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Social Research for the Public Good: Anxiety

Venue: Birkbeck 43 Gordon Square

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The BISR Social Research for the Public Good seminar series is intended to show the importance of social research for describing and contributing to the mitigation of inequalities. Each term we will invite a panel of social researchers to discuss the cost-of-living crisis and how their research contributes to understanding the causes and impacts of the crisis and/or to mitigating it (for example through engaging with policy makers and/or activists). This third seminar will focus on anxiety and the mental health implications of the cost-of-living crisis, and will feature contributions from Dr Sarah Marks (Birkbeck University), Joanna Farr (Birkbeck University), Dr China Mills (City, University of London), and Dr Katie Pybus (University of York).

This event will take place in room G01, School of Arts, 43 Gordon Square, London, WC1H 0PD. Accessibility information can be found at this webpage


Dr Sarah Marks (Birkbeck University)
Towards the end of the New Labour period anxiety and depression were seen as the reasons why The New Deal had not been successful in getting people back into employment - the architect of the New Deal, Richard Layard (wellbeing and employment economist at the LSE and Labour Peer) concluded in the early 2000s that a shift in policy towards making psychotherapy (or specifically CBT, cognitive behaviour therapy) available nationwide to working age people was the way forward to address employment and welfare. On the one hand this led to the first major national rollout of talking treatments for anxiety (IAPT, 2007), but on the other it instrumentalised psychotherapy as a tool for getting people off benefits, and it has remained so under the Tories. 
I talk about the critical voices from both the service-user and clinical communities about the use of 'therapy' or 'positive psychology courses' in job centres. For many with long term mental health difficulties and disabilities, CBT has become hurdle to accessing benefits. For some people it can be very effective, but for many others it is seen as a way of deflecting social problems of deprivation and poverty by focusing instead on individual psychology - and thus it has shifted responsibility from the state to the individual. A policy that was intended to ameliorate anxiety has ironically had the side effect of exacerbating it, and has become bound up with the stigmatisation of disability and mental health difficulties in a way that contributes to the narrative of 'burden'.

Dr China Mills (City, University of London)
The Deaths by Welfare Project investigates disabled people’s deaths linked to welfare reform and the violence of state austerity. The aim of the project is to make visible the slow and bureaucratic violence of the State, and to contextualise welfare related deaths as issues of disability, racial and economic justice.

Doing this work has taught me that not only are disabled people disproportionately negatively impacted by the current cost of living crisis but how disabled people claiming welfare have long been experiencing a cost-of-living crisis - partly resulting from how ableism and capitalism define people's worth by their ability to work. This process disproportionately marks certain people out as 'burdens' – producing anxiety, state violence and premature death, including by suicide. Differently from understanding anxiety as an unfortunate side-effect of current systems, I explore how anxiety and fear are endemic to the welfare system - a feature, not a bug.  

Dr Katie Pybus (University of York)

I set out the research evidence about experiences of life on a low income, anxiety and the social security system, framed by the pandemic and cost of living crisis. I use this as a basis for a discussion about popularised ideas of individual resilience and wellness in this context, followed by setting out how, with the right reforms, the social security system could potentially play a preventative and protective role in mental health.

Joanna Farr (Birkbeck University)

I will present research on adolescent girls' daily stressors and self-management strategies. The study piloted an interdisciplinary approach to accessing adolescent girls' everyday experiences through mobile phone video diaries, IPA interviews and film-making. I discuss the recent increase in emotional difficulties in young people, the study's methodological approach and study findings and their implications.


Contact name:

  • Dr China Mills -

    China Mills' research traces different facets of the global mental health assemblage. She explores the ways diagnoses travel and circulate around the world, and what happens when issues such as distress, suicide, or terrorism get framed as global public health challenges. Her work looks into how the psy-disciplines and psychotropic drugs function in local and global contexts of entrenched inequality, chronic poverty, (neo)colonial oppression, border imperialism, and increasingly under the politics of austerity. China also carries out critical research into suicides linked to welfare reform, economic reform, immigration detention, and corporate practices, and is a member of the Critical Suicide Studies Network.

  • Dr Katie Pybus -

    Katie Pybus is a Lecturer in Mental Health with interests in the relationship between social security systems and mental health, as well as the broader socioeconomic context of mental health and stigma. Following a period working as a government social researcher in the Department for Work and Pensions, Katie returned to the University of York as a research fellow. She has since worked on research related to housing and mental health, food insecurity, social security and the relationship between socioeconomic factors and mental health crisis. During the pandemic, Katie has been part of a research team seeking to understand the experiences of families living on low incomes during Covid-19 through the Covid Realities research programme focusing in particular on mental health outcomes.

  • Dr Sarah Marks -

    Sarah Marks researches the history of science, medicine and technology - particularly the psychological disciplines and mental health - from the Cold War to the present, from a transnational and comparative perspective. She was awarded her PhD from UCL in 2015, and held a research fellowship at Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge before joining Birkbeck in October 2016, initially as a Wellcome-funded postdoctoral researcher, then as a Lecturer in Modern History and UKRI Future Leaders Fellow from 2019. She is the founding Director of the Birkbeck Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Mental Health.

  • Ms Joanna Farr -

    Joanna Farr researches young people’s experience of mental health difficulties and emotional wellbeing, with a particular focus on using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA), visual and longitudinal methods to access and express everyday lived experiences. Joanna is currently leading a project titled, 'Capturing and expressing adolescent girls’ everyday experience of managing emotional wellbeing', funded by the Wellcome Trust Institutional Support Fund at Birkbeck. This project aims to develop an interdisciplinary approach to access adolescent girls’ everyday experiences of managing their feelings and make those experiences accessible to others. The intention is to push the boundaries of our understanding by extending this approach nationally and globally to access girls’ daily experiences across cultures and settings.