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The Lure of Anxiety

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Helen is an Associate Lecturer teaching on modules in years 1 and 3.

I wear several hats in life, but I write this blog in the role of a lecturer and a psychologist, with experience in the theory and practice of working with people with psychological disorders.

In recent years, there has been an increase in awareness of mental health problems. This is very welcome. Celebrities have talked openly about their own difficulties and high profile campaigns encourage us to bring mental health problems out of the shadows. This is hugely beneficial. When people with mental health problems suffer in silence their suffering is invariably increased, and simply talking and being listened to is often the most important part of the solution.

But with such increased awareness, there can also be well-intentioned but misguided responses which make things worse. I want to talk particularly about anxiety (which is sometimes lumped together with depression to give a diagnosis of “anxiety and depression” – they can and do often occur together but they are different emotions which require different responses). Anxiety is a normal emotion which we all experience. It is essential for survival. It keeps us safe. If children did not experience anxiety, they would wander away from their parents, put their hands in fires, fall off high surfaces or get run over by cars. Low levels of anxiety are associated with dangerous behaviour and psychopathy. High levels of anxiety can, of course, be extremely distressing and debilitating. People with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear to the point where their lives become smaller and smaller and their experience severely restricted.

Of course we should show compassion and understanding to people who suffer from anxiety disorders and some campaigners have suggested that mental health problems should receive the same sort of response as physical health problems. However, psychological disorders, including anxiety disorders, do not behave like physical illnesses. It is not a case of diagnosing a particular “bug” and then prescribing the appropriate medication or therapy to make it go away (in reality, many physical conditions do not behave like this either). Anxiety thrives when you feed it. The temptation when you suffer high levels of anxiety is to avoid the thing that makes you anxious. But anyone who has sat through my lecture on learning theory should remember that doing something that relieves or avoids a negative consequence leads to negative reinforcement. If you avoid something that makes you highly anxious (or do something that temporarily relieves the anxiety, such as repeatedly washing your hands, or engaging in a ritual) the avoidance behaviour will be strongly reinforced. And you never experience the target of your fears, so you never learn that nothing catastrophic is actually going to happen – in other words you prevent the “extinction” that would otherwise occur. So the anxiety just gets worse and worse and worse. And your life becomes more and more restricted.

So, while we should, of course be compassionate and supportive towards people with anxiety disorders, we should be careful not to feed their fears. I remember once becoming frustrated with a member of prison staff who proudly told me how she was supporting a prisoner with obsessive-compulsive disorder by allowing him to have extra cleaning materials. No! In doing so, she was facilitating his disorder. What he needed was support to tolerate a less than spotless cell, so that he could learn through experience that a small amount of dirt does not lead to disaster. Increasingly, we find ourselves teaching students with anxiety difficulties. We need to support and encourage them, to allow them to talk about their problems, and to ensure that their university experience is positive. But we do them no favours by removing challenges or allowing them to avoid the aspects of university life that they fear (such as giving presentations or working in groups). In doing so, we make life easier in the short-term, but in the long-term we feed their disorders and make things worse. As I said earlier, we all experience anxiety and the best way to prevent it from controlling us is to stare it in the face and get on with whatever life throws at us.

 

 

Funding Higher Education – consider the bigger picture

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There have been plenty of blogs on this site and others promoting the value of knowledge, scientific endeavour, progressing our understanding, and more recently, finding ways to counteract the phenomenon of fake news and alternative facts. It seems we need to value education even more, so, when I see the headline ‘University chief wants to bring back maintenance grants’ (BBC News 2018) my initial thinking is, yes, absolutely we must. However, this is soon followed by a sense of despondency, knowing there will be plenty of people who will assume the country cannot afford it, taxpayers should not foot the bill and we should just muddle along and hope students just accept this is how the world works now. Well, I find this difficult to accept, in light of the wealth of evidence against this notion that funding higher education from the public purse is unthinkable. After all, we used to, and plenty of other countries do this. What is also clear, are the benefits this brings, that this is about investing in the future, ensuring a skills base for jobs which need this level of education and knowledge. To see this as an investment means valuing the fact that there are school pupils who have the opportunity, drive and ambition for a career which requires a degree, possibly postgraduate training and vocational training. This should not be hindered by their class, their parents’ occupation, and experiences of poverty and exclusion. We must also equally value those who want to build our houses, cars, offer vital services which require a very different form of ambition and aspiration. One must not be held as more value over the other, they both need to be supported, grants are part of this, but so are training bursaries, decent wages, secure jobs and valuing investment in the arts. Instead, what we have created is a climate of competitiveness, we see it in increased levels of social anxiety among young people, including students, and we see it in the rise of the gig economy. Grants would offer freedoms for students from a wider range of backgrounds to make choices based on their own ambitions, and not be held back by their circumstances. They would allow students of any background to choose to study from the arts, humanities, social sciences, science, medicine, law and business – without weighing this choice up in the context of which will guarantee a well paid job.

The current Conservative government have been openly and proudly advocating for privatisation and placing the burden of the cost not on the tax payer, but on those accessing the service. This is a very attractive political promise – to pay less tax creates the perception that people have more of their own wages, and are not supplementing those who don’t work as hard. It also presents privatisation as placing the provision of services with corporations who are more efficient, innovative and can invest money back into the service. Yet, the Community Rehabilitation Companies at the heart of the Transforming Rehabilitation Agenda have been bailed out to the tune of £342m (and counting?) (see https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/17/private-probation-companies-face-huge-losses-despite-342m-bailout). Our NHS is under threat from providers such as Virgincare and US companies, and our rail services are constantly in the news for poor service and rising prices. All we need to do is look to our European neighbours to see how different it can be, if we just let go of this notion that paying more tax is a burden, especially as we face this burden in a different form – rising costs and stagnant wages, expensive travel costs compared to other countries, threats to job security, pensions and to our system of free healthcare.

The language used when fees for degrees were introduced by the then Chancellor George Osborne was that grants had become “unaffordable” and there was a “basic unfairness in asking taxpayers to fund grants for people who are likely to earn a lot more than them” (BBC News, 2018). There was plenty of criticism raised at the time, and concern about prospective students being put off. This was quelled by the promise to reduce debt, to have the country live within its means and that young people would simply have to accept debt as part of their future. Yet, as predicted, it has led to greater polarisation of students from lower classes accessing HE, especially among the Russell Group universities, as well as disparities in admittance from BAME groups, indicating once again a level of disadvantage which continues in this arena. It doesn’t seem altogether fair to place the responsibility on HE to widen access and increase diversity if the cost of attending is simply prohibitive and becomes an insurmountable barrier. There is only so much universities, just like schools, hospitals, police services and others can do within a system which creates and perpetuates inequality, and doesn’t support those who aspire to improve their circumstances.

It baffles me that so many people continue to accept this idea that low tax is a benefit, when it simply displaces the costs to citizens in other ways, and it also means governments can support corporations and individuals who seek to pay less and less tax, to increase profits for shareholders. There is something wrong also with an economic system which politicians themselves benefit from financially and, therefore, seek to maintain the status quo. The same can be said for privatisation and introduction of student fees – despite all the evidence which shows this is not a good idea, someone somewhere is getting rich, is influencing decision makers in parliament to maintain this policy, and neither of these parties is concerned about what is best for the country and its future.

Susie Atherton

Senior Lecturer in Criminology

BBC NEWS (2018) University chief wants to bring back maintenance grants, see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-45079654.

 

The changing face of criminology

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We can profess that those of us in academia get to own a small nugget of knowledge on their chosen subject.  This is how specialism is developed and cultivated.  We start our long journey into knowledge first by learning the discipline as a whole, going through the different theories and issues, becoming aware of the critical debates, before we embrace the next step of in depth understanding.  Little by little knowledge becomes a road full of junctions, intersections and byroads, constantly fueled by one of the most basic but profound parts of human experience, curiosity.  Academia, was originally developed by a person looking up in the wider cosmos and wondering; surely there is more to life than this.  When the recorded experience aligned with imagination it produced results; civilization emerged as a collective testament of being.  Arguably the first ever question, whenever it was posed and however it was phrased, philosophy was born; any attempt to answer it generated reason and logic.

The process of learning is painstaking because education is a process and as such it requires us to grow as we absorb it.  This process is never ending because “The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing” to quote Ecclesiastes and therefore learning is lifelong.  In academia, in particular, this thirst for knowledge is unquenchable and because of it we progress our respective disciplines further, constantly expanding the boundaries.  Anyone of us who had a discussion in or out of a classroom will testify that even on the same topic, with the same material, a seminar is never the same.  The main reason for this is, education is active and as a learner I gain from whatever I can relate to and comprehend.  Time and time again, I go back to my own learning as I adapt my pedagogy, because to teach is a dialectic; we impart an idea and we let it flourish to those who shall be taking it further.

There is a reason why I am so reflecting of education on this entry; recently we had a reunion of our alumni and in preparation of the event, I was looking back at the way we taught criminology, what changed and how things have progressed.  Colleagues, moved on as expected and the student demographics may have changed but the subject is still taught.  It is this ongoing process that fascinated me in that reflection.  The curriculum and the ideas behind it.  As an institution we offer a number of subject areas, criminology included, that other institutions around the world do, but no other institution will have the unique blend of what we offer.  This part is quite astounding that in the reproduction of ideas and across the continuity of disciplinary knowledge, there is always a place for originality.

On the day, I could hear the stories from some of our alumni with a latent sense of pride as they spoke with some confidence about their life plans, work commitments and ideas.  These were the same people who some years ago, blushed in a seminar from shyness, were anxious about their exam results and worried about their degree classification.  Now with confidence, they embrace their education with the realisation that they have just made the first step into a terra incognita… their journey into learning continues.  During the next weeks (and hopefully, months), a number of our alumni (and current students) will put pen to paper of their thoughts, on our blog and talk about their experiences and their criminology.  We thank them in advance and are looking forward to read their thoughts.

Social Media – Friend or Foe?

Social mediaAfter reading about the backlash to Shania Twain’s proclamation that she would have voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 US Election (BBC News, 2018) I started thinking about the power that social media has over us and our lives. The irony of the fact that I’m writing a blog on the issue, which in itself is a form of social media, is not lost on me. Personally, I’m not a fan of social media yet I, like so many, conform to the pressure of having a facebook or twitter account because that is expected of us both personally and professionally but I wonder if it actually adds value to our lives. It is undeniable that social media platforms allow for greater connectivity between people but is there any quality in that connectivity? News events are instant but are they good quality? Messaging is easy but is it accurate or easy to interpret? Whatsapp or messenger tell us whose online and when but do we need to know that or does it just increase our anxiety when we don’t get a response? Facebook and Instagram document our lives for posterity’s sake but is it necessary to do so, I certainly don’t care what others had for dinner or what I had for dinner 6 months ago to be honest. Scarier still is the tech in our phones which recently allowed someone to tell me exactly when another family member would be home by checking their location on their phone. I recognise the benefit of such technology when it comes to checking on the safety of our children or loved ones but the cynic in me fears the abuse that such software is open to and the potential harm that can be done to others through its use.

Maybe I’m overthinking this or just stuck in the past but before social media we talked, we had physical conversations through which we learnt things, not just information that helped shape us as human beings but also the art of reading signs, body language, social cues and so forth – we actually made time for one another. These things cannot be learnt through text or messaging so how are the younger generation supposed to learn these things? Equally as important is the need for those skills to be practiced so that they are not lost. How many times do you have a conversation with someone who cannot maintain eye contact or who interrupts before you’ve finished your point? Is this a symptom of messaging which puts the pauses in for you and allows you to talk over others without actually doing it, after all messages are presented in a sequential order. That said, the creation of facetime or Skype may bridge the gap between phone conversations and physical ones and therefore enable us to continue learning and practicing these skills but how often do we opt for that over a quick text message? Let’s face it, we live busy lives and its quicker and easier to fire off a text than it is to schedule in an uninterrupted call. I have certainly been accused recently of favouring text messaging over phone calls but then I’ve never liked talking on the phone either. When you add into the mix, the lack of punctuation and the use of text talk the problems become more profound, firstly because this means that the art of writing appropriately is diminishing but secondly because it’s almost impossible to interpret the meaning of a message with no punctuation.

Furthermore, I regularly find myself in the company of people whose lives appear to be lived online and what I’ve observed is that they struggle in a crowd, they are socially anxious and often struggle with the fluidity of a group conversation. Maybe they would be that way regardless of social media but I do wonder whether social media is destroying social skills and how long it will be before the joy of an in-person conversation with like minded people becomes a thing of the past. Obviously, as with most things the simple answer is to find a balance between the two but in a world determined to make us digital natives, this is increasingly difficult.

 

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