Mental Health: A Different Approach

Jake Pointer is a second year Sociology PhD student at Newcastle, studying the experiences of migrant workers in the British meat processing industry. Here he writes about something external to his research but just as important to him – mental health and how it can be approached through a sociological lens.

In general, there are two social issues which I seriously care about. I’m sure most people who know me can guess the first, it begins with a V and involves eating lots of grass if the latest internet memes are accurate. The second is perhaps not so easy to decipher as I rarely talk about it: mental health problems (MHPs). The reason, which I imagine is the reason for most people who take an interest in this area, is because I suffer, sometimes quite severely, from MHPs, specifically the D-word (I dislike that word, I’m not sure why). Here are my thoughts on some things that can be done about it at a societal level.

First, it’s worth taking a few moments to consider what mental health is and what happens when it goes wrong. Everyone has mental health, but I think it’s only when it starts to deteriorate that people give it much thought. As MHPs have been kicking down the societal door for some time now it is affecting us more though, I’m sure most people at least know somebody with a mental ailment. Here’s what an MHP might look like based on what I know and my own experience. The individual with the D-word will likely spend much of their time in bed, often due to an inability to get up and disruptions to sleep patterns. Their appetite may drastically increase or decrease. Socialising and working become harder, perhaps impossible. Things once interesting become mundane. Jokes are no longer funny. Anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure, will likely have a strong grip on the individual’s psychic windpipe. To put it lightly, it’s not a great place to be.

Figure 1: Can these hands be stopped? Credit: Zarina Situmorang

A New Approach

The current method for dealing with these ills is to focus on treatment, that is, waiting until people become mentally entropic and then addressing the problems. This may involve medications, therapy, diet changes, exercise, mindfulness practices, diary keeping and so on.  These are all effective tools, but, in my opinion, more focus should be on prevention. It is clear that MHPs are more likely to arise when people are exposed to certain influences. These include, but are not limited to, an unstable homelife, childhood abuse, loneliness, over exposure to social media, traumatic events and unemployment. More focus should be on neutralizing these. A new field of psychology is investigating whether nutrition can affect mental health. This also holds promise. Additionally, I believe that MHPs have been romanticised somewhat; with narratives of ‘battling’ or ‘overcoming’. Viktor Frankl might identify this as making meaning in suffering, but it would be better to allow people to find meaning whilst in a state of mental flourishment. One example of how prevention could be implemented is a ‘mental health day’ at school, giving children the knowledge and tools to not only cope with any issues, but to identify potential influences before they start to wreak havoc. Everybody now knows smoking is bad, thus many people have now chosen to not smoke in the first place – an example of prevention via education. Perhaps the same can be done for MHPs. I’d even like to recommend a potential reading for school students, Flow: the psychology of optimal experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I read this recently and it is overflowing with researched-backed information on how to have a deep impact on your own mental welfare and those around you in many areas of life.

Figure 2: Could this process have been avoided? Credit: John Holfcroft

With all this in mind (excuse the pun), it is perhaps unrealistic to believe we can have a hundred per cent mentally healthy society. Either way, I’m convinced the best way to stop MHPs arising is to prevent them from getting a foothold in the first place because once they do it is no easy task to repeal them. I don’t like it when people say mental health is the same as physical health, because I think they are quite different. Nonetheless, we have successfully eradicated plenty of physical diseases in the past. Can the same be done for MHPs though? I’d like to think so, but this is up for debate. We’ve always known that mental health rates fluctuate depending on certain social influences, something Durkheim demonstrated back in the early day of sociological thought. If we can identify the influences in the 21st century, perhaps we can start to take steps to reduce them. It is a success when an individual removes the Atlasesque weight of an MHP from their cerebral shoulders. But whilst it may not be recognised as such, it is an even greater success when those same shoulders never have such a load on them in the first place. That should be the goal.


Csikszentmihali, M. (1990) Flow: the psychology of optimal experience, New York: HaperPerennial.

Durkheim, E. (2006) On Suicide, London: Penguin.

Frankl, V. (2004) Man’s Search for Meaning: The classic tribute to hope from the Holocaust, London: Rider.

The rollercoaster ride: Plan Awesome and beyond

Gemma Molyneux is a second year PhD student in Sociology at Newcastle, studying high school girls’ everyday experiences and consumption of STEM subjects at school. In the second post in our Plan B series, Gemma writes about adjusting her research in schools during COVID-19. She reflects on the changes she has made to the project, and the new questions and insights these have brought about. 

Let’s get it out of the way first: COVID-19 came along and I am not going to get to do the research project I had planned.  My planned research project involved exploring girls’ consumption of Science Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM) through a focus on everyday life. The project was intended as an ethnographic study within a high school. The aim was to observe first-hand the day-to-day lives of girls within the school environment, as they interact with their friends and the teachers, within class and break times. From this I would then have been able to develop some rich data that would have shown me the girls’ consumption of STEM within their day to day lives. But now, that’s not going to happen! On the other hand, life would be boring if everything went to plan!

So, what now? Let the roller coaster begin

Image credit: I-ing/

The first bump began in March, when I started to consider: how long will this lockdown be? What shall I do with my project plan? Being positive, my supervisors and I decided to delay the start of the ethnographic fieldwork from September to January, allowing extra time for additional data to be collected (Plan B).

Second bump at the end of summer: will January be realistic? How long do you wait on the uncontrollable and when do you make a change and take control? Ok, we decided, ethnography (where you need to be around people) in a pandemic is not going to work, just move on. Hence, the decision to use virtual group interviews with students with photograph/vlog elicitation was made.

Let’s not go through the alphabet: Plan Awesome is born

In October the ride starts to change direction again: will/won’t the schools close? Along with the constant adrenaline rush of the possibility of the group of students or the coordinating teacher being isolated,  will the interviews be affected? (still sticking with Plan Awesome!)

Just because it’s different does not make it wrong

Putting the roller coaster imagery aside, the truth is that the challenges brought about by COVID-19 on my research have been present, but not insurmountable. Changing methods changes the type of data you get, so being clear whether this data will answer the research questions has been important. They do say there is more than one way to skin a cat. Ensuring the alternative data collected from group interviews aligns with my research questions establishes that the change of plan still meets my objectives. Being open minded and generating many ideas for every possible method I could think of was helpful. I used a SWOT analysis  to understand what all the different ideas meant to the project and whether they would answer the research questions. In creating the SWOT analysis I wrote down every method I could. Thinking through how these could be used or combined with others made me consider data generation in a more creative way. In addition, evaluating the methods’ negative aspects required creativity in generating possible solutions that could be put in place to mitigate these issues.

Image credit: Ravennka/

Changing the project has reduced the richness that a long-period study of students would have brought. However, now, the research includes a wider range of data sources with the potential opportunity to gain observations from students from more than one school and interviews with a range of teachers. Already some of the additional data sources that have been explored are giving interesting (and unforeseen) insights.

Being able to be flexible has allowed my project not to be derailed

It’s December in year 2 of my PhD and I have completed 5 teacher interviews and have started the school group interviews. Have I made the right decisions and the right changes? I am still prepared to be flexible for the probable additional bumps to come. I have to be positive and confident and remember ♫ Everything is Awesome ♫.