinton as the lesser of two evils I’m not saying that she doesn’t have vested interests, didn’t support arms sales to the middle east, isn’t associated with numerous scandals or wasn’t stupid to use a private server for her email. In fact I think Obama was right to sum her up in 2008 as someone who would “say anything and change nothing”. If she was running against a more palatable candidate who genuinely supported progressive ideals, I’d be advocating against her. I’m just saying that the idea that Trump could be president was even worse.

In both cases, it was a two horse race, and although I didn’t love either option I felt that one was clearly preferable to the other. That says something about modern politics – that we are voting for the least terrible option, rather than in favour of something we truly believe in. And I want to think a little more about why this is the case. I also want to think a little bit more here about why the results in both these votes went against the polls and against the incumbent business-as-usual candidate, and why the results have been so divisive and triggered such hateful behaviour from segments of the population.

So why did people vote for Brexit and for Trump? It seems that a number of factors contributed. Firstly there were demographic factors – these regressive options particularly appealed to white men and their wives, in areas that have been hit by economic recession. They tapped into a sense that the world is changing and they are being left behind. There was also a real desire for change, not just more of the same select few in the top one percent making all the decisions. The less people feel they have to lose, the more they are willing to gamble that any form of change will be an improvement. Trump carefully marketed himself as an outsider and a voice for change, but that is a carefully designed misrepresentation. It is also contradictory to his simultaneous positioning of himself as a tax-evader and shrewd businessman who is successful and super rich. In reality his businesses face a constant stream of lawsuits for not honouring contracts or dealing with people fairly and it is clear he is out for nobody’s interests but his own. He also has vested interests and hidden agendas all over the place, but this is something we now take as a given for politicians. So how can he connect with the man on the street more than other politicians? The answer seems to be by bucking convention, appealing to the desire for change and speaking in much more simple terms, as well as appealing to fear and self-preservation (some of which sadly overlapped with racism, sexism and homophobia).

Being wealthy and embedded in the establishment is something that also describes the majority of British politicians. Nigel Farage, for example, similarly markets himself as an everyman who always has a pint in his hand, but in reality is a privately educated millionaire ex-banker who claims every EU allowance possible for himself and his German wife, who he employs as his secretary. Cameron led a cabinet of millionaires, and May is herself a millionaire with a network of wealthy donors and has placed even richer men like Philip Hammond and Boris Johnson into her cabinet whilst claiming she will build a fairer Britain that “works for everyone”. They have no idea about the experiences of people who survive on minimum wages or benefits, but they have learnt to talk as if they care, whilst their actions clearly indicate the opposite. And so we have reached a position that everyone in politics is saying much the same things, and nobody appears to be sincere.

One of the big issues of the reaction to the American presidential election result, and to Brexit, is in how we think of ourselves and our fellow voters. It is all too easy to make sweeping brushstrokes about ignorant, selfish, racists. But I’m not convinced that there is as much difference between us as these dichotomous choices imply. Whilst there are some vocal and visible extremists who identify as Brexiteers or Trump supporters, the message clearly resonated with a lot of people in the middle ground who don’t identify with the racist or sexist undertones, but also don’t identify with the current power structure. I suspect a lot of people are fed up with the status quo, and feeling disenfranchised by the current political system. And maybe that has motivated a lot of people to vote for candidates who seem to be anti-establishment, straight-talking and authentic. This Jonathan Pie sketch, which is full of swearing and therefore NSFW, is worth watching.

I can’t say that a desire for change and for authenticity over spin is a bad thing. In fact having sincere politicians who mean what they say and are not motivated by self-interest or masking their true agenda is something that has been sorely lacking in the political arena over the last decade. Likewise a willingness to explore more radical change is something that I would want myself and a lot of more progressive people would support. But in the absence of such messages from the left and centre of the political spectrum, it has instead been harnessed by questionable individuals and causes. And voters have been sufficiently enticed by this message that they have been willing to disregard all of the bile it comes packaged with, a task made easier because it is addressed to groups outside of the main voting demographic. In response the progressive candidate is left to defend these minorities, and ends up looking like they care little for the main group. The regressive candidates and policies make more headlines, perhaps because of bias in the media and lies that have not been sufficiently challenged. Other parties and messages appear reactive, and end up fuelling that discussion rather than presenting their own position.

The more progressive candidates and causes need to work out how to tap into that feeling of disconnection with the establishment and the increasing desire for radical change. If they can do so with policies that will genuinely benefit those who are being left behind in the current austerity politics then they can avert the swing to the right. That will take the right mixture of passion and authenticity, a willingness to be plain spoken about who is to blame for problems, and a push for greater accountability for political claims.

So where now? First, I think we need to learn from our mistakes and not be complacent that progressive politics are now the default position. We need a return to politicians that mean what they say, and speak with authenticity and passion. We need people who get fired up about the issues and speak from the heart, rather than with spin and polish that hide vested interests.

Second, we need to explain that the same few people have all the power and are increasingly gathering the wealth away from everyone else, and to show the economic value of being kind to the more vulnerable sectors of the population. We need to demonstrate that the threat comes from above (the rich and powerful people who control the media and the corporate and private interests that have powerful lobbies that manipulate our political system) not below (immigrants, benefit claimants, people in minority groups). We need to name the organisations and individuals who are spreading hate and cheating the man on the street by avoiding paying their fair share of tax, and turn the rhetoric of blame to more appropriate targets.

Third, we need to show that the system is rigged to support the establishment, and needs to be overhauled. That may mean setting fair boundaries and catchments to prevent gerrymandering, preventing conflicts of interest and restricting lobbying, looking at the terms and roles for nominated unelected officials (eg striking out members of the house of Lords that are not actively involved in political debate) and/or changing the first-past-the-post system.

Fourth, we must hold people and organisations to account for their lies and false claims. We must give consequences for propaganda, misinformation and promises that are not fulfilled. We need to hold politicians to account for the claims that they make, and ensure that they cannot benefit from lies and deception.

Fifth, we must do much more work to engage those who are feeling disenfranchised, rather than excluding them because they have turned their resentment to the wrong place and are being selfish/xenophobic etc. We need to explain the issues, using short clear soundbites rather than long intellectual explanations whenever possible, so that these can be accessible to a wide audience and shared over social media. We need to be down to earth and not make assumptions about underlying knowledge or values. We need to understand that many people are feeling excluded and shamed for not sharing progressive values, and reach out to them starting with empathy for their current situation, their hopes and fears.

But finally, and most importantly, we need to continue to educate our children to be better than the generations that came before them. We can teach kids to care about each other, the environment and social issues and to not discriminate by gender, race, sexuality etc. We need to help them to become critical thinkers who can evaluate what people say and don’t just accept a lie as the truth. Then over time, the population will change, and progress will continue beyond what seems possible in the present.

I can see that right now it seems overwhelmingly sad and frustrating and many people don’t know what to do with those feelings. This negative focus and tendency to turn towards anger and fear is not surprising. We are sensitive to threat, and fear impedes our ability to use empathy and rational analysis. Our brains are programmed to look at immediate risk and the local picture. We are sensitive to potential threats and we easily catastrophise and generate worst case scenarios. We find it hard to conceptualise the bigger picture as this involves timescales outside our own lifetimes, and populations we have never met and can hardly imagine. But my real hope is in the inexorable march towards progress that is happening over the last century around the world. So whilst we seem to have taken a depressing step backwards it is good to remember that progress is often two steps forward one step back.

There has always been a pattern of economic booms and busts, political cycles including changes that seem awful, and international conflicts that kill hundreds of thousands and displace millions. When we focus on these negatives, it feels pessimistic and makes us worry it is all downhill from here. Like a panic attack, we see worst case scenarios and look for escape, rather than realising we can work through it. But over human history we have rebounded from all of these things before, and the same problems have been around before only bigger. For all his hateful rhetoric, Trump isn’t Hitler. Although he is set to enact policies that are homophobic and xenophobic, he has already backed away from some of his more extreme claims, and even in a worst case scenario he won’t kill millions of people. And like with May as Prime Minister here, things will continue much like normal for most people. I’m not dismissing the horrible impact of the rise in prejudice against various minority groups, or the risk of repealing some rights, but in the bigger picture they are temporary and against the overall direction of travel.

When we look at the wider view, the future seems much more optimistic. Science continues to make new discoveries that enhance our health, reduce energy consumption, deal with environmental issues and better understand our place in the universe. Technology and access to information and media are allowing people all round the world to access information and different perspectives. Life expectancy has increased remarkably (even in the face of increasing obesity bringing a rise in diabetes and heart disease, and austerity politics increasing mental health problems and suicides). Smoking is declining. Cancer treatment is more effective. Deaths from road traffic accidents are steadily falling. Even HIV is now treatable and prophylactic medication is available. Despite the constant headlines that make us feel otherwise, deaths from homicides have fallen over time in Europe and wavered and then fallen in the USA. Deaths from wars have massively decreased over time, and even the horrible events in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq are of a smaller scale than previous international conflicts. More and more nations have democracy, women’s rights, gay rights, access to justice and protection of human rights. I believe that the future for humanity is one of steady progress with temporary set-backs. And we should never forget that from enough distance we are just a pale blue dot.

Starting over: Selecting offices and staffing

After the stress of my last blog about problems with the offices we were leaving in Milton Keynes*, I was keen to make sure that we set up a base I felt really comfortable with up in Derbyshire, and gather a great team up here. I viewed a lot of potential offices and tried to really get a good gut feeling about where we would belong. The plan is to rent an office or set of offices that has scope to expand if we secure the grant we have applied for, or other external funding that lets us expand more quickly.

The first place I viewed was a serviced office centre. The rooms were pleasant and good value (less than half the price per square foot that I had been paying further south) but the site was quite generic and a looked a bit warehouse-like. More importantly it was on the far side of a market town with quite a lot of traffic, and further from the motorway. I then viewed an office suite in a pretty restored station building on a quiet branch line. Despite this being my favourite option, it turned out only a single room was available there, and the tenants who had the rest of the building were spilling out into all the public areas, which were filled with their storage and materials. Plus the room didn’t have an individual lock – and I’ve learnt to be wary of that!

The next two places advertised were full, despite having road signage, listings on Rightmove and vacancies marked on their websites. The next place was a dilapidated shop with offices above, but transpired to be under offer, and to need a lot more work than would be possible in our timescales. The next a single room retail space, with no sink or loo unless you went into the next door building, that was quite a walk from the nearest parking. A small office building for sale, but cramped in a back street in a town slightly further from my preferred areas. Then a lovely large set of rooms in a very smart building with dedicated parking and reception facilities, that became less attractive as the already high rent then gained a service charge, and charges for the phone/broadband and was then ruled out by access only being permitted when members of staff from the main business were present, and the building being locked up at 3.30pm on a Friday!

Then a small set of offices that were a bit too far away and had a contract with an excessive notice period. Next was a bright but slightly run down set of rooms over a letting agent, at a good value inclusive price, but with slightly dingy rear access. Then we viewed another office building that was for sale, but was too big, over priced and came with only a single parking space. Then another serviced office building in a massive complex that contained function rooms and all sorts of entertainment facilities, but had limited parking and was rather dirty and dated looking. Again there were all sorts of extra charges for phone/internet, insurance and a per person charge per month for furniture. However, some of the rooms were nice, and they did come with two parking spaces right outside. Whilst viewing we also met a potential business advisor and heard about the exciting collaborations within the complex, but somehow it just didn’t feel right.

It is always very interesting when your head and your guts give you different messages. Logically the last place had the most to offer, yet it was the rooms above the letting agent that gave me the best feeling, and the owner talked the least and was the most straightforward. A bit of negotiation later, and he had agreed to redecorate the rooms, provide some furniture and jet-wash the rear access, as well as hanging a door so that we could still access the toilets and kitchen, but other staff and customers could not come up to our offices uninvited. Having learnt my lesson, this time the repairs will be specified on the contract as being completed before rent is due!

I also interviewed for a new assistant psychologist for our Liverpool contract. The project is going to be in collaboration with my peer supervisor, so that feels like an extra benefit to me, as I get to spend more time with him. We even had fun interviewing, in the lovely Quaker building in the town centre, and ate delicious food at Mowglis. When it came to the applicants we interviewed, we were really pleased to be spoilt for choice. We felt that three of the candidates would have been great for the job, and were able to select someone we are really comfortable to add to the team.

I have also put up an advert for a new administrator. Having had both brilliant and awful experience of non-clinical staff in the past, I wanted to make sure we recruit the former. This person will be the hub in the centre of the business, around which the rest of us rotate, and they need a mixture of administrative, financial and interpersonal skill, with the ability to keep me and the business organised! So I put a lot of effort into the job description and person specification. It is the first time I have used online recruitment advertising, so fingers crossed we find the right person. The applications seem to be numerous and impressive, so we are off to a good start.

Also during the summer I met an inspirational potential collaborator, so I am hopeful that I can negotiate a productive way we can work together, whether he joins us as a part time COO, or whether we make a service level agreement between our two organisations. I only hope that I can find a few more clinical psychologists to join the team, as we continue to have more requests for our input than we can fulfil.

Finally, keep your fingers crossed for me, as I will hopefully hear back soon about the DfE grant that I applied for to expand our pilot of outcome measurement and our psychologically informed care pathway!

*Thankfully I have now resolved the issues with Regus, so I have edited the previous blog to reflect this. I don’t normally edit things I have posted, because I prefer to write honestly and leave what I say on the record. However, it was a condition of the resolution that I did so. I thought long and hard about it and concluded that this blog and my social media is not the right place for making an angry noise, and that I could tell the story equally accurately in a slightly less detailed and more dispassionate way.

Rape culture and blame

I blogged a couple of months ago about the Brock Turner sexual assault case, and intended to write this post then, but I left it as a draft for some time – perhaps out of discomfort for the personal disclosure involved, or a sense of distance from the incident that made me want to post about my own experience. But it has never really gone away, because it is so prevalent, both in the tip of the iceberg of individual rape cases, and the massive underlying mass of the pervasive cultural acceptance of male sexual coercion of women (eg the horrifying statistics about misogynic beliefs and rape myth acceptance amongst male college students, particularly those involved in sports that I shared in a previous blog). It seems that just as racial tension has come to a head in America over police shootings, rape has come to a head with the Brock Turner case – with 1.3 million signatures on the petition calling for the judge to be sanctioned for his decision to go for a sentence well below the ordained minimum. And this week debate about whether the olympic diver proposal was romantic or inappropriate*. It seems that themes of sexuality and gender have become fault lines, showing wider problems in society.

Of course there have been many other cases making headlines since my previous blog on the topic, and rape and sexual assault are rarely out of the news. A woman who was raped in Qatar was found guilty of the crime of having sex outside marriage and given a suspended prison sentence and fined (I suppose we should be grateful that she didn’t get the 140 lashes that her rapist got, given they were nominally convicted of the same crime), whilst a woman in Argentina was convicted of murder for possibly having a miscarriage (though the only proven miscarriage in the case was the miscarriage of justice). Here a photographer lured young men to his home for photoshoots where he drugged and raped them. Another victim of campus rapists from athletics teams. This man used a woman’s desire to protect her children as leverage to stop her resisting his rape. This 7 month pregnant woman was raped at gunpoint. The list goes on and on and on. And there is evidence of systemic problems in how US police handle rape cases. Meanwhile lots of people have been brave about talking about their own experiences of “rape culture”. For example, this one, and this one.

I thought I might share some of my own experiences, to talk about both what it says about the culture, and the blurry line around consent. To give this some context, I’m not an extraordinary woman. Nowadays I’m a middle-aged mum. Non-smoking, rarely drinking, overweight and a bit of a workaholic, with that boring but comfortable lifestyle that many families fall into of school and work and supermarket shopping and homework and swimming and weekend outings to parks and historic places, with the occasional family visit or trip to the cinema. I’ve been happily married for 19 years this month, and I lived with my husband for 3 years before that. But even before that, I wasn’t extraordinary in appearance or behaviour, and I wasn’t reckless.

So when I say there were two occasions in my life when I felt I was at significant risk of rape, I’m pretty sure that other people have had similar experiences.

The first was when I was sixteen and had just started at sixth form. I would go out socially drinking with a particular group of friends from school most weekends, but I usually just had two or three single shot drinks with a mixer to make them last longer (vodka collins was a favourite, and much like a Smirnoff Mule now). One night I was with a group of friends outside a pub and one of the lads bought a bottle of “Thunderbird” fortified wine from a shop. He was pretending to drink himself and with nothing more than encouragement and peer pressure, he effectively persuaded me to drink more than I wanted to. I was a very innocent 16 and when he walked me away from the group and down the dock road out of sight I hadn’t expected more than a snog and a fumble.

However I suddenly became aware of my own vulnerability once we were away from the group. I was wobbly on my feet and nearly fell over, and in an amazing demonstration of both his strength and sobriety he practically picked me up and walked me firmly down the street. A minute later he put me on some concrete ground up a few steps from the road, hidden from sight by a lorry. It was then it became apparent that he was very determined to have sex and started taking my clothes off. I was putting them back on as best I could, but I didn’t know him well and didn’t want to risk him becoming violent (he was a foot taller than me, and I was too drunk to run away) so from his point of view I didn’t give a clear ‘no’. I was still kissing him to buy time to pull my clothes back up and trying to figure out whether anything else would appease him or whether there was a means to escape. But there was nobody in sight, and he was bigger and stronger than me, and this was in the days before mobile phones, so I felt completely on my own. Thankfully after half an hour or so he gave up and walked off. He left me dishevelled and alone, down the dock road of a town that was closed up for the night, having missed my lift home. But even as I stumbled back to the phone box, called my parents for a lift and made excuses about being drunk, I was feeling relieved that things hadn’t gone much worse. I look back and feel it was a lucky escape as no form of penetration occurred.

It was a frightening but in retrospect enlightening experience. Firstly, I learnt never to be drunk enough to lose my ability to run away or plan an escape with my full faculties. Secondly, I realised that from his perspective he was just trying to persuade me to do with him what another guy had lied and said we’d done at a party. He thought that it was just a matter of persuasion and persistence, which are socially acceptable aspects of the interplay between potential sexual partners – and importantly I never said no. Maybe if I’d have said “look Chris, I don’t want to have sex, stop it” he would have. However, maybe he’d have been angry that I was leading him on. Maybe if I’d have said “stop it, I don’t consent, if you force me to have sex it will be rape” he’d have been horrified and reconsidered his behaviour. I have no way of knowing. If we’d have been interrupted or I’d escaped and I hadn’t experienced him leaving of his own volition without sex, I think I would have felt it was a near miss. I don’t know if I’d have ended up reporting an attempted rape, but I certainly felt that repeatedly pulling my clothes back on was a pretty clear indication of lack of consent that he should have respected but didn’t.

Finally, I learnt that within that group of mutual friends he had done nothing wrong. They saw me leave willingly with his arm around me, and therefore everything that followed was presumed consensual. When I tried to steer clear of him they wanted me to make up with him as he was part of the group, despite the fact that I found his behaviour pretty sinister. However, for a teenage boy, plying a girl with drink, getting her to go somewhere private, trying to take her clothes off and ignoring the signals that she did not want to participate seemed a legitimate strategy, both to him and our mutual friends. He wasn’t a stranger, or someone menacing, and he was accepted within my social network. This made him very hard to avoid (and meant that on a later ocasion he cornered me at a party, put my hand on his genitals and used it to masturbate). Yet to everyone else was an ordinary guy who was above average in appearance and intelligence. He has gone on to have a successful life and now manages IT services for a bank.

The second time I felt at risk of rape, was after the tragic abduction and murder of toddler Jamie Bulger. A friend of a friend at university came to my door and said he was from Bootle and really distressed about it and wanted to talk. Although it was clear he had been drinking, in light of his distress I let him in, and we went up to my room as other people were in the sitting room of my student house. We later heard them leave, and after that his topic of conversation changed to how, despite having a girlfriend, he wanted to have sex with me. He tried to kiss me, but it was unpleasant and unwanted so I moved away. He started to undress, and try to grab at me. I realised I was cornered in the attic room of a house by a drunk man of substantial build with nobody else within shouting distance. However, this time I was sober and a bit more streetwise, so the balance of power was different. I told him that I wasn’t interested and wouldn’t be taking any of my clothes off. I suggested he get dressed and go back home, and I kept myself out of reach until he acquiesced. He knocked at the door the next day to nominally apologise in order to ask me not to tell his girlfriend.

Again, when I told my friends (and this time they were my friends, as opposed to mutual friends) they didn’t really see it as a big deal. I’d guess they didn’t see the story I recounted as having any bigger emotional connotations than “Drunk guy embarrassed himself. Assertive girl put him in his place”. And that wasn’t an entirely unreasonable perspective on the story, particularly given they were male friends and this was back in 1993, long before the days of #metoo. But it’s never quite as simple as that. Because even if it is only for one moment, the awareness that somebody else in your social network could force you to have sex against your will is a pretty stark realisation, even for an extraverted assertive girl. And however you think about it, it has an impact.

Whether by coincidence or subconscious drive, I put on weight after those two events, adding 40% to my bodyweight over a four year period that has stayed with me ever since. At the time I didn’t connect the dots. I thought it might be due to the contraceptive pill, or a less active lifestyle at university. But it seems more likely looking back that I just didn’t want unwanted sexual attention, and a fat suit is quite good at narrowing your appeal and not conforming to the socially accepted norms for attractiveness.

But it does feel like the psychological equivalent of wearing anti-rape pants. That sucks because anti-rape pants are a terrible idea that I object to in the strongest terms**, because they place the responsibility for not being raped onto the individual women. Rather than stopping a few men being rapists and a heck of a lot of men feeling so entitled that they act like overcoming the woman’s resistance is a normal and acceptable part of the process of dating, it makes women take the responsibility for not being raped. Why should it be that we need special pants to indicate we are not accessible for non-consensual sex, rather than the default position? And why should I feel that being a more attractive version of myself would make me more vulnerable to unwanted sexual advances?

I should perhaps state the obvious here. I’m not a man hater, and I’m not tarring all men with the same brush. I don’t think of men as Schrodinger’s Rapist or at least, I don’t want to, because the vast majority of men I know are lovely human beings who care about other people. But yet, our survival instinct is a powerful thing. One fall down the stairs 20 years ago, and I am still careful about stairs and escalators. Two situations in which I felt vulnerable to sexual assault (and a fair few clinical cases in which I have heard stories of rape, sexual abuse and/or domestic violence) have made me see risk in men that I don’t know well, and to view being perceived as sexually attractive to those outside my trusted circle as a potential vulnerability. It is a troubling conclusion, and one I don’t know how to resolve.

*We’ve got men today saying it is ridiculous that people have questioned the romantic gesture of the Chinese diver proposal, even when the recipient of that proposal looks uncomfortable about it. They’ve been led to believe every woman wants to get married and is just desperate for her long-term bf to propose, rather than that deciding to get married and how to tell everyone about is should be a mutual agreement, or recognising that there could be duress involved. For me, the seed of doubt is in the body language and facial expressions when I watched the video. Of course, it might be a cultural difference, or the amount of adrenaline and anxiety about being in the spotlight with cameras all around her, but her face doesn’t suggest delight. It suggests hesitation and uncertainty. Quite the opposite of the rugby player and stadium manager involved in the proposal the previous day. From the silver medal diver’s reaction you could imagine the subtitles of the whisper in her ear, or the sentence after holding up the ring being “I don’t want it to be over, please say yes, don’t shame me in front of all these people” just as easily as you could imagine it being “I love you so much I want everyone in the world to know it, please forgive me for doing this in public”. And her response involved no grins, no kisses, no seeking physical closeness, just discomfort, tears, a delayed nod and then acceptance of his actions. Whilst we may never know the answers about the specific example, the themes have echoes in how gender roles are perceived across the world. So I believe the discussion is worthwhile and should not be shut down.
**I should also add that there is no evidence that these pants are effective. Instead it seems likely that a man motivated to remove the underwear of a non-consenting woman would play out in other forms of sexual assault or violence if he was thwarted by her pants. They also add to victim blaming of anyone who doesn’t use the product; “but if you didn’t want to get raped why didn’t you wear safer pants?” Similarly, a rapist might threaten the woman to get her to remove the pants, and this might then be twisted by defence lawyers to imply consent. I think this product shows a profound mis-reading of the problem. Most rape is by someone known and trusted by victim, not the kind of opportunistic attack by a stranger that will be thwarted by her wearing lock up knickers. Some thought about who will buy them, and how they will change behaviour suggests problems too. It seems to me that their main customer base will be women who are anxious about being raped who probably won’t put themselves in a position where stranger rape is possible, whilst women who buy these pants to mitigate a risky lifestyle might have false faith in their ability to prevent negative outcomes (eg if they wear them so that they can drink to unconsciousness they probably aren’t addressing why they are making themselves so vulnerable, or the risk to physical, emotional and financial well-being that this might lead to). It made me wonder about when you would wear the pants? Every day to reinforce helplessness and anxiety or just when you feel likely to be raped? If the pants are a means to say no to a partner when sex is not wanted that says something very disturbing about relationships that needs to be addressed in more than just her choice of underwear. Finally, would another person such as a partner or controlling relative ever make the woman wear the pants like a chastity belt?

Terrorism revisited

I feel very very sad about the referendum results, but not entirely surprised given the previous election results.

I think the campaign has been fought on dishonest ground that didn’t represent what we were voting for, and the referendum and the Brexit campaign were the culmination of a particular message being pushed by vested interests in the media and politics for many years. It is part of a bigger problem of politics becoming ever more a game of the super-rich, corporate lobbying and propaganda, and less about representing what the majority of the electorate actually want. I think it is a sign of big trouble with the democratic process when two thirds of the cabinet are millionaires, and that demographic represents only 1% of the population, whilst they are supposed to speak for the breadth of the UK.

I’m not convinced that concerns about immigration are the unspoken elephant in the room, so much as one of a number of targets that keep on and on getting vilified and scapegoated for all of society’s ills. To paraphrase the metaphor: An immigrant, a voter and a millionaire politician are sitting at the table with 10 cookies. The politician takes 9 to give to his chums and then tells the voter “watch out, the immigrant is going to steal your cookie”.

What is unspoken is the responses we need to challenge these poisonous messages and to remind us that there but for fortune we could be in the shoes of an economic migrant, an asylum seeker, a single mother, a person with disabilities, a parent of a child with special needs, someone who loved that child that died because we didn’t have proper health and social care services, someone without legal representation, unemployed, the victim of racism/sexism/homophobia, the generation that live through war, etc. We should want to protect human rights and public services, legal aid, benefits and victims of crime, and to prevent war because we are them and they are us.

But somehow the talk was all focused on the money, and the immigrants, and the pointless bureaucracy of the EU. Maybe I am naive or cynical, but I think that a group of people have been actively driving that narrative for a long time, I don’t believe it is an organic grass-roots concern that has spontaneously bubbled up. I think there are vested interests pushing us towards greater income disparity, blaming of the vulnerable, and encouraging prejudice, selfishness and nihilism. I don’t think people are stupid, I think people have been drip fed right-wing propaganda for many many years, that blames all ills on “immigrants” and “benefits scroungers” so that we don’t look too hard at austerity politics and see all the vested interests. If there was a credible alternative, they’d as easily target that rage against the bankers, the corporations dodging tax and using zero hours contracts, and those using tax havens to hide their cash – all of which I consider to be much more legitimate targets.

As this article in the BMJ eloquently explained, the less people feel they have to lose, the more willing they are to take a gamble on a potentially risky outcome. And the results of austerity politics mean that large swathes of people are suffering financially, and feel powerless, hopeless, disenfranchised and exploited. At the same time as the referendum we have seen an even more tragic set of events unfolding that I think have the same underlying cause.

With the Miami mass shooting and the murder of Jo Cox (and longer ago, the shootings in Paris), I think that we have seen the ugly underbelly of what happens when people feel desperate and voiceless, and are radicalised by hearing poisonous messages blaming particular people for their unhappiness or lack of success in life. Both were horrendous acts, targeting people who had done absolutely nothing wrong in order to convey some kind of political message. Both were incredibly distressing to hear about, let alone for those who were personally involved.

Jo Cox was my age to within a fortnight and had a similar family configuration, so it has really hit home that her husband and kids will never see her again, just because she spoke out for compassion and inclusiveness. She is someone I had never heard of before she was attacked, but the more I read about her the more I like and admire her. She was taking action for the good of others, and she was a great example of our democracy. I have donated to the fund in her memory, and the fact it topped a million pounds in just a few days, suggests that I am not alone in wanting to take some kind of positive action in the face of such awful news.

And with that in mind, and the clear indications that this was politically motivated terrorism with a far-right agenda, I wanted to say something about all the references to mental illness. Being mentally ill doesn’t mean you kill people and killing people doesn’t mean you’re mentally ill. Doing something awful that we can’t understand is not the same as being mentally ill. One in four people has a mental illness, a characteristic as widespread as blond hair. The vast majority of them will never hurt anyone, and are at no greater risk of doing something awful than anyone else (although they are disproportionately the victims of violence). It is abhorrent to stigmatise all those people because of the actions of one person, even if he may have had mental health issues. He didn’t kill Jo Cox because he had mental health problems. He killed her because he wanted to promote his repugnant fascist beliefs.

I posted on Facebook about the causes of terrorism earlier in the week when the discussion was about the Miami mass murder, and this is exactly the same. This was what I wrote:

Just a reminder, but mental illness is not a cause of terrorism. There is pretty good research that has disproved this popular myth. People do awful things. We can’t understand that and we want to feel like they are different from us, so we assume their mind is broken. In fact the research says that it is a combination of a strong need to belong, coupled with a sense of marginalisation and injustice, dehumanisation of enemies, group processes where beliefs get hyped up into extreme actions and strong religious beliefs. Intelligent men who underachieve are particularly at risk for this radicalisation. That is, ordinary people with no genetic or mental abnormalities get pulled down a particular path by their experiences and social networks.

From a paper by Silke after 9/11:

“It is very rare to find a terrorist who suffers from a clinically defined ‘personality disorder’ or who could in any other way be regarded as mentally ill or psychologically deviant (Silke, 1998). Ultimately, the overwhelming majority of terrorists (and this significantly even includes suicide bombers) are average, normal individuals who in other circumstances would be quite unremarkable. Their involvement in terrorism is not the result of psychoses, inner traits or aberrant personalities. Rather, in most cases it is an understandable response to a series of life events.

The causes of terrorism need to be focused on – not just the actors. Once you are forced to throw away the ‘terrorists are different’ model, then attention must be given to other areas. An important realisation here is that becoming involved in terrorism is a process. Nobody is born a terrorist. Neither does anyone wake up one morning and decide abruptly that on that day they are going to start planting bombs in public streets. Becoming a terrorist is in the first instance an issue of socialisation. Any given society will possess some minorities or disaffected groups who rightly or wrongly perceive that the world is treating them harshly. In some cases there are genuine and very substantial causes for grievance. Individuals who belong to or identify with such disaffected groups share in a sense of injustice and persecution. It is from such pools that individual terrorists emerge”.

Western politicians will easily condemn muslim extremists, but in America in particular they find it much harder to look at terrorism fueled by prejudice, in this case racism (but previously by homophobia and religion) – because, like the gun lobby, it has so much popular support. I don’t have any solutions for that, but we do need to name the problem, and the problem is the rise of right wing regressive ideas, fueled by prejudice and religion, blaming every vulnerable minority whilst turning a blind eye to the rich and powerful exploiting the rest of us.

I want my country back from all this hatred and fear-mongering. We need to stop blaming the vulnerable, and start looking at the political system that has created an increasingly divisive and selfish society.

Falling through the cracks – the current state of NHS mental health services

Recently I spent sixteen hours trying to get an acute mental health assessment for a someone. The details of the case are not what matter here, but I want to talk about what I learnt from the process, and to do that I’ll need to give some context. It is necessarily vague and some information has also been changed to protect confidentiality.

However, as a pen picture it is fair to say that there was a combination of a severe deterioration in mental health with risk to others (the person had bizarre beliefs that led them to want to injure/kill people within particular demographics). The person did not want any mental health input, but I felt that the risk issues were so acute that it was necessary to override the lack of consent and request that an urgent mental health act assessment be undertaken. The other members of the household were keen for this to happen, as were various professionals who were already involved from the health, social care and criminal justice sectors. The person was open to a locality mental health service, but after the initial assessment identified various needs nobody had been allocated to undertake the work, so although it was an open case there had been no service for several months.

So, I rang the local service to ask for a psychiatric assessment. It wasn’t an area where I have worked before or a service that I had any prior experience with so I rang the number on their website. I explained I felt that there was acute risk coupled with obvious decline in mental health, but a lack of consent to treatment, so I enquired what kind of urgent services could be triggered, suggesting that the person involved would be difficult to approach and it would almost certainly be necessary to undertake a mental health act assessment and an admission against the person’s will might be necessary to safeguard others. And that is where I hit a brick wall.

The local service told me they were not commissioned to have a crisis service, and that unless the person involved had self-harmed they did not meet the urgent criteria. No amount of risk to others, or deterioration in mental health would qualify for their service, unless there was self-harm, or the person presented at A&E themselves, or we waited the timescales of their routine service (which had no capacity to allocate a worker). Pointing out the NICE guidance required a same-day response didn’t shift their position. Highlighting the risk to others or the individual likewise seemed to go unheard. The Approved Mental Health Professionals team said that the person met their criteria, but they could not get involved unless there was a psychiatrist from the locality team who had seen the person and would identify the bed if it was necessary to use a section. The psychiatrists said they were not resourced to go out and see people, and that they were not prepared to put themselves at risk by attending a person who presented a risk to others, even though I had arranged for the police to be present. They said the only way they would see the person was if the police used section 136 to bring them to the hospital as a place of safety, where they could then provide an assessment. They suggested that we call 999 to ask for ambulance and police assistance. The ambulance and police said they were not there to provide transport, and if the person was calm and inside the house, they did not present an imminent threat that required removing them using section 136.

Deadlock.

The next day I phoned the local mental health team again and asked to speak to someone senior to raise my concerns about the case. The duty clinician called me back several hours later. I got asked “what do you expect us to do on a Friday afternoon?” and “why is this our problem?” and then got talked over loudly again and again as I tried to explain the issues with risk and mental health. I asked politely four times for the person to stop talking over me, without effect and then asked her name. She refused to tell me and ultimately hung up on me. Her service wouldn’t tell me who I had spoken to, or give me any information about the complaints procedure beyond telling me to write a letter to their postal address. I asked to speak to a service manager. Unavailable. To a psychiatrist. Unavailable. I asked for someone to call me back. at 4.45 I got a return call with the same content as the previous conversations. No crisis service. Doesn’t meet their urgent criteria. A&E, the police bringing in under a 136 or nothing. I wrote a report giving all of my concerns to the whole network in writing.

In supervision I talked about my anxiety about a serious incident, and my fear that nothing would be done, and everyone would pass the buck. I was supported that my concerns were legitimate, and made the decision to try to take it up the chain of command. I called the department again. Then I called the directors of the trust involved, and the complaints department. I made calls all morning with no response, having already had no response for over a fortnight to concerns I felt were so acute they needed a same day response. So I called the CQC.

The CQC were very helpful, and made me feel that it was the right place to raise my concerns. I feel that the systemic issues will eventually be addressed because of the CQC having sufficient power to influence commissioning decisions, but that doesn’t help in the timescale of the individual. Likewise someone near the top of the trust concerned did get back to me the next day, and want to learn from the process (perhaps motivated by awareness of the CQC being involved). Hopefully we’ll look at the pathway, and address the various issues that my experience flagged up*. But again, that’s fixing the stable door after the horse has bolted. At the individual level, the outcome was disappointing. The person is moving to a different area within the next few weeks, and the service have decided that means that they don’t have to do anything, whilst the new area will only act if concerns are raised once the person arrives.

So the story doesn’t have an ending yet. There wasn’t a happily ever after, because the service I felt was required within a matter of hours hasn’t been provided, despite several weeks having passed. However, there hasn’t been a serious incident either. I’m keeping my fingers crossed the former happens before the latter.

But it was a pretty weird experience for me. Normally, if I raise a concern people take that pretty seriously. I’m a fairly senior clinician with the titles Dr and Consultant by my signature. I’ve been an expert witness in 200+ court cases. And I’ve had 20 years of experience against which to judge risk and after 16 years in the NHS I also think I have realistic expectations of services. I’ve never made a complaint about an NHS service before, and I hope I never have to again, but I didn’t feel like I had any other option. I was genuinely horrified to see defensive service specifications being used to deny a person with clear acute mental health needs a service. I felt like my concerns were ignored and dismissed because they were inconvenient and didn’t fit within existing pathways.

I’m not sure that my involvement did any good at all for the person in the end, despite spending hours and hours on the phone and writing emails and letters. But it made me wonder, what if I wasn’t there? What if there wasn’t someone with a title and qualifications and NICE guidelines to cite to try and agitate for the services to do the right thing? What if a family member or friend of the individual rather than a professional was trying to express their concerns? Why are the barriers so high when it comes to accessing mental health services? Why have services got specifications that exclude people in serious need? Why are the processes to raise concerns so opaque and so slow? Why don’t services join up better? Why are services always reactive and so rarely proactive? Are age, gender, race or other demographic characteristics a barrier to accessing treatment? Why are we still so far from parity between mental and physical health services? Why does mental health still not have the kind of services there are for acute physical health needs? Most of all, why does common sense and compassion get lost in pointless bureaucracy when it comes to referral pathways and criteria?

I used to be so proud to be part of the NHS. Now I wonder about what it has become. Is this just what is left after decades of cuts and reorganisations, or was I always a roll of the dice away from hitting a dead end?

*this was never followed up, so in retrospect it seems it was just platitudes to shut me up

A note on the two 12 year old girls with “higher IQ than Einstein or Stephen Hawking”

In the news today, two 12 year old girls who have done Mensa assessments have been pronounced to have IQs of 162, and to “already be cleverer than Einstein or Stephen Hawking”. As someone qualified to test IQ in a validated way, this is infuriating, as it compounds public misconceptions about IQ.

Let me start with some basic explanation of how an IQ test works. A proper validated IQ test shows IQ scores in terms of the number of standard deviations that person’s score is from the mean in a normal distribution of other people of their age in their country. So 2.28% of people score above and below 2 standard deviations from the mean. A standard score means that the normal distribution is set up with a mean of 100 and a standard deviation (SD) of 15 points – IQ scores are calculated by using the raw score on the test comparing it to the norm group and then transposing that onto the standard distribution. That means that the average IQ score is 100, and just over two thirds of people have an IQ score between 85 and 115. The further a score is from 100 the more unusual it is in the population. At the lower end, 2.28% of people have an IQ below 70 (considered a Learning Disability) and at the upper end of the range 2.28% have an IQ over 130 (considered “gifted” or “very superior”).

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So what about people who are super-bright? How accurately can we measure their ability?

Given that IQ tests are normed on only a few thousand people, the sample and thus the knowledge we have about the distribution of IQ in those ranges is pretty limited. By the time we look at the sample 3 SDs above the mean at 145+ we are studying 0.03% of the population (three people in every ten thousand) and that means that the normative sample will probably contain only two or three of those people at best. Of course most of the tests are normed in the USA, and the UK sample used to ensure it transfers to this country was only hundreds of people, so it probably didn’t contain any.

We then have the variable of error in measurement, which increases as you get to the edges of the distribution. You get a noise in the background during one item or a moment of misunderstanding and it can change the score by one or two points, and in these ranges that could make a huge difference. How valid can it be to stratify people in these extremes according to individual items of knowledge?

So, you would typically give either a confidence interval (the range at which the person is 95% likely to score if re-tested, according to the statistical properties of the test, usually the individual IQ score plus or minus 4-6 points) or a percentile. And the general practise is to say “the top 0.5%” for all scores above 140 and be no more specific than that. So the answer to my question is that we know fairly little about the distribution of IQ scores above 130 and the tests are not very good at reliably differentiating between scores in that range. That means I’d be sceptical about anyone claiming “genius” who cites a specific IQ score, as they clearly aren’t enough of a genius to understand the statistics or science of IQ measurement!

Does someone with a high IQ as a child keep getting higher?

No, cognitive assessments are designed to measure ability relative to your age peers, so that it is likely to remain a similar score as you get older. A child with an IQ of 130 is likely to become an adult with an IQ of 130, give or take the error of measurement, unless there is a significant head injury or some other explanation for the change. If someone under-performs on the test for some reason (for example because their attention is very poor) their score might improve if that reason is addressed (if their attention is improved by medication, change in their environment or practise at similar tasks). You can practise the specific tasks used in IQ tests and learn general knowledge and vocabulary deliberately to improve your score, and the score is not normally considered valid if the same test is used again within 24 months because of practise effects.

The norms for IQ tests are gathered for each language and country, so although they are meant to be “culture free” you also need to be mindful of cultural or language barriers to performance. And of course, in the end IQ scores measure how good you are at IQ tests, which may not reflect how “intelligent” you are in real life, where social skills, emotional intelligence, interests, ability to use executive functions to concentrate, self-monitor, learn from feedback and many other factors affect the degree to which you can succeed or appear exceptional. In fact it is often the people with the narrowest focus in their skill-set who are able to make the most impact in that area, and they may often not have the breadth of skills to appear that intelligent in other contexts. Of course there are some genuine polymaths, but it isn’t clear that IQ scores reflect functional skills beyond being reasonably predictive of academic attainments.

So what about these scores cited in the media of IQs of 162? Are they cleverer than Stephen Hawking or Einstein?

Many high IQ societies don’t use the cognitive assessment tools that Clinical Psychologists use (like the Wechsler tests, or the Stanford Binet). Mensa for example use the Cattell which is not widely accepted as a valid test of IQ and has relatively low correlation with the standardised tests I mentioned. This test has a completely different scoring system, with a standard deviation of 24 points. This makes the highs look higher and the lows look lower, and it seems it is popular amongst high IQ societies because it is cheap to administer and pleasing to their members as it gives nice high numbers. On this test a standard IQ score of 130 (achieved by that top 2.28% I mentioned earlier) would be a score of 148 – a higher number, but still designed to indicate the same level of ability (a score in the top 2.28%) – and a score of 145 on a standard test (achieved by the top 0.03% of the population) would be a score of 172.

So those published scores of 162 are high, but statistically we’d expect 3 in every ten thousand people to score over 170 on that scoring system – and simple multiplication tells us that across the population of the UK we’d expect there to be 18,000 people with that level of ability – whilst the error of measurement in that range must be enormous. In fact, we can say little about their IQ beyond “it is above 130 on a standardised test” due to the confidence intervals being very wide. To differentiate amongst super high ability people we would not only need a test that is able to be sufficiently granular at that ability range, we would have to norm it on representative samples of higher ability people studied in sufficient numbers to see what happens to the distribution as raw scores go up.

As to scores higher than Stephen Hawking or Einstein, that’s purely speculation. Neither of these two people have done comparable IQ tests, and the norms change year by year. Plus people can be brilliant at some things and less good at others, and there is not a perfect relationship between IQ and ‘intelligence’ let alone IQ predicting who will be a “genius” and increase the boundaries of current knowledge.

I’ll leave the last word to Stephen Hawking, when asked what his IQ was by the New York Times:

“I have no idea. People who boast about their I.Q. are losers”.