Simplistic thinking on the causes of human misery

Psychologists from Britain challenge simplistic thinking on the causes of human misery

Update 16 Dec., Another letter from UK psychologists appears in The Independent – scroll down the letters here. A more detailed consideration and critique of the Layard et al. study has been provided by Psychologists Against Austerity

A recent article in the British newspaper The Guardian drew attention to a report by the economist, Richard Layard, which claimed that “Eliminating depression and anxiety would reduce misery by 20% compared to just 5% if policymakers focused on eliminating poverty”. It is a rather circular reasoning to say that misery is caused by depression and anxiety when these are labels for the same thing. The psychologists, in a response published in the Guardian, make it clear that reducing poverty and ensuring good mental health services are not alternatives, but both are needed. Poverty and underfunded health care are both consequences of current government austerity policies. In taking this initiative they are playing an important part in de-ideologising the nature and causes of human distress. The Guardian also published another article that also argued for the interdependence of poverty and mental health problems.

Dear Editor,
Richard Layard is promoting the idea that better provision of mental health services is more important than reducing social inequalities in promoting human happiness (Happiness depends on health and  friends, not money, says new study, Guardian, Monday 12th December). This is a false dichotomy. Evidence suggests that austerity damages our collective health. Deepening economic and social divides, bullying, abuse, misogyny, racism, dehumanisation and consequent insecurity, trauma, social exclusion, neglect and despair underpin the current tsunami of desolation in the UK and beyond, specially in our children. These are largely economic and political matters, requiring cultural, social and political solutions.  Psychological therapies, humanely delivered to those who want them, have a part to play in ameliorating human suffering, and we do need more flexible, kind and supportive services. But we must not pathologise those who are damaged by the injustices they experience. Degradation by the benefits system is now devastating many with long term illnesses in the UK. To imagine  that therapy, rather than social transformation, can address or prevent the conditions that lead to despair is to be wilfully blind.


Annie Mitchell Clinical and community psychologist, Helen Beckwith Clinical psychologist, Jan Bostock Clinical and community psychologist, Anna Daiches Clinical psychologist, Suzanne Elliot Clinical psychologist, Danielle Gaynor Clinical psychologist, Carl Harris Clinical and community psychologist, Jennifer Marris Psychologist, James Randall-James Clinical psychologist in training, Eleanor Schoultz Clinical psychologist, Sarah Wolf Clinical psychologist in training, Sally Zlotovitz Community psychologist

Since the letter was sent off to the paper, a lot more psychologists have added their names, endorsing it. The full list (still being added to), including the original signatories, follows.

Annie Mitchell, Clinical and Community Psychologist

Jacqui Akhurst, Counselling and Community Psychologist

Tarick Ali, Clinical psychologist.

Thomas Allan, Service Manager

Cathy Amor, Clinical Psychologist

Kara Bagnall, Clinical Psychologist

Helen Beckwith, Clinical Psychologist

Jan Bostock, Clinical and Community Psychologist

Nina Browne, Clinical Psychologist

Mark Burton, Community and Clinical Psychologist

Tamsin Curno, Drama Therapist

Anna Daiches, Clinical Psychologist

Suzanne Elliot, Clinical Psychologist

Romana Farooq Community Psychologist

Gabrielle Farron, Clinical Psychologist

Colm Gallagher, Psychologist

Danielle Gaynor, Clinical Psychologist

Shreena Ghelani, Clinical Psychologist

Carl Harris, Clinical and Community Psychologist

Lealah Hewitt, Clinical Psychologist

Helen Johnson, Senior Lecturer in Psychology

Greg Madison, Applied Psychologist.

Jennifer Marris, Psychologist

Paul Moloney, Counselling Psychologist

Lucie Nalletamby, Clinical Psychologist

Steve Melluish, Clinical Psychologist

Ian Parker, Honorary Professorial Research Fellow

Cristian Pena, Clinical Psychologist

Gillian Proctor, Clinical Psychologist

James Randall- James, Clinical Psychologist in Training

Lana Renny, Clinical Psychologist

Eleanor Schoultz, Clinical Psychologist

Melanie Smith, Clinical Psychologist

Daniel Taggart, Clinical Psychologist

Lisa Thorne Clinical & Community Psychologist

Leslie Valon-Szots, Psychologist

Carl Walker, Community Psychologist

Jay Watts, Clinical Psychologist

Ste Weatherhead, Clinical Psychologist

Sarah Wolf, Clinical Psychologist in Training

Sally Zlotovitz, Community Psychologist


Austerity and psychology

The British Psychological Society’s monthly magazine, The Psychologist has been carrying a series on austerity and psychology.  At our request this month’s articles have been made open access, which seems correct given the theme.

Charting ‘the mind and body economic’  The Midlands Psychology Group introduce a special issue dedicated to the theme of ‘austerity’ Page Numbers: 232-235

“Neoliberal ‘austerity’ programmes – favoured by many governments across the globe since the ‘Great Recession’ of 2007 – add up to a toxic regime for the mind and body of the ordinary citizen. So far, psychologists have done little to challenge the dubious scientific assumptions upon which these programmes rest. If anything, they have sought to profit from them: chiefly through the mass promotion of therapies and techniques claimed to counteract the mental and emotional damage wrought by an ever more corrosive world. But there are other ways of doing psychology; and the articles in this special issue point the way towards a far more socially aware (and arguably more scientific) version of the discipline.”  read on

Austerity in the university Ian Parker on increasing pressure and emotional labour at work for academics in times of crisis Page Numbers: 236-239

Inequality and the next generation Gary Thomas explains how the gradient of difference can impact upon identity in the classroom Page Numbers: 240-243

Gary Thomas makes reference to Wilkinson, R. & Pickett, K. (2009) [1]. The spirit level: Why more equal societies almost always do better. London: Allen Lane. – For North American readers, I understand that the book didn’t sell over there partly because the title uses a British term:  a “spirit level” is the device builders and joiners use to check that something is horizontal.

Neoliberal austerity and unemployment David Fryer and Rose Stambe examine critical psychological issues Page Numbers: 244-249

The impact of austerity on a British council estate Carl Harris takes an ‘ecological model of systems’ approach Page Numbers: 250-253

For non-British readers, in Carl Harris’s article – ‘council estate’ means an area of rented  ‘social housing’ originally built by the local council (municipality) but now usuallly semi privatised (in terms of ownership and management).

If there is one thing missing from the issue it is treatment of the role of propaganda in promoting austerity as a social and economic policy.  The mantra that ‘there is no money’, repeated ad nauseam throughout Europe, is frankly a myth as heterodox economists like Steve Keen, and Ann Pettifor [2] have been showing. Why the myths about money and its creation are perpetuated is a complicated story but the kind of analysis of propaganda made by Alex Carey [3] in Australia and Noam Chomsky [4]  in the USA can help shine some light on what’s actually going on.

1. Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2009). The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. Harmondsworth: Penguin.  see also
2. Pettifor, A. (2014). Just Money: How Society Can Break the Despotic Power of Finance. London: Prime Economics. Retrieved from
3. Carey, A. (1997). Taking the Risk out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty (edited by A Lowrey). Champaign, Illinois, USA: University of Illinois Press.

4. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (Pantheon, 1988)