Welcome to our new social psychologists, Dr Matt Wood and Dr Emily LeRoux-Rutledge!

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We are excited to welcome two new social psychologists to PSRG! Matt and Emily joined UWE in January 2020 and have recently joined the Promoting Psychological Health theme of PSRG. Read on to learn more about our newest members!

Dr Matt Wood:

My name is Matt Wood and I have joined the UWE Department of Health and Social Sciences as a Lecturer in Social Psychology.

I conducted by BSc in Psychology and my MSc in Health Psychology here at UWE. I then moved to Newcastle where I joined the EPSRC Centre of Doctoral Training in Digital Civics to conduct my PhD. My PhD was about how young people construct and contest a gendered and sexual identity through digital technology, using discursive psychology to consider how young people talked about sexual bodies, sexual cultures & sexual health.

The majority of my work is situated in Human Computer Interaction (HCI). At its core, this is about how people (users) interact with computers, and a great deal of work in HCI is focused on interfaces and making these more usable. HCI is however an incredibly broad field, incorporating perspectives from computer science, psychology, sociology and design, to name but a few.

Broadly speaking, I am interested in the qualitative dimension of social computing. This means I’m interested in the role digital technologies play in our social interactions with others – which of course has become highly topical since the pandemic of Covid-19. But in adopting qualitative methods, I am interested in unpacking the ‘messy reality’ of the social role of technology in people’s lives. These can often be contradictory, difficult, and intercept with other aspects of people’s lives, including identity and personhood. A great deal of my PhD was spent looking at young people’s talk/discourse around digital technologies, and how they positioned these in negotiating a gendered and sexual identity.

Much of my published work has been around technosexuality, i.e. the overlap between human sexuality and technology. Perhaps most notably I have used the ‘Story Completion Method’ to explore understandings of Virtual Reality Pornography & interactions with Sex Robots. I am also a member of the Story Completion Research Group. Many of my students opt to use story completion in their third year projects, where I supervise topics around sex and sexuality, relationships between people and technology, and critical health psychology.

I am thrilled to join the dynamic researchers at PSRG, and I am excited to call this interdisciplinary group my research home. In May 2020 I was awarded a Vice-Chancellor Early Career Research Award to explore the qualitative dimensions of immersion in virtual reality, with an application to Science Communication, which I’m conducting in partnership with UWE’s Science Communication Unit.

Dr Emily LeRoux-Rutledge:

My name is Emily LeRoux-Rutledge and I have joined the UWE Department of Health and Social Sciences as a Lecturer in Social Psychology.

As a Canadian, who has lived in Kenya, France, Bangladesh and the UK, it’s perhaps not surprising that I’ve been drawn to research on identity and migration. My current research looks at how the identities of refugee and diaspora groups in the UK are affected by ongoing violence in their countries of origin, and how this impacts wellbeing.

Broadly, my research examines the identities of marginalised groups in global contexts – which encompasses a lot of things! For example, I look at how the media constructs narratives about people, how people interpret media narratives, how people construct their own identities, and how they negotiate their identities in the face of local and global narratives about who they are, and who they should be. I use primarily qualitative methodologies, and take a narrative approach to identity.

My previous work includes research on narratives about women in South Sudan, and how such narratives affect the achievement of international gender and development goals like girls’ education and women’s political participation; narratives of identity and discrimination among global entrepreneurs, and how such narratives can catalyse global entrepreneurship; representations of HIV/AIDS-affected children in rural Zimbabwe, and how such representations affect boys and girls differently; and narratives within drama for development programmes on television and radio, and how such narratives are produced through processes of cultural translation. 

I previously held a Lectureship in Social Psychology at the University of Surrey, and I have taught at both the London School of Economics and the University of Bristol. I earned my PhD in Social Psychology from the London School of Economics in 2017, my MSc in Social and Public Communication from the London School of Economics in 2007, and my BA (Hons) in International Relations and English from the University of Toronto in 2004.

Prior to my academic career, I spent ten years working in the field of international development, managing research for organisations using media and communication for development, and I continue to work as a consultant in this sector. I’ve conducted research on a wide range of topics, from public health to climate change, and I’ve worked in more than 20 countries, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Kenya, Niger, South Africa, South Sudan, Senegal, Serbia, Tanzania and Uganda.

I’m delighted to join the Psychological Sciences Research Group at UWE, and look forward to working and collaborating with my many wonderful colleagues!

PSRG Videos: About us

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Thanks to Matt at Housecat Productions, we have videos about PSRG and each of our themes (footage recorded pre-pandemic). Check out each of the videos and the work that we do. Feel free to get in touch in the comments below or by email (psrg@uwe.ac.uk).

An overview of our whole research group:

About our Ageing Well theme:

About our Applied Cognition and Neuroscience theme:

About our Optimising Performance and Engagement theme:

About our Promoting Psychological Health theme:

Thanks for watching. And thanks Matt.

Learning from the client: The challenges of psychotherapy research and the contribution of qualitative methodologies

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By Eva Fragkiadaki

The implications of nomothetic psychotherapy research

Psychotherapy research has made significant progress in providing strong evidence for process and outcome in favour of specific approaches. However, after many years of research and advanced methodologies, we are still unsure about why psychotherapy works, and how and to what degree these findings can be applied in everyday practice (Kazdin, 2009). Evidence-based approaches do not appear to be effective for everyone, and the mechanisms of change are still investigated with diverse findings. Randomised controlled trials (RCT) and meta-analyses inform policy and guidelines followed by the likes of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Illustrating this, NICE Guidelines for the treatment of Depression state that “well-defined” depression can be treated with CBT based on its proven efficacy, however “it is not effective for everyone” (NICE, 2009). Clinicians need evidence-based recommendations to inform their work with clients. It is notable though that evidence-based practice is based on nomothetic, quantitative approaches of inquiry but what is actually demanded from practitioners is to apply these theories in an idiographic context and adjust to the needs of the individual who seeks help (Persons, 2008).

One cannot reduce psychotherapy to specific factors and cannot reduce the person to a specific list of symptoms. Added to that, each psychotherapeutic encounter is unique, in terms of transference and real relationship factors. Rigid diagnosis criteria are challenged and culturally sensitive, social models of diagnosis are encouraged in the literature, which question the constant pursuit of functionality, fulfilment and happiness (Kirmayer, Gomez – Carillo & Veissiere, 2017). In reality, clients with the same labels are likely to experience their diagnosis in different ways (Hayes et al, 2019). Moreover, each therapist has inherent biases and internal processes of interpreting each client before deciding which interventions to apply and how (Makhinson, 2012). The therapist’s training, expectations, overgeneralisations and pressure for positive results have a significant impact on the decisions they will make for therapeutic action plans. Lastly, each psychotherapeutic dyad is different, each process that unfolds in this context is a different experience for both parties. Even if the therapist follows the same approach guidelines, they will be different with different clients (Hill, Chui & Baumann, 2013). Each therapeutic encounter forms a new interaction and discussion; a new therapy (Baldwin & Imel, 2020).

Traditional psychotherapy efficacy research struggles to capture the level of complexity therapeutic interactions entail. The findings make inferences about the general population but do not necessarily apply to the individual (Hayes et al., 2019). Another issue is the difficulty in defining each therapeutic modality given the new approaches that appear and their variations in application. Too many approaches are now presented in the literature for too many syndromes which account for too many statistical models, and the number is growing (Hayes et al., 2019). Moreover, there are many confounding factors when trying to measure the effects of psychotherapy, such as the therapist’s subjectivity, training, supervision, the therapist and researcher’s expectations and the clients’ presenting difficulties. The researcher’s subjectivity must also be recognised in the research process even for the most rigorous RCTs. Psychotherapy research entails bias and the effectiveness of psychotherapy can be exaggerated. Moreover, many studies may remain unpublished if results support null or negative hypotheses (Dragioti, Karathanos, Gerdle & Evangelou, 2017).

Going back to case analysis: the idiographic paradigm in psychotherapy research

Psychotherapy is a multi-faceted, complex phenomenon. How can we understand and represent its variability in evidence-based findings? Research is moving away from protocol and approach specific treatments towards a more client-centred way of exploring psychotherapy efficacy; it instead becomes a “personalized treatment” (Zilcha-Mano, 2019, p. 694). The focus is on the implementation of methodologies which can do justice to the complexity and variability of the phenomenon of psychotherapy. Qualitative research allows the exploration of the multidimensional interactions in psychotherapy encounters and the emergence of unexpected results (Hill et al., 2013; McLeod, 2011). By implementing methods such as the Narrative Assessment Interview (Angus, Levitt  & Hardtke, 1999), the  Change Interview (Elliott, Slatick & Urman, 2001) or the Hermeneutic Single-Case Efficacy Design (Elliott et al., 2009), qualitative research is nowadays being used more often in exploring psychotherapeutic processes and effects.

As psychotherapy researchers, we need to pursue a route that is different to “protocol-to-syndrome.” We are moving away from labels and therapy “brands” (Hofman, 2020, pp. 297 – 298) towards elaborate descriptions of people and therapies, focusing on what works, why and how, for both specific individuals or groups that share common characteristics. The suggestion is to distance ourselves from theory-driven process and outcome studies, from measurable and quantifiable behavioural changes (Hill et al., 2013) and instead to approach the client’s perspective in an open and explorative way; to enable learning and knowledge derived from the clients’ experience of psychotherapy efficacy. In particular, idiographic qualitative phenomenological research offers the means to explore intrapsychic change. A well-designed case study provides detailed, in-depth knowledge which is readily applicable to everyday clinical practice (Persons & Boswell, 2019).

Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) is a qualitative methodology that focuses on the individual’s unique experiences of the situation studied. IPA can make a significant contribution by enabling researchers and practitioners to gain insights into client’s experiences of therapeutic processes. The philosophical, epistemological, and methodological underpinnings and guidelines of IPA allow for an in-depth exploration of the client’s experience, leading to significant conceptualisations on how therapeutic approaches work (Larkin & Thompson, 2012). It is based on the phenomenological paradigm as outlined by Husserl, Heidegger, and Merlau-Ponty (Smith, 1996; Smith, Flowers, & Larkin, 2009). It provides the framework to place the therapeutic encounter in context and analyse it; to go back to the phenomenon of psychotherapy “on its own terms.” The focus is on individuals, their subjective accounts and perceptions, bracketing the understanding of preconceived ideas, beliefs, and expectations.  IPA methodology views persons in-context as they expound on embodied, dynamic, and interactive experiences. Interpretation in IPA implies moving away from the obvious, focusing on the meaning participants attribute to their experience, engaging in a dialogue with the data, and illuminating sense-making (Smith, 1996; Smith et al., 2009). 

Adhering to an existential framework, IPA methodology does not rely on psychological theories for the collection and analysis of data. It is data-driven, emphasizing personal experience (Smith, 2017). It is deemed a useful method for psychotherapy process exploration as it frees the researcher from the compounds of psychotherapy theory and gives voice to the clients’ unique experience and intersubjective meaning-making processes (Larking & Thompson, 2012). Phenomenological methods have been applied to the exploration of adults’ experiences of psychotherapy during their childhood have changed their live, clients’ experience of positive change and to psychotherapy outcome studies (Binder et al., 2010; Midgley, Target, & Smith, 2006; Olofsson et al., 2019; Wilmots et al., 2019). IPA applied to psychotherapy research allows for the exploration of the clients’ perspective, the meaning they attribute to seeking and receiving help and how they conceptualise the psychotherapy process rendering the results useful for incorporation into everyday clinical practice (Binder et al., 2010; McLeod, 2011; Midgley et al., 2014). IPA guidelines help researchers keep the focus on the participants’ experiences and meaning-making processes, and can further bolster and clarify the knowledge of psychotherapy effects from the clients’ perspective.

Conclusions

Nomothetic approaches to research claim that there is one absolute truth outside of us to be discovered (Ponterotto, 2005). As psychotherapy researchers, the phenomenological perception of truth helps us view psychotherapy as real however it is the individual’ consciousness that determines its reality. IPA exploration of psychotherapy brings research back to the clients, to their experience of change, from which we can acquire significant insight on how and why psychotherapy works. We go back to the individual case and understand the psychotherapy processes from their perspective. Thus, the findings are closely linked to practice. Inventories and questionnaires may capture a small proportion of this variability in psychotherapy change procedures, but they are restricted to overt behaviours and symptoms whilst the questions might not be applicable to the person’s issues. The use of qualitative research methods in psychotherapy effectiveness and outcome research adds to our efforts to comprehend when and how psychotherapy works in an explorative and descriptive manner.

Qualitative psychotherapy research allows for the client’s voice to be heard. Their perceptions and interpretations of psychotherapy process and change may guide research conclusions, theory advancements and policies. Hence, psychotherapy is adjusted to the clients and the service users, and not the other way around. In recent literature, a more pluralistic method of inquiry is now considered in an effort to address the diversity of psychotherapy processes, encouraging researchers’ reflexivity on the aspect of psychotherapy they choose to explore (Rieken & Gelo, 2015). Various methodologies and epistemologies are now employed in the search for an answer to why psychotherapy works. Qualitative methodologies, and especially IPA, places the client in–context considering psychological, physical and social aspects of their experience of psychotherapy. Like clinicians who tailor their use of techniques to the specific client in the specific therapeutic relationship, researchers should consider individual needs, culture and social context, tailoring research methods to specific aspects of psychotherapy process and change.

References

Angus, L., Levitt, H. & Hardtke, K. (1999). The narrative processes coding system: Research applications and implications for psychotherapy practice. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 55(10), 1255 – 1270.

Baldwin, S. A., & Imel, Z. E. (2020). Studying specificity in psychotherapy with meta-analysis is hard. Psychotherapy Research, 30(3), 294–296. https://doi.org/10.1080/10503307.2019.1679403

Binder, P.-E., Holgersen, H., & Gier Høstmark, N. (2010). What is a “good outcome” in psychotherapy? A qualitative exploration of former patients’ point of view. Psychotherapy Research, 20(3), 285 – 294. doi: 10.1080/10503300903376338

Dragioti, E., Karathanos, V., Gerdle, B., & Evangelou, E. (2017). Does psychotherapy work? An umbrella review of meta-analyses of randomized controlled trials. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 136(3), 236–246. https://doi.org/10.1111/acps.12713

Elliott, R., Partyka, R., Alperin, R., Dobrenski, R., Wagner, J., Messer, S. B., . . . Castonguay, L. G. (2009). An adjudicated hermeneutic single-case efficacy design study of experiential therapy for panic/ phobia. Psychotherapy Research, 19, 543–557. doi:10.1080/
10503300902905947

Elliott, R., Slatick, E., & Urman, M. (2001). Qualitative change process research on psychotherapy: Alternative strategies. In J. Frommer & D. L. Rennie (Eds.), Qualitative psychotherapy research: Methods and methodology (pp. 69–111). Lengerich, Germany: Pabst Science Publishers

Hayes, S. C., Hofmann, S. G., Stanton, C. E., Carpenter, J. K., Sanford, B. T., Curtiss, J. E., & Ciarrochi, J. (2019). The role of the individual in the coming era of process-based therapy. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 117(October 2018), 40–53. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2018.10.005

Hill, C. E., Chui, H., & Baumann, E. (2013). Revisiting and reenvisioning the outcome problem in psychotherapy: an argument to include individualized and qualitative measurement. Psychotherapy, 50(1), 68 – 76. doi: 10.1037/a0030571

Hofmann, S. G. (2020). Imagine there are no therapy brands, it isn’t hard to do. Psychotherapy Research, 30(3), 297–299. https://doi.org/10.1080/10503307.2019.1630781

Kazdin, A. E. (2009). Understanding how and why psychotherapy leads to change. Psychotherapy Research, 19(4–5), 418–428. https://doi.org/10.1080/10503300802448899

Kirmayer, L. J., Gomez-Carrillo, A., & Veissière, S. (2017). Culture and depression in global mental health: An ecosocial approach to the phenomenology of psychiatric disorders. Social Science and Medicine, 183, 163–168. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2017.04.034

Larkin, M. & Thompson, A. (2012). Interpretative phenomenological analysis. In Thompson, A. & Harper, D. (eds), Qualitative research methods in mental health and psychotherapy: a guide for students and practitioners. John Wiley & Sons: Oxford, pp. 99-116.

Makhinson, M. (2012). Biases in the evaluation of psychiatric clinical evidence. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 200(1), 76–82. https://doi.org/10.1097/NMD.0b013e31823e62cd

McLeod, J. (2011). Qualitative research in counselling and psychotherapy. London: Sage.

Midgley, N., Ansaldo, F., & Target, M. (2014). The meaningful assessment of therapy outcomes: Incorporating a qualitative study into a randomized controlled trial evaluating the treatment of adolescent depression. Psychotherapy, 51(1), 128 – 137. doi: 10.1037/a0034179

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. (2009). Depression in adults: Recognition and management (NICE Clinical Guideline CG 90). Retrieved from https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg90

Olofsson, M. E., Oddli, H. W., Hoffart, A., Eielsen, H. P., & Vrabel, K. R. (2019). Change processes related to long-term outcomes in eating disorders with childhood trauma: An explorative qualitative study. Journal of Counseling Psychology, advanced online publication. doi: 10.1037/cou0000375

Persons, J. B. (2008). The case formulation approach to cognitive – behaviour therapy. Guildford Press.

Persons, J. B., & Boswell, J. F. (2019). Single case and idiographic research: Introduction to the special issue. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 117(March), 1–2. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2019.03.007

Ponterotto, J. G. (2005). Qualitative research in counseling psychology: A primer on research paradigms and philosophy of science. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 52(2), 126–136. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0167.52.2.126

Rieken, B. & Gelo, O. C. G. (2015). The philosophy of psychotherapy science: Mainstream and alternative views.  In: Gelo O., Pritz A., Rieken B. (eds) Psychotherapy Research. Springer, Vienna

Smith, J. A. (1996). Beyond the divide between cognition and discourse: Using interpretative phenomenological analysis in health psychology. Psychology and Health, 11(2), 261 – 271. doi: 10.1080/08870449608400256

Smith, J. A. (2017). Interpretative phenomenological analysis: Getting at lived experience. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12(3), 303 – 304. doi: 10.1080/17439760.2016.1262622

Smith, J. A., Flowers, P. & Larkin, M. (2009). Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Wilmots, E., Midgley, N., Thackeray, L., Reynolds, S. & Loades, M., (2019). The therapeutic relationship in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy with depressed adolescents: A qualitative study of good-outcome cases. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice. doi: 10.1111/papt.12232

Zilcha-Mano, S. (2019). Major developments in methods addressing for whom psychotherapy may work and why. Psychotherapy Research, 29(6), 693–708. https://doi.org/10.1080/10503307.2018.1429691

Here be ‘cognitivism’

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By Miltos Hadjiosif

Psychology, like all disciplines, has a history. Like all histories, it is a contested one, and it often unravels within a dominant narrative that might surprise you. For instance, the birth of the psychological laboratory in Leibzig, Germany in 1879, its founder Wilhelm Wundt, and the American behaviourist B.F. Skinner are considered far more influential to the development of contemporary psychological science than the psychoanalytic insights of Carl Jung or Melanie Klein. My teaching experience suggests that, in their vast majority, psychology undergraduates are left a little dissatisfied at the end of their degrees insofar as their understanding of human behaviour is concerned. Psychological knowledge in the last 40 years has developed largely in silos and final year courses offer quite specialised explorations of processes (social, developmental, biological, or cognitive) that underpin human psychic life. Thus, rare opportunities are afforded for some sort of synthesis of perspectives that can form an even partially satisfactory answer to the question: ‘so, why do I do the things I do?’.  As academics, we face enormous pressure to profess expertise in specialised topics, publish our work in journals that mainly speak to other academics, and create our brand by accentuating the unique contribution(s) we have made to the discipline. ‘I teach why people do the things they do’ sounds just as silly as it is impossible. But shouldn’t studying psychology help us understand ourselves and others around us?

Cognitivism is a term that has been used to describe the influence of cognitive psychology (the study of mental processes such as attention, memory, and problem solving) on mainstream psychological theory as well as popular perceptions of human subjectivity. Experimental social psychology for instance talks of social cognition, namely what our brains do when we are in groups. Many theories suggest that the social world ‘enters’ individuals via biosensory pathways and cognitive mechanisms, which can be schematically represented as diagrams (and who doesn’t love a good, self-evident diagram?) and subjected to empirical testing. The brain (or ‘mind’) is widely hailed as the seat of selfhood, and I bet that if you asked people which organ represents them best, most people would pick their brains. That is, despite emerging evidence from medicine that implicates the digestive system (gut) in interesting psychophysiological processes, few people would name their intestines as the bit of tissue they would want preserved in a jar, and I am probably not one of them. Psychoanalytically speaking, there’s nothing surprising in the finding that the gut is a significant locus of psychological activity; after all emotions have to be symbolically digested somewhere. ‘One brain per person’ is how it works, and psychology loves some good old-fashioned dualisms. And so it has come to pass that psychology will leave the study of societies to sociology and social anthropology and cast its expert light on the unit of analysis that no mortal shall divide: the individual.

Cognitivism seeps into all other branches of psychology; thus, a unitary subject that is knowable, predictable, and bound by reason emerges undisputed.  How I hear you ask? Let’s rewind. Cognitive psychology arose as a direct challenge to Watsonian ‘black box’ psychology, a necessary critique of the idea that humans are shaped solely by environmental contingencies and schedules of reinforcement. It blossomed in parallel with the computer revolution and adopted much of the language of computer science (input, network, information processing, mechanism etc). Some 70 years later, this language is not confined to the study of largely involuntary brain processes such as space perception or executive function. Quite the contrary, it has implied, assumed, and naturalised the reality underpinning most of human behaviour. It’s not cognitive psychology’s claims that solidify cognitivism, in fact cutting-edge research in this area has probably moved beyond it.  This is how discourse (a devilishly slippery concept) works: an ideology such as the one we are dealing with can only become entrenched if it is propped up by a myriad of supporting beams. Cognitivism engulfs reality with every university psychology department that uses imagery such as an electrode-wired person to promote itself to prospective applicants (and funders). It lurks in the most innocuous of everyday utterances: ‘it’s all in your head’. And it goes unchallenged because no self-respecting psychologist would ever explicitly defend the position: ‘we are just our thoughts’.    

This creates several problems for contemporary psychology, if one takes that to mean the study of ‘why we do the things we do’. It is less of a problem if one is concerned with ‘how we do what we do’, but the critique still applies I believe. Humans are not like computers in that we possess a tricky little thing called consciousness and an equally tricky if not more tangible thing called the body. Let’s pretend that there’s no such tricky little thing as soul or spirit, otherwise this brief commentary will get derailed. How consciousness manifests, is embodied, and interacts with other conscious beings is, really, what psychologists are studying. We need access to more than just cognition to understand why people fall in love, why they fight, why they suddenly act in unpredictable ways, and what happens when many people co-exist for prolonged periods of time. Family dynamics, ambivalent friendships, and toxic couples won’t make much sense by illuminating the intricacies of individuals’ cognitive apparatus. Why we feel what we feel is, invariably, more interesting to the undergraduate student than why the ‘tip of the tongue’ phenomenon occurs. Affective cognition is cognitive psychology’s answer to the former. So what about relationships? Cue crickets.

There are good reasons why cognitivism has prevailed, not least because it squares with scientific methods, Western biomedicine, and reasonable expectations for publicly funded psychological research to have utility and applied value. Measuring things and discovering variables that affect human behaviour often translates into practical solutions for many a modern malady. In consequence, mainstream psychology enjoys widespread applications in health, occupational, and even recreational settings. At the same time, we should not ignore the more sinister reasons. As it squares, it concurrently dovetails with an ideology of the human subject as a predictable, fixable machine that can be controlled and programmed. It delights advertisers who are in search of the ideal font, image, or message to feed consumerism. It makes sense to politicians who, through no fault of their own, are also entangled in its discursive net and therefore look to psychology to fix symptoms (or hide them) rather than transform conditions to prevent the problems in the first place. It makes people feel cleverer as it follows a rational methodology and can be delightfully illuminating to the mind that has been trained all its life to excel and produce without ever pausing to reflect on the unbearable question: ‘what and who am I producing for?’.

A little context on the writer so that the reader can more fully appreciate the vested interests in this article (free tip: all discourse carries vested interests and (dis)locations of power). I studied for a 4-year experimental psychology degree, which I enjoyed, and my first job was as a statistics instructor for the university I graduated from. After a brief detour that involved meeting Avril Lavigne and dining with Patti Smith, I trained as a counselling psychologist. Whilst in training I took issue with several other assumptions counselling psychology made (the allure of cognitivism is perhaps less felt in this particular corner of applied psychology) but I finally found a home so to speak in another sub-discipline: community psychology. After struggling for many years, I can finally combine my passion for community psychology with my expertise as a counselling psychologist and proudly co-organise the Community Psychology Festival, an annual event borne out of hope and glitter. Even though I write from this intersection, I am informed and shaped by theories and experiences that are not immediately apparent in my professional identities.

It might therefore not surprise the reader to know that I take issue not with the very existence of cognitivism, but with its obliterating influence on all other ways of conceptualising human beings. I don’t for a second believe that we are rational and unitary; our internal worlds consist of affectively laden ‘bits’ that can be pre-verbal and unconscious (this is a Kleinian view), and I have started wondering whether producing a coherent self is more of a hassle than it is to surrender to the possibility of multiple selves, even if some of them are conflictually aligned against others. ‘Make happy thoughts’ is just about the worst advice you can give someone experiencing depression or anxiety. I have a problem with cognitivism’s unintended consequence of eradicating the social dimension of what it means to live and act in this world. I try hard to instil in my students a scepticism of mechanistic claims that do not recognise just how deliciously neoliberal their implications for the human condition are (see previous blog entry on ‘resilience’ by Dr Miles Thompson). Speaking of ‘resilience’, this research paradigm is only just beginning to acknowledge that metals should be resilient, humans not so much. Imagine a person who suffers a messy breakdown at work when they are working on a temporary contract and their partner is diagnosed with a terminal illness, at a time when healthcare has been privatised. A breakdown is the healthy response here; that is what should happen in the name of ‘normality’. Quite what form that breakdown may take is a different matter; I do not wish to absolve our fictional friend from personal responsibility. I am not comfortable with ‘victim culture’ and people who are unwilling to locate their own complicity in their suffering; that is if social-material conditions allow for such agency. But to condone any notion that said fictional (yet easily recognisable) person will be described as ‘resilient’ if they continue to work with a stoic half-smile and be in rational control of their emotions is where I draw a line.

No account can ever be ‘objective’, or definitive for that matter, and I do not wish to naively scapegoat cognitivism; rather I seek to reiterate that complex institutional and social conditions have allowed it to enjoy unprecedented platforms (hello inane ‘wellbeing’ apps) and unchallenged status in the Western world. This point has been made before. Several times. It is articulated every time sacred wisdom such as the Buddhist practice of mindfulness is usurped, diluted, decontextualized, and packaged in a cognitivised version, easily available for mass consumption. Distinguished cognitive scholars have grappled with some of the issues described here, and some have actually protested the dominance of the machine as the ultimate metaphor to symbolise psychological activity (cf. Jerome Bruner’s work). How many psychotherapists must speak up to protest the irrational (the irony!) program of mass mental hygiene that IAPT has become? How many psychologists must swallow their ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’ (50% at the last count) in mental health settings before we all agree: “The psychologists and their cognitive errors (‘I can’t cope’, ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘This is hopeless’) are not the problem here!” Clinical and counselling psychologists know that cognitive interventions have a place in working with distress, but it is certainly not the place they currently occupy. So you might ask, if this has been said many times before, and it is not a hugely incomprehensible point to get hold of, why is there need to still write about it? Hmmm…Let’s call it ‘selective attention’, shall we?   

Further reading:

Bruner, J. (1991). The narrative construction of reality. Critical Inquiry, 18(1), 1-21.

Desai, M. & Hadjiosif, M. (2020). The evolution of the community psychology festival. In C. Walker, S. Zlotowitz, & A. Zoli (Eds.), New ideas for new times: A handbook of innovative community and clinical psychologies (in preparation). London: Palgrave.

Henriques, J., Hollway, W., Urwin, C., Venn, C., & Walkerdine, V. (1998). Changing the subject:  Psychology, Social Regulation and Subjectivity (2nd ed). London: Routledge. (Original work published 1984).

Parker, I. and Shotter, J. (Eds.) (1990) Deconstructing social psychology. London: Routledge.

One novel and one TV show that stimulated this piece:

‘The word for world is forest’ by Ursula K. Le Guin (1976)

‘The OA’ by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij (2016-)

Follow the Community Psychology Festival on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/communitypsychologyfestival/

Maintaining the “entente cordiale” in the era of Brexit

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By Tony Ward

If you read the higher education press, you will be aware of the concerns of many British academics and universities following the 2016 referendum and the vote in favour of leaving Europe. How the UK leaves the European Union could have many important consequences for British universities.  It may become impossible for British researchers to access European research funds, which in the past have been a major source of funding.  Access to staff and student mobility schemes may cease, making it harder for people to travel abroad to study and collaborate.  Academic staff from Europe may no longer find the UK an attractive place to come and work, and vice versa.

As an academic that has had strong links with our nearest European neighbour for some time, the referendum decision has been personally painful, and the ensuing months and years since torturous. However, I am determined to do my bit in maintaining close working relationships with our continental colleagues, however the Brexit project turns out. So I thought I would use my PSRG blog entry to tell you a bit about French psychology, and the rewards of international collaboration.

This story really started for me in the winter of 2013, when I decided it might be useful to travel abroad to find out how other institutions were delivering online learning in post-graduate psychology. Having set up a distance-based MSc in the early 2000s, and by 2013 being the programme lead for the doctorate in counselling psychology at UWE, I was keen to see how professional courses could be delivered online. I duly wrote and submitted a travel grant application to the Higher Education Academy (HEA), with a view to visiting the Fielding Institute in California and Paris 8 University in France, both of which run distance courses in clinical psychology (if you are an undergraduate psychology student that speaks good French you might consider the Paris 8 Masters – though using this to get HCPC registered might be less straight forward after Brexit!). Unfortunately, the HEA hit a period of financial turbulence, and the travel grants were axed. As a result, the USA part of the plan had to go, but Paris 8 was possible with some university funding.

So in 2014 I spent a week at Paris 8 University, talking to staff and students, and finding out how their online MSc in clinical psychology was run. In France currently, access to the profession of clinical psychology is via a two year MSc, as it used to be in the UK (before Plymouth University pioneered professional doctorates in the 1990s, and everyone else followed suit). I soon discovered that an interesting aspect of clinical psychology at Paris 8 is that it quite closely resembles our counselling psychology course at UWE, in that students study both humanistic and psychodynamic foundations of therapy, as well as the ubiquitous cognitive behaviour therapy.

Paris 8 University is well known in France as the experimental university which was founded after the student led riots of 1968. Well known academics have included Foucault and Deleuze. Amongst the current psychology staff is Professor Arnaud Plagnol, who like me has interests in the application of cognitive science to understanding and working with client issues in therapy. Following my 2014 visit, Arnaud and I have collaborated on a number of projects.  The picture shown here is a poster we did on neuroscience and depression, at the DCoP conference in Harrogate in 2015. More recently we have written a book together called Cognitive Psychodynamics, which illustrates how psychodynamic insights into phenomena such as the unconscious and transference can be understood and further developed in therapy through a cognitive framework.

Since 2014 I have done a small amount of teaching on the Paris 8 MSc.  To help me communicate better with my French colleagues and students, I have attended a number of the annual conferences of the French Psychological Society. This year’s was in Poitiers, and the picture shown here is of the Hotel Fumé, which as the name suggests was built as a hotel by the  Fumé family in the 15th century. It became part of the University of Poitiers’ Faculty of Human Sciences in 1922. The University of Poitiers is one of the oldest in France, often seen as the number 2 after Paris (so the French equivalent of Oxford ;).  I was pleased to be able to present at the conference the excellent research carried out by one of my professional doctorate students, Sara Dowsett, on the utility of schema theory in understanding mental health issues in higher education students.  The great thing about attending this conference is also the opportunity to catch up on some of the research being done by our colleagues in the Francophone world. For example, I listened to an extremely interesting paper by Geoffrey Gauvin, who along with colleagues in Montreal has been looking at the utility of self-help groups for clients with depression.  It struck me that the holistic perspective being used with clients in these groups is something we might well benefit from here in the UK.

One of the highlights, as you would expect for a conference in France, was the conference dinner. I felt privileged to be seated opposite the president of the French Society, Rene Clarisse. In talking to Rene, one of the interesting things I learned was psychologists in France are pushing the government to extend psychology training courses by an extra year, which may well give rise to the development of professional doctorates in France.  Ironically, the similarities between British and French psychology may well therefore increase even further after Brexit, just as the possibility of professional mobility may well get harder.

I hope my blog entry encourages you all to reach out to our continental psychology colleagues and overcome the linguistic barriers, whatever language your rusty GCSE happens to be in.

Introducing our new lecturer, Dr Eva Fragkiadaki!

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By Eva Fragkiadaki

My name is Eva Fragkiadaki, and I have recently joined the UWE Department of Health and Social Sciences as a Senior Lecturer in Counselling Psychology.

I received my undergraduate degree in Psychology from University of Crete in Greece. I then moved to London where I completed my Master of Science in Counselling Psychology as well as my Professional Doctorate (PsyD) in Counselling Psychology at City University of London. Prior to joining UWE, I worked as an Assistant Professor and Director of the Psychology Division at Hellenic American University (Athens, Greece) for three years.

At UWE, I will be primarily teaching at the Professional Doctorate in Counselling Psychology programme, and I will also be involved in the roles of Placement Coordinator, Director of Studies as well as supervisor of undergraduate dissertations.

I am a qualitative researcher and my projects have been based on constructionist methodologies like Grounded Theory and Narrative Analysis, but recently I have engaged more into phenomenological paradigms and Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis in particular. My scholarly interests initially involved the exploration of psychotherapy termination, trainees’ professional development, mental health practice and the impact of financial crisis on people and services. Over the last years, my research focuses on the investigation of psychotherapy process, change and outcome, developing longitudinal, mixed method and qualitative study designs. I have collaborated with academics and researchers from Greece, UK, Netherlands, and USA, and I have published academic articles and peer-reviewed chapters based on my research activities. Given my expertise in qualitative methodologies, I have been invited to facilitate seminars and also consult on projects by a number of institutions. Moreover, I have been the organizer of five qualitative research panels in national and international conferences and I have been invited to participate in numerous discussions as a presenter. Recently, I was invited to be the keynote speaker in an international conference of the American Counseling Association.

I am a trained psychotherapist, adhering primarily to the psychodynamic and psychoanalytic model of formulation and practice but I have also been trained in Cognitive Behavioural approach. I have worked on short and long term therapeutic basis with a variety of clinical cases (depression, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, psychosis etc.) and ages (adults, adolescents, children and families). I have collaborated with social workers, play therapists, psychiatrists, teachers and other professionals in the fields of mental health and education. I adhere to the scientist – practitioner model based on my academic and clinical training and practice. As a researcher and a psychotherapist I believe the two domains interact and inform each other. I try to encourage this model to my students and trainees.

The arts and wellbeing: A burgeoning research area

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By Nicola Holt

“I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.” Frida Kahlo, artist

“To write poetry is to be alive.” Rainer Maria Rilke, poet

The therapeutic role of the arts in fostering healing, growth, well-being and emotional expression is well-attested and long-standing. Whether painting, creative writing, crafting, singing or colouring, arts-based approaches are beginning to be recognised as credible and effective ways to promote good psychological health for all.

There is currently a burgeoning of research on the arts and health, that is impacting policy and treatment. For example, recent research has suggested that singing can help reduce post-natal depression and improve lung-functioning, dance can help improve the balance and gait of people with Parkinson’s disease, poetry therapy can be a useful intervention for patients recovering from anorexia, expressive writing can decrease stress and improve immune system functioning, art making can help to reduce pain and distress in cancer patients, improve mental health and enable positive experiences such as happiness and mindfulness. Bodies such as the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing  have assimilated such findings, and, based on these have made policy briefings recommending the increased commissioning of the arts to improve health and wellbeing (including ageing well, mental health, and the self-management of chronic conditions). While this may be having some impact (for example, the Government’s recent plans to increase access to arts on referral), caveats remain. There are limitations with the evidence base and numerous questions about the efficacy of the arts remain unanswered. For example, effects require replication, many reviews include heterogenous interventions, groups of people and wellbeing outcomes. This can make it difficult to know which art treatments work best for whom, and why. It is also unclear how interventions should best be delivered, for example, the number of sessions required and the optimal spacing between them. The long-term benefits of arts interventions are also little known. Much profitable research has yet to be conducted on the arts and health, which will help to answer such questions.

I became interested in the arts and wellbeing when studying for an MSc in consciousness studies twenty years ago. I became interested in the shifts in conscious experience (e.g., perception, attention, cognition, mood, awareness of body, time and agency) that I personally experienced while painting and began to explore the literature for explanations, leading to an MSc thesis and a PhD on consciousness and creativity. One common type of experience, described by humanistic psychologists such as Rollo May and Abraham Maslow as a form of ‘peak experience’ or ‘creative attitude’, and popularised by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is the ‘flow state’, involving detachment from time and space, absorption in the activity of the present moment, deep fascination and concentration. The accounts given by Marion Milner, in her book ‘On not being able to paint’, were my favourite ones at the time, for example, she described what she called moments of ‘creative participation’ in the following way:

“The process always seems to be accompanied by a feeling that the ordinary sense of self had temporarily disappeared, there had been a kind of blanking out of ordinary consciousness; even the awareness of blanking out had gone, so that it was only afterwards when I had returned to ordinary consciousness that I remembered that there had been this phase of complete lack of self-consciousness.” (Milner, 1950, p. 152)

Indeed, my recent research suggests that ‘flow’ might be one mechanism to explain the health benefits of engaging with the arts. The arts might offer people the opportunity to experience degrees of absorption or flow in their daily lives, in a way that promotes wellbeing, either by being temporarily distracted from one’s pain or worries, or through engagement, joy and a consequent sense of mastery. Various crafts and arts activities might facilitate this experience, including drawing, knitting, and colouring. Colouring is an and accessible art activity that has been increasingly advocated for wellbeing, and evidence supports its use as a stress-reduction tool for University students. Recent research that I have conducted at UWE, with students on our undergraduate psychology programme, suggests that, not only might colouring, temporarily, at least, improve mood and promote the flow state, but might also improve cognitive functioning – both selective attention and creativity, potentially helping students to solve problems in everyday life.

Of course, the flow state can be experienced in many activities in everyday life, and a range of other mechanisms have been proposed to explain the health benefits of art-making, some specific to particular forms of art. For example, it has been proposed that expressive writing may reduce cognitive rumination and anxiety following stressful events, creating a meaningful and more manageable narrative, impacting both psychological and long-term physical wellbeing (by improving immune system functioning). Further, many art groups perform an important social function, helping to reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation and improving people’s ability to relate to and communicate with others. Research on the mechanisms behind any wellbeing effect is important because we can help to identify to active ingredients of arts for health interventions (e.g. type of art, skills of the arts practitioner, group interaction) and modify these accordingly to optimise wellbeing.  

In the Faculty of Health and Social Sciences at UWE we have a number of academics interested in the arts and health, including our music therapy team. Academics from different disciplines come together as a teaching team on the Level Three Psychology module, The Arts and Mental Health, led by myself, delivering an exciting and diverse array of topics, including art psychotherapy, music therapy, music in prisons, poetry therapy, craftivism, and the arts and dementia. As a next step I have begun a multidisciplinary Special Interest Research Group at UWE with Dr Liz Jenkinson, hoping to facilitate research collaborations on the arts and health, within and beyond UWE. This is entitled DRAW: Developing Research on the Arts and Well-being, housed within the Promoting Psychological Health strand of PSRG (Psychological Sciences Research Group). Interests of DRAW include developing new arts interventions, evaluating existing arts interventions, researching mechanisms to explain the health benefits of engagement with the arts and the use of the arts in creative research methods.

The members of DRAW bring together a diverse range of knowledge and expertise and we are looking forward to collaborating and extending our research and evaluation of arts for health. For instance, Dr Liz Jenkinson and the health psychology team at UWE are experts in understanding patient experiences of acute and chronic health conditions, and the design and evaluation of effective psychosocial support. The use of the arts in health care as a therapeutic tool in promoting good psychological and physical health is an area in which DRAW has begun to collaborate with organisations such as Fresh Arts, who provide arts-based interventions for patients at Southmead Hospital, including arts on referral for cancer patients. Liz is also working with colleagues at UWE in Visual Culture and the Arts with the aim of developing a new arts for health intervention with young mums. Another DRAW member, Dr Mike Chase has over 20 years of experience of working and researching in the voluntary and statutory community sector, and has been using mixed-methods to evaluate the use of music and arts interventions in community settings, including the Outsider Gallery, in London. Mike hopes to extend this collaboration further, for example taking arts and music interventions to young people’s forensic units in Bristol.

At DRAW we have also been evaluating whether ‘prescribing’ a course of art workshops to people experiencing depression, anxiety or loneliness can improve wellbeing. ‘Arts on prescription’ or ‘arts on referral’ forms part of the wider remit of social prescribing, where doctors, nurses or other primary care professionals prescribe non-clinical activities (including nature walks, cooking or singing workshops) with the expectation that this will improve the health of participants. Although the Government plans to increase the use of social prescribing in the NHS, including arts on prescription, there is only a limited, but encouraging, evidence base for its efficacy. I have been working with the recently formed Bristol Arts on Referral Alliance (BARA) to help contribute to the evidence base for arts on prescription. BARA provides 13 art workshops across Bristol, and 6 follow-on groups, embedded within a larger social prescribing scheme, funded by Bristol City Council, Bristol CCG and charitable foundations. We have been using a mixed methods design, including semi-structured interviews with participants, and drawing on existing pre-post intervention evaluation frameworks. Further, based on my research using the experience sampling method, participants have been tracking their mood over time, for the duration of each 12-week-long art course. Indeed, this has become a meaningful part of the art workshops for participants, reflecting on their current mood at the start and end of each workshop. This data will enable us to test whether any increases in wellbeing at the end of each course are predicted by reductions in stress, increased energy and happiness, directly following making art. The first round of data collection is now complete and will be analysed and disseminated over the next few months, some initial outcomes having been presented at the 1st International Social Prescribing Network Research Conference in June 2018.

The team at DRAW are interested in using the arts themselves as tools for collecting and disseminating data. Led by Victoria Clarke, and in collaboration with Psychologists at the Universities of Aston and Bath, Liz and I have received funding from the BPS to run a seminar series exploring the potential for creative and arts-based methods for applied psychological research. You can learn more about this venture here. We hope that this series will inspire us to use the arts more creatively, as a research tool, in future projects. Using the arts and evaluation tools might offer a creative, more empowering and enjoyable way for participants in arts for health interventions to communicate their experiences and to disseminate these to others.

These are exciting times to be conducting research on the arts and health, with potential for new and innovative projects and collaborations. We hope to grow our research and evaluation at UWE on this topic and develop collaborations with others, within UWE and beyond.  We welcome members to our new special interest group, DRAW, and hope you can join us for our upcoming seminar series which runs from May-July 2019. In the meantime, why not have a go at some arts for health activities – for example UWE’s Feel Good February events include crafting and creative writing!

Promoting resilience and questioning resilience

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By Miles Thompson

Your 30-second summary. This blog is about resilience. A term that is now, seemingly, everywhere. Below I provide a quick overview of the term and of psychological research into the resilience of children. Then I contrast these research findings which note multiple contributing factors at multiple levels, with the focus of many resilience interventions: often the individual in isolation. I note how this reflects an old but important debate within psychology that sparked the emergence of community psychology from clinical psychology in the 1960s. I also explore how resilience researchers today are adopting the same guiding frameworks as community psychologists. This again might make us wonder about the appropriateness of individually focused resilience interventions when what make us all more or less resilient might stem from broader, more systemic levels.

Back in September I wrote my first post for the Psychological Sciences Research Group (PSRG) blog. It was about a session colleagues and I were delivering at the 4th community psychology festival in Hertford. It focused on student mental health and on the potential of community psychology to complement or even replace “resilience workshops.” In this post I’d like to focus on the topic of resilience itself, but notice that community psychology will get brought back in later.

The word resilience derives from the Latin for rebounding, leaping or springing back. A large amount of psychological research in this area has focused on children. This research goes back to at least the 1970’s, although in those early days terms like “invulnerable” and “stress-resistant” were also used.

Of course, in recent years the term resilience seems to have crossed over into the mainstream and is now a desirable characteristic in many contexts including working age adults, teams, organisations, cities, even countries. We will come back to this later, but for now, let’s focus on the psychological research into children and more recently wider child / parent units.

Professor Ann Masten
Professor Ann Masten

Very simply, after some form of adversity, some children seem to fare well – they bounce back – and others fare less well. The obvious question is why? Is there something “special” about those who bounce back? One of the leading contemporary figures in this research is Ann Masten. Her answer to this question has often been summed up by the phrase: Ordinary Magic. Here Masten is suggesting that resilience is both common and that it arises from ordinary rather than extraordinary protective factors. More specifically, research in this area consistently talks about the importance of: individual, relational and community attributes. Borrowing terms directly from a recent review, these include:

  • Individual: problems-solving skills, self-regulation skills, hope or faith, mastery motivation, and meaning in life.
  • Relational: secure attachment relationships early in life and later good relationships with extended family, friends, mentors, and romantic partners.
  • Community: connections to effective schools and community organisations.

It is interesting to note the broad scope of factors that potentially contribute to resilience (individual, relational and community). The evidence seems clear that this is not something that comes from within the individual alone. This sits somewhat in contrast to the target of many mainstream resilience interventions. In psychology, these interventions can sometimes seem very individually focused. Sometimes they closely resemble the mental health interventions delivered by clinical psychologists, like myself, simply repackaged and resold as a “resilience interventions”.

For example: the aptly titled “Penn Resilience Programme” is a programme delivered to school aged children based on cognitive behavioural techniques (CBT). Equally, an examination of the contents of books about resilience can look almost identical to the chapter headings from an individually focused CBT self-help book. This may seem odd, because remember the evidence for resilience also points to the importance of relational and community attributes. We might also wonder whether traditional CBT, or any other psychological intervention, is evidenced to reliably move all of the individual attributes potentially relevant to resilience. In short, it seems possible that there is a disconnect between the findings from contemporary resilience research and the contents of contemporary resilience interventions.

Part of the reason for raising this concern, is that it points to an old but important debate within the field of clinical psychology and applied psychology more generally. The debate centres on the concern that applied psychology and our interventions can sometimes be too individually focused. That, perhaps without meaning to, we can too easily place both the problem and apparent solution to problems within the skin of an individual. Sometimes even seeming to “blame” the individual. As I say, this is not a new debate, in clinical psychology it has been going since at least the 1960’s. An entire field, community psychology, (remember the festival from earlier?), arose in response to it and tries to promote a broader response to these issues.

Interestingly, this old debate has direct and recent echoes in resilience research. For community psychology, systems thinking and ecological theory is very important. Very simply this means thinking beyond the individual. For example, developmental psychologist Uri Bronfenbrenner noted the importance not just of the individual, but of different systems of broader scales around the individual including micro-, meso-, exo-, macro- and also time (chrono-). These ideas are key in community psychology.

What is interesting is that Masten and others psychologists interested in the resilience of children and families have relatively recently started defining resilience as: “the capacity of a system to adapt successfully to significant challenges that threaten its function, viability, or development”. They use the word “system” deliberately because their thinking is explicitly influenced by exactly the same systems thinking and ecological theory as community psychology.

As a clinical psychologist, I am very aware that there is a place for individually focused interventions. But I am also aware that sometimes the key to the solution does not lie there. It is interesting, for example, that in recent reviews promoting resilience frameworks for children and families Masten highlights the importance of wider systemic interventions (e.g. boosting resources like housing support, health care, food programs, tax credits or cash transfers) as much if not more than individual or family focused work (e.g., the quality of parent–child relationships, maternal depression).

As resilience gets talked about more, in more and more settings – we perhaps need to be a little more alert as to where the problem and solution is being situated. Perhaps we need to wonder aloud whether all the responsibility, and even implicitly the blame, is being placed on the shoulders of the individual and if that is appropriate.

For example, are individually focused resilience workshops “the” answer for stressed colleagues working in the NHS? Maybe. I can imagine a place for them. Especially if everything else is working well in the NHS at wider levels – if waiting lists aren’t heaving, budgets aren’t being cut, and pressure isn’t being put on individual staff to deliver more and more, with less and less. But if some, or all, of those things are happening, are individually focused resilience  interventions really the answer? See here for one local account of how these workshops are experienced by some NHS staff. Like the Doctor interviewed in the article, I am in no way anti-mindfulness (see my publication record), but there does seem to be a potential tension if adopting an individual approach to resilience ignores wider issues, or even more problematically situates the problem within the individual.

Articles like the above are small signs that a public debate around resilience is growing and becoming more nuanced. This is to be welcomed. Another example is a recent, short, Radio 4 programme about resilience, from the series “Keywords for our time”. Here GP and broadcaster Farrah Jarral discusses the term, its popularity and, like this blog, wonders if there might be a possible dark side to its use.

Finally, rightly, other academic areas are also involved in the conversation. In geography, the resilience of urban and regional places is a subject of study. And here similar discussions are being had. Specifically, the potential risk of placing the problem and solution within the smallest unit (e.g. a disadvantaged community) while ignoring the wider factors that are as, if not more, responsible for causing the issues in the first place. Interestingly, in disciplines like geography, terms like: political critique, power structures, material resources, global capitalism and neoliberalization seem to appear more often than they do in mainstream psychology publications. Perhaps we should all take note. If resilience is increasingly talked about at many different levels of society, and psychology and psychologists are asked to comment or deliver interventions – what is our response, at what level, and how effective can it be?

Community psychology perspectives on student mental health

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By Miles Thompson

The 4th UK Community Psychology Festival is being held on the 23rd and 24th of September 2018 in the Hertford Theatre, Hertford. It follows the success of the 3rd festival, which was held at the Arnolfini in Bristol and was joint hosted by UWE’s Social Science Research Group.

Three members of UWE’s Psychological Sciences Research Group are curating a slot at festival number 4 titled: Community psychology perspectives on student mental health. In the festival spirit they want their session to be as interactive as possible and are asking all festival goers to participate in their session – before it takes place – whether they are able to attend the actual session or not. In short they invite people to read the extract below from their festival abstract and respond:

Mental health problems for students in UK higher education are receiving increased attention. Since 2008, some universities have experienced a threefold increase in demand for student support services. Student suicide has also been on the increase. A new document by Universities UK called “Step Change” has started to shape policy in this area.

You are a psychologist – interested in community psychology – teaching at a UK university. The university has concerns about growing student mental health issues. It is keen to tackle the problem by offering 1st year students a series of “resilience workshops” that focus on individual emotional regulation skills. What community psychology perspectives, evidence and even interventions might you suggest to complement or even replace the current suggestion?

Specifically, we invite festival goers to respond in advance of the session by either:
Posting a comment at the end of this blog post
Tweeting a response using the hashtag #commpsySMH
Or e-mailing: miles2.thompson@uwe.ac.uk with their response.

We plan to spend the timetabled session considering both the responses to the scenario above and wondering together about how UK community psychology might contribute more widely to this area.

Remember, please respond to the above scenario before the actual session whether or not you are able to attend it. Thank you.

The Power of Yoga: Using yoga to promote psychological and physical health

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By Emma Halliwell

I was 21, living in Brighton, studying and partying when went to my first yoga class. I was immediately hooked. I have been practicing yoga, with varying frequency, ever since. In those early days yoga helped me cope with the aftermath of late nights and exam stress. Over the subsequent two decades yoga has helped me cope with more serious health and emotional issues.  I can definitely attest to the ‘power of yoga’ in my own life.

Despite my long relationship with yoga, I’ve only begun to research yoga relatively recently. Fortunately, I have a brilliant yoga teacher, Sam Burkey, as a collaborator. She has a wealth of experience and expertise about the benefits of yoga. Together we take an evidence-based approach, integrating evidence from the academic literature, classic teachings and professional experience.

Yoga improves both physical and psychological health. It offers benefits for numerous health conditions including diabetes, cancer, anxiety and cardiovascular disease. Of course, beyond peer-reviewed research, there is also an extensive and rich literature on yoga. The seminal text, The Yoga-Sutra, was written two-thousand years ago (although references to yoga date back 5,000 years). Numerous texts have been published as guides to practice and as testament to the benefits of yoga. Based on these resources, we can draw some clear conclusions and also identify some significant challenges.

For many people yoga is a lifelong pursuit. The benefits of this sustained practice are well documented. These benefits also change and emerge in response to an individual’s own development. There is also evidence that relatively brief yoga courses improve health and wellbeing.

Currently, we are seeing an explosion in the types of yoga on offer, from the more traditional to the more bizarre. It is not clear whether positive impact of yoga extends to some of the more recent variants. Also, we are seeing the emergence of programs that seem to take yoga away from the basic philosophical routes of self-compassion and acceptance, e.g. “beach body yoga workout”.  These developments makes it more challenging to simply recommend yoga as a route to improve well-being.

Against this backdrop, our aim is to evaluate stand-alone yoga-based interventions that also provide a foundation for future practice that will support psychological and physical well-being. Specifically, we are developing brief yoga-based interventions that

  1. target and improve specific aspects of psychological and physical well-being and
  2. offer an informed entry route into yoga practice.

To date, we’ve delivered yoga interventions in schools and university. Our initial data indicates that our targeted yoga-based intervention approach is effective. For example, our yoga-based intervention led to sustained improvements in mood and body image among young women and 40% of them continuing yoga practice.

We have many other projects planned. Most imminently, with an extended cross-disciplinary project team, we are working on yoga programs for individuals who’ve experienced cancer.

So far, this research area has been extremely exciting and rewarding. The significant intervention effects are very promising. Of course, some of the most compelling evidence comes from qualitative feedback. In our most recent study, one participant reported…

“I have taken up yoga and want to do it forever”