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This is Insania

May 11th, 2009

Dr Petra

This afternoon a journalist rang me and asked if I could give them a quote about divorce law. I didn’t find out what their story was about, I just told them they needed to talk to a divorce lawyer.

Ten minutes later the phone went again, and another journalist was on the line asking about divorce. Again I said they really needed to talk to a divorce lawyer.

Then the phone went again and I was asked if I could comment on the effects of divorce on children.

By now it was obvious, even to this bear of little brain, that something was going on. So I asked the journalist why was I getting calls about divorce.

‘Haven’t you heard?’ They replied. ‘Peter Andre and Katie Price (aka Jordan) have separated’.

Which explained the flurry of calls. I explained to the journalist that I couldn’t comment on celebrities and while it was possible to discuss divorce/separation in general, there were better qualified people to explain this. I suggested they contact the British Psychological Society and British Sociological Association for people who had researched this area (or who offered therapy to couples and families going through separation and divorce).

Predictably the journalist asked me why I couldn’t talk about celebrities and gave me the usual line that they’d never heard this was a problem before and no other psychologist had ever refused to discuss celeb cases with them. So I went through the reasons why it’s unethical for psychologists to comment directly on celebrities.

Before I left the office there’d been several more calls and emails, all asking for quotes. None of them were in a format that allowed a general discussion of separation and the psychological impact this might have – or an explanation of the wider evidence base about what leads to separation and how couples can best manage it. There was no opportunity to highlight for people what they might do to avoid a separation or cope with one if it happened. No chance to talk about when it is right to separate. And no possibility to share sources of support for anyone worried about separation or divorce.

No, the questions I was asked included…..

- could I judge by looking at a series of recent photographs just when the moment of separation happened
- of the two celebrities involved in this case, which was the one who was most likely to have instigated the separation
- could I give my ‘psychological insight into whose fault it was’ the couple were splitting
- who I thought ought to get custody of the children
- which of the children would be the ‘worst affected’ by the separation

All of which requires direct comment on a case which is unethical (see above) and no real application of psychological theory/evidence.

The problem with stories like this is they get a lot of press attention, and they do cause people to reflect on their own relationships and worry about problems they might be encountering. Which is why psychologists could play an important role in sharing information that might reassure and enable the public. Sadly because of the pressure to analyse and comment on case studies/celebrities this opportunity is consistently denied us. And even more depressingly for every psychologist who won’t comment on celebs, there are countless people who will happily speculate away with no real concern for any distress they may be causing to those directly involved or anyone in a related situation.

I know each time I raise this issue I seem like a killjoy, and I know it irritates some journalists who want a quick quote. But it’s important to stress the whole time we play along with this agenda we are causing harm. Not to mention a lack of public trust. Because if you see psychologists chatting about celebrities and case studies how can you trust they’ll keep anything you say in therapy or research confidential?

If journalists want to talk about celebrity crises (and let’s face it, this sells) then ditch the psychological commentary. After all, it’s very rarely anything to do with psychology.

If you’re worried about separation/divorce you can get information and support from
Direct Gov’s guide Getting a Divorce
My mum and dad argue a lot (a guidance resource for professionals working with parents and children in situations of parental contact)
The Couple Connection has resources and forums to help improve communication within relationships.
The BBC has a helpful guide to separation and divorce written by therapist Paula Hall.

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