high riseAnarchy in the sky, but could it ever happen? When all responsibility is taken over by the management, would people revert to childhood, trash their homes and services, and resort to drunkenness, violence and aggressive, opportunistic sex. Would the lack of external constraint release our basic emotional animal selves?

These are the questions, being asked in J.G. Ballard’s novel, ‘High Rise’, which my daughter, Esther, gave me for my birthday. He describes the latest concept in inner city living for young professionals: new high-rise apartment blocks designed to take over all the responsibility for domestic life. Not only are all the utilities and services provided by the company, but the blocks also contain their own recreation facilities – swimming pool, gymnasiums, restaurants, cinemas, a play area for children and meeting and event space for their parents, and their own supermarkets, shopping centre and banks. Each tower block is a self contained town; 1000 full equipped homes in the sky with views over the city. There is no need to go out except to work, but nowadays many could work on-line from their apartment. It is a new concept in living; an architects dream that within weeks turned into a nightmare.

It starts innocently enough with noisy ‘get to know each other’ parties. Bottles are tossed over balconies, casual liaisons formed and then broken. Then within days, delays in getting elevators lead to tensions.  Those living on the top few floors have their own express elevators, epitomising  a vertical gradient in status and income, the richer celebrities and top executives on the top, the professional classes in the middle and the nurses, air hostesses, shop managers, bank officials towards the bottom.  This leads to factionalism and eventually conflict.

As the inhabitants lose control, so the building itself starts to fail, first the electricity – whole floors are blacked out for a time. The garbage disposal chutes become blocked. People dump their rubbish in the foyer or throw it over the balcony. The cars in the front few rows of the car park are wrecked by falling bottles. Then the elevators fail and the stairwells are blocked by rubbish, the water supply is cut off, the sewage system fails and  swimming pools become open sewers.

People form themselves into gangs, raiding parties that trash the apartments on the upper floors, attacked the inhabitants, rape the women. There is no food, the shelves in the supermarket have been cleared. People resort to killing pets that are by now running feral throughout the building and cooking them over open fires lit from broken furniture on the balconies.  The furniture that is not burnt is used to barricade the apartments and stair wells.  As the violence escalates, people are killed and most likely also eaten.

Into the chaos, comes  Wilder, a self appointed war lord, his loins bare, his insignia emblazoned in lipstick across his chest, accompanied by his entourage of followers and sex slaves. The apartment town achieves a kind of stability, organised by violence and fear, as strict rules are established, punishable by death.

High Rise is a disturbing and unrealistic dystopia. Realists might question how people go  to work as normal during the day, but always return to their urban jungle at night, why many find the gang warfare and permissive sex exciting, why nobody informs the authorities and when asked, denies there is any trouble. Even the newsreader who reads the one o’clock news every day says nothing of the anarchy at home. The way Ballard wrote it, they just don’t care anymore, but wouldn’t their upbringing have equipped them with the self imposed constraints to live together?  Isn’t that what civilisation and socialisation imply?

I can’t imagine that Ballard meant High Rise to be taken literally. It is science fiction, what-if, a metaphor to think about, but close enough to other examples of societal breakdown in Berlin, Stalingrad, the Congo, Ruanda, and more recently in Mosul and Aleppo. Axel Munthe wrote how during the plague in Naples, when all civic control had broken down and people were dying in their thousands, the survivors were openly having sex with each other in the city squares, on fountains, benches, everywhere. Trauma disconnects the thinking brain so that people can behave  like animals and follow their basic emotional drives until somebody asserts strict control, which they follow without question, like Bettleheim’s Musselmen, the walking corpses, who marched to their death in the gas chambers in Buchenwald or the followers of ISIS.

But when people first moved into the tower black, they were not traumatised, they could still think. The trauma came later. So what caused them lose control? Was it some kind of mass hysteria, like an unstoppable contagion? Helen Wilder said it was the tower that made them behave so out of control, but it is difficult to see how or why.  Why would everybody become so irresponsible just because they were living in a luxury high rise? There would surely  be some who wouldn’t.

I cannot agree that High Rise is JG Ballard’s best novel, though there are echoes of the Japanese camp in ‘The Empire of the Sun’ The themes of vandalism, sectionalism and flagrant sexuality are somewhat repetitive and disturbing. The high rise society deteriorated too rapidly The best metaphors have to be credible. This is too divorced from reality to suspend disbelief. The metaphor is flawed.

Ballard wrote High Rise in 1975, at around the time, high rise tower blacks were being constructed in every major city in Britain.  His apocalyptic vision has not been realised, but only this year the vulnerability of high rise buildings to fire has been exposed in West London.

 

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isis-flag They are described as mad, mentally disturbed, confused, radicalised by fanatics, escapists from domestic trauma. This may not be necessarily so. The State, which was broadcast on Channel 4 last weekend, shows the Brits who travel to Syria to fight for the self styled Islamic State to be highly committed young men and women looking for a sense of meaning and adventure in their lives. Peter Kosminski’s documentary pulls no punches. The men, called the brothers, are told they are not expected to live for more than a year and they will die martyrs to the cause and live forever in heaven. Some are suicide bombers, but if it is Allah’s will, they go willingly to their death.

There is such a strange logic to their fight. As one instructor explains, they are not expected to win, but their actions will bring about the involvement and ultimate destruction of America and all it stands for and ensure that the purity of Islam will prevail. The brutality and violence are a means to an end. It is not always clear who is fighting who and for what. Shia commit atrocities on the Sunni, the Sunni retaliate. Meanwhile Assad’s forces and the Russians are bombing the cities, and terrorist attacks occur every week in the name of Isis throughout the western world. The women are not really expected to do anything except become brides to the brothers and support their fight. In essence, they succumb to state approved rape and prostitution. It is brutal, violent and chaotic.

But what is it that would make a middle class young person living a safe life in Britain want to risk their lives to fight for a cause they don’t understand. Do they crave adventure and glory? Do they want to become heroes? Is it a reaction to what they see as the meaninglessness and decadence of our western way of life? Do they feel victimised by their family or community and seek revenge? Is this the vanguard of a global revolution not unlike past insurrections in France and Russia, but mirroring other anti-establishment movements like Brexit or Trump? Or are they fighting their own internal psychological battle to self discovery? Does identification with Islamic State provides a fixed reference point in a confusing and insecure world, where little seems to matter? Kosminski leaves us with a lot of possibilities but no certainty.

A hundred years ago, millions of young men went cheerfully to France to fight another confusing war under appalling conditions. And even when hundreds of thousands were slaughtered on the Somme, at Ypres. Mons, Amiens and Passchendale, they still kept going back. Maybe they were too traumatised and fearful to do otherwise. I remember my father telling me that when he was training to be a fighter pilot, only 1 in 9 would survive. Nobody pulled out. Some twenty five years later, when the Cuba missile cruise brought the threat of global conflict to our consciousness, I and most of my friends said that if war broke out, we would volunteer to fight. It was only Tim who said he would buy a gun and shoot himself and his family. We were appalled, but with the benefit of hindsight, he demonstrated a grim sense of maturity and wisdom that the rest of us had yet to attain.

There is a difference between the global conflicts of the last century and the confused mission of Isis. Our parents and grandparents were fighting for their country. Lord Kitchener bristled his moustache and pointed his finger, ‘Your country needs you!’ and most obeyed without question. Later it became something more. As a fighting unit, facing imminent death every day, they could not let their mates down. Exhausted and traumatised, they needed certainties; orders they could not question. Tennyson captured the mood when writing about another war: ‘Theirs not to reason why. Theirs but to do and die. Into the valley of death rode the six hundred.’ But when survivors talked or wrote about their experience, they often declared that it was the time of their lives. They had never felt more alive as when they were near death.

Fifty years on, an unprecedented period of peace and stability is being threatened again by conflict. It seems like a ‘lost generation’ of young people with diminishing prospects, brought up on adventure films and virtual war games, are looking for a sense of mission. The Islamic State might fill the gap. The danger and rigid discipline are all part of the attraction. They are a band of ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ united by a collective delusion, not unlike the crusades of old or the jingoism of the Great War when the enemy was the embodiment of decadence and evil and their martyrdom would change the world. They are going for glory. They do not think of dying, only surviving; if not on earth, in heaven.

It is not my intention or wish to condone what is happening in Syria. I am writing this to try to understand the mindset of those who are fighting. We have to try to make sense of the unthinkable if we are ever to resolve it. Kosminski’s powerful documentary portrays a state which was once fuelled by idealism, but is now controlled for fear. The torture, summary executions, rapes and murders are as bad as the worst excesses of the Nazis or the Russian occupation of Berlin. Have the perpetrators have become so conditioned by what they have witnessed that they have no conscience? Have they become so traumatised, they have dissociated emotionally from the reality of what they are doing. Are they so fearful, that they have to be brutal to survive? Or is it just that they see the enemy as inhuman, an object that must be destroyed? Perhaps, all are correct, but who is the enemy and who isn’t?

War traumatises and dehumanises all those caught up in it. And British soldiers are not excluded. During the worst atrocities of the Peninsular Campaign, which Wellington was powerless to prevent, he said of his troops, ‘I don’t know what the enemy think of them, but by God, they terrify me!’ And we are still only just learning of what went on in the detention centres in Iraq or in Northern Ireland.

One of the most chilling sequences of Kosminski’s documentary was when Shakira, the young doctor, sees 10 year olds being taught to stab a fresh corpse, hung up for their instruction, while her son, Isaac, and his friends play football with the severed head. Even the Hitler youth was not as brutal. When, Shakira tries to remonstrate, Isaac  accuses her of embarrassing him and goes back to his mates. It is only too easy to lose all sense of decency while those around you have lost theirs.

At that moment, she decides to escape. It seems surprisingly easy, but when she arrives back in UK, the choice was either being separated from her son and going to prison for years or agreeing to spy on her her own community.

While most reviewers praised the film, Christopher Stevens in The Daily Mail penned a hard hitting attack on as portraying his film as a pure poison, a work of fiction and like a Nazi recruiting film from the 1930s, and 61 year old film maker, Kosminski, as a Oxbridge educated media luvvie, who was neither a veteran of Syria, nor had conducted a research mission to Raqqa or Aleppo. Stevens is also hardly a reliable witness, being best known for his biography of Kenneth Williams and his book on comedy scriptwriters, Ray Galton and Alan Stevens. Jihadist recruits would have known what they were letting themselves in for. Not so, they were attracted by the idea and would not necessarily believe the evidence until they saw it for themselves, by which time, they were either dead or too far in to return. Stevens would dismiss jihadists as incomprehensibly evil or mad. This happens in every conflict, but it doesn’t get us anywhere except more slaughter and more terror.

Kosminski has made a brave attempt to get into the minds of the jihadists to understand their mission, their rejection of liberal democracy, and ultimately their fear and emotional dissociation. Violence breeds more violence. If we cannot try to understand it, we can only retaliate and escalate the cycle of retribution, as would be revolutionaries are driven underground to launch ever more frequent attacks on the complacent and decadent. To my mind, this documentary was so much more terrifying because the atrocities were conducted by recognisable human beings.

The state was screened on Channel 4. It was punctuated every ten minutes by advertisements that were so crass, they underscored what is deplorable about western consumerism and why people might want out.

troubled bodiesIt seems that in much of the ‘anglo-saxon’ world, we have lost the facility of bodily communication we enjoyed in childhood. Children don’t seem to play together as much as they did, people tend to work alone. Has our society become so densely populated that we no longer know each other well enough to risk bodily communication. People crowd together on the ‘tube’, their bodies not quite touching, but they don’t communicate. Their eyes look at their mobile phones or stare into space, their expressions neutral or defensive. And if they inadvertently touch, they immediately apologise.

We are living in a narcissistic age. Perhaps in reaction to population density, people are focussed on personal achievement, being special in a crowded world. They advertise ourselves on social media. They desperately seek connection but at the same time, fear it. With an educational system geared towards self actuation; being or working together can be difficult.

One of the hardest problems is how to connect with people of different genders, ages, classes, races, languages. How can we bridge the gap between men and women when men are so often seen as aggressors and women victims? How can we learn to understand people of alternative gender identities? How can we connect with people of different races in a time of racial abuse and terrorist attacks? How can people bridge the inequalities of class and education? These are the existential problems of our time; the pain and the tragedy. It can be so difficult to negotiate connection.

Perhaps it is not surprising that bodies are so diverse and unstable. We not only have a range of unexplained bodily illnesses and a variety of gender identities, we have a surfeit of obese bodies that seem to express need and anorexic bodies that defend against intrusion, and assert self sufficiency. Food has become a challenge to the postmodern body

The feminist psychoanalyst, Susie Orbach, claims that girls grow up ashamed of their own body, perhaps mirroring their mothers obsessions with dieting. She describes girl’s bodies are provisional; they use gyms, diets and plastic surgery to reshape an unsatisfactory body, and clothes, hair styles, make-up and jewellery to refashion it. Their bodies are commodities to be exploited by the food industry, cosmetics industry, clothes industry and plastic surgery. Consumers from a very young age, they are driven to achieve that perfect body. The body, in turn, has become objectified and politicised; it does not so much express a sense of self; only an impression of the prevailing culture. There is a dissociation between being a body and having a body.

bodylanguageWhen we engage with somebody, we tend to see it as a relationship between two minds, but it is also a relationship between two bodies. We pick up what the other is feeling and vice versa; we tune into subliminal signals, like their facial expression, rate of breathing, involuntary movements, colour of the skin, sweating and even their bowel sounds. We respond to changes in posture, nuances of gesture. We can even tell whether a smile is genuine or not or whether sympathy is heartfelt. A lexicon of feeling is revealed on our faces and acted out in our bodies. In my callow youth, I thought I could ‘read whether a girl liked me by the colour of their ears – but I often got it very wrong.

These bodily signals are unconscious. We don’t think about them; they just happen. There is a direct line from the emotional brain to the body. Shame, desire, guilt, sadness, fear, anger, boredom, tiredness are all expressed in our face and the rest of our body. Without saying anything, we can feel whether we like or dislike somebody, whether we can trust them or not, whether we ‘fancy’ or desire them, whether we fear them and whether they irritate us.

And the feeling’s mutual. If we connect with someone, we tend to match our communications through mutual eye contact and facial expression (smiling, laughing, concern, sympathy, anger, fear, desire). We learn how to defuse anger or calm anxiety with a glance and a relaxed posture. Even when we cannot see our companion’s face, we can demonstrate the nature of our connection through our bodies. People who are attuned to each other unconsciously mimic each others posture and gestures, walk in step, and can match each others actions and movements like cooks, team mates, dancing partners or lovers. And as our bodies tune in to each other, so nervous synapses in our brain form, disconnect and re-form, changing our bodily repertoire moment by moment.

An intertwining of personal histories.

We start to learn how to be in infancy, a process of imprinting that utilises mirror neurones, special neurones that encode the expressions and actions of others and can reproduce them. Interactive regulation becomes auto regulation – the way a person is treated as a child becomes how they respond to cues and treat themselves and others as an adult. Transactional Analysis claims that patterns of relating are learnt, initially from our parents and close relatives, then from friends, teachers, people we admire and intimate partners. Like permanent memory traces or engrams, they encode how we interact with others and in different situations.

Emotions are exhibited through our bodies and only later expressed in language. We only have to glance at someone across a crowded room to know whether it feels safe to talk to them. Usually we can find the right words to express what we feel, but in some situations there is a dissociation between the two. Politicians can talk the talk, but the mismatch between what they say and their facial expression may tell us we cannot trust them.

A Quiet Revolution

There is a quiet revolution taking place in psychotherapy – a movement from mind to body. Recent insights from neuroscience have shown how often life trauma, which few of us escape, may be expressed through the bodily symptoms but not acknowledged in conscious thought. Research has also demonstrated how communication can take place between human brains without language.

Psychoanalysis was always about the relationship between the mind and the body. Freud claimed that things that cannot be thought about may be expressed through the body, though more recently body mind psychotherapists, such as Susie Orbach, tend to consider that trauma is expressed in the body before it can be brought to mind and thought about. The body can, in many different ways, influence the mind.

Psychotherapy, the listening cure, has for too long been caught up in its own arcane language and abstinent attitude. Yet many studies have shown that effectiveness is based, not so much on what the therapist says, but more on the feeling relationship that is established between the therapist and the client. The therapist is not just ‘the brain box in the corner’, observing, judging, interpreting. Talking can sometimes get in the way and may even re-traumatise. We are all influenced by the emotional state of others. Intuition, our proprioceptive and visceral consciousness, is our sixth sense. Therapists need to engage with their body as well as their mind; they have to be aware of their own gut feelings so they can discern what is created with their client.

People who have been traumatised often don’t know and can’t talk about what has happened to them. There is often a disconnect between mind and body. A person may say one thing while their body expresses another, though it is the always the body that ‘tells the truth’. Thus the feeling of what happened can only be accessed and resolved by observing and working though the body.

Body based therapies are more spontaneous than reflective. Sensorimotor psychotherapy is a talking therapy that does not so much explore the narrative of past events but observes the changes that take place in their client’s body and uses those to draw attention to what is happening now and how to control them. These include changes in facial expression, posture, involuntary movements and even intestinal squeaks and growls.

This needs to be done with great sensitivity since if a client gets too close to the reality of what happened, it may traumatise them all over again, making them panic or shut down. So the therapist monitors the level of arousal in the clients body using their own intuition and works just inside the window of tolerance. If it looks like their client is becoming agitated, they will pause the discussion and use deep breathing or yoga to bring the mind back on line. If, on the other hand, their client begins to shut down and dissociate, they will bring them back into the window of tolerance by getting them to stand up, stamp their feet or move around.

The acceptance of mindfulness meditation, sensorimotor psychotherapy, eye movement desensitisation and reprogramming (EMDR) and emotional freedom technique (EFT) has prompted a rapprochement between talking cures and a range of body based complimentary therapies. Many holistic therapies can be helpful in modulating levels of arousal to where clients can think with safety, reduce symptoms and build a trusting connection. Some such as Yoga, Pilates and Tai Chi can change mental attitudes. Some postures and movements are assertive and can empower a patient. Others encourage openness and relaxation. The feeling of being held during therapeutic massage can be so comforting and containing. Reflexology or foot massage has the same effect. But patients may find their own activities, hobbies and pastimes, which ground them, and help them cope better. These might include, running, swimming, yoga, breathing exercises, music, art or cooking. We all need space to unwind and think.

Nevertheless, if patients want to bring about a more fundamental change in their pre-morbid character, then an integrated body mind therapy, that encourages ‘enactment’, the playing out of a particular engrained patterns of behaviour on the stage of the consulting room may create a space in the present that where the behaviour can be questioned and changed.

As I have explained in previous posts, trauma shuts down the thinking and reasoning part of the brain and expresses what happens in the body as actions, disabilities and symptoms. These effects may not be accessed either by medicine or traditional mind based psychotherapies but are available to novel techniques that utilise bodily communication.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the Inaugural Law Enforcement Officers and First Responders Reception in the Blue Room of the White House in Washington.

So Donald Trump is now in the White House; the leader of the western world.  In his inauguration speech, he promised to put America first, to repeal many of his predecessor’s achievements in the of trade deals with Asia, nationalised health care and control of carbon emissions  and to make America great again. Trump is not a liberal democrat; he does not see himself as keeping the world safe; he is willing to go to any lengths as long as this is in America’s interest.  While the white male voters of middle America cheer to the rafters, the rest of the world holds its breath.

It was Freidrich Nietzsche in his polemic, ‘On the Genealogy of Morality (1887)’, who described the masters of society as ‘blonde beasts’, who are only interested in the acquisition and the retention of power.  These are the rulers; the powerful. They are vital, confident and self regarding, but also amoral and corrupt; they hold the rest of society, whom he termed, the slaves, in subjugation. They are the Trumps of this world.

Morality, Nietzsche asserted, begins as a reaction by the slaves against the power of the masters. Their grievance and frustration cannot be used in direct revenge against the rich and powerful, but is  internalized as moral qualities of virtue, compassion, self control and denial, which makes them feel superior and virtuous.

Entrapped by their own virtue, the morality of the slaves encourages constant self examination, shame, guilt and punishment. It isn’t enough to behave badly; people could also punish themselves for having bad intentions or thoughts.  Not given to self reflection, the blonde beasts have no such misgivings; they think and do whatever they want.

Eventually the slaves revolt against their masters under the guidance of their spiritual leaders or priests, who preach a life of righteous asceticism unsullied by shame and guilt and subject the slaves to the moral guidance of an all powerful but ‘abstract and imaginary’ God, whom only they could represent on earth.  A kind of moral and liberal democracy prevails but does not necessarily make people happy as it is built on self examination, confession, guilt and sacrifice and leads to suspicions of inequality among different groups.  So the price of civilization, according to the misanthropic Nietzsche, is a guilty conscience and endless self abnegation while the philosophical/scientific notion of asceticism distances society from life and the emotions into unattainable sterile abstractions.  Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth, but that may not satisfy them.

But politics runs in cycles.  The revolt of the slaves eventually destroys itself (see Newsnight’s video on my facebook page. In his dialogue with Plato,  Socrates came up with the shocking suggestion that tyranny evolves from democracy. The argument goes something like this. Democracy maximises equality and freedom. Everybody is equal and everybody is free to do exactly as they like.  The more democratic a society becomes, the more the freedoms multiply, men are interchangeable with women, animals have rights, children criticise their parents, foreigners can come and work, teachers are afraid of their students, the rich look like the poor. Any inequality is criticised: elites and the wealthy are particularly despised, the weak are suspect. That’s when a would-be tyrant seizes his opportunity. He is usually of the elite but is a traitor to his class and is often given to excesses of power, greed, and sex. He takes over a particularly obedient mob and attacks as corrupt his peers, who either flee or try to appease him.  He offers a relief from the endless choices and insecurities of democracy and rides a backlash to excess and presents himself as the personified answer to all problems, and in the face of the certainty of absolute power, democracy repeals itself.

Does this seem a simplistic and ultimately depressive notion?  Democracy was conceived as a way for large numbers of people to live together in relative harmony, their emotional impulses contained by the laws and morals of society as effected by their secular and spiritual leaders and controlled by their institutions.  So is tyranny is the inevitable outcome of a democracy that has created expectations it can never fulfil?  Has democracy undermined itself by being too liberal.  We in the western ‘civilised’ world have enjoyed a liberal democracy that has lasted for 70 years and have sought to impose the same system on others. The election of a blonde beast in the USA and the near election of another blonde beast in the UK are indications that liberal democracy has succumbed to the hedonic appeal of power.

Sigmund Freud expressed similar ideas to Nietzsche in his essay ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’, in which he described the irredeemable conflict between instinct and the morality of civilisation.

stressed-student80% of Sheffield students self report disturbances in mental health.  This was the shocking statistic presented by Anna Mullaney, welfare officer for the students union, speaking at a debate, organised by Sheffield’s University Counselling Service.  More objective studies have shown that  1 in 4 students have a mental health problem.  Around  50% of people attending doctors surgeries or specialist clinics have illness that defies medical explanation, such as eating disorders, Irritable Bowel Syndrome or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, all of which often start during a period of adolescent dependency extending into the mid twenties or beyond.

Why might this be so?  Is it because children are so overprotected they are ill equipped to cope with the stresses and pressures of independent life at university?  Or is it that modern Universities are particularly toxic for students?  Or are we just over-medicalising everyday experience?

 

Are Universities dangerous?

When I went to University in the nineteen sixties, I was among a privileged 30%.  I knew I had a job waiting for me as soon as I left.  The government funded my tuition fees and I had local authority support for my accommodation and sustenance.  As the Prime Minister of the day proclaimed, ‘we had never had it so good!’   It was true.  We were very fortunate.  We were also eager to make our way in a world that seemed more secure than it does now.

Nowadays, most young people expect to go to University.  It is a rite of passage into adulthood but there is not a guarantee of a job at the end of it. Many university leavers start life on benefits.  The bar has been raised.  Employers are often looking for students with Masters degrees or Doctorates and these are only awarded to the most competitive students.

The pressure to succeed, claimed Ms Mullaney, often means extra courses, assignments and ‘character-developing’ involvement in student politics, administration and sport.  Universities were always a preparation for life, but that life has become much harder. Most students have to take casual employment in bars or restaurants just to earn enough for the necessities of food, shelter and entertainment.  Many find it more economic  to live in a house together with other students, but this gives them no privacy and little time for thought and study.  They may fall out with their housemates or feel coerced into drinking too much, taking drugs or casual  sex.  The stereotype is that students work all day, finish their shift in the restaurant late a night, then hang out with their friends until the early hours and then get up for lectures again the following morning, but that may not be the norm.  Nevertheless, loneliness, poverty, the stress of assignments and exams, alcohol, drugs and sex make for such a toxic mix, it is amazing that so many students get through it.  But many don’t and what happens during what should be  ‘the time of their lives’  may leave them increasingly susceptible to illness and stress.   So is university that dangerous or does it just seem so?  Is this why more students are living at home these days?

 

The Pathologising of Everyday Life

The other speakers in the debate went to University in ‘the golden age’.  Sir Simon Wessley, now President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, acknowledged the results of mental health surveys of young people and the stresses of university life, but questioned whether such stress should be considered abnormal or just part of growing up.  Change is always stressful and leaving home and going to university has always been a challenging transition.  It is way we deal with stress and the experience and resolution of anxiety that helps people learn and grow in confidence and enjoy life.  Enjoyment and self confidence always comes with overcoming risk.

Wessley questioned whether we were not in danger of pathologising everyday experience?’   Might, for example, everyday sadness and disappointment now be regarded as depression; life stress, anxiety disorder; a robust exchange of views, bullying;  focus and hard work, autism or obsessive/compulsive disorder; or the boredom of an intelligent child,  attention/deficit hyperactivity disorder?  There is obviously something in that but such assumptions may condemn many to accusations of malingering, rejection and stigmatisation.

Quoting from a study of those soldiers deemed at risk from battle trauma, Wessley noted that the greater proportion of those at risk showed resilience under fire and grew from the experience.  The same applies to assessments of vulnerable students.  Fitness to study assessments could rule people, who otherwise might do brilliantly, out of university.

 

Does Awareness make people ill?

Ken  McLaughlin, Professor of Social Care & Social Work at Manchester Metropolitan University questioned the benefits of awareness campaigns for mental illness. He wondered whether this might focus too much attention on vulnerability instead of celebrating the risk and the excitement of life.  Awareness creates labels, which makes people more conscious of being sick and justifies illness behaviour?  Have we become so Health and Safety conscious that we worry ourselves sick about the risks of everyday life than just accepting them and enjoying the challenge?   Moreover, he added, by labelling people as mentally ill, are we producing a stigma, that isolates the individual, causing rejection and more tension and illness.

 

Blaming the individual for society’s ills.

McLaughlin was was concerned that societal and political problems were so often reconfigured as psychological issues for the individual.  People who are unemployed may not so much need counselling or CBT; they just need help to find a job. Trades Unions seem more concerned with helping people cope with inequalities than fighting them.  The same might apply to student union initiatives. It’s often when people feel entrapped in a situation where they feel ignored or unfairly treated that they get ill.  Expressions of frustration and anger can be quite rational responses to the injustices of life.  CBT may help the individual deal stay with their troublesome feelings, but positive action may be more effective.

Situations that induce feelings of entrapment, impingement, rejection, isolation, loneliness, inequality, poverty and hopelessness often underpin distress and illness and should not just be seen as a failure on the part of the individual. We need to address what it is about society that makes people feel bad.

 

Are interventions exacerbating the problem? 

Professor Kathryn Ecclestone, from The University of Sheffield’s School of Education said that the university has trebled its expenditure on psychological support of students, but questioned the evidence base of such interventions.  Mindfulness courses, resilience training, trigger warnings on upsetting lecture material and provision of ‘safe spaces’ for vulnerable students have become commonplace. She questioned how helpful these were.   ‘Are we offering much needed support and recovery facilities or are we in danger of fostering dependency?  Do self help groups keep people in illness?

Simon Wessley quoted from research showing that psychological debriefing after trauma  doubled the rate of breakdown.  It was better to talk about normal things with family and friends, he claimed.

 

At the age of 19 to 21, young people are still trying to find who they are.  Students are very suggestible; they take on many worries about the way they feel they should be. Experience gains at University lasts throughout life.  Instead of creating a space to talk about a perceived problem or seeking escape through sex and drugs and loud music,  universities might help students to work together, face life and experience that frisson of risk and resolution that will them grow into responsible and confident adults.