The British Psychological Society

For any of you that have scoured my website, you may have seen a statement saying ‘Kirsty is qualified to be a member of the British Psychological Society’ (The BPS). The reason I have this statement is that I know that some believe that membership of a professional body is important. For those people, please rest assured that I have the relevant qualifications (as evidenced by the fact that I have been a member on and off for a couple of decades). However, I have chosen to no longer associate with the organisation – despite the fact that it is our accrediting body. The reasons for this decision are detailed here, and I will very happily discuss them further with anyone who wishes to engage.

 

 

Coping with the end of lockdown

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While lockdown has been difficult for some, for others, one of the most anxiety-inducing aspects of the crisis is the world starting to open up again. I’ve had a number of people ask me about how best to cope with this, so I’ve compiled some thoughts here. Please feel free to contact me with any questions, and if any other concerns spring to mind, do let me know and I’ll try my best to address them.

As always, take care, and stay safe.

BBC Presentation

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Today I gave a presentation to colleagues at the BBC about the psychological impact of COVID. While we talked a little about the immediate effect of COVID on mental health, our main focus was the long term psychological impact of the disease. I provided a summary of the research findings to date and we then talked about things that we could do to protect our own mental health.

As well as looking at lifestyle changes, we also practiced psychological exercises based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy principles to help us reflect on our own thought processes. This is a crucial thing to do regardless of whether one is experiencing psychological difficulties or not, as it helps to develop and strengthen healthy ways of thinking. I would argue that this is crucial at all times, and that we have a responsibility to care for our mental health in the same way as our physical health. However, given the current pressures on the NHS (especially relating to mental health), even more than ever, we have a duty to do everything we can to protect our mental health and take as much pressure off the system as possible.

This was a great opportunity to talk about some of the psychological issues that COVID has raised and one of the heartening things that we learned was that it’s not all been negative (as I have also spoken about previously)! This is really a key time for us to keep building upon the positives, and work to manage and control the negatives as much as possible.

Quarantine Emotions and How to Deal With Them

Most of us have been in lockdown for a few weeks now and may be starting to adjust to our new lifestyles. However, some are still struggling, and with the Easter Holidays looming, the full implications of having to stay home may just be starting to kick in. As if it wasn’t terrifying enough having to come to terms with a global epidemic, there are additional pressures associated with self-isolation that can weigh on our mental health. However, we need to remember that these feelings are normal, and there are things we can do to take control of quarantine emotions.

Boredom

Many of us have found ourselves in a situation where we have very little to do for what may be a prolonged period of time. If this applies to you, think of all the things you’ve always said you wanted to do if only you weren’t so busy. See this situation as having given you the gift of time!

  • Do all the jobs you’ve always said you don’t have time to do:

It’s an excellent time to do some DIY, work on the garden, tidy out your wardrobe – basically, any organising, sorting or renewing that you have been putting off. Tasks such as these are particularly beneficial because they occupy our minds and provide a sense of achievement at a time when we may be feeling a little useless or powerless.

  • Work on self-improvement:

Think of what you would like your life to be like in an ideal world, either personally or professionally. Look to strengthen existing skills, learn new ones, or branch out. Planning or developing skills for future can really help us take back some control into our lives. Many universities are currently offering free on-line courses (edX, Coursera) and there are a number of free language learning apps (Babbel, DuoLingo). Some of these even have interactive options, providing an excellent opportunity to meet new people. If you have a creative streak, use this time to paint, draw, or write.

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 Anxiety

 It is entirely natural to feel anxious, especially when facing an unknown or potentially threatening situation. The problem is that when anxiety is prolonged, it can become damaging to both our mental and physical health. This is why it is important for us to try to reduce anxiety as much as possible, and develop coping mechanisms to turn to should we start to feel overwhelmed.

  • Switch off the news and social media:

Important messages from the government will get to us, otherwise, the media are generally recycling the same stories, which can lead us to get a skewed version of reality. Social media is also a vector for fake news and negativity. Try to avoid news of the virus, and focus on the here and now of your own life. That said, make sure not to cut yourself off from the good aspects of the outside world! Leave your Facebook open on your messenger page, rather than your news feed, so rather seeing news notifications, you’ll see messages from your friends pop up.

  • Get enough sleep:

This can be easier said than done in times of stress, but sleep deprivation can have a detrimental effect on our mental and physical health. Try to create a consistent bedtime routine. Avoid screens for an hour before bed as blue light can affect our circadian rhymes. If you have too much buzzing through your mind, write it down. Writing thoughts down can make them more concrete and easy to manage, while providing a way of ‘removing’ them from your mind until you’re in a position to address them. In the hour before want to sleep, create a relaxing routine – have a bath, do some relaxation exercises or read a book and then go to bed, even if you don’t feel tired. Your brain will start to associate this routine with sleep.

  • Practice mental self-care.

Set aside enough time every day to look after your psychological health. Meditation, mindfulness, and yoga can be useful to reduce anxiety.  There are a number of online support resources available to help with mental health (both in relation to every day life, and dealing with the virus). These offer practical advice for self-help, but also contact details for online support groups and advice from professionals if necessary.

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Stress

 Self-isolation can turn all aspects of our normal every day lives into stressors. The best advice in this situation is to simply do what you can. There are some small tasks that can help, but don’t be too hard on yourself if you can’t do it all.

  • Keep a routine:

For those of you who are working from home, try to keep a routine as close to work hours as possible – give or take. You may benefit from taking an extended lunchtime to exercise or spend time with the kids, but try not to vary too much from your normal hours. Try to keep a routine for the kids too. If they are of school age, try to keep their schedule similar to school times. If they have school work, keep working times short, and intersperse them with lots of breaks – ideally outside, or doing something active.

  • Keep work-spaces separate:

If possible, keep your work-space away from your normal relaxation rooms so you can separate work and family life. Try as much as possible to keep it distraction (child, pet and partner) free, but make sure to take plenty of breaks where you can spend some time with them. Avoid working over your set hours, as this can eat into precious family and relaxation time.

  • Don’t be hard on yourself:

A number of people are struggling with the demands and expectations associated with working remotely, especially in relation to learning and becoming comfortable with new technology. Make sure to ask for additional support from your employers if you feel you need it.

  • Do what you can:

If you can’t get the kids to do their school work, or they don’t have any, don’t force them. Remember that not all education is formal. Walks, playtime, and baking can all involve language, maths, and science skills. There is also a wide array of resources online, for children of all ages.

 

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 Overwhelm/helplessness

 In times of uncertainty and stress such as these, it can be tricky to stop our minds from racing. Juggling immediate and future concerns can easily spiral out of control, so in this case, we need to psychologically remove ourselves from the tailspin.

  • Get into nature:

Studies have shown that spending time in nature is good for all aspects of our mental health. If you are lucky enough to have a garden, try to spend as much time as possible in it. If you are still working from home, if you can, do it outside, and if not, get into the fresh air when you take breaks. Try to pay attention to the sights, sounds and smells around you as a grounding tool.

If you have the opportunity, try to find a way to nurture nature – looking after either plants or garden wildlife. This in itself is beneficial, providing a project with medium term goals, but can also be used as a useful educational tool for children (wildlife charities such as The Wildlife Trust and RSPB have some excellent resources). You can also think about growing some fruit or veg which will keep you going throughout summer, helping reduce those supermarket trips!

  • Exercise:

Again, if safe to do so, try to get out for walks, jogs, or cycles. A combination of being outside, and the exercise, will help to remove you physically and psychologically from your immediate situation. The endorphins will give you a boost, and help you feel refreshed. Even if you aren’t able to get outside, try to do some form of exercise every day. Exercise is a very personal thing, so find a kind that suits you. There are any number of videos online ranging from low-impact (stretching, senior classes) to high-impact (aerobics, kickboxing), but a number of gyms, personal trainers, and health instructors are providing additional resources at this time. Be careful not to overdo it, and build up slowly – remember that any exercise is better than none!

 

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Loneliness

One of the biggest difficulties for many is the lack of social contact with others. Some are missing being able to see close family, and some are just missing everyday chit-chat as they go about their lives. Regardless, isolation is something that in itself, can be detrimental to mental and physical health. As a result, it is crucial for us to find ways to keep connected with others from a distance.

  • Reach out:

While physical contact could be considered a basic human need, in the absence of this, any form of communication is a close second. If you are feeling scared, upset or lonely, reach out. Interaction with others can reduce cortisol and release endorphins, reducing stress and boosting happy chemicals. We are lucky that we live in a time where it is easy to stay connected with others from a distance, but remember that some people are not able to keep in touch remotely.

Take some time to call elderly friends and relatives for a chat and to see if they need any help. If it’s safe to do so, you can even leave a note or a bunch of flowers for them. Have a look to see if there are any community schemes to help elderly neighbours, or consider starting one. There are also some not-for-profit organisations working in the community to help vulnerable groups such as the homeless (the NCVO offer advice about who to contact). Not only will you be helping those who need it, but you will also indirectly be helping yourself, with research showing that our own mental health benefits from helping others.

  • Have fun:

Try to have online meet ups with your friends. If you have the tech expertise, organise a coffee catch-up, evening drinks or a movie session with a group of friends over zoom or Facetime. Some people have been inventive with their technological skills creating pub quizzes and karaoke sessions. Even if some of your friends don’t have the necessary technology, you can call them and put them on loudspeaker. Try to organise regular get-togethers and ‘events’ so that you have something to look forward to.

 

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Remember

  • Don’t be hard on yourself: we are all trying our best in an exceptional situation
  • It’s ok to be scared/upset/angry: it is normal to feel this way. Don’t bottle it up – vent to your friends, it’s likely they feel the same, and you’ll feel better for speaking about it
  • Don’t feel you have to have a ‘perfect’ isolation: if you don’t find time to exercise, if you can’t make your routine stick, if the kids won’t do their school work, don’t worry.
  • Do what you can, things will settle down and a routine will develop
  • If you have something that works for you, stick with it – don’t worry about what everyone else is doing!
  • Look after each other – we will get through it more easily if we help each other (from a distance!)
  • If you feel you can’t cope, seek help immediately. Call Samaritans for free on 116 123

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Publication in Areo Magazine

I am delighted to have had an article published in Areo Magazine – an outlet I have long admired. Areo is on online magazine focussing on current affairs, in particular, humanism, reason, science, politics, culture and human rights. Named after Milton’s speech in defence of freedom of speech, Areo publishes essays from a variety of political and social perspectives – something I have previously highlighted the importance of. As a result, I am proud to have been published by an institution that promotes ‘the unfettered freedom to explore, think, and challenge ideas and concepts’.

I wrote my piece following the death of Caroline Flack by suicide at the weekend. Caroline was a popular British presenter who had received exceptional public and media attention throughout her career. Since her death, there has been a great deal of criticism levelled at the British media and this led to me to consider the extent to which we can (or should) hold others responsible for our mental health.

The article is available here, but if you are unfamiliar with Areo’s work, please take some time to have a look around while you are there. Do also feel free to leave any comments, as I’d be keen to hear your thoughts!

 

 

The predictable problems of university Affirmative Action policies

Last year, upon reading a university Principal’s boasts about lowering access grades for ‘disadvantaged pupils’, I wrote a response highlighting the dangers of such an approach. I listed a number of concerns including:

  • It assumes that people from disadvantaged backgrounds are not academically able

Such approaches assume that a ‘disadvantaged’ student is less able to achieve than their ‘advantaged’ counterpart: a rather insulting assumption. For example, the Principal states that ‘we think it is as tough, and demonstrates as much potential, for a disadvantaged student to get three Bs at Higher as it is for another student to get two As and two Bs’. No evidence or justification is given to support this assertion. Indeed, even if we accept that disadvantaged students are less able to achieve, one still has to wonder how much we are helping them by giving them the message that they can only achieve if grades are lowered for them.

  • Even if disadvantaged students were not as academically able, lowering grades does not help to address any of the causes of any academic problems

Students (‘advantaged’ or ‘disadvantaged’) may not achieve the necessary grades to gain access to university for a number of personal reasons, including lack of motivation, lack of interest, and unfashionable though it may be to mention it, lack of ability. Lowering grades to allow them into university does not address any of these problems. Even if none of these personal circumstances apply, and students are failing to attain entrance grades due to situational factors (a belief that Affirmative Action policies seem to favour), it is difficult to see how accepting them into an institution of higher learning without changing their circumstances will help them. It seems much more likely that this will put more strain on the student, potentially damaging their wellbeing, and increasing the likelihood of drop-out.

  • It assumes that going to university is what is best for these students

These policies are based on an assumption that everyone ‘should’ go to university. However I’m not aware of any discussion regarding whether it is actually best for all to go to university. Gaining a generic undergraduate degree, which brings a 4-year commitment (plus the associated student debt), and no guarantee of a job at the end of it, is not necessarily in everyone’s best interests.

To be clear, lowering entrance grades for certain students is not a policy that is unique to this university: the Principal’s boast was that they were ‘leading the way’. Other universities have followed suit – with what appears to be little justification, other than pressure to be seen to be accepting more disadvantaged students on to courses. As I noted previously, a cynic might suggest that the fate of the students may not be of great interest to the universities once they are through the doors and the quotas met. Indeed, we could argue that this must surely be the case since pushing unqualified students into a situation that they are, by definition, unqualified for, is fairly likely to lead to failure.

Imagine my lack of surprise then when I saw the results of a report by the Higher Education Statistics Agency showing that university dropout rates have risen by two thirds over the past 5 years, with the largest increase in the UK (not just Scotland) being shown at the aforementioned Principal’s university. Here, the dropout rate rose by 8.6 percentage points from 3.5% in 2011-2012 to 12.1% in 2016-17. Of course, this rise could be associated with any number of factors, but it may be more than a coincidence that the universities with the highest drop-out rates are the ‘less selective institutions that generally do the heavy lifting on social mobility’. Indeed, 1 in 10 ‘disadvantaged’ students drop out of university after the first year compared with 1 in 20 who do not come into that category.

At this stage, one might expect questions to be asked regarding the wisdom of dropping grades to bring students in to the university. However, such questions would not be well-received, so instead, the response from universities appears to focus on ways to make the experience easier for the students, for example, by recruiting more student advisors. While this is not necessarily a bad thing in itself – and of course might benefit students who are struggling with personal or social issues – it is making the assumption that lack of support is the main reason that people are leaving.

Alternatively, the response from the Office for Students is that it’s the courses that are the problem rather than the students. However, this does rather raise questions about why some students are able to attain. Again, the elephant in the room is the suggestion that some students may simply not be academically able enough to cope with the demands of university (and for the record, that is ok!).

As noted earlier, university is not necessarily for everyone, and failure to accept that will inevitably lead to a situation where administrators have no option but to manipulate grades to achieve their quotas. This is an option that many of my colleagues might (privately) admit already happens – albeit on an informal basis – with many of us facing pressure ‘not to let students fail’. However, should this become formalised (an option that I can genuinely envisage happening), one can imagine the impact not only for the education system, but also for the students themselves. How will these students feel about themselves, knowing that the only way they can pass is to have grades lowered for them? Moreover – how will the other students feel, knowing that others can be awarded the same grade as them despite being unable to achieve the necessary standards?

Arguably, these questions speak to a larger problem within society – the current fashion for believing that everyone should receive the same outcome (e.g. acceptance to university, good grades etc) regardless of merit. While it could be argued that equality of outcome goals such as this are well-intentioned, we really have to question who such policies benefit – when it certainly isn’t the students, or society at large.

Before I come across as being too negative however, I want to highlight that my initial post was an argument for programmes based on equality of opportunity principles – programmes which give disadvantaged students additional support to ‘bring them up’ to the level of their more advantaged counterparts. Such programmes assume that this extra support should help to compensate for difficulties that may have prevented the student from achieving their full academic potential. In addition to this, students are also schooled on the relevant personal, social and academic skills that would allow them to thrive at university, therefore addressing some of the social problems that might have contributed to their difficulties.

Furthermore, lest I be accused of discriminating against disadvantaged students, I would also like to highlight that I have worked for a number of the aforementioned Widening Access programmes. Indeed I would even consider myself a champion of ‘equality of opportunity’ policies, believing, as I do, that all students who are qualified, and motivated, to attend university, should be able to do so. My wish is that policy-makers, universities and politicians would follow similar principles, instead of setting increasing numbers of students up for failure by attempting to push them through a system they are not ready for. Ultimately, in such cases, the only people who suffer are the students, while the administrators and politicians revel in the ‘success’ of their quota-based box-ticking exercises.

 

 

 

 

Why Influencers are ruining society

‘That’s a little extreme!’ I hear you say, but think about it: Influencer culture is driven by, and rewards, self-obsession.  It also encourages shallowness, materialism, misinformation and ignorance; none of which is conducive to creating a well-functioning society. Pre-social media, Influencers would have been dismissed as narcissists or fakes with too much time on their hands.  However, since the late 2010’s, such people have been rewarded with media fame and gifts ranging from cosmetic samples to luxury holidays. The problem is that rewarding any behaviour reinforces and encourages it (as anyone who has used treats to train a dog knows). Similarly, others see these rewards and understandably want a piece of the action. As a result we have a growing number of aspiring ‘Influencers’ who will emulate the aforementioned behaviours in order to receive the same rewards.

The most disheartening aspect of this is that a recent survey showed that ‘Social Media Influencer’ and ‘Youtuber’ came second and third place in a list of what children wanted to be when they grew up. Ultimately, who can blame the children – they see beautiful people in exclusive places being given free products for taking nice pictures of themselves – who wouldn’t want such a ‘blessed’ life?! The problem is that once we start to base our worth on external sources (such as approval from followers or brands), we are at their mercy. As the old adage goes, happiness comes from within, so once we start to rely on external sources for validation, any perceived decrease in support from them will be seen as a personal failure.

Being judged by others is particularly problematic when our worth is defined by our looks. Indeed, many Influencers admit to taking thousands of pictures of themselves, with hours, and sometimes days, being spent critiquing every single picture, searching for flaws in order to weed out any that are less than perfect. Clearly as well as encouraging self-obsession, this can lead to an overly critical way of viewing one’s body, with body dissatisfaction being a leading risk factor in the development of eating disorders. Unfortunately, this dissatisfaction is not only limited to the Influencers themselves, it also spreads to viewers of the images, who are bombarded with often manipulated photos produced by people who have the time and the tools to create ‘perfect’ images.

Worryingly, even ‘health’ and ‘fitness’ Influencers follow a similar pattern. Certainly in relation to fitness, the emphasis still seems to be on the appearance associated with being fit rather than being healthy. Again, prioritising appearance can lead to problems related to body dysmorphia, eating disorders, and exercise obsession. The damage also comes from the advice the Influencers give: for example, as well as the aforementioned disorders, a similar illness associated with an obsession with ‘clean eating’ has developed in recent years. We certainly don’t have to look far to see Influencers extolling the virtues of clean eating, usually with no relevant qualifications or knowledge to back up their claims. Since they are not subject to the checks and standards that professionals are, they are free to disseminate their opinions under the guise of advice.

Here, the companies that support Influencers carry the burden of responsibility. By using, and promoting, individuals who spread misinformation, they are complicit in the damage caused by this misinformation. Similarly, they are also promoting the self-obsessed, materialistic lifestyle associated with the Influencer industry. While clearly, the goal of these companies is to sell products (to the ‘fools’ who don’t dedicate their lives to becoming Influencers!), they can choose who they reward with free gifts. While perhaps they don’t have time to create the perfect ‘insta-worthy’ image to promote the products, I for one, would prefer gifts to go to those who spend their time helping others (think of our emergency service workers, NHS workers, carers, volunteers etc), and would support any company that similarly prioritised such people.

So what do we have to do if we want to ‘save’ society? First, as consumers, we need to stop following Influencers. After all, if they have no followers, there will be no incentive for companies to support them. We need to call out the misinformation they promote: nutritionists, doctors, psychologists and healthcare professionals all need to counter the pseudo-‘experts’ with evidence-based facts. We also need to boycott the companies that use Influencers; by putting our money where are mouths are, we can show companies that we won’t support those who encourage such a damaging industry. Alternatively, we can support companies that gift to people who dedicate their time to helping others (therefore rewarding kind and positive behaviour). Ultimately, the power lies with us: we need to think the kind of society we want for ourselves and our children, and fight to create it.

 

 

 

 

Heterodox Academy

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I am delighted to announce that I am now a member of the Heterodox Academy. The Heterodox Academy is a relatively new organisation whose aim is to increase viewpoint diversity within academia. This is an issue I feel very strongly about, as in recent years I’ve seen amongst both students and staff, a noticeable decline in (and tolerance towards) differing viewpoints within higher education. This is problematic for a number of reasons, not least because a university education is traditionally meant to introduce people to challenging and difficult ideas. Increasingly, it seemed to me, that an ‘industry’ that used to be known for tolerance towards different perspectives, was actually starting to dictate what we ‘were allowed’ to think.

The problem is that whenever group-think exists, not only can it become difficult to challenge the popular narrative, it can also be difficult to even conceive of alternative perspectives.  While clearly, this is problematic in itself, it is particularly damaging when it occurs in education. How can we develop and learn if we are not subject to different viewpoints and perspectives? We also learn through making mistakes, so if we are never challenged or questioned, how can we update our thinking? Similarly, how can we function in our every-day lives (outwith academia) if we are unable to cope with unfamiliar, or different, viewpoints? We should be able to logically and rationally challenge viewpoints we disagree with, and we can only do that if we willing to engage with them.

While previously, being exposed to new knowledge was one of the primary aims of higher education, increasingly students are demanding that ideas (and people) they disagree with be shut down, rather than challenged with thoughtful and reasoned argument. Unfortunately, they don’t have good role models in this regard, as some of their professors are guilty of the same. Indeed, we only need to look at our public ‘role models’ in the form of our politicians and leaders to see that ability to deal civilly and coherently with opposing viewpoints is uncommon. Regardless of this, we should expect more from ‘educated’ people, and should aspire to better than the ‘Trumpian’ style of ‘debate’.

Ultimately, I feel that education is not only about learning, it should all be about developing our capacity to think, while also becoming well-balanced and productive citizens with strong and resilient personalities. We need students (and citizens) who are able to calmly and thoughtfully deal with challenges, rather than running away from them – or acting with anger and aggression.  As should be clear now from what I’ve said, one of the ways to do this is to expose students to unfamiliar and disquieting ideas. Only then are they able to develop the tools to be able to deal with them healthily and productively.

In this post, I have focussed on the importance of viewpoint diversity for students in higher education, but it is also crucial for society as a whole. I will discuss this (probably at some length) at a later date, but the Heterodox Academy also have a very readable summary on their website. Please take some time to have a look at their resources, and consider giving them some support.

 

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Worth So Much More

I’m very proud to have been involved with No1 Magazine’s Body Campaign #worthsomuchmore.

This is something that I feel very passionate about (as readers of my blog will know!), and in this article, I have offered some advice to help readers work towards feeling better about themselves (mostly by focussing on things other than appearance!).

I think the No1 Team (and Ida who wrote the article) deserve a great deal of credit for approaching the ‘body image’ issue in a different way from how it is usually discussed in the media.