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The University of Liverpool PodcastPeter Kinderman is a Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Liverpool. He is also an honorary Consultant Clinical Psychologist with Mersey Care NHS Trust.

During Peter’s appearance on the University of Liverpool Podcast, he explained how the thinking around mental illness is changing, and how we can better frame our understanding of mental health for the benefit of all.

6 ways our understanding of mental illness is changing

  1. Negative mental experiences are part of being human
    While Peter doesn’t question people’s experiences of mental health – “I absolutely believe in the reality of phenomena like depression and anxiety” – or the overwhelming impact they can have, he isn’t sure they are best described as “illnesses”.

    “I don’t think people are ‘ill’ when they have those experiences,” he says. “I think they’re just being human, to be perfectly honest.”

    He adds: “People can get so depressed that it feels to them as if there’s no point in living. That is, obviously, utterly terrible. But I’m not sure that everything that is utterly terrible is an illness. I (can) think of lots of utterly terrible things that are political or social. So when we talk about depression or anxiety… those things are terrible and life changing, but not every terrible, life-changing thing is an ‘illness’.”
  2. Should we reconsider how we define illness?
    Peter believes the difference between illnesses or diseases and terrible experiences is shown through pathology. He argues that in diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, “it’s very clear that there’s an underlying physical pathology that leads to the problems.” He is less convinced that is the case with what are traditionally known as mental illnesses.

    He says: “If somebody loses their job and feels as if life isn’t worth living, as if they’re no longer a successful, upstanding human being… it doesn’t strike me that you have to think about a diseased brain causing that conclusion.”

    He adds: “I see very little evidence of a diseased brain causing these sorts of problems. I see much more evidence of normal, healthy brains… responding to the challenges of life in understandable ways.”
  3. Some people are genetically better equipped to deal with mental challenges
    Peter says he has found nothing to suggest there is a physical sign of ‘mental illness’ in the same way there is with Parkinson’s or MS, for example. Instead, he believes the likelihood of developing mental health issues differs between humans in the same way athletic performance does.

    He says: “I went to the London Marathon recently and I was watching the people running. It’s pretty obvious that people differ in terms of their physical structure and the physiology related to athletic excellence. Some of those differences are to do with our lifestyle, but a lot are to do with genetics. But I don’t think doing a 2-hour 15-minute marathon is a sign of genetic illness: it’s just an indicator that there’s variance in the human genome.”
  4. The same event can impact different people in different ways
    Peter puts forward the analogy of a group of friends who are attacked while enjoying a night out. One suffers broken ribs, another a broken nose, and three others escape relatively unharmed. We don’t ask why one person had vulnerable ribs and another had a fragile nose. We consider that overall these are simply the consequences of a major event.

    He says: “When you close a factory and make a whole community redundant, it’s obviously going to be the case that redundancy and unemployment hits some people harder than others.” The same, he believes, is true of children who are bullied at school – some cope better than others.

    “We need to focus not on the idea of teasing out the biological difference between people that confers greater or lesser resilience, but on protecting ourselves from those assaults and insults that lead to these sorts of emotional consequences.”
  5. Is medicine’s advance setting up false hopes for mental health?
    In Western societies, at least, amazing medical advances have been made over the last century. Peter believes, however, that people are failing to recognise that mental health doesn’t fall under the same medical framework as physical ailments of the body.

    Whereas medicines have been developed to cure and treat physical ailments, he is unsure of the effectiveness of taking the same approach with psychiatric drugs. “Our emotional lives don’t work in that way,” he says. “Primarily because I don’t think the fault lies in pathology; that’s where the key difference is in my opinion.”
  6. A different approach might just be too much hard work
    If psychiatric drugs are not the answer, what is? In terms of children, Peter points to several steps he would take to try to create a better environment for their development. These include pushing back school hours to later in the day, reducing the importance of education league tables, and introducing a universal basic income.

    He says: “All of that is much, much more socially challenging than saying, ‘We’ll make sure you get access to a decent psychiatrist the minute you show signs of mental illness’…. It’s a challenging agenda, but I believe it to be right.”

About this podcast

The University of Liverpool Podcast aims to bring listeners closer to some of the academic experts, authors and innovative thinkers from the University who, through their in-depth analyses, research and discoveries, are affecting positive change in the world today. Each episode features one or more of our academic experts discussing research in their specialist field. Subscribe to the University of Liverpool Podcast via iTunes, Tunein and Google Play Music (US and Canada only).

Interested in learning more about the University of Liverpool’s online psychology programmes? Find out more about the MSc in Psychology and our other psychology programmes.

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