Celebrating impact

Ella Rhodes reports on an ESRC prize.

The winners of the annual Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Celebrating Impact Prize have been announced and include psychologist Theresa Gannon (University of Kent). She and her team were awarded a prize of £10,000, for research on deliberate firesetters and a resulting treatment programme, in the Outstanding Impact on Society category.

Professor Gannon spoke to The Psychologist about this work and the impact she hopes it will have in many other countries. She and her research team examined whether deliberate firesetters in hospitals and prisons had any distinctive characteristics compared with people who had never set fires – also in prisons and hospitals – to assess whether they required specialist treatment.

She said prior to this work it was assumed firesetters were the same as other offenders with no particularly different psychological characteristics. However she and her team, comprising Dr Caoilte Ó Ciardh, Dr Emma Alleyne, Dr Magali Barnoux and Dr Nichola Tyler, found that, indeed, they are a special population who require a tailored therapeutic approach.

This group, Gannon added, appear to have a much higher interest in very serious fires such as house fires or hotel fires. They also seem to identify much more with fire, for example saying things like ‘I’d be no one without fire’. She added: ‘They also appear to normalise the misuse of fire and think it’s quite usual to have fire accidents in the home. They ruminate more about perceived wrongs committed against them, are provoked more easily and have much lower self-esteem than other offenders.’

From that work, and a review of the existing literature, Gannon and her team developed the first comprehensive theory of how adult deliberate firesetting evolves and developed a pilot manual including a treatment programme for people who set fires. This treatment uses a CBT approach with psychotherapeutic elements and looks at the psychological characteristics or risk factors for firesetting as mentioned above.

She explained: ‘The programme looks at intimacy in relationships and communication style, because the research suggests people who misuse fire aren’t very good at communicating their needs or getting them met in a prosocial way. It also looks at thinking styles and self-regulation problems. The most pertinent part of the programme is that we teach people to reflect back on how their firesetting happened, dissect it and build an events-chain of how it happened and then develop a risk-management plan so if anything similar came up in the future they would know how to handle those situations.’

Gannon said she and her colleagues will use the money from the ESRC award to translate the treatment manual into other languages and teach practitioners in other countries how to use it. She has already travelled to America to teach practitioners how to use this treatment programme and will take the same training to Australia and Belgium. She added: ‘We’re also going to use the impact prize money to perhaps develop online training that can be distributed more widely and we’re hoping to translate it into other languages such as Chinese and Japanese.’

Dr Alan Gillespie CBE, Chair of the ESRC said: ‘The ESRC focuses on supporting the highest- quality independent research with the power to aid growth, promote innovation and shape society. By encouraging and supporting ESRC-funded researchers to maximise the impact of their work, we ensure that their research has a significant impact across all policy areas and helps make a genuine difference at the local, national and international level.’ 

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