Friday, 21 April 2017

Sleepless in the slammer

Charlotte Randall, Higher Assistant Psychologist and MSc student, Northumbria University

The current prison population is 85,641 and around 50% of this population suffers from symptoms of insomnia. While this is similar to the general population there are a limited amount of resources to help treat this disorder in prisons.

Having worked in prisons for seven years, I am all too familiar with the problems that a lack of sleep can have on an offender's ability to engage with the prison regime, and the impact this has on their mental health. Due to the high prevalence of mental health problems, substance misuse and personality disorders in the prison population, the issue of sleep is often side-stepped and the importance of obtaining and having a healthy sleep practice can be forgotten about.

I am part of the Mental Health In-reach team in a prison in the North East, and have witnessed first-hand the effect poor sleep can have on an offender’s mental health. As this is an under-researched area, I decided it would be interesting and beneficial to conduct research on insomnia in the custodial setting. The aim of the study was to see whether a 60-70 minute session of Cognitive-Behavioural-Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) with an accompanying self-help pamphlet was an effective treatment in reducing the symptoms of insomnia in male prisoners.

As I work in the prison Mental Health Team full time, I thought this would be a simple project to undertake, however there were several hurdles along the way. Firstly I was required to gain ethical approval from several different organisations; NHS; National Offender Management (NOMS); and the University. Offenders are classed as a vulnerable population for research purposes, and therefore there is heightened scrutiny from ethic boards as a result of this. This process was lengthy; I had to complete three separate documents explaining the project’s benefits for each organisation. Once submitted, I was required to attend a full Research Ethics Committee (REC) where the research protocol and IRAS (Integrated Research Application System) form were discussed and additional questions were asked. It was then a waiting game to see whether the study had been granted ethical approval. As with any research project there was a deadline of September 2016, in which my dissertation needed to be submitted. Ethical approval was granted in June 2016, after recommendations had been made by the NHS and NOMS ethic boards and an amendment report was submitted.

On the other hand, recruitment for the study was relatively easy, which surprised me! Although it also identified the need for insomnia interventions in the custodial setting and confirmed that this research was important. The offenders were keen to engage, due to the lack of pharmacological (drug related) and psychological interventions for insomnia they were eager to find something that helped them sleep.

Results from this research were positive and highlighted that there was a significant reduction in insomnia related symptoms after completing the 60-70 minute session of CBT-I, with the accompanying self-help pamphlet with category C adult male prisoners. This research is the first of its kind to assess whether an adapted versions of CBT-I is effective in the prison population, where there are limited interventions and resources to help aid sleep disturbances. Although the results were positive, they have to be taken with caution as the prison where this research was undertaken has a unique regime and all prisoners are in single-cells which allowed them to complete certain aspects of CBT-I e.g. sleep restriction.

My experience of completing this research was positive; I enjoyed the prospect of analysing an undiscovered area and hopefully informing academia and practice within a public health setting. I did however find it hard in the early stages of this project, specifically going through the ethics process and length of time this took. A written report has been disseminated to NOMS highlighting the findings of this research. It also identifies how this research could be taken forward and inform future research opportunities. The single session of CBT-I is being delivered in the prison where the research was completed, more data is being gathered and will hopefully be published in 2017.


Photo attribution:
  1. “sans horizon” by poirpom via Flickr.com, copyright © 2015: https://www.flickr.com/photos/poirpom/16479845789/
  2. “prison” by erin via Flickr.com, copyright © 2007: https://www.flickr.com/photos/insunlight/1037277952
  3. “Insomnia” by Ben Harrison via Flickr.com, copyright © 2011: https://www.flickr.com/photos/48755144@N02/5564362009

Friday, 14 April 2017

Life inside foodbank Britain

Post by Kayleigh Garthwaite, Research Associate at Newcastle University and Fuse Associate Member

For the last three years, I’ve been a volunteer and a researcher at a Trussell Trust foodbank in central Stockton, North East England, finding out how a foodbank works, who uses them, and why. My new book ‘Hunger Pains: life inside foodbank Britain’ tells the stories of the people I met inside the foodbank over an 18 month period. The experiences throughout the book offer a serious challenge to persistent myths that foodbank users are simply seeking emergency food as a result of flawed lifestyle choices.

Every week, I prepared the three days’ worth of food that goes into each food parcel. I dealt with the administration of the red vouchers required to receive food, making sure that anyone who needed further support was signposted to where it could be obtained. I weighed kilograms of food in and out. I volunteered at the collections at Tesco supermarkets, asking people to add an extra tin to their weekly shop. Most importantly, I sat and listened to the stories of the hundreds of people who came through the foodbank doors for emergency food.

The idea that more people are using foodbanks because there are more foodbanks is a popular one. But, in reality, people are using foodbanks as a last resort, when the benefit delays, sanctions, debt and low pay have finally caught up with them. My research, as well as that of other academics, charities and frontline professionals showed that a major reason for people using foodbanks was the impact of welfare reform. It was common for people to have experienced significant problems with benefit delays and sanctions, which led to lengthy periods without income for themselves and their families. Other reasons that brought people through the foodbank doors were ill health, bereavement, relationship breakdown, substantial caring responsibilities, precarious jobs, and redundancy.

Although research has repeatedly emphasised the link between foodbank use and welfare reform over the past five years, the Government denies that a connection between the two exists. Instead, it chooses to dismiss foodbank use as a lifestyle choice of those who are unable to budget properly or who would rather spend their money on cigarettes, flat screen televisions, alcohol, and iPhones. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found that this political rhetoric had a strong influence on beliefs about foodbank use and deservingness, and could lead to stigma, shame, and embarrassment for the people who needed to use them. As a result, people would postpone asking for foodbank support until they were truly desperate.

The big challenge is ensuring that ‘emergency’ food support continues to be seen by the public as a consequence of food poverty and inequality, rather than a permanent solution. We need to listen to the stories and the voices of people foodbanks so that we can understand who uses them, why, and what it feels like. Perhaps these messages are reaching a wider audience now with Ken Loach’s latest award winning film I, Daniel Blake, which has been called ‘a rallying cry for social justice’ with its depiction of the inefficient and often cruel bureaucracy of the benefits system. It is hard to not feel empathy when watching lead character Katie in the haunting foodbank scene, or in witnessing Daniel’s day-to-day struggles in applying for job after job, despite being unfit for work.

But it is hugely important to make sure that the messages in the film, as well as the messages of the book, are heard not just by people who are sympathetic to what the research is saying, but also by people who don’t quite believe that the benefits system is really that bad, or who are adamant that poverty is a lifestyle choice.

Kayleigh’s book ‘Hunger Pains: life inside foodbank Britain’ was placed second in the British Sociological Association / BBC Radio 4 Thinking Allowed Award for Ethnography 2017.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Passionate Advocacy versus Dry Evidence

Posted by Peter van der Graaf, AskFuse Research Manager, Teesside University

Should public health researchers be passionate advocates of their work when engaging with policy makers or should they present their findings in the most neutral way possible, sticking to the facts only (and preferably economic figures) to encourage take up of their research? This question was the focus of a heated debate at the recent national School for Public Health Research Annual Scientific Meeting, bringing together researchers from eight different centres of excellence across the UK and a selection of senior health practitioners at the Royal Society in London.

Chris Whitty: academics should present their findings neutrally
to politicians without making any advocacy statements
The tone for the debate was set by Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Scientific Adviser for the Department of Health, who challenged the audience to be more ambitious in their public health goals. At the same time, he warned academics to play to their strengths: if they wanted to ensure impact of their work, academics should present their findings neutrally to politicians without making any advocacy statements, as this would deter politicians. Advocacy should be reserved for politicians, who in turn are supported by economic advisors. Therefore, academics would do well to present their data in terms of opportunity costs and trade-offs; without solid economic back-up, any evidence claim would be quickly dismissed by politicians, according to Whitty.

This provoked strong reactions from audience members and particularly on Twitter, where a lively discussion ensued throughout the rest of the day. People questioned whether it is possible or even desirable to leave advocacy at the door when dealing with politicians. Some argued that, from a social science perspective, there is no such thing as neutral evidence and that it is our duty as public health scientists to take a stand and advocate against increasing health inequalities. Others disputed the need from politicians for dry evidence, stating that purely evidence based approaches can leave politicians cold without a persuasive narrative. Instead, emotionally informed and narrative research was important to persuade local government. Researchers needed to align themselves with local government concerns and cultures and acknowledge the importance of context to have any impact.

Duncan Selbie: academics should be more ruthless, coordinated and angry
in the interactions with policy makers to get them to act on the evidence
Duncan Selbie, Chief Executive at Public Health England, poured oil on the fire in the afternoon by appealing for the exact opposite to Chris Whitty’s call for more neutrality: academics should be more ruthless, coordinated and angry in the interactions with policy makers to get them to act on the evidence that academics have generated. He encouraged public health researchers to make more use of behavioural science to help policy makers take notice and implement their findings. This provoked several reactions, with some participants highlighting the role that advocacy played in the public health fight against the tobacco industry, while others made passionate pleas on soapboxes for the re-politicising of public health science, arguing that it was unhelpful to divide science and politics into two separate worlds.

The storm seemed to settle towards the end of the day, when Twitter users and audience members started suggesting solutions for the debate, which was dubbed “Passionate Advocacy vs. Dry Evidence”. One suggestion was that public health researchers should develop a ‘horses for courses’ approach: at certain times some people needed to be passionate advocates, while others at different times needed be neutral scientists to get the listening ear of politicians. The different approaches were related to different levels at which politicians operate: local politicians were more persuaded by narratives emerging from research and advocacy, while national politicians valued neutrally presented evidence and data.

Others suggested the use of intermediates to make the advocacy case for public health, such as voluntary community organisations that represent the will of the people, and by focusing research on the key questions that front line workers are struggling with. Or even better, persuade policy makers to become advocates of research evidence!

Overall, participants agreed that science needed to be pushed more up the policy agenda, as research is currently losing out to politics and economics. Therefore, in some circumstance researchers need to consider accept that submitting good enough evidence quickly is better than waiting too long for perfect peer reviewed publications. Furthermore, we need to be aware that different kinds of evidence are used in decision making processes.

My favourite solution was proposed by Professor John Frank, Director of the Scottish Collaboration for Public Health Research & Policy: if you want good policy influencers, you need to change the academic model to produce them. The biggest barriers to knowledge mobilisation are structural and often in academia. As long as we don’t train public health students in engaging with policy and practice partners, fail to teach and reward them in how to use different types of evidence and do not involve them in collaborative research, we will keep returning to this debate for many Annual Scientific Meetings to come.