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


The Dangers of Diagnosis – Is Traditional Psychology Addressing the Real Causes?

One of the most fundamental problems for psychologists over the ages has been defining ‘normal’ behavior. As time and society changes, so do accepted social norms – what used to be considered witchcraft is now perfectly acceptable behavior these days for example. However, in trying to define a constant social ‘norm’ from an ever shifting cultural landscape is surely bound to cause problems. One of the problems with mental illness for example, is that it can be very hard to identify, and the dangers are that traditional psychological approaches are very quick to diagnose a problem and medicate without trying other approaches. What is the real scope of the problem, and can a move towards Liberation Psychology help?

Mental Illness in the Modern World

Mental illness in general is still a somewhat of a taboo in many parts of the world. In the UK for example, there are many campaigns that aim to raise public awareness of these problems in order to shed some of the stigma often associated with such issues. The engagement with these problems often varies wildly by country – in some African tribal communities for example, traditional tribal practices can often result in severely dangerous ‘cures’ for those suffering from what could be a fairly common, easily diagnosable condition in another part of the world. One common thread does run throughout the globe however, and that is that not only is mental illness on the rise, but it is still an issue which for the most part, is relegated to the shadows. These estimates are of course, based on traditional psychologies understanding of mental illness, and furthermore often involve a solution through medication. While there is certainly no doubt that medication is necessary for some conditions, is this a crucial flaw in our approach to dealing with this worldwide epidemic?

If we approach the problem from a Liberation Psychology focused angle, we begin to see where the problems might be starting, and find alternatives to medication to help sufferers cope. A recent research report by NAMI – GC offers us an interesting insight into one of the problems we have when it comes to defining mental health issues. The opening statement reads:

‘Mental health is a state of well being in which individuals realize their potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and make contributions to their community..’

It’s entirely possible that part of the reason we are seeing a global epidemic of mental health issues, especially in the developed world, is because of the traditional approach to diagnosis. How do we define the ‘normal stresses of life’ for example? If someone is from a poor background, and has little in the way of prospects due to limitations imposed on them by a capitalist society for example, because they can’t afford healthcare or education, is this a ‘normal’ stress of life? Should someone who suffers depression as a result of this, for example, then be diagnosed with mental illness and medicated? Are we really dealing with the cause of the problem by doing so, and does Liberation Psychology offer a preferred approach?

Differences in Treatment

Some Liberation Psychologists, such as Bruce Levine, have made numerous statements and observations about the inherent problems with these kind of diagnoses, and how they can in some cases be completely unnecessary and in fact damaging to the patient in the long term. If we take the approach that many of these problems, especially the large amount of new ‘disorders’ that are being suggested by traditional psychology all the time, such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder, which is especially common in American teens and young adults, are solvable not through medication, but through simple applications of Liberation Psychology counseling, and understanding them as symptoms of a society that creates such problems as a whole, perhaps we would some one step closer to solving these problems. Of course, that is not to say that some traditional diagnoses are not correct, and that all such disorders can be solved without the use of medication. Schizophrenia for example, in severe cases can be extremely dangerous to the sufferer and others, and often some form of medication can be required in order to help them lead a normal life. That said, we shouldn’t overlook the importance of guidance, counseling and simply helping a sufferer to understand that there is no blame to attribute to themselves when it comes to coping with such a condition.

A Change in Approach

By simply creating new conditions and prescribing medication, we could be seen to be running the risk of simply papering over larger problems. Perhaps instead, by embracing Liberations Psychologies’ approach to understanding that the causes of many of the new disorders that we are seeing are indicative of a much wider problem ingrained in many Western societies in particular. The modern demands of life can place huge stress on people trying to make ends meet, trying to live up to unrealistic expectations that are incessantly forced on them, and so on, and perhaps we need to begin addressing these issues at their core with a more Liberation Psychology focused approach.