Social Justice League; Help Wanted!

So, another New Year has come around, and I wasn’t going to write another blog quite so soon (and certainly not about this subject). However, I have been thinking about the recent UK General Election for the last few weeks and what this means for the people of Britain; change won’t happen without voices, so here is mine.

I’ve thought a lot about how (and what!) to write for this post- I tend to keep my Politics to myself, but over the last few years, I have found that this has become harder and harder. Sigmund Freud liked to see the Psychologist as an empty screen for the client to project, transfer on to and work with. I think times have changed, significantly, and that level of work isn’t appropriate anymore. Working with clients’ needs depth, relational understanding, and empathy; if you were talking to me, and I didn’t answer, would you think I was listening or cared? No, probably not, so it feels more important now, with the election result, to raise my voice and make it heard. 

Regardless of who has been in Government- we can argue who started all of this until we are blue in the face- the fact remains that just over ten years ago, austerity measures were introduced to the UK populace. This meant that hundreds of thousands of people had their benefits removed, their Disability living allowance reduced (or wholly taken off them) and some were put on to the new Universal Credit system. All of which meant that they had no money for weeks, even months, allowing the pay-day lenders to step in and make life more difficult. Even the United Nations found that our Government, by introducing these policies, failed to uphold the rights of people with disabilities (UN, 2016).

Oh, but that’s only for the poor, right? Only for the people who don’t want to work or can’t work. I have no sympathy for them, right? They got themselves into this position; they can get themselves out. Why should my hard-earned taxes go to support lazy people? Ever heard yourselves saying this? Ever believed someone who was saying this?

When my son was born over seven years ago, I was fortunate that the austerity measures had not fully hit and were not implemented to the hilt. My son was born with a life-threatening illness that meant he needed constant NHS medical treatment and a Bone Marrow Transplant (BMT) at the age of one; we didn’t even know if he was going to live or die for this first six months of his life. Every day became a gamble. With this level of stress and worry, my husband and I found that working became impossible (stays in hospital, appointments, tests, lumbar punctures etc.) and we had to do something we never thought we would ever do; we had to go on to benefits.

Being able to claim benefits saved us- we didn’t have to worry about paying our bills or mortgage, we had support and help, and we could concentrate on our son’s BMT and getting him better and looking after our kids. We even were referred to some community support teams and the WONDERFUL charity, the Rainbow Trust.

I dare say, if we were in the same position now, we wouldn’t qualify for benefits. Certainly not as much as we needed to keep ourselves afloat for the 18 months that we needed them for until we could change our circumstances, get back to work and back to our ‘ normal life’. 

My point is, you don’t know what is going to happen in life, which is why I believe passionately in social justice, community support and change. I do not think that the Government that has been voted in believes in social support; I do not believe that they will do their best to support the most vulnerable and in need in our society. So, it is up to us to do this. As a Psychologist, this is part of my job; it should be part of yours, as a member of society, too. Remember, we are conditioned to live in a community group; as I so often say to my clients, Cavemen wouldn’t have survived if they had had to hunt/cook/make clothes/look after children on their own.

There are many ways of supporting your community- volunteering, donating, supporting. Whatever it takes, it’s part of our responsibility, socially and ethically, to make a change. Think about the future of your children, your grandchildren. What do you want their lives to look like? An NHS to support them in times of need? A Government that cares and assists us in our time of need? In your old age? I’m not even going to mention the particulars of Brexit; I can’t even figure out what the general public understand about Brexit, but I don’t personally believe they have been sold the truth on it (see the last blog post!). 

I am deeply concerned about how we understand our society- we seem to be blaming the most vulnerable and unfortunate for our financial problems- if there were no benefits, we would all be better off. I sincerely hope that most people don’t believe the narrative that the 1% and media (owned by the 1%!) are peddling. Our problems stem from greed and commercial gain; we are interested in what we can get from life, not who we can support.

There are so many concerns we have nowadays- an inability to access services when needed, wages not increasing with inflation (which is essentially a pay cut, if you’re not sure why people complain about this) and the cost of living keeps rising and rising. The standard of housing we live in isn’t what we would expect, young people are terrified of never being able to get on to the housing ladder, and good jobs are few and far between. But forget about jobs for life- where’s the security that we need in life, to feel safe and comfortable? Is it really because of the benefits system, or is it because individual International companies and Billionaires do not pay their fair share of the taxes they owe? I’ll leave that for you to decide, and I would strongly suggest doing some research if you’re unsure.

I am not telling you what to think or feel, but the clients I have and have had come from a range of different backgrounds; rich versus poor, young versus old and different ethnicities. The common denominator is fundamental unhappiness in life that is often caused by the situation one finds themselves in. People’s social circumstances have a profound effect on their mental health (Harper, 2016); If you live in a flat, with awful neighbours, coming to therapy could make you feel better. However, if you can’t do anything about those neighbours, things aren’t fundamentally going to change, are they? So, it is of fundamental importance that we have the right social support, as well as the right community and governmental support. I cannot stress how important our community is in supporting us; as a community, we can affect change and make a difference.

This year I am committing to making a difference; I am committing to doing more with my community and more to challenge the political policies and austerity measures that have been and are going to be continually implemented. We are the ones who can make a difference; we are the ones who can create a more harmonious system (Fietzer & Ponterotto., 2015) ensuring that the hierarchy of society that we live in allows for more equality amongst the privileged and underprivileged. Is there anything (else?) that you can do?

With that, I wish you all a prosperous and healthy New Year; May you fulfil your dreams and wildest desires in 2020; taking care of ourselves and others. Happy New Year!


Fietzer, A. W., & Ponterotto., J. (2015). A Psychometric Review of Instruments. Journal for Social Action in Counseling and Psychology, 7(1), 19 – 40.

Harper, D. (2016). Beyond Individual Therapy: Towards a Psychosocial Approach to Public Mental Health. The Psychologist, 29, 440 – 444.

UN. (2016). Inquiry Concerning the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland Carried out by the Committee Under Article 6 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention. Retrieved December 1, 2019, from http://www.ochr.org/Documents/HRBodies/CRPD/CRPD.C.15.R.2.Rev.1-ENG.doc

It’s been a Mental (Health Awareness) Week!

May is Mental Health Awareness month and this week, 10-17th May, is Mental Health Awareness week. I wonder if you know this, and I wonder if you care? Mental health is still a stigmatised subject to discuss; we’re getting better at talking about it, but we’re not getting better at dealing with it.

Antidepressant use has sky-rocketed since 1992- prescriptions for antidepressants have increased 100% since 2015, or 500% since 1992 and 1.1 million people are, unfortunately, on benefits because of their mental health difficulties. Mmmh. I wonder what this is telling us? I wonder what the trend is that is making antidepressant use increase, year upon year? Don’t get me wrong; I am not against medication for mental health difficulties; I know in some cases the medication taken can be life-changing for some people. I am more interested in the deeper causes than that. What is going on in our society, and why are we getting sadder and less fulfilled, as a nation?

I have been studying for my (final ever!!!) exam in Professional Issues in Counselling Psychology, and, given that this is Doctoral level, I did a LOT of reading for this. In fact, I ordered several books, too 🙂 But seriously, I was engrossed in what is a mix of theory, lived experience, political discussion and the psychology of the changes that we are being forced through. These changes are being pushed on to us from so many different areas; by the society around us, work, school, government, media, social media and peers- you name it, we’re getting pressure from every direction, so just how does it affect us?

I’m really not going to go into masses of theory, so don’t worry there; but hang in there, it’s worth it, I promise! Do you know we have a Minister for Loneliness in Parliament in the UK? Yes, yes we do. She’s called Tracey Crouch, and she is here to cure our loneliness. Or is she? How is she going to make us feel better and less isolated? Is it flinging money at more therapists in what is an already hugely overstretched NHS? Or is it at a more fundamental grassroots level?

Have you been into a GP surgery recently? A health centre or hospital? Have you ever noticed the signs on the walls? What are they telling you? Are they telling you to lose weight? Are they telling you to stop smoking? Join a gym? Practice some yoga or Mindfulness? Those are all great suggestions, sure, but what is at the root of all of this? Why are people unhappy?

Think about your life, what makes you unhappy? Is it your job? Your house? The fact that you are struggling to get from pay day to pay day- or even just through the first week of the month would be good! What do you see when you look in the paper, or on social media? Are these concepts/material goods/lifestyles attainable for us, in this economic climate? The answers you come up with are probably not very positive answers. Things need to change. People need to start getting involved in their lives, and the lives of the community around them- it’s the only way we can affect social change, and as I am about to show, no matter who you are, social interaction is massively significant for us all.

As a (terrible) beauty advert states- here comes the science bit! As homo sapiens, we live for groups. Really, quite literally live because of them, and for them. We’ve talked about the whole caveman thing already on this blog- we wouldn’t have survived alone- so what makes this any different now? We need to feel like we belong. We need to feel needed. Social connection is so vital for our mental health- I’ll start at the beginning and make it as quick and painless as possible, I promise!

Back in the late 1970’s a Polish Social Psychologist, Henri Tajfel, after experiments in the lab, proposed a new theory relating to the way we function as humans; Social Identity Theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). What Social Identity theory tells us, is that we favour the groups of people we are with and feel comfortable with- your rugby club? That’s what we would call your ‘ingroup’ and the opposing team, well, they would be… yes, you guessed it, the ‘outgroup’. So, whose side do we take in a situation like this? Well, the people we are in the same group as, of course. Why is that, I hear you ask? Well, how does being a part of that group make you feel? Accepted? Happy? Fulfilled? Yes, we all feel that way when we are accepted, welcomed, supported and helped in a group. We all feel the need for that acceptance. ALL of us. And when we have groups that we are happy with, it makes our lives better. We have something to look forward to and enjoy, and in turn, this increases our mental health and wellbeing.

Taking care of your mental well-being is just as important as taking care of your physical well-being and is something that you can take an active part in- taking an interest in your own life and community! Getting involved in your community will not only make you feel included, but it will give you a sense of purpose and happiness. Yes, I really do know, and understand, that it’s so hard to get out and about when you’re feeling unwell and low, but if you can get yourself out, you really will benefit from it.

Any group works- reading club, gardening club, pole dancing classes, swimming, boules, poker (no betting here!), cooking club, art, debating, ecological, photography, football, rugby, ballet, environmental, tap… the list goes on, but the more involved you get, the better you will feel. Don’t trust me, trust these fantastic psychologists who have performed research into this fascinating, and helpful area; a group of Psychologists who used Social Theory intervention to create social groups, Groups 4 Health, for people with mental health difficulties; the result was improved psychological health and well-being (Haslam, Haslam, & Cruwys, Groups 4 Health, 2016). One group of scientists worked out that even belonging to a group of people who feel stigmatised, such as a support group, your mental well-being increases (McNamara, Stevenson, & Muldoon, 2013). There are also some scientists who believe that social identity and feeling part of a group and being included is so important that they even wrote a book about it (Haslam, Jetten, Cruwys, Dingle, & Haslam, 2018). Connection is key!

Sadly, there are other elements that we need to keep us happy- enough money, safe and affordable housing, jobs, jobs that are well paid, jobs that are not zero contract and what about social spaces that we can all use safely? A psychological theory doesn’t cover these, I am afraid, but Politics does. And it’s up to us to influence and create change in these things, if we want to feel better. The tragic school shooting’s in the USA have awoken the frustration and anger in school children across America (even across the world), who can see precisely how unfair their lives are; subject to the rules and regulations of people who do not understand the complexities of their lived experiences- as a parent, I cannot even imagine how scary it is to send your children to school every day, unsure if that is the day that a tragedy may happen at your school.

Politics aside, don’t we want to take a little bit more interest in our lives? Improve our situations- for those we love, those around us, our (future) children and families, and even just for the health and well-being of all? What do you think?


References:

Haslam, C., Haslam, S., & Cruwys, T. (2016). Groups 4 Health. Journal of Affective Disorders, 188 – 195.

Haslam, C., Jetten, J., Cruwys, T., Dingle, G., & Haslam, S. A. (2018). In The New Psychology of Health: Unlocking the Social Cure.Abingdon: Routledge.

McNamara, N., Stevenson, C., & Muldoon, O. T. (2013). Community Identity as Resource and Context. European Journal of Social Psychology, 393 – 403.

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W. G. Austin, & S. Worchel, The social psychology of intergroup relations(pp. 33 -47). Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.