Drama vultures: Some comments on social media

For young people, social media can be a very significant part of their social life. As Mark Brown put it, “Social media went big at the same point that austerity did. We lost our libraries, youth clubs and schools funding but we got smartphones and snapchat instead.” It has also been a means of connection for people who were technologically savvy but socially isolated. This is a surprisingly broad group, including both “geeks” (with subgroups of angry young men who have been radicalised by anti-feminism and the alt-right), those with social communication deficits (who like entirely written communication, as it means that they no longer feel excluded by the pace and non-verbal elements of real life social interactions) and people who are socially isolated because of their geography, disabilities, sexuality, gender identity, culture or more introverted personality, as well as an increasingly broad demographic who have simply discovered the convenience of social media as a means to connect with likeminded others. It can be enticing as a way to gain some social validation, either through “likes” of your content or photographs, or through a sense of belonging to a community of people with shared values or interests. And with so many different platforms, there can be many different qualities to this interaction, and functions that social media serves in people’s lives.

With niche communities, pockets of self-referencing and self-reinforcing cultural norms appear. Whether it is the sensitive niche sexualities of tumblr, or the offensive-as-possible culture on 4chan, the visual memes of imgur, the glamorous selfies of instagram, the endless stream of headlines from twitter, the business focus of linkedin, the many facets of reddit, videos on youtube, livestreaming on twitch or periscope, various blog platforms, an almost endless variety of podcasts, massive web forums on every topic imaginable, or even the comments sections of various publications, each has a different personality and norms. Some are ephemeral, with content disappearing after a certain time. Others stand as searchable archive with a long-term record of past content. Some allow people to broadcast outwards and collect followers, whilst others are focused on more reciprocal relationships. Some allow privacy restrictions that mean you can limit access to friends and family. But most have some means for others to indicate their approval or disapproval. And that means that there can be a sense of being judged or rewarded according to what you post. Sometimes this is based on the quality of the content, but it can also be based on political/group affiliation or appearance – with attractive young women who post photographs or video in particular getting a lot of attention. Some sites allow interesting or amusing content to float to the top where more people will see it, allowing particular posts to be read by remarkably large numbers of people. These can include inspiring content like non-zero days or unintentionally hilarious content like the penis dunking thread on mumsnet (mildly NSFW) that had me failing to contain my laughter during a BPS committee meeting. Some people seek out notoriety by writing controversial or entertaining content. Others who feel they don’t get enough positive attention seek out more negative peer groups, or seek attention in less functional ways. There are also less healthy pockets of social interaction on the internet. There are pro-anorexia communities, and sites that discuss and even encourage self-harm and suicide. There are bullies and trolls, and even people who fake being bullied in order to seek sympathy or justify introspective disclosures*.

One of the great advantages, and problems, with social media is the potential to be anonymous. This is a great leveller because it makes other users blind to your gender, age, race, appearance, physical ability/disability, sexuality, wealth, social class or other sources of prejudice – although many people choose to display these characteristics anyway and seek out similar people for a sense of belonging within specific online communities. However, the very anonymity and ability to create a character for yourself online can be problematic, as anybody can pretend to be anything. As well as the proverbial middle-aged lorry driver pretending to be a teenage girl, there are people pretending to be of different social demographics to infiltrate or undermine these communities. For example, many alt-right trolls attempting to fuel the gamergate conflict signed up “sock puppet” accounts as women and people of colour to pretend that their movement was more diverse or to defend them from criticism for sexism and racism. More obviously there are trolls, who use the anonymity to bully, harass and try to get a rise out of others, safe in the knowledge that social media is functionally a lawless zone, where only the very most serious of attackers, who challenge national security or make repeated overt threats towards targets in the public eye ever see any attempt at identification or prosecution.

By contrast, if you slip up on social media and say something stupid or embarrassing it can be shared with hundreds of thousands of people, your identity can be outed, and the impact can spill out into your real life in unpredictable ways leading to a roulette of inequality in which an ill-judged racist or sexist joke having more consequences than a year-long campaign of rape and death threats.  Or, you can become a target whose personal details are released on the internet (known as doxxing) by someone who dislikes your opinion or feels slighted by you, or subject to “revenge porn” where intimate photographs are published by an ex-partner without the consent of the subject. In America you can even become the target of hoax calls intending to send in an armed response team (known as swatting). And (as in many things) it is women and people of colour who always end up being disproportionately punished.

Having been on the internet since the 1990s, I’ve had an interesting personal history on social media. I was part of the eBay forums around the launch of eBay.co.uk for several years. As well as giving advice about scams and using eBay to buy and sell, there were lively off-topic discussion, running jokes and fundraising activities. But even within a seemingly diverse and healthy community of strangers there were many interesting signs of dysfunction. There were cliques and factions with marked animosity between them. There were people who claimed to be things they were not, including a “detective” and a “vet” (who was so desperate to uphold the facade she tried to get the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons to amend a register entry for a genuine vet to match her name). There was a lady who faked her own death and posted as her (supposedly bereaved) husband, but was rumbled by an astute poster spotting contradictions in her story. When I foolishly mentioned being a psychologist in a conversation that only contained four other active users, that information spread much more widely than I had expected. I started to receive disclosures and allegations, messages about distressing feelings and even what appeared to be a suicide note (with the help of moderators I alerted authorities, and the suicide was not completed) so I soon learnt to be much more private and anonymous.

On clinpsy we have also had our fair share of tea-cup sized dramas, despite having very little need to intervene as moderators compared to the large volume of members and posts. I blogged about some examples two years ago, and I can only think of two people we have banned since then (although I did block someone from registering after they were very antagonistic and inappropriate on facebook after we failed to activate their registration between 10pm one night and 4am the following morning). I did recently have the interesting experience of having someone apply to work for me who had been banned from the forum. They didn’t seem to think I’d know about that, despite the fact that they used the same email address in their application as they had when they had been banned. They withdrew their application when I said that I knew and we’d need to have a conversation about it if they wished to progress their application.

It is an interesting thing that social media crosses the boundaries of communication that we are familiar with. The written form seems somehow impersonal and emotionless compared to forms of communication that contain the non-verbals, and yet somehow emotions are conveyed and evoked. The nature of speaking to strangers who may or may not be conveying the truth, and where we know little about them except for what is posted, involves a lot of extrapolation and ambiguity. It is hard to judge the response of the audience or how far information will spread, and deceptive safe feeling that we are posting in our own homes and usually under pseudonyms, yet it can suddenly become very personal and intrusive. On the clinpsy forum we monitor usage quite closely, and have zero tolerance of personal abuse or inappropriate content. In order to avoid knee-jerk responses or being hooked into unhelpful patterns, and to help us keep on top of maintenance and development tasks on the clinpsy forum, we work as a team. We keep a log of moderator discussions, user reports of concerns and reasons for banning users in a hidden moderators area on the forum. We tend to have quite a rapid response time for removing content for moderator consideration, and quite consistent views about where to draw the line, which has made clinpsy relatively drama free.

That isn’t the case on other forums, where much more banter and jokes are let fly, and these can be quite offensive, particularly if the dominant demographic is young white men. Racism, sexism and misogyny are quite prevalent in some online communities. Many women hide their gender to avoid quips about getting back in the kitchen, or banter about rape (which can be a term used in video gaming communities to refer to trouncing another player). But in some places it can even go a step further than that. 4chan, for example, used to ask for topless photos if anyone mentioned being female with the delightful phrasing “tits or GTFO”, and provoked many young women (at least one of whom appeared to be below the age of consent) to share sexually explicit images of themselves. 4chan also had links to child pornography (although I believe that this was eventually prohibited and split off onto another forum). Reddit has subreddits for misogynist men’s rights activists, pick-up artists, and incels (men who consider themselves to be involuntarily celibate – that is, they are too unpleasant to attract consenting female partners but do not recognise this, and turn the blame onto the women instead, with extreme examples like Elliot Rogers and the man behind the recent Toronto van attack), although again some attempts at prohibition and moderation are creeping in after bad publicity following the recent school shooting.

As a female poster in some male-dominated communities it was initially quite a culture-shock, but it is good to socialise outside the same narrow bubble, and there are also very positive aspects of being part of an online community. There is a hive mind of information on every topic that means you can gain immediate and often highly skilled advice on everything from how to rewire a light fitting, or how to distinguish a wasp from a mortar bee, to which model of television has the best features within a certain price bracket, or how to complain if a parcel doesn’t arrive. The community might be a rapid source of news, or entertaining new memes. There can be reviews of films, music, events or games that lead you to try new things, and erudite discussion about politics, current affairs, history, different cultures, religion, sports, science, religion, mental health, relationships and any topic that takes your interest. There can also be mutual concern and support when things are not going well, and shared delight when people experience unexpected success. So there are definite positives. The problem is that they can come at a price, and some people are more likely to pay the price than others.

Anyone who has been part of an online community knows about how they seem to inevitably create remarkable interpersonal dramas. These are like road traffic accidents – as a neutral spectator they both repulse you and make compulsive viewing, but as a participant they have the ability to cause genuine harm. When a person starts posting erratically or there is public conflict, or even when a person or group is bullying a vulnerable member if they do so in a way that is seem as amusing, it is viewed as entertainment or public spectacle. And, like a fight in a school playground, they inevitably attract a circle of spectators who both encourage and influence the unfolding drama, both joining in to sub-conflicts in the audience, and throwing in more fuel if it seems to be petering out. I’ve been in that circle a few times for different reasons, and it isn’t a fun experience. And as it starts feeling more personal and more antagonistic emotions start showing in how you post, and that seems to fuel the aggressor to go in for the kill, and other posters to join in. Our ability to reason and to predict the way that others will interpret and react to our posts reduces, and the stakes start to feel higher, and yet it somehow becomes harder to leave the conversation whilst feeling threatened or misunderstood. So you get drawn in to the battle, trying to clarify your intended meaning, defend yourself from perceived attack, or persuade others to see your point of view. Perhaps you criticise the other person, who then becomes more antagonistic or defensive. By the time you are in the thick of things there isn’t an obvious exit without either victory or shame.

Walking away from an online community because you don’t like how you are treated feels a lot like social exclusion and can have a significant impact on your sense of self, but to stay once you have attracted negative attention can mean the slow attrition of insults and snide digs that someone once described as “death by a thousand paper cuts” (a less severe/more protracted version of the Chinese torture method death by a thousand cuts, in which it is hard to criticise any individual action as being unduly aggressive or breaking any rules). Frustratingly these can often be the kind of microaggressions that align with real life experiences reflecting the casual degradation of disempowered/minority groups. And, as ever, women and minority groups seem to be disproportionately the target for them. Even a phrase like “calm down love” is loaded with patronising layers of meaning about women being ruled by their emotions and lacking the calm logical analysis of men. It implies that caring about anything enough to show some emotion about it is already losing the battle.

There is little time for compassion or reflection online, and it is hard for an onlooker to intervene in a way that is helpful to diffuse conflict. Thus vulnerable people may end up re-victimised, and people with dysfunctional ways of relating often play these out over and over online. I can particularly recall one poster who had a distinct cycle of debate, feeling criticised, rage and then burning out to a final phase of being shamed and apologetic, trying to make amends to avoid rejection – and the community becoming increasingly intolerant of these emotional extremes. At times it felt like observing a digital version of a disorganised attachment relationship, with the forum community functioning as the inconsistent/abusive parent. It came as no surprise to read disclosures about an abusive childhood, use of crisis mental health services and a personality disorder diagnosis. But s/he was far from alone in having dysfunctional ways of relating to others online. In fact it seems that many people with such difficulties are strongly attracted to the accessibility and 24 hour nature of online communication, and can find significant support from strangers there. But it often comes at a high cost, or with significant risk, because of the prevalence of trolls and the way dramas are amplified by having an audience, and the way social media can serve as a written record of whatever unfolds that is hard to erase. There might be the right to be forgotten under GDPR, but how does this actually work in practise when comments are quoted and replied to, or captured in screenshots and posted elsewhere?

There are plenty of examples of how vulnerable people are enticed by the sense of belonging in a group, or the superficial success of social media influencers, but harmed by the messages they are given. This can range from unhealthy roles models such as the one I blogged about previously to being encouraged to harm others or given advice on how to harm themselves or commit suicide (the Daily Mail recently ran a scare piece on a “Blue Whale” game that culminates in telling children to commit suicide, though snopes felt there was little evidence to substantiate this). It would seem to me that the bigger concern is the indoctrination of larger numbers of young, socially isolated people in toxic beliefs such as alt-right ideologies, through writing that blames others for their ills. Whether it is “psychologist” Jordan B Peterson whose 12 rules for life serve as an introduction to his regressive beliefs including “enforced monogamy” in which he appears to advocate that to prevent male violence women should be allocated to partners and forced to remain monogamous to them (which is rightly being called out as sexist/stupid/victim blaming). It might have sold 1.1 million copies, and he might make £80k/month in patronage, but this isn’t a new enlightenment. Enticing simplistic sexist answers are not the cure for angry young men who feel left behind by progress, I would argue they are the very fuel that will convert them into the school shooters, rapists and perpetrators of future violence and harassment. But it is hard to offer up an alternative perspective or contradictory evidence when an angry mob descends on any divergent opinion, claiming that they are the true victims and that the sexist/racist drivel they promote is being censored by sensitive snowflakes (the new version of “its political correctness gone mad”). Ironically, these repugnant views that are allegedly suppressed/unspeakable are getting lots of airtime, whilst stifling free expression of opposing/alternative views** as progressive voices fear becoming a target of the mob.

In short, its a messy and unregulated space, and there are both interpersonal conflicts and large scale culture wars playing out in it. How to protect people in a digital age needs a lot more thought, both at the level of educating children about critical thinking and empathy, and in terms of regulation of social media, and enforcement of crimes committed via digital media. But with middle aged and older politicians doing the legislating it is hard to see how that is going to happen.

*if you find this surprising, consider the bug chasing community, who are people actively seeking HIV infection in order to gain care, sympathy and a sense of belonging
**including me, as I avoid using certain terms on social media or in the tags and category labels for this blog, as I dislike the surge of abusive/antifeminist responses they trigger

Solve for happiness: Some thoughts on big data/AI and mental health

We are hearing a lot about the use of big data at the moment, mostly that it has been an underhand way to manipulate people politically, that has been used by those with no ethical compunctions to get people to vote against their own best interests*, and in favour of Brexit and Trump. Cambridge Analytica and AIQ seem to have commercially exploited academic research and breached data protection rules to try to nudge political behaviour with targeted messaging. Whether or not that was successful is up for debate, but to the public the narrative is about big data being bad – something technocrats are exploiting for nefarious reasons. I can understand that, because of the associations between gathering data on people and totalitarian political regimes, and because of concerns about privacy, data protection and consent. There is increasing awareness of what had previously been an unspoken deal – that websites harvest your data and show you targeted advertising, rather than charge you directly for services, and the new GDPR means that we will be asked to explicitly consent to these types of data collection and usage.

But what about the potential for big data to do good? I know that DeepMind are doing some data crunching to look at whether AI algorithms can help identify indicators that determine outcomes in certain health conditions and point doctors towards more effective treatments. Their work to identify warning signs of acute kidney injury was criticised because of breaches to data protection when they were given access to 1.6 million medical records without individual patient consent, but whilst the data issues do need to be sorted out, the potential for projects like this to improve health and save lives is undeniable. Computers can look through huge amounts of detailed data much more quickly and cost-effectively than humans. They can also do so consistently, without fatigue or bias, and without a priori assumptions that skew their observations.

Research often highlights findings that seem counterintuitive to clinicians or human researchers, and that means that using the data to generate the patterns can find things that we overlook. One example I read about today was the fact that admitting offending behaviour does not reduce the risk of recidivism in sexual or violent offenders (in fact those who show most denial offend less, whilst those who demonstrate more disclosures and shame are more likely to reoffend). But this is also true about telling people they are being given a placebo (which will still produce positive placebo effects), using positive mantras to enhance self-esteem (which seem to trigger more negative thoughts and have a net negative impact on mood and self-esteem) or about expressing anger (rather than this being cathartic and leading to a reduction in anger, it actually increases it). Various fascinating examples are listed here. There is also the well-known Dunning Kruger effect, whereby ignorance also includes a lack of insight into our own ignorance. As a population, we consistently overestimate our own ability, with people in the bottom percentiles often ranking themselves well above average.

I often refer to the importance of knowing the boundaries of your own competence, and identifying your own “growing edges” when it comes to personal and professional development. We talk about the stages of insight and knowledge developing from unconscious incompetence to conscious competence, and finally to unconscious competence where we can use the skill without conscious focus. Confucius said “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” And it may well be that when it comes to solving some of the big problems we are limited by our own frame of reference, what we think of as relevant data, our preconceptions and our ability to build complex models. Using giant data sets and setting technology to sift through and make sense of them using various paradigms of AI might help open up new possibilities to researchers, or find patterns that are outside of human observation. For example, certain medications, foods or lifestyle traits might have significant impact on certain specific health conditions. I am reminded of a recent article about how a third of antidepressants are prescribed for things other than their primary function (for example, one can seemingly help with inflammatory bowel disease that has very limited treatment options). A computer sifting through all the data can pick up both these unintended positive effects and also rare or complex harmful side-effects or interactions that we may not be aware of.

What difference could this make in mental health? Well, I think quite a lot. Of course many predictors of mental health are sociopolitical and outside of the control of the individual, but we also know that some small lifestyle changes can have very positive impacts on mental health – exercising more, for example, or having a healthy diet, or getting more sleep, or using mindfulness, even just getting outdoors more, learning something new, doing something for others, or spending more time with other people (and less time on social media) can have a positive impact. There are also many therapy and therapist variables that may make an impact on mental health, for people who engage in some form of talking therapy, although variance in outcomes seems to actually boil down to feeling heard and believed by a therapist who respects the individuality and cultural context of the client. And of course there are many medical treatments available.

So is there a way of using big data to look at what really works to help people feel happier in their lives? I think the potential for apps to collect mass data and test out what makes impact is enormous, and there are a proliferation of apps in the happiness niche and more that claim to help wellbeing in a broader way. They seem to have found a market niche, and to offer something positive to help people make incremental life changes that are associated with happiness. What I’m not sure of is whether they reach the people that need them most, or if they are evaluating their impact, but presumably this is only a matter of time, as real life services get stripped back and technology tries to fill that gap.

I think there is huge need to look at what can make positive change to people’s wellbeing at a population scale, and I think we need to be tackling that at multiple levels. First and foremost, we need to make the sociopolitical changes that will stop harming the most vulnerable in society, and encourage greater social interconnectedness to prevent loneliness and isolation. We need to increase population knowledge and tweak the financial incentives for healthy lifestyle choices (eg with much wider use of free or subsidised gym memberships, and tax on unhealthy food options). And we need to invest in preventative and early intervention services, as well as much more support during pregnancy and parenting, and in mental health and social care. But I can also see a role for technology. Imagine an app that asked lots of questions and then gave tailored lifestyle recommendations, and monitored changes if the person tried them. Imagine an app that helped people identify appropriate local sources of support to tackle issues with their health and wellbeing, and monitored their impact when people used them. As well as having a positive immediate impact for users, I’m sure we’d learn a lot from that data that could be applied at the population level.

*I think the evidence is strong enough that the demographics who voted for these people/policies in the greatest numbers are the very people who have come out the worst from them, so I am just going to state it as a fact and not divert into my personal politics in this blog, given I have covered them in previous topics about Brexitmy politics, “alternative facts”, Trump, why and what next, the women’s march, and Grenfell and the Manchester bomb.

Sticking plasters

I realise that this title won’t mean much to Americans or people outside the UK, so let me share a small anecdote by way of explanation before I get into the topic I want to discuss. I was on an American airlines flight back from New York in 2003, having done a lot of walking around the city over the preceding week. When I removed my shoes and straightened my socks it transpired that a burst blister had adhered to my sock, and it started to bleed surprisingly profusely. I asked a member of cabin crew for a sticking plaster, and got entirely blank looks in response. When I explained the situation, a steward showed a sudden look of recognition and sighed “oh, a Band Aid! I keep one of those in my wallet for my kids” and provided what I needed. So yes, a sticking plaster is a Band Aid – an adherent protective dressing for a small wound.

I found it quite an insight into American marketing, as I had also tried to buy antihistamine cream in a drug store to utterly blank looks, until someone realised I wanted “Benadryl”. I had also seen the TV advertising persuading people they had adult ADHD (with a symptom list that seemed to encourage false positives, and a link to a small quiz online that seemed to classify almost anyone as having ADHD), or that they needed Viagra (with the almost comical warnings that “erections lasting more than two hours can be dangerous and require medical attention”). Disease mongering is a pretty interesting phenomenon, and well worth reading about – Did you know that the vast majority of viagra prescriptions are “off label” and written for groups in which there is no evidence of efficacy (including women, when there is not a single study showing evidence of efficacy in this population)? And that the pharmaceutical companies are trying to medicalise “Female Sexual Dysfunction” to create mass markets to address lack of desire or lack of pleasure, with minimal consideration of the context or wider issues, because of the success of such marketing with men? Or that “restless legs” has been marketed to the public as a common condition requiring medication? It made me quite glad for our generics, and lack of medication marketing targeting the public.

But the reason I wanted to talk about sticking plasters is that they are a response after the event. A means of short-term management, and covering up of an injury, rather than preventing it. Like my blisters adhering to my sock, there were many stages at which that bleeding could have been prevented – by covering the blister earlier, or better still by taking the subway more and/or wearing more sensible shoes to explore New York. The problem is that if we become overwhelmed by demand for the reactive response, we lose the capacity to look at what underlies the demand. And if we spend too much time reacting to distress in health services, it can mean that we fail to do the preventative work that would reduce the need for such services. With austerity politics ensuring that the health and social care sector are too underfunded to be proactive, I think that is where the NHS is heading, along with most of the public sector.

Every single day I seem to read about travesties of social justice, and the lack of thought about the people that bear the brunt of them. Time and time again the most vulnerable members of society are being abused and neglected at a national and global scale. Whether it is the man who has paid UK taxes for 40 years who is being denied essential cancer treatment because he doesn’t have a British passport (due to a paperwork oversight when he arrived as a child with his parents from the Caribbean 44 years ago), or the deportation of a humanitarian/academic couple who are being told to leave because they went abroad for too many days – to complete a government study. Or how about the person that tweeted about having waited for over a year for support after a sexual assault, with rape crisis waiting lists closed for most of London for more than a year due to the scale at which demand exceeds supply?

Perhaps we should look at the rapid rise in mortality in the UK so far this year, falling life expectancy (especially in lower socioeconomic groups) or the rise in deaths amongst mental health patients – despite the falls in smoking and improved outcomes in many health treatments. A man/woman in an impoverished estate in the north of England can now expect to enjoy 32/35 fewer years of life in good health, compared with a counterpart in a wealthy suburb in London or the Home Counties. Or perhaps we can look at the impact of cuts to NHS funding (albeit masked by fake claims of record wage rises) record waits for A&E, the cancellations of operations, and the burnout of NHS staff.

Or look at the increase in homelessness over the last few years (it went up 16% in 2016 alone, with almost 50 000 families living in bed and breakfast accommodation and many more “hidden homeless” living on floors and sofas of friends and acquaintances) with the knowledge that being homeless can worse than halve your remaining life expectancy (homeless women die on average at 43 and homeless men at 47, compared with 77 for the rest of us). As the author of the BMJ article puts it “Homelessness is not an episodic event, but something systemic. It is a neon sign that something is fundamentally wrong with policy across health and housing”. This lack of provision doesn’t even save money as the cost to the NHS of society’s failure to deal with homelessness and other examples of inequality has been estimated at £4.8bn (€5.4bn; $6.7bn) annually.

These same austerity policies have a wider impact on mental health. Psychologists for Social Change have identified five ways austerity policies impact on mental health: 1. Humiliation and shame 2. Fear and distrust 3. Instability and insecurity 4. Isolation and loneliness 5. Being trapped and powerless. They remind us that “These experiences have been shown to increase mental health problems. Prolonged humiliation following a severe loss trebles the chance of being diagnosed with clinical depression. Job insecurity is as damaging for mental health as unemployment. Feeling trapped over the long term nearly trebles the chances of being diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Low levels of trust increase the chance of being diagnosed with depression by nearly 50 per cent”.

So we can’t see mental health in isolation. Whether it is the individual context (for example in the power threat meaning framework I discussed in a prior blog) or in the wider sociopolitical context, we are not brains in a jar, but socially connected beings with experiences that impact on our wellbeing. When we talk about the shortfall in mental health services, too often we are saying that in the context of demand for services exceeding supply, and feeling strongly pulled as psychologists to provide more of the same. That makes sense in at the coal face, where it is hard to have the energy, time or resilience to look at the wider picture beyond the demands hammering on our own door. However, it means that we are discussing the lack of sufficient reactive responses to a problem that could have been dealt with more effectively further up the timeline with proper proactive and early intervention work, and in a lot of cases could have even been prevented with better social policy and provision for vulnerable population groups.

Of course, doing preventative or early intervention work also takes resources, and we can’t take them away from the people currently in need/distress now. But instead of us constantly asking for a little bit more of the same to deaf ears who reply with excuses about finite pots and efficiency savings (and sarcasm about magic money trees), maybe we need to think more creatively about intervening at different levels and in different ways to the set up of existing services. I’d rather be providing sign-posts to avoid hazards than doling out sticking plasters when people trip over them – and best of all I’d rather be fixing the hazards, and helping vulnerable people identify routes that are less risky.

I’ll give Psychologists for Social Change the last word: “Mental health isn’t just an individual issue. To create resilience and promote wellbeing, we need to look at the entirety of the social and economic conditions in which people live”.

Well-being check-ups

Two of my cats are geniuses. They have worked out how to open the cat flap inwards when it is set to only allow them to come in and not to go out. The other cat is either even more of a genius and has been able to hide his skills from me better, or isn’t motivated to go out into the cold at night, or isn’t as smart as his brothers*. I am yet to work it out. But either way a cat should not be able to “hack” an expensive cat flap fancy enough to recognise their microchips, so I phoned the maker, Sure Petcare. They said that it is very unusual for a cat to work this out – so unusual in fact that they hand make an adaptation kit for the few customers that find this an issue, and would send one out, which they duly did. If that doesn’t work they will refund us, and we can buy a design with two point locking instead.

What was interesting was the figures they let slip in the telephone call. According to the member of staff I spoke to, it seems that five percent of cats can open their catflap when it is on the setting that is supposed to allow inward travel only. That is, if you have a smart cat who wants to go out, then it doesn’t work. When looking at their customer experience, one in twenty of their cat flaps doesn’t fulfil the functions they claim for it and has to be returned or replaced. Yet somehow they have decided that it isn’t worth modifying the design, despite this failure rate. So they are reliant on cats not working it out, and/or customers not complaining, and/or the cost of making and sending out the modifications for this smaller number of cat flaps being cheaper than the change to the manufacturing costs involved in solving the problem.

They aren’t alone in that. The Hotpoint/Indesit fridge that caused the Grenfell tower fire was a model known to have problems with blowing fuses, temperature control and noise at night. Other products by the same manufacturer, such as a particular model of tumble dryer, had been known to cause fires. But neither had been subject to a recall until after the tragedy at Grenfell. Likewise many models of cars have been found to have various safety problems, and the manufacturer seems to weigh up the adverse impact of the negative publicity and the cost of the preventative work, replacements or repairs and to compare this to the cost implications of not acting – it has only been since the larger financial impact of customers taking up legal compensation cases after deaths and serious injuries, and increased government fines for not acting on safety issues that the balance has tipped towards preventative action.

My car was recalled by the manufacturer a couple of months ago because of a fault with the ABS, which can overheat and fail in an emergency situation, so I took it in last week to be checked and modified. The modification was completed without event, but the VW dealership also provided a “free service check” of the rest of the vehicle. This identified two “red” repairs they felt were urgent or affected safety, and one “amber” issue with the brakes, and they suggested I should have all three repaired before leaving, at a cost of nearly £700. What they might not have known is that the car had passed its MOT with no recommendations for work less than three weeks previously, so I took it back to my trusted local garage for their opinion on this “urgent” work. The mechanic explained that the items identified were not necessary, let alone urgent (particularly on a nine year old, 100,000-miles-on-the-odometer car destined for the diesel scrappage scheme within the next year or two).

I’m not a car person really, so I mention it only because it seemed to me that VW (or that particular dealership) had decided to offset the cost of the recall to check the ABS, by identifying other potential sources of work they could undertake and presenting minor issues in a way that appeared more serious or urgent than they really were. In that way, garages are pretty shameless about creating work for themselves, and from the start they build in customer expectations of maintenance and additional expenses. We accept the idea that safe operation of vehicles requires periodic checks and repairs, and we need to take them in for regular servicing because certain parts have a limited lifespan, and don’t see that as indicative of the original product being defective.

You would think this is even more true in healthcare, given that so many conditions can be prevented or treated simply if identified very early, saving pain and trauma for the individual whilst also saving cash to the public purse. It isn’t impossible to deliver, as this type of model is used in dentistry – we attend for periodic preventive checks and expect to need maintenance from time to time. Likewise we expect to need regular eye tests and to update our glasses. And we get letters reminding us to come for flu jabs or smear tests from the GP. But it isn’t applied to our general health and wellbeing. In fact my health had deteriorated quite significantly before I was assertive about requesting the tests that showed I was anemic, severely vitamin D deficient, had blood pressure high enough to be risky and an abnormal ECG. And the only context where there are screening and preventative measures for mental health that I can think of are during pregnancy and the occupational health checks when applying for a new job. However, there is a massive incidence of mental health problems and it has huge impact on people’s lives, the lives of those around them, and their ability to engage in education and employment, with knock on effects on physical health, social engagement, work, relationships and parenting.

When thinking about mental health and therapeutic interventions, we could probably learn from the maintenance model of dentists (or the regular intervals of car servicing) that keep an overview of how things are going, give preventive advice and identify the need for more in depth work. It would also take away the stigma of talking about mental health if it was something universally considered at regular intervals. Of course it will never happen, at least not under this government which is trying to strip away essential health and social care services, increase the wealth gap and the vulnerability of socially excluded groups, and blame individuals for the way they respond to experiences outside of their control. But it is nice to think now and again about what things could be like if we no longer worked within the constraints of austerity. And I’d like to have an annual well-being check up where someone with a mental health qualification starts by asking “so how are you feeling at the moment?” and actually cares about the answer.

 

*I’m not judging, I love all three of them equally.

My opinions about representing Clinical Psychology and the future of the British Psychological Society

I’ve probably been a member of the BPS for 20 years now, and with it the Division of Clinical Psychology and the Faculty for Children, Young People and their Families, and within that the network for Clinical Psychologists working with Looked After and Adopted Children (CPLAAC). I’ve been to the annual Faculty conference every year since I qualified, except for the one early in my maternity leave. I read some of the publications and I follow some of the social media. Over the last decade, I’ve done a long stint on the Faculty committee, and I’ve spent 5 years as chair of the CPLAAC network. I’ve responded to policy documents, represented them on committees, written papers and edited a periodical. So you’d think with all the energy and time I have put in that I am a great fan of the organisation.

Unfortunately, whilst I am hugely admiring of many of the individuals involved with the DCP and Faculty, and some of the recent Presidents of the Society, I’m pretty ambivalent about it as a whole. I think their website and social media suck. I spent ages looking at how to help them with that through the faculty, only to find out the scope for change was minimal and was within their user-unfriendly structure. Most of it was hard to navigate, and key documents were hard to find, the documents and information on the site were often out of date and much of the content was hidden behind walls for members and separated into silos by the Society structure that were impenetrable by topic. I was censored and then locked out of the BPS twitter account whilst live tweeting talks from a conference on behalf of the faculty because I quoted a speaker who was critical of the BPS’s communication with the media and public.

My experience of running clinpsy.org.uk is that we make everything accessible, searchable and google indexed (apart from the qualified peer consultation forum that is a closed group, and the archive of livechats and other member content that can only be seen when logged in). We are also able to respond to things immediately, and often talk about current affairs. So it is quite a contrast. The view of the BPS on the forum is fairly negative, despite myself and several other qualified members trying to put the advantages of having a professional body.

One theme comes up across both spaces – that lots of people like to moan, but very few are prepared to take the actions that help to change things for the better. So, when a document is put out to consultation, or members are canvassed for views by BPS Divisions or Faculties it may be that no clinical psychologists respond at all, or perhaps just one or two nominated by the committee, someone with a vested interest, or the same old voices who feel a greater sense of responsibility for the group. I’m sure the same would be true on the forum, as lots of people like to read the content, some like to ask questions but few actually write up content for the wiki, or help with the maintenance tasks like checking and updating links. However, people pay quite a lot for their BPS memberships, whilst the forum is entirely free and run by volunteers, so it is perhaps fair to have different expectations of service. The difficulty being that the BPS expect the few members who do contribute to do so for free, in their own time, over and over again. I worked out that one eighth of my working time as a self-employed person was being spent on unpaid committee and policy work, and I don’t think that this was unusual. Certainly the chairs of networks and faculties give up a large amount of their own time, and although higher up the tree some days are paid, these are not paid sufficiently to reflect the amount of time that is spent on the job.

So when the DCP sent me a link to a survey recently, I had to reflect my views and tell them that I don’t think that the BPS works for clinical psychologists in the UK, and this is predominantly because of the nature of the larger organisation.

I have witnessed time and time again that clinical psychologists, including those on faculty committees and in the DCP committees, are inhibited rather than facilitated in responding to topical issues, speaking to the media, expressing opinions or taking action by the slow, conservative and censorial wider organisation of the BPS. Even sending representatives to sit on government fora, guidance or policy making organisations involves an overly bureaucratic process of formal invitations and nominations that often means the window has closed to have our voice heard. Likewise the process for agreeing documents for publication is onerous and slow and means months of delay. The Royal Colleges and bodies for other health professions make responses to news items in a timely way, but we don’t. We are constantly told not to be political by expressing any opinion, when, as I understand them, the charity rules are not to be party political rather than not to express opinions that affect political policy at all. I would argue that our role as powerful professionals, effective clinicians, supporters for our clients and compassionate human beings requires that we are political in the wider sense, because we should be advocating for the psychological wellbeing of the population and putting the case for provision of adequate mental health services. I would consider that this includes an obligation to argue against policies that cause hardship and emotional distress, and to put forward a psychological understanding of events and individuals in the news.

Whilst there are great people involved in the committees and a lot of good will and energy, the BPS itself makes contributors impotent. It inhibits rather than amplifies the messages we should be sending outwards and it fails also to represent us as a professional group. It is not effective at representing our interests in government policy, national or regional workforce issues, professional negotiations, disputes about funding or other professional matters.

The structure of the BPS also drowns out the fact that the majority of practitioner members are clinical psychologists by giving equal weight to tiny factions and much too much weight to academics and students – the focus on the latter two groups means that the BPS failed to address issues of regulation properly and has left us with a legacy of problems with the remit and standards of the HCPC (including who is included and excluded in the scope of regulation and the criteria for equivalence of international psychologists, which I will no doubt blog about another time). In these areas it has not only failed to promote the profession, but also to protect the public.

Unlike other professional bodies, the BPS does not offer much by way of professional advice and representation for its members (eg about workforce and pay issues, disputes with employers). It doesn’t act like a union to defend individual members or the interests of the profession, or provide us with insurance or collective bargaining. It doesn’t show our value to the public or those in power through media statements, responses to news and current events and policies, representation on government and policy bodies. It is ineffective in building the status and public awareness of the profession. I believe our professional body should constantly articulate the need for proper mental health services and highlight the useful role the profession can play in meeting those needs. Likewise it should constantly express opinions about government policy and other issues that may be harmful to the psychological health of the population, and highlight what we think would help and the role we as a profession can play in systemic changes and in planning strategies at the population level that prevent or reduce distress.

So I think radical change is needed. If that isn’t possible as a program of reform from within, and Jamie Hacker Hughes’ Presidency suggests it wasn’t, then we need to split the DCP away from the BPS and/or build something new that is fit for purpose.

If you also have an opinion about the BPS and/or DCP, whether or not you are a member, please answer their survey here. Feel free to cut and paste any part of this blog into your response if you wish to do so. Likewise feel free to share a link to this page, and if you are an aspiring or practising clinical psychologist you are welcome to join in the discussion about the BPS on the clinpsy forum.

A promise to my daughters

As well as being on the progressive left politically, I’ve increasingly identified as an active feminist over the last decade. I’m sure that this has been apparent from my blog, which has at times posted about this topic explicitly. So this has been a depressing few months for me. After the inauguration of a racist, misogynist sex pest as the POTUS, and in the context of the thoroughly depressing situation in the UK with the toxic politics of austerity and Brexit, I have been thinking about the kind of world I want for my daughters. I have also been thinking about what I can do to to instil in them the values that I think are important and will help them have the kind of future I would want for them.

The massive turnout across the USA and around the world for the Women’s March has been a heartening message in a hard time. It is empowering to think that women all around the world and for several generations, as well as their allies, are working towards the same goals of equality and to further progressive causes (such as caring for the environment, LGBTQ and BME rights, and the value of science/evidence over propaganda and opinion). That sense of community and caring for each other and the future is also a refreshing change from all the aggressive posturing, selfishness and commercialism that seem to saturate the narrative at the moment.

The placards and quotes from the Women’s March have been particularly inspiring. I particularly like those shown on the MightyGirl blog. They illustrate how women all over the world are bringing up the next generation of girls to approach the world on their own terms and have whatever aspirations they want, without the boundaries of sexism and prejudice holding them back. There is one placard that says “I am only 4 years old, but I know everyone is equal” and that is the simple truth – until children are skewed by the prejudices they see around them, they understand the fundamental truth that whatever differences there are between people in how they look or how they live their lives, we are all equal in importance and all deserve to be treated with kindness and respect.

My children have often surprised me with their insight into international conflicts and world events. I remember driving them home from the supermarket when they were four years old, and them asking why the rich people of the world couldn’t give jobs to all poor people so that they could afford the things they need like food, clothes and places to live. I couldn’t really answer that, because I don’t think there is any justification for levels of inequality that mean that the richest eight men in the world have more money than the poorest half of the world population. Yet we have stopped seeing how odd and obscene that is, because we are implicitly given the message that we live in a meritocracy, and wealth is earned through hard work (when the reality is that many people inherit wealth, and few would argue that even the self-made plutocrats work harder than anyone else in the wealth spectrum). A year later, after explaining why poppy badges were being sold I remember having a conversation about whether there were still wars in the world. I said that there were, and most of them were to do with people having different religions. We talked about how wars don’t only affect soldiers, and how a recent bombing campaign had destroyed schools and hospitals. My daughters suggested that “we need to send people in that country postcards to remind them that schools are really important”, as “that is where children will learn that people are equal even if they are different, and you need to be kind to everyone”. I’ve never felt prouder.

I’d like to think I’m good role model of a woman facing the world on my own terms, setting up my own business and being “the boss” at work, as my kids see it, and being an equal partner in my relationship, which does not conform to traditional gender roles. We’ve worked hard to expose our daughters to a range of interests, and given them a variety of experiences. I’d hope that they can make choices about what they enjoy or how they want to present themselves unencumbered by narrow gender expectations or unhealthy/unrealistic body norms. Our bedtime stories have characters of both genders who solve their own problems, rather than princesses passively waiting to be rescued by a prince to live happily ever after. I’d like to think we’ve also modelled the way that we interact with each other, and with a wide variety of people with respect. We have taught them to appreciate diversity and to admire those who defy convention or achieve something despite adversity.

But I’m not sure I’ve done enough to show that we can take action to address issues we see happening in the world around us. I should have taken them to the march on the weekend. I think it would have been a great experience for them, but frustratingly I’m still too unwell to travel. So I need to think of other ways to involve them in activism. And I need to do more myself than donate to charities, sign petitions and write messages on the internet. At a time in which the news is dominated by a super-callous-fragile-racist-sexist-nazi-potus I want my daughters to know that I’ve done everything I can to give them the maximum range of choices for their future lives, and the best chance of being judged by their actions rather than their appearance. So I will finish with the words from a placard that resonated with me: I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change, I am changing the things I cannot accept.

Exploiting the ignorant: From quack cures to the rise of Trump

I was reading today about a man called Braco (pronounced Bratzoh) who is the centre of a personality cult that believes his “gaze” (looking out into a crowd and not speaking for 5-7 minutes) can heal health problems and have a positive impact on people’s lives and the lives of their loved ones. He does free online gaze sessions, and cheap or free local events all around the world in order to market books, DVDs and items of jewellery containing his golden “sun symbol” (many for $500+ each). I see nothing more than a man who learnt how profitable it was to be a fake healer from a mentor in a similar line of work, and took on his audience and methodologies (but without the stress of having to give any advice, or the risks of making any claims about himself that could be proven false).

Yet, nonetheless he has a plentiful audience of believers. People claim remarkably diverse experiences and attribute all kinds of random positive events in their lives to his gaze. One contributor believes that Braco cured the hearing loss of a newborn whose parent and grandparents went and gazed (and bought the $500+ trinket). Unknown to them, 13% of children identified with newborn hearing loss spontaneously recover, without any superstitious interventions. It reminds me of Tim Minchin’s fantastic song Thank You God [link contains swearing] that describes alternative explanations for a “miracle” in which a lady’s cataracts are “cured by prayer”. These include spontaneous remission, misdiagnosis, a record-keeping glitch, a lie or misunderstanding. He mentions the power of confirmation bias, groupthink, and simplistic ideas of causality based on temporal correlation (as was the case with autism and MMR). On the internet there is also the significant possibility that the review is fabricated.

The same story repeats all over the world. People are paying something for nothing more than woo in numerous seances, palm readings, psychics, mediums, crystal therapies, quack nutritionists, chiropractors, reiki, all energy therapies, coffee enemas, homeopathy, reflexology, magical weight loss products, Bach flower remedies, most vitamin supplements, magnetic items making health claims and anything that promises to “detox”. In fact, any one of us could invent our own snake-oil or novel form of quackery. And then we could invent some titles and qualifications and go on TV as an “expert” to promote them. The trade is worth in excess of £500 million per year in the UK alone. Quackwatch is a good reference point – I check doubtful health claims there, just as I check doubtful internet stories on Snopes.

We are 250 years past the enlightenment in which the ideas of reason and science supposedly gained supremacy over superstition and liberty progress and tolerance gained traction over dogma. Yet here we are in so many ways believing in magic and witch hunts. The public doesn’t understand science, is wedded to superstition, or simply has overwhelming credulity and a lack of critical thinking. This is the same culture that created plausibility for Andrew Wakefield’s weird “measles immunisation” recipe that contained his own blood and goat colostrum and that pushed an appropriately skeptical professor of complimentary and alternative medicine into early retirement because he wouldn’t endorse homeopathy and reflexology on the NHS.

No wonder in the Brexit campaign and in Trump’s electoral campaign there has been such wide deviation from the facts. The public have been told to disregard experts and go with their gut feelings, or with the guy who they could imagine meeting in the pub. That is a very poor way to judge the evidence base, and (as we have discovered with Brexit) a very easy way to be sold a pup. I can’t understand why it is not a crime, or even a disgrace, to lie to the public. Why were there not enquiries and reprimands for people who knowingly lied about the £350 million pounds a week extra that was supposed to go to the NHS if we left Europe? The answer is because we have better protections against a drink being sold with false weight loss claims than we do over vote-changing political claims.

It is interesting to explore why people don’t trust experts, and here it seems that there are a few dimensions that are important. Knowledge is only trusted if it is coupled with a perception of benevolence, and presented in words that people understand and don’t feel patronised by. It is all too easy for people with expertise to use jargon or technical terminology that makes sense in their field, for readers of the journals they publish in or in conversation with their peers, but that makes the content inaccessible to lay people, who then think of the expert as being part of an intellectual elite who are sneering down at them from a position of superiority.

And some people seem to deliberately manipulate any show of expertise to make it seem that particular commentators are not connected with the experience of ‘the man on the street’. Michael Gove (linked above) was probably the pinnacle of this, but Trump also directly appeals to this distrust of experts, and seems to bank on his audience not caring about his content being proved to be factually incorrect later down the line. Tim Minchin captured my feelings and frustrations about this rising anti-intellectualism (and Brexit and even Donald Trump in passing) here [contains swearing, I’d recommend watching from 24 to 35 mins in].

But it is becoming more and more common. I was listening to the radio earlier this week and flicked over from Radio 4 to Radio 2 to hear the host Vanessa Feltz tell a labour party spokesman that the word “narrative” when used in context, with four repetitions of the word “story”, was jargon that was beyond her and her listeners and proudly proclaimed that it was similar to the teaching that went over her head at university (listen at 15:00 for just over a minute). She seemed to want him to pitch his vocabulary lower, whilst showing her own insecurity about wanting to be clever by using the word “elucidate” herself in her instruction to him to do so! It was particularly notable in contrast to Radio 4, where the words that she criticised, such as “managerial”, “technocratic” and “narrative” would not stand out in the discussion or require definition. Maybe it is just a mark of my age and changing listening preferences, but I would always prefer to have conversation pitched at the level that I learn from, than patronisingly dumbed down.

It is also a reminder that, despite a natural tendency to consider ourselves pretty much average at everything, very often we fail to recognise our own levels of skew within the population. My politics are left of average, my income and intellect above average, just as my physical fitness is below average. But this deviation from the norm does not stand out to me as I have sought out a peer group of other professional, intellectual lefties. In my peer group, the remain preference was so strong that the vote to leave the EU was quite a shock!

Similarly, despite having written a book to try to make the scientific knowledge around attachment and developmental trauma accessible to care givers and professionals from other fields, and working hard to make psychological knowledge available through this blog and various forum posts, not everyone finds my writing accessible. For every ten positive views of the book there is one person who feels I pitched it too high. I’m sure I’m as guilty as the next person of knowing the meaning I intend to convey, and therefore not always recognising when I have not communicated this effectively. So please do point it out to me!