Warping time and making science accessible

Science and Technology

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Claudia Hammond is the voice that brings discussion of mental health to the airwaves, in the UK and around the world. She has written award-winning psychology books such as Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception, all while remaining at the frontier of informing us about health issues that affect many, as the presenter of Health Check on the BBC World Service and All in the Mind, the mental health programme on BBC Radio 4.

Hammond speaks of the some of the difficulties she faces in making the programme: given the diverse backgrounds and health knowledge of her audience, it is often not easy to cover topics that suit everyone. “It is certainly a challenge that we are covering health and covering health around the whole world, and people in different places may have different ideas about health and what constitutes health. Also people will have very different levels of awareness of what goes on. We’ll always try to cover the latest research.

“The challenge is so that we do explain it so anyone can understand it.” She gets a lot of emails from doctors from around the world, particularly in sub-Saharan and India, and pharmacists who obviously know enormous amounts about the subject. “But at the same time, we have to make sure that everything can be understood by someone who knows nothing about it at all, but maybe just interested in it.”

And Hammond delivers that goal by choosing the stories to cover quite carefully. “They won’t always be relevant to everybody, because if you even do something about big stories like malaria, then many countries in the world don’t have malaria. We’ll always have lots of subjects in the programmes so that if one doesn’t interest you so much particularly, then others will. We always try to bring out those implications of those subjects and to make it clear why it is important even if this is a disease that you may never encounter in your life.”

She also chooses carefully the people she interviews, encouraging them to explain their research as clearly as possible, and uses simple analogies to illuminate concepts: for example, comparing the operations of the body to the workings of a car. “We try to use a lot of examples to try to bring it to life for people so they can understand what’s happening.”

In a video for the World Service, Hammond says Health Check is considered by many listeners as the “main source of health information”. That gives her a sense of responsibility to those listeners to make sure that everything is accurate and checked.
“We would always be careful that everything that we talk about is backed up by evidence. This is why one of the things we often talk about is health myths, and looking at some of the folklore around health and whether these things are actually true or not because they often affect things that people do use and do. We wouldn’t do a piece about a treatment that haven’t been tested properly or proved to work.”

And that is also important when she presents the mental health programme All in the Mind. In a magazine interview, Hammond says that she is trying to give people a better understanding the of the role of psychology. Given the fact that many people focus more on their physical health, I ask her why it is important for them to focus on their mental health as well? “It is clear that it is being increasingly recognised that mental health and well-being is important for everybody. And of course they link to physical health as well.

“Last year, I did a series on the BBC World Service called The Truth about Mental Health, and we went to lots of different countries with different attitudes on mental health.” What really struck her was the overwhelming publicity around the world when the series went out. Hammond was interviewed by newspapers in South Africa, India, America and all over the place about the series and what they were doing, showing more people are much more interested in mental health now they realise how many people are affected by mental health.

But why is it that more people know more about mental health these days? Hammond explained that people used to think that mental illness was just something that happened to other people, and it couldn’t just happen to anyone. However recently, particularly in Britain and America, a lot more famous people have spoken out about their mental health problems. And when people see that even celebrities are experiencing problems like depression and anxiety, people gradually start to talk about it and recognise that it does matter.

And she has witnessed how the understanding evolved. She became a reporter for All in the Mind 17 years ago and started presenting it seven years ago; she used to listen to the programme when she was in sixth form before being a psychology student. When she dug into the archives for the programme’s 25th anniversary in the latest series, she was interested to find that these archives were ahead of their time – they did not sound old-fashioned.

“What we’ve found has changed is that people’s attitudes towards mental health problems have become more positive in general.” For example, it is much more common now that the programme would interview people with mental health problems themselves, rather than just experts talking about the problem. “Personally, I would think it’s important, wherever it is possible, to have those people join in with the discussion in the studio, not just being used as the case-study and then having the experts talk about them.

“When they are talking about mental health problems, those problems haven’t changed. So listening to someone 25 years ago talking about their experience of depression is so similar to the way people are talking about it now.” The same topics will come up again and again as more research is done further down the line.

In an article published in the Daily Telegraph, Hammond says “Hopefully one day, All in the Mind listeners won’t tell us this is the only time in the week they feel understood – because most other people will understand them, too.”

But when does Hammond think that day will come? She thinks it may be quite a while. “The evidence shows that although attitudes have become more positive, those attitudes have only changed by about five to ten per cent if you measure on scale.”

She raised the example that there are still a lot of people who are afraid to reveal that they have a mental health problem to their colleagues or in their workplace for fear that it will ruin their career. “But what I think is encouraging is that more and more on TV, on the radio and in newspapers, other programmes are now talking about mental health as well.”

“All in the Mind is the longest-running program in the world, but now other programmes are covering mental health. And not as some kind of freak show, but just as: this is some of the experience, and this is what people have experienced, and I think that’s a good sign.”

Health Check is a weekly programme on the BBC World Service over the year, and All in the Mind is a programme with two series every year on BBC Radio 4. Claudia Hammond has also published two psychology books, namely Time Warped: Unlocking the mysteries of time Perception and Emotional Rollercoaster: a journey through the science of feelings.

Images/Claudia Hammond