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Grrrrr! New survey says Brits are getting angrier

March 25th, 2008

Dr Petra

New research in the press today claims Britons are ‘more angry than ever’. A survey of 2000 people for the Mental Health Foundation claimed 1/3 of respondents had a friend or relative who had problems controlling their temper. 1/5 had ended a friendship over a person’s anger problem and 1 in 4 claimed they were worried about how angry they sometimes feel.

Mental Health Foundation chief executive Dr Andrew McCulloch said: “In a society where people can get help for depression and anxiety, panic, phobia, eating disorders and a range of other psychological and emotional problems, it seems extraordinary that we are left to fend for ourselves when it comes to an emotion as powerful as anger. We need to be able to recognise when anger is damaging our lives, ask for help and receive it. It is the elephant in the room in mental health.”

But are we really getting angrier as a nation, and is this a mental health priority issue? Whether we are or not, we can’t tell from this survey.

Why? Well for a start it hasn’t measured that we’re getting angrier. What it’s done is measured people’s attitudes towards preset questions about anger. To determine that we’re angrier you’d need to survey Brits now, then ask them the same questions at some point in the future and compared the difference. If more people seemed to be reporting they felt angry you possibly could conclude an increase.

Even then there are problems though. This research still hasn’t conceptualised anger. For example there’s a big difference between someone feeling angry because they’ve just lost a job or found their car’s been vandalised, and someone who feels angry but isn’t able to pinpoint why. There’s seemingly no measure of the scale of someone’s anger or its duration, nor whether it’s directed outwards towards others or inwards to the self.

There’s no indication from this study whether the people concerned felt they were angry, and if so what caused their anger. Where they mentioned a friend being angry it wasn’t clear if the friend was just being a grumpy old sod or due to a traumatic life event that might be explained by an angry response. And certainly there’s no measurement of whether the friend believed they had a problem.

Because there were no real parameters put on the study this also inflates the level of anger reported. I’m sure most of us have sometimes felt very angry and been worried about it. But there’s a world of difference between getting cross and regretting it occasionally and constantly getting wound up and feeling guilty later. The trouble is if you’re asked if you’ve ever been worried about how angry you feel you have to answer ‘yes’ to it whether this is an ongoing problem or a one-off event.

I have problems with relating anger as a new and growing problem. I can’t be that naive as to believe we weren’t feeling angry during, say, World War 1, or after the Great Fire of London, or when our country was ravaged by plague? And how about making this so country-specific. Is anger truly such an issue for us Brits? Mightn’t they be also feeling angry in say Iraq or Darfur?

I’m not belittling the issue, or denying anger exists. But I do have a problem with making out we’re the only nation to feel ‘more angry’ at this point in time.

Anger is not necessarily a bad emotion, nor one that is automatically an indicator of a mental health problem. It does not always lead to violence. And yet media coverage based on this poorly designed survey implies that all anger is problematic and pathological.

From this market research survey of 2000 people (we have no details of who they are or how they were recruited for the study) there are calls for more therapy services to be provided to cope with our growing anger problem. No doubt the charity believe this is an issue otherwise they wouldn’t have commissioned the research, but it’s irresponsible to make claims for increased mental health problems and required services when you haven’t truly demonstrated or measured a mental health crisis.

While they do ask for further research into this issue, surely the Mental Health Foundation as an evidence-based organisation could have commissioned a report that was based on something accurate, and accounted for existing published research on this issue.

What we should be doing is asking questions about this research. Why was it completed, what purpose is it serving? Is it likely to bring about any changes in policy or service delivery – and should that happen based on the quality of this research? Given the volume of research in this area why weren’t more robust studies consulted – and what do they have to tell us about anger? Do those findings match the claims of this market research study?

We’re currently very quick to label emotions and behaviours as pathological. While it’s easy to claim from a quick and dirty survey that anger is ‘endemic’ (as this current study has), and propose the solution is a talking therapy, perhaps we ought to be reflecting on why anger is a problem for our culture.

If we have an issue of endemic anger in our culture (which this study hasn’t proved) then we need to be identifying the causes of that anger and proposing wider solutions. For many people living in our modern consumerist and celebrity driven society it’s very easy to feel disempowered. More than that, many people ARE disempowered.

So before we jump to the tune of a PR survey that recommends talking therapies and anger management classes as our primary answer, perhaps we should be addressing issues of social inequality, housing, debt, poverty, consumerism, transport, prejudice, access to healthcare and education. Which might lead us to understand how, for some people, feeling angry is a logical response.

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