Monthly Archives: July 2008

Psychologists involved in torture: Martin Seligman’s unwitting contribution?

A while ago I wrote about the disturbing allegations by Jane Mayer of the role of US psychologists in developing interrogation methods that involved torture, apparently used at the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.

Jane Mayer has written a book-length account of her investigations,The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals, and there is an interview on the Democracy Now! website around her central allegations.

Part of the interview concerns the role of Martin Seligman, the famous psychologist who developed the theory of learned helplessness and more latterly the leading proponent of Positive Psychology. It has been claimed that Seligman’s theory of learned helplessness contributed to the design of the methods of torture, and that a training program to help captured military personel resist the effects of torture and learned helplessness was “reverse-engineered” to assist the interrogation of detainees.

The role that Martin Seligman personally played in this process is somewhat unclear (despite the reaction of some of the blogosphere). He has stated that the allegation that he provided assistance in the process of torture is completely false, and that his only involvement with the psychologists who developed the torture methods was when he gave a lecture to the military in a different context:

“I gave a three hour lecture sponsored by SERE (the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape branch of the American armed forces) at the San Diego Naval Base in May 2002. My topic was how American troops and American personnel could use what is known about learned helplessness and related findings to resist torture and evade successful interrogation by their captors. I was told then that since I was (and am) a civilian with no security clearance that they could not discuss American methods of interrogation with me. I have not had contact with SERE since that meeting.”

Whatever the truth is, post-September 11 has been a dark period for human rights, democracy and psychology. It appears that psychological models for understanding human distress have been used by the unscrupulous to devise methods to harm and terrorise those deemed to be “the enemy”.  Martin Seligman may not have been involved in this, but sadly it seems that the fruit of his intellectual efforts have been, in a manner contrary to their stated purpose.

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Filed under Clinical Psychology, Mental Health, Politics, Psychology

Even MPs struggle with the stigma of mental illness

Despite there being accurate information more available to the general public, it appears that stigma of mental illness continues to affect the lives of millions of Britains, including the powerful and influential.  A recent survey has found that 1 in 5 British MPs  have experienced a mental health problem but fear to disclose this because of stigma and discrimination:

An anonymous questionnaire completed by 94 MPs, 100 Lords and 151 parliamentary staff has revealed that:

  • 27% had personal experience of a mental health problem including 19% of MPs, 17% of Peers, 45% of staff
  • 94% had family or friends who have experienced a mental health problem
  • 86% of MPs said their job was stressful
  • 1 in 3 said work-based stigma and the expectation of a hostile reaction from the media and public prevented them from being open about mental health issues.

The report is critical of the law forcing MPs to give up their seat for life if they are sectioned under the Mental Health Act for six months. By comparison, if an MP is physically incapable of working for six months due to a serious illness they would not be forced to stand down. The majority of MPs who responded thought this rule was discriminatory and urgently needs to be changed.

Challenging and changing the mainstream response to those who experience mental health problems involves persistence, courage and clout. Changing the law to reduce discrimination is part of this.

A compassionate view involves recognising that these problems and the stigma attached to them are not the issues of faceless “other people”:if not directly experienced by yourself, then in all likelihood it is a family member, friend, or workmate who struggles with this.  There is a good op-ed piece here about the survey, and it is worth checking out the comments below – the number of jokes at the expense of those experiencing mental health problems AND who happen to be MPs suggests we still have a long way to go as a society.

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Filed under Mental Health, Politics, United Kingdom