A different picture

Ella Rhodes reports on a symposium from the Society's Annual Conference, on psychology, feminism and social justice.

Many of the services and systems which exist to support children who have lived through domestic violence frame them as witnesses or victims. However, research reveals a different picture: children are not simply passive observers, but feel part of a family where violence occurs. Professor Jane Callaghan (University of Northampton) outlined why this shift to seeing children as agents who have a role within a family unit could lead to better protective legislation and improved access to services for them.

Sadly, this attitude towards children as collateral damage in families where domestic violence occurs is reflected in the availability of support for them: only around 9 per cent of children who are referred to domestic violence services also receive mental health support with CAMHS. Callaghan said domestic violence is seen as occurring in a dyad, not within a whole family, and as such children aren’t recognised as direct victims.

Callaghan and colleagues’ interview-based research with children has revealed that they truly understand the impacts of domestic violence, and coercive control, and come up with ways to manage the behaviour of adults around them. Callaghan said this shows children are deeply affected by violence but also have agency within these situations, and the gaps which exist in services need to be closed to help them.

These gaps exist in part due to the need for a diagnosis to access CAMHS services, where many young people who have experienced domestic violence either don’t have one or have been misdiagnosed as ADHD and are framed as having social, rather than mental health, problems. Callaghan concluded this failure to hear children’s experiences tells them their experiences aren’t as significant. She added that psychologists should think about restoring a sense of fairness through social action, as well as a change in the legislative framework.

Lone mothers and their representation on reality TV can reveal much about common discourses around motherhood, said PhD student Rowan Sandle (Leeds Beckett University). She has examined 16 character narratives within reality TV shows such as Benefits Street and said the storylines can provide 'guidelines for living' (in the words of Laurie Ouellette and James Hay, in their book Better Living Through Reality TV). Sandle said she is concerned about the negative representations of welfare recipients, which may have led to a hardening of anti-welfare sentiment.

Sandle argued these representations of single mums support the patriarchal interest and can be put into categories. The so-called ‘chav mum’, formulated from Imogen Tyler's work, is used to evoke disgust as a figure which peels itself away from the feminist ideal, which according to Wilson and Huntington 'embodies government objectives of economic growth' while chav mums are presented as vulgar and workless.

However, Sandle said, there has been a move towards presenting these lone mothers, who are relying on benefits, within a ‘mouldable mother’ discourse which supports the goals of austerity by getting people into work. For example, on the Fairy Jobmother, participants in the programme are often presented as shameful and guilty at not having work, then once they have found a job are shown in a glowing light, as ‘whole’ people on the ‘best’ path morally-speaking. This conflation of wellbeing and waged work puts the pressure to change on the individual, Sandle argued, rather than on changing the problems austerity has created.

Do black lives matter in the psychology curriculum and in higher education? As Dr Stephanie Davis (University of Brighton) starkly pointed out, it really doesn’t seem that way. While there are growing numbers of black and minority ethnic students at universities, there remains a static attainment gap between white and BME people: while more than 77 per cent of the former receive a first or 2:1, the number is just over 50 per cent among BME students. 

During her own training, Davis said she found nothing in her curriculum related to her and her own black community, apart from the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. Davis’ PhD on the lived experience of queer and trans people of colour made her realise the massive gaps in curriculum within psychology, and she had to turn to black feminist theory and post-colonial theories just to make sense of her participants’ words.

In Davis’ work she teaches a class on race and identity and emphasises that race is a socially-constructed concept which emerged from colonialism and slavery. Propagating ideas that certain races and physical differences were tied to intellectual, psychological and physical difference justified slavery for many, as David pointed out, using race to help define who was privileged economically and who wasn’t.

Davis said coloniality has survived colonialism in so many parts of life for BME people: in cultural patterns, self-image and even people’s aspirations. However, in critical psychology post-colonial theory has remained on the sidelines and doesn’t feature in the curriculum. Davis implored universities and the British Psychological Society to speak more openly about oppression, consider how coloniality may unfairly shape the curriculum, and speak about the inequalities so many BME people still face. 

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