Sunday, 23 September 2012

The Truth About Dishonesty - Dan Ariely - RSA Animate

One of my favourite talks, given the RSA Animate treatment...  brilliant stuff...

Monday, 17 September 2012

The link between capitalism, declining religion and selfish deceitful behaviour and how we could start to address and improve things...

Part One - The link between capitalism, declining religion and selfish deceitful behaviour...

I've previously revealed on this blog what makes people prone to lying and cheating - A recent study concluded that a culture of everyone else does it and a lack of moral guidelines in society today, such as was once offered by religion, combine to make us less concerned for the wider consequences of our deceit, and less self aware - for instance, of the impact on our own sense of personal integrity. 

The study suggested this was the real reason behind the banking crisis which has brought whole countries to their knees and threatens to continue to destabilise economies for the foreseeable future.  Changing the faces in charge won't help, you need to change the culture, researchers concluded.

The Thatcherist view of people who felt a strong sense of obligation to always play by the rules was kind of "more fool you".  Her ideology, and in fact the broad position of capitalism, is you're either a winner or a loser in life - if you don't snatch it for yourself, then somebody else will, there is no point concerning yourself with what's fair or ethical or humane.  For all the good New Labour did, they did nothing to challenge that perception of society and that perception of humanity.  People are as selfish today as they were in the 1980's, perhaps even more so.

A steady decline in faith over the last one hundred years has without doubt left a hole in the fabric of our communities, with nothing comparable to take it's place, to take on the role of encouraging people to consider the consequences of their actions.  What has taken its place is a worshipping of money for its own sake and a worshipping of celebrity and a worshipping of big brand labels - to the degree that some people even name their babies after these labels, as parents might have once named their children after saints ; I've heard people proudly declare their child is called Nike, Reebokka and even "Big Mac".

This is perhaps capitalism at it's most successful... and to the detriment of all of us because society can't evolve in an emotionally healthy way within that sort of culture.

Another issue raised from this study was that when people had the opportunity to confess to their previous cheating and lying and felt forgiven for their wrongdoing and had the chance to turn a new page that seemed to have a positive affect and for a period they didn't return to the deceitful behaviour - it is as if they got genuine enjoyment from being absolved and they wanted to hang onto that feeling - for a while at least.  Participants who never had the opportunity to draw a line under their lying and cheating just continued with the deceitful behaviour - there seemed to be no internal regulator, no reason to just stop.

This was perhaps the benefit of confession for previous generations - most of us don't have access to anything like that in our modern lives.  The challenge for all of those of us who want a fairer, more compassionate, more ethical society is how we could introduce some sort of facility for people to come clean, without fear of blame or punishment, to allow the selfish, negative behaviour to be kept in check more.

Promoting religion and building a load of confessionals in every town is probably not the answer for modern society.  The church itself has been exposed as lacking moral integrity too many times and that hypocrisy is no doubt part of the reason for this trend of turning away from religion.

Part Two - How we could start to address and improve things...

The area of personal development could offer part of the answer though.  Personal development is about broadening and deepening our understanding of who we are as people and the impact things around us have on us and the impact we in turn, have on others.  It helps us gain insight into the way we relate to others and the way they relate to us.   It can be used in our professional lives - as a mechanism for team building and enhancing our interpersonal communication skills, but it can also be applied to our personal lives - in the way we relate to our partners and our children, to achieve a more harmonious family life; it's a way of keeping us psychologically fit and healthy so that we can get on with the things we need to do and enjoying the things that give us a sense of fulfilment in life. 

Bookshops and department stores are filled with "self help" books - over 13 million of them are sold each year, mostly to women it has to be said, but slowly more men are getting interested in this area too because ultimately, almost all of us are on some sort of quest to be happy in life... 

That's books of course but what we need to look at, I think, is a way of offering people the opportunity to have group or one to one sessions with a professional mentor who can allow participants to just talk about the things that are going well and not so well in life.  Not therapy, this wouldn't seek to get into why someone was feeling the way they were - perhaps anger at their boss or disappointment in their son - it would just be a safe and confidential setting to sit down, with perhaps a cup of tea, and just offload a bit, say once a month, and then to go back to normal life having got some stuff off your chest.

Once upon a time families would have offered these opportunities naturally, every community would have had people in it who were kind, good listeners, someone to just have a bit of a moan to.  They didn't solve anyone's problems, or even offer advice most of the time, they just provided an opportunity to get the words out instead of holding onto so much negative stuff.

I think we all have enormous pressures and stresses placed upon us now - at work particularly and at school certainly and even within the home environment.  There is more need than ever for us all to have someone to talk to when we need it, as I say, not counselling as such, just someone giving you the time of day to talk about what you're coping with, the opportunity to say yeah I shouldn't have done that really... and move on...

With nothing else on the suggestions board right now, it's got to be worth considering, surely?

Friday, 14 September 2012

Second reading of the Mental Health (Discrimation) Bill. The importance of talking about psychological illness and TVs role in breaking down the taboo...

House of Commons proceedings this morning included the second reading of the Mental Health (Discrimination) Bill and an important debate it was too. 

The government hopes to significantly increase access to mental health therapies by 2015 - and I certainly think that's crucial if we're going to make life more fulfilling and less miserable for so many suffering from a psychological illness along with making the whole subject of mental illness less taboo.  Many MPs spoke of their own experiences or of those of people close to them and at a time when there is still a lot of stigma around mental illness this takes courage so I admire them for that. 

Some commented that the media had played a positive role in getting the subject of mental health into the public arena, and dramas and soap operas were praised for this.

But as a mental health professional I think it's unfortunate that so many of the big stories which involve characters suffering from mental illness, portray sufferers in a predominantly negative way, with little opportunity for the viewer to feel any empathy, and it could be argued  these storylines certainly don't help the public's perception of mental health problems and how they manifest themselves.

These messages - positive and negative - seep into the unconscious completely unchallenged as viewers are sitting there with their cuppa and packet of chocolate digestives, and script writers should be aware of that.  For some, the only information they ever really get about something like depression will be a storyline on Eastenders so programme makers should have a responsibility to portray characters and their situations fairly. 

Unfortunately it's the big shocking episodes that are guaranteed high ratings though.  Here are a few storylines from Coronations Street over the past few years, and my view of how they portrayed mental illness...

Claire Peacock suffered a harrowing experience of Postnatal Depression which could have encouraged the audience to empathise with her pain.  But the character went on to abduct someone else's child; a huge number of women suffer from PND but only a tiny number pose any risk to anyone.

Peter Barlow has struggled with alcohol dependence for years and the character has to some degree been portrayed as really quite vulnerable and desperate.  But he's also seen as selfish a lot of the time and unable to care for his young son, whose life he put at risk when a fire broke out at his flat when he was drunk.

John Stape started out as an apparently charming English teacher who seemed to spend his spare time pondering poetry.  But an episode of depression led him into a cycle of identity theft, kidnapping and murder which again, reinforces the idea that depression is synonymous with danger. 

Joe McIntyre was a middleaged man who developed an addiction to prescription painkillers, which we know is a growing problem.  Again, he was portrayed with some sensitivity at first but then his life began spiraling out of control as he had to deal with loan sharks, drug dealers and attempted fraud, all leading to his eventual death.

As I say, I appreciate TV dramas want high ratings, but I would have thought within the realm of soap operas there would be some scope to explore mental health problems in a way which was more realistic and less likely to endorse the public perception that people who struggle with mental illness are best avoided.

One of the earliest soap storylines which tackled this difficult area appeared on Eastenders in the late 90s.  Joe Wicks was a teenager who suffered from schizophrenia, but his situation was portrayed in a way which was very sympathetic to the character and the agony his family went through in trying to cope with his condition.  Played by a young Paul Nicholls, Joe was a very attractive teenage lad, someone lots of viewers would have fancied and related to I'm sure.  The focus was on the character's internal nightmare, the paranoia, voices and hallucinations and the way that isolated him from the people who cared about him.  Back in 1996 this was groundbreaking stuff.

We need more stories which convey how difficult it can be to cope with a mental health problem, accessing support is sometimes not easy, not everyone who works in mental healthcare is as well trained and enlightened as they should be. 

Changing laws is obviously a huge step forward, but that by itself will not change the public perception of mental illness nor encourage people to talk about their own experiences.  In many ways, popular TV shows have a lot more power than debates in the Commons; we need to work together to break down the stigma associated with these conditions and progress towards a more compassionate, educated society.

You can watch the full Private Members' debate here:

Monday, 10 September 2012

PMQs in pictures - 05-09-12

Returning from his various summer holidays, David Cameron looked
bloated and tired during Prime Minister's Questions...
Declining to answer the Labour leader's questions, the Prime Minister
instead returned to his usual line that it's all Labour's fault...
Ed Miliband said the paralympics crowd had spoken for the whole
country when they responded to the Chancellor's arrival...
The Prime Minister accused the Labour leader of not being "butch"
enough; Cameron does tend to resort to personal attacks when
he gets defensive - he did this a lot with Gordon Brown...
Cameron (looking more portly by the minute) declared the coalition
was a "strong and united government", to the delight of
opposition benches...
The Prime Minister looked relieved to have got to the end of the
Labour leader's questions... With Andy Coulson out of the picture
these days, we see a David Cameron that's a lot less cocky...
PMQs images property of BBC

The papers are full of articles insidiously suggesting that people suffering from mental health problems are simply lazy and should get back out there to work. That's a bit like refusing someone dialysis because their kidneys are lazy!

As a parent, I find it desperately sad that so many children grow up lacking self confidence, a problem that will, for many, shape their whole lives.  It probably comes about because a certain combination of genes get switched on or off as a result of experiences in infancy.  If your parents lack confidence and self belief, then you're likely to as well.  Kids who lack self confidence through childhood are more likely to develop psychological health problems as adults.

With schools now forced to focus more on turning out standardised pupils programmed to pass government tests in order for the school to maintain its position in league tables, there seems to be less opportunity for indivdual students to flourish at what they're good at, what they're genuinely interested in - the very things which would increase their confidence through the adolescent years for instance when synaptic pruning is taking place, and the brain is physically changing as a direct result of what they're experiencing day to day.

Trying to resolve the problems that result in adulthood from a lack of self confidence is never an easy task.  Problems forming and maintaining relationships, difficulty managing moods and battles with anxiety and depression can make life miserable and a million miles from what our experience as an intelligent species on the planet could and should be.

Therapy can alleviate some of the problems - CBT teaches clients mechanisms for managing negative feelings and behaviours, Person Centred counselling allows clients to talk about powerful emotions with someone who will promote a sense of being valued as a person with their feelings being validated and Psychodynamic therapy offers the opportunity to explore childhood experiences and pain and loss throughout life in an attempt to gain insight into the deeper levels of our personality.  Understanding where problems are rooted and how behaviour patterns stem from unconscious drives and emotions, can make it easier to recognise when things are starting to slide in the future and help us make more positive conscious choices in life.

Therapy can be really beneficial, but for most people, therapy is quite a painful process to go through, in fact it's often said therapy only works when it does get to those corners of your mind where things have been locked away because they're too distressing to bear and quite often clients will attend intitial sessions and then suddenly stop because things have started to feel uncomfortable.

As a trained therapist, I know the value of these types of emotional support, but I don't believe they're the ultimate solution to a society in which more and more of us are at risk of suffering from stress, anxiety and depression due to changes in the traditional family structure and the massive increase of pressure we're forced to live with as adults. 

The most recent studies seem to suggest one in three of us now will experience a significant episode of psychological illness in our lives - that's a figure similar to our risk of developing cancer and it will need much more government committment and funding if we hope to ever tackle it successfully.  About 10% of the NHS budget is allocated to mental health problems, which is pitiful really when you consider that depression is actually the leading cause of disability in the UK.

You can't see depression like you can see someone has a physical disability so it's much easier for governments specifically and society generally to pretend it doesn't actually exist.  The papers are full of articles insidiously suggestioning that people suffering from mental health problems are simply lazy and should get back out there to work.  That's a bit like refusing someone dialysis because their kidneys are lazy!

Huge developments in neurology and genetics in recent years have revealed so much more about why our personalities develop as they do and all of it points to a crucial need to look after people's emotional wellbeing in the same way as we would all agree that people's physical health is important if you want to create a successful society where people enjoy fulfilling lives.

The sooner those in power find the courage to talk seriously about mental health, the better for all of us.