psychology


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Cardiff Crown Courts are contained within an imposing Edwardian building in Cathays Park just an arrow’s flight away from the ancient picture-book keep of Cardiff Castle on top of its mound and surrounded by a moat. From the flagpole sporting a red dragon, I could look over the Principality Stadium, that just a few years ago, replaced the pride of Cardiff Arms Park to the hills and valleys of Rhonda and up to the Brecon Beacons. I was in Wales and it felt like a different country.

Maurice, aviator, adventurer and my old Taunton School friend and climbing buddy, stood accused of breaking a restraining order and was worried. ‘I am facing five years!’, he reminded me.

Maurice parked his van and mobile bedroom in a space in front of the building, not bothering to pay. ‘Why should I worry about a parking fine if they are going to lock me up?’ Leaving me to get his bag of documents through the security check, he stomped off up the steps. ‘I don’t want you to be seen with me. Just follow some way behind like an Arab wife!’ I trudged down municipal corridors occasionally overtaken by barristers and other court officials, who passed in a swish of gowns though doors held open for them. It reminded me of being back at school.

Court number 9 seemed a little cramped. Behind a long raised bench beneath the Coat of Arms sat her honour, the judge. She wore a black gown with red and blue flashings and a token wig that barely covered her hair, which was pulled back in a pony tail. The wig must have been itchy because she kept grimacing and dislodging it to scratch her head. Beneath her in the well of the courtroom sat the clerk of the court, a somewhat dishevelled and overweight youngish woman, who wrapped herself in her gown and sat throughout, gurning at her computer screen. In front and facing her were the benches for the prosecuting counsel and the defence counsel and their assistants. The jury sat in two rows behind elevated benches to the left. The press bench faced them on the far right and contained one intense-looking scribbler.  Maurice sat in the elevated dock to the left at the back of the court almost in touching distance of the jury. He was dressed smartly in a light green hacking jacket, red corduroy trousers and a yellow shirt set off by his red blood-sports bow tie.  He had shaved and cut his hair for the occasion. I and three other supporters sat at the same level to the right.

The judge had not long been appointed. If she was expecting an easy case, she was soon to be disabused. First, Maurice’s defending counsel strode into the court minus his wig and gown and asked to see her in Chambers, where he explained that Maurice would be defending himself. It is Maurice’s 13th appearance; the courtroom is his theatre and he usually excels – so why spoil a winning combination? Next, Maurice made an application for disclosure of medical records, which was ruled irrelevant and refused together with three further applications for witnesses including the psychiatrist who had falsely diagnosed brain damage. At that, Maurice asked for the case to be transferred to Bristol, where he felt he would get a fairer hearing. This was also refused. Finally, Maurice objected to one of the jurors, who was a doctor and may have known the psychiatrist. Another refusal. Things were not going well, but Maurice was not overly surprised or upset.

At length, the jury was sworn in, the judge explaining that their role was to judge the facts of the case while she was there to judge according to the law. The prosecution case was seemingly very straightforward. A restraining order had been issued to prevent Maurice from harassing the aforementioned forensic psychiatrist for falsifying medical records and the chief officer of the South Wales Police for wrongful arrest and imprisonment. His crime was, as I understand it,’threatening behaviour with an offensive weapon – ‘the machine gun case’. Maurice had purchased a vintage WW1 biplane with a machine gun mounted on the fuselage. He had removed the gun from the aircraft and posted an image on Facebook brandishing the weapon and threatening the South Wales Police. The gun was decommissioned; its barrel was blocked, and Maurice had posted the image as a prank. That, however, did not stop the police from storming his house and arresting him in front of his 10 year old daughter, whom they threatened to take into care to protect her from her dangerous father. A mutual antipathy between Maurice and that police force had smouldered for many years. No doubt they were waiting for an excuse to ‘nail him’.

At the subsequent trial, and largely on the evidence of the forensic psychiatrist, Maurice was assigned MAPPA (multi agency public protection arrangement) level 3, by which he was deemed at serious risk of harming the public and confined in Ashworth high security psychiatric hospital, where the moors murderer, Ian Brady, was incarcerated. That was in 2009. He was eventually released from Ashworth and locked up in Cardiff and then Swansea prisons before being finally set free in 2015.

Maurice claims that he has been the victim of police harassment over many years. He considers his imprisonment and the designation that he was a serious risk to the public a gross miscarriage of justice, as a result of which he lost his ability to practice as a vet, his pilots licence, his marriage and any contact with his youngest daughter. He suspects that the forensic psychiatrist was ‘blackmailed’ by the police into writing the damning report that wrecked his life. As a result, he harbours a considerable grievance against the police and the psychiatrist and continues to fight to bring his persecutors to justice.

Breaching the restraining order was perhaps the only means he had of getting his grievances heard and publicised to a wider audience. Apart from the technicalities of whether or not he was properly issued with a restraining order, Maurice’s case is that he had reasonable justification in order to expose criminal activity on the part of the police and the psychiatrist. In other words, ‘they stitched him up’. In that respect, the context of why and how the order was issued in the first place is critically important, but the judge and the prosecution clearly wanted to tackle the simple issue of whether or not Maurice had broken the restraining order.

The prosecuting counsel called just three witnesses, the police officer who took screen shots of the ‘Wanted, dead or alive’ posters on Maurice’s website and Facebook pages, the officer who arrested Maurice after he had taken a video of himself in the foyer of Cardiff police station, and the officer who interviewed Maurice. In a display of cross examination, worthy of Horace Rumpole, Maurice confused the police officers and managed to get the judge to quash the Facebook evidence on the grounds that it was taken out of context.

His supporters were excited. It had been a good day for Maurice. Meirion said that he had not had such a good time in court for years and Terry commented, ‘You’ve got some bollocks, Maurice!’ The man, himself, was in good spirits and looking forward to a drink when he dropped me back at the railway station to get the train to Sheffield.

The trial dragged on for another three days. Maurice was prevented from calling any witnesses, but he was able to explain the background that led to the issue of a restraining order. Nevertheless, the outcome was always inevitable.  Guided by the judge to focus on the recent events of the case, the jury found him guilty of breaking the restraining order. Sentencing will take place on the 12th of November after Maurice has been assessed by a psychiatrist, which is ironic seeing that it was the psychiatric report that instigated all of this. He is now preparing his appeal.

This morning on the Hoaxted Website, I had sight of the psychiatric report, which contains many unsubstantiated assertions that should never stand up in a court of law.

The clinical picture is of a man who has always had minor cognitive difficulties (poor writing and spelling). He developed a personality characterised by narcissism (an abnormal sense of entitlement), grandiosity (believing that normal rules do not apply to him) and paranoia (believing he is the victim of persecution). He also shows evidence of poor judgement, impulsivity and a willingness to hold himself hostage by way of hunger strike in an attempt to manipulate his environment. While these personality characteristics have undoubtedly overshadowed his life and probably had a negative effect on his family and social functioning, they appear to have been reasonably stable throughout his life. However, Maurice and the evidence both suggest that over the past two years, his functioning has deteriorated and his beliefs have become more intense and overwhelming and at some times but not others are clearly abnormal. Maurice now shows clear evidence of some degree of neuro-cognitive damage (brain damage), probably as a result of normal ageing, previous heavy alcohol misuse and deceleration following plane crashes. The specific area of brain damage affects his ability to monitor and control his behaviour, decreases self awareness, judgement and decision making abilities and have compounded his paranoid beliefs to the extent that when subjected to further stress, his beliefs intensify to the extent that for periods they have a quality of a paranoid delusional disorder (mental illness characterised by fixed false beliefs unamenable to reason and of a paranoid nature).’

‘Risk is always difficult to quantify especially in highly complex cases such as this and it is also impossible to consider Maurice’s risk in isolation from those he encourages to act on his behalf. The risk of him continuing with his action against South Wales Police and acting in a way he feels justified to act to achieve his needs is high, though whether Maurice would himself he involved in interpersonal violence is less, it cannot be discounted nor can the risk that others may act violently with his encouragement.’

The conclusion that Maurice has brain damage was based on MRI evidence of a localised lack of perfusion in the right frontal lobe possibly caused by a brain tumour. This abnormality was no longer present when the scan was repeated. Brain scans are notoriously difficult to interpret and I am reminded that after trauma and during intense emotion the right frontal lobe can go off-line while victims may behave irrationally. In other words, it is likely that appearances of hypo-perfusion might come and go.

Furthermore, the report states he has a paranoid delusional disorder – in lay terms, mad and irrational – and hints that he may have had this tendency for many years. I have known Maurice for more than 50 years during which he has tackled extreme climbs in North Wales, canoed across the channel in a severe gale, flew to Australia single-handed in his veteran piper cub and then continued round the world, ditching in the Caribbean and subsequently landing outside President Bush’s ranch to thank him for being rescued by the American coastguard, and finally last year crash landed in Southern Sudan during a civil war. While Maurice’s exploits show an impulsive nature and an extreme degree of self belief, they are not the actions of a madman. On the contrary, the fact that he has survived against enormous odds must denote an amazing amount of sanity and sangfroid. Our friend, Jack, who also climbed with Maurice in North Wales said he was a man living at the wrong time and that if his own life was in danger, he would want Maurice with him.

Delusions, by definition, do not conform to reality, but whose reality? Are Maurice’s beliefs delusional or is it possible that he has at times been victimised by the South Wales police force?’. If a person inhabits an environment that is so persecutory he is always having to look over his shoulder, paranoid beliefs may seem quite rational. They might, however, seem mad in a world (and a courtroom) that is justified by the law.

In time, the constant struggle to survive in a persecutory world might cause anybody to question their sense of reality. Maurice has spent a large part of the last few years incarcerated, during which he has been abused, beaten up and disbelieved. This must constitute severe trauma, which would test the beliefs of the sanest of people.

The psychiatric report concludes that there is a high risk of him continuing with his action against South Wales Police and acting in a way he feels justified to act to achieve his needs. It is in the nature of the man. Maurice is fighter and the more access to medical records and court records is prevented, the more he will persist in publicising his grievance in order to obtain justice. Perhaps the court should allow him the freedom to bring his case against South Wales Police to a satisfactory conclusion, but I doubt they will want to take that risk.

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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.

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.

 

 

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Don Juan, the ambivalent one, the wild man women love to hate or hate to love, the one they want to tame or not, the libertine who liberates sexuality from the everyday shackles of marriage, the maverick who rejects the mores of society to please himself, the nomad who promises freedom but delivers loneliness.  Don Juan epitomises the essential conflict of masculinity, excitement or commitment; constantly on the move, he comes in through the window late at night but does not stay for breakfast. 

But who is Don Juan?  Is he a melancholic, searching for something he can never find and does not wish to?   Inasmuch as we all model future relationships on our first love with our mother, do we imagine little Juan’s mother as a tease, unavailable, the joy of possession snatched away from him leaving the unremitting quest but no trust.  So is the Don predestined to a perpetual  struggle between life and death; does he yearn for the love that will kill him, yet fear it?  His promiscuity embraces death but flees the pain.  Is he Peter Pan, forever in search the Wendy he must reject in place of Lilith, la femme fatale, who will seduce and kill him?  Or can we imagine him unfulfilled, getting old;  a wine soaked depressive regaling all who will listen with of tales of conquest,  sans teeth, his flirtations rendered impotent by repetition?    

Don Juan is complicated; he disturbs us.  On the one hand he represents excitement, power, liberty, joy, orgasm.  On the other he is a coward; fearful that relationships weaken him.  He will never  commit or belong.  He does not wish to possess.  He needs to explore, seek out, live the adventure, continue the quest. 

So what of Don Juan in the 21st century?   In an age when technology has uncoupled sexual urge from reproduction and given women control of their own sexuality, has he been rendered redundant by a tipping of the scales of sexual power?  Is there less risk in seduction and less meaning?  Disconnected from social responsibility, coupling is ruled by the thrill of the moment, the sensation.  So is everybody Don Juan?  Is it a case of every man and every woman for themselves?   We read that community and family are being eroded, less people are entering the commitment of marriage,  more children are raised by single parents who are less available as role models or guides,  young people are exposed to sex and pornography at a precocious age and are more likely to experiment with variations in sexuality.  There’s no mystery any more.   So has the Don not so much disappeared as become normalised, familiar and tamed and well, boring?  Is he just as likely to be gay these days?   Has our sexualised society become lost in adolescent fantasy?   Psychiatrists tell us that more males are phobic of commitment.  Sociologists report that career women cannot find partners to father their children.  At a time when loneliness and depression are the common ailments among the young, has romantic love lost some of its passion?

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