Coronavirus: tiny moments of pleasure really can help us through this stressful time



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Desirée Kozlowski, Southern Cross University

If I told you that last night I built a blanket fort in the living room, crawled inside with my cat, a glass of wine and my just-arrived copy of the New Yorker, would you think less of me?

After all, we’re in the midst of a global coronavirus pandemic. Borders are closing, people are sick, dying, losing their jobs, and locked in isolation. And there was I, playing – as though I didn’t have a care in the world.

Meanwhile, you might be reading this holed up at home, screaming with fury at those bloody hoarders. Or perhaps you’re on a train valiantly trying to keep 1.5 metres away from the next person, shrinking back as they cough and splutter.

Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, whatever you think about the pandemic, the economy, or your compatriots, a tiny part of you knows you could do with a bit of pleasure right now.




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The effects of sustained stress

When we’re first exposed to something stressful, like a deadly new disease, our body reacts with a cascade of small changes such as releasing adrenaline and other chemicals, and activating brain regions related to fear and anger.

In many cases those changes make it more likely we’ll meet the challenges we face.

But if the stressful conditions continue, and especially if we feel powerless to fix the situation, the consequences of the stress response increase.




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Coronavirus is stressful. Here are some ways to cope with the anxiety


Our risk of chronic diseases increases, immune function can be compromised, and we become more vulnerable to mental health problems.

We can feel depleted, disconnected, anxious and depressed. We can become fixated on negative thoughts and on looking for signs of threat. Sound familiar?

The good news is the effects of stress on the brain are reversible.

Pleasure in times of stress

It may seem too simple to be true but shifting our attention toward the small, everyday pleasures in our lives can offset the consequences of stress or negative events.

US researchers reported last year that experiencing pleasurable emotions, for example having interesting things to do, serves as a buffer between chronic stress and depression. So, among people with sustained, high levels of stress, those who reported more pleasurable moments were likely to experience less severe depressive symptoms.

Pleasurable experiences might even be of most benefit in times of stress.

We experience pleasure in a myriad ways. Perhaps one of the most potent of pleasures, and one that springs most easily to mind, is a lover’s caress.




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But to maximise the pleasure in every day, we should look more widely, to a multitude of sources.

If we’re too busy reading those alarming headlines to notice the beauty of the sun setting outside our window though, it’s a missed opportunity for a moment of delight.

When I recently asked people on Twitter to share the things bringing them delight in these challenging times, I received hundreds of replies within a couple of hours.

Each one was a small vignette conveying a personal moment of simple pleasure. Gardens and dogs and children and nature featured strongly, and many people reflected on the added pleasure of recalling such moments.

Indeed, recollection and anticipation – along with relishing pleasure in the moment – are effective ways to maximise the value of positive experiences or emotions. We call it “savouring”.

Luckily, we can get better at savouring with practice. And the more we savour, the less stressed we feel. And that’s why I’m here.

If we increase the pleasure we experience, it can lift our psychological well-being. In turn, higher well-being is linked to better immune function.




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It’s about boosting our personal capacity

My message is not to avoid the facts or pretend nothing has changed. It’s to intentionally build in moments of reprieve and restoration. It’s to turn your attention to what is still good and rich and fun – to really focus on those things.

This is how we can harness the protective power of small pleasures, for the sake of delight itself and to build grit and resilience.

So, there may never have been a better time to build a blanket fort, or to bring out a game of Twister, or to lie on your back in the garden making fantasy creatures out of passing clouds. Find excuses to giggle.




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Making pleasure happen

In difficult, frightening times, no one is immune to worry; it’s a natural response. But what we can do is take steps to protect ourselves, as much as possible, from its physical and psychological ill-effects.

The challenge is to make this happen, to tear yourself away from analysing the COVID-19 curve and intentionally, systematically engineer more small delights into your day.

Do you like the sunshine? Then know when the sun falls on your balcony, in your garden or in the street near your place. Take a cup of tea or coffee with you and soak up the warmth.




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Pets? Run, play, be silly with them. Eating a tomato? Plant the seeds and watch something grow, from nothing, because of you. Sing. Dance. Delight someone with an act of kindness.

Plan your opportunities for pleasure. Put them in your diary. Set your alarm for them. Commit to share them with others. Photograph them. Post them on social media or share them directly with friends and family. Anticipate them gleefully and reflect on them with delight. This is our time to be here. Savour.The Conversation

Desirée Kozlowski, Lecturer, Psychology, Southern Cross University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Coronavirus is stressful. Here are some ways to cope with the anxiety



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Louise Stone, Australian National University and Katrina McLean, Bond University

One of our patients was recently talking about her anxiety around the coronavirus epidemic. This woman’s stress was understandable. She had survived a serious infection with swine flu, but only with a prolonged stay in intensive care.

I guess we all walk on the edge of a cliff […] anything can happen to anyone at any time. We are never really safe. But people like me? Now we know the edge of the cliff is right there, and we can’t help looking down.




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While some people may be more susceptible to becoming seriously ill with the coronavirus than others, none of us are immune to the pervading sense of anxiety that has taken hold around the world.

For Australians in particular, this crisis has come immediately after a horror summer of bushfires, which took their own toll on our collective mental health.

But there are some things we can keep in mind, and some practical steps we can take, to keep coronavirus-related anxiety under control.

A tangible threat versus an invisible enemy

It hasn’t been an easy start to the decade. In the face of the summer’s bushfires, many of us contended with threats to our health, our homes and even our lives.

Even those not directly affected were faced with constant images of charred bushland, injured wildlife, and homes burnt to the ground.

The bushfires put a strain on our collective mental health, and it’s very likely some people are still struggling.

Natural disasters, though, are visible and tangible. There are things we can do to avoid the threat, manage the danger or mitigate the risk. We can see the smoke, check the app, buy an air purifier, prepare our homes. And despite the vivid images of floods, fires and cyclones, we know the storm will pass.

Epidemics are different. A novel epidemic is unknown, evolving and a global risk.

We are faced with a variety of information (and misinformation) online. Guidelines contradict each other, different states have different approaches, and experts disagree.

Meanwhile, infection rates climb as economies fall. We know we may contract the virus, and as yet we know there’s no vaccine to prevent it.




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You’re not the only one feeling helpless. Eco-anxiety can reach far beyond bushfire communities


While the bushfires united us, coronavirus seems to divide us

There’s an ugly side to ways we can deal with the stress of an unknown enemy like the coronavirus.

Some people blame potential carriers for their own illnesses, scapegoating people they see as high-risk. This is not helpful.

We also seek to manage our anxiety by trying to prepare ourselves and our families for the possibility of isolation or quarantine.

While this is reasonable to a degree, practices like stockpiling toilet paper and other goods can feed, rather than relieve, anxiety. Empty supermarket shelves can create panic, and further disadvantage people who might be living from week to week.

Epidemics isolate us from each other physically too, and this will only happen more and more.

So how can we put things into perspective?

We can take heart in knowing many people will develop only mild disease from the coronavirus.

There are of course vulnerable members of our community: those with compromised immune systems due to illness or age. We need to protect these people as a community by creating safe spaces for them to live, work and access health care, rather than fostering panic.




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Our greatest asset lies in our own bodies. We may not understand how to best protect ourselves, but our bodies are experienced managers of novel immune challenges, and they will manage the risk as effectively as they can.

Ultimately, our best chance at surviving this virus relies on nurturing our bodies: avoiding exposure through hand-washing and isolation where appropriate, eating well, exercising, managing chronic illnesses, and getting enough sleep.

The anxiety a pandemic generates is inevitable. At the end of the day, we all need to learn to live with a degree of risk we can’t avoid.

Practical strategies to keep anxiety at bay

The World Health Organisation has developed some practical tips for dealing the stress of this outbreak. Here are a few of them:

  • accept that it’s normal to feel sad, stressed, confused, scared or angry during an outbreak

  • find ways to talk about how you feel with others, especially if you are in quarantine

  • remember to keep an eye out for your children during this time, and for loved ones who already have mental illness. They may need help dealing with this added anxiety

  • if you feel overwhelmed, seek support from a health professional

  • don’t use smoking, alcohol or other drugs to deal with your emotions. Keep your body as healthy as possible by eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep

  • limit worry by limiting media exposure to a few trusted sources

  • draw on skills you have used in the past that have helped you to get through difficult times.




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If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Dr Wendy Burton, a GP in Brisbane, contributed to this article.The Conversation

Louise Stone, General practitioner; Clinical Associate Professor, ANU Medical School, Australian National University and Katrina McLean, Assistant Professor, Medicine, Bond University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

You’re not the only one feeling helpless. Eco-anxiety can reach far beyond bushfire communities



Rolling images and stories of bushfire devastation can take a toll.
From shutterstock.com

Fiona Charlson, The University of Queensland and James Graham Scott, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute

You’re scrolling through your phone and transfixed by yet more images of streets reduced to burnt debris, injured wildlife, and maps showing the scale of the fires continuing to burn. On the television in the background, a woman who has lost her home breaks down, while news of another life lost flashes across the screen.

You can’t bear to watch anymore, but at the same time, you can’t tear yourself away. Sound familiar?

We’ve now been confronted with these tragic images and stories for months. Even if you haven’t been directly affected by the bushfires, it’s completely normal to feel sad, helpless, and even anxious.

Beyond despairing about the devastation so many Australians are facing, some of these emotions are likely to be symptoms of “eco-anxiety”.




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If you’re feeling down, you’re not alone

Research on previous bushfire disasters shows people directly affected are more likely to suffer mental health consequences than those who have not been directly affected.

After Black Saturday, about one in five people living in highly affected communities experienced persistent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression or psychological distress.

Recognising this as a critical issue, the Australian government has announced funding to deliver mental health support to affected people and communities.

But living in an unaffected area doesn’t mean you’re immune. In addition to contending with rolling images and stories of devastation, we’ve seen flow-on effects of the bushfires reach far beyond affected areas.

For example, schools and workplaces have been closed, people have been forced to cancel their summer holidays, and sports matches and community events have been called off. This disruption to normal activities can result in uncertainty and distress, particularly for children and young people.

What is eco-anxiety?

Distress around the current fires may be compounded by – and intertwined with – a pervasive sense of fear and anxiety in relation to climate change-related events.

The American Psychological Association defines eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”.

While concern and anxiety around climate change are normal, eco-anxiety describes a state of being overwhelmed by the sheer scale, complexity and seriousness of the problems we’re facing. It can be accompanied by guilt for personal contributions to the problem.




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The Australian bushfires may have signalled a “tipping point” for many people who held a passive attitude towards climate change, and even many who have held a more active view of climate denialism. In the face of current circumstances, the crisis of climate change now becomes almost impossible to ignore.

While eco-anxiety is not a diagnosable mental disorder, it can have significant impacts on a person’s well-being.

Whether you think you’re suffering from eco-anxiety or more general stress and depression about the bushfires, here are some things you can do.

We’re pretty resilient, but support helps

We’re now living with the environmental consequences of a changing climate, and this requires people to adapt. Fortunately, most of us are innately resilient and are able to overcome stress and losses and to live with uncertainty.

We can enhance this resilience by connecting with friends and family and positively engaging in our communities. Making healthy choices around things like diet, exercise and sleep can also help.

Further, supporting those who are vulnerable has benefits for both the person giving and receiving assistance. For example, parents have a critical role in listening to their children’s concerns and providing appropriate guidance.




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Become part of the solution

Seeking to reduce your own carbon footprint can help alleviate feelings of guilt and helplessness – in addition to the positive difference these small actions make to the environment.

This might include walking, cycling and taking public transport to get around, and making sustainability a factor in day-to-day decisions like what you buy and what you eat.

Seeking support from friends and family can help.
From shutterstock.com

Joining one of the many groups advocating for the environment also provides a voice for people concerned about the changing climate.

Finally, there are many ways you can provide assistance to bushfire relief efforts. The generosity shown by Australians and others internationally has provided a sense of hope at a time when many are facing enormous hardship.

Seeking professional help

Some people, particularly those living with unrelated psychological distress, will find it harder to adapt to increased stress. Where their emotional resources are already depleted, it becomes more difficult to accommodate change.

Although we don’t yet have research on this, it’s likely people with pre-existing mental health problems will be more vulnerable to eco-anxiety.

If this is you, it’s worthwhile seeking professional help if you feel your mental health is deteriorating at this time.




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Whether or not you have a pre-existing mental health disorder, if you’re feeling depressed or anxious to a degree it’s affecting your work, education or social functioning, you should seek advice from a health professional.

Evidence-based psychological interventions like cognitive behavioural therapy reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, improving mental health and well-being.

If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.The Conversation

Fiona Charlson, Conjoint NHMRC Early Career Fellow, The University of Queensland and James Graham Scott, Professor of Psychiatry and Head of Mental Health, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Creeping distrust’: our anxiety over China’s influence is hurting Chinese-Australians



According to new research, discrimination against Asian-Australians is widespread. The way we talk about China is part of the problem.
Erik Anderson/AAP

James Laurenceson, University of Technology Sydney

Last week’s Asian-Australian Leadership Summit in Melbourne saw the release of valuable new survey data on the discrimination some Australians face.

A survey conducted by the Australian National University’s Centre for Social Research found that 82% of Asian-Australians reported they had experienced discrimination. This was the highest among all the self-identified ethnic groups in the study, and compared with just 34% for Anglo-Australians.

In his welcoming address to the summit, ANU Chancellor and former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans made particular mention of the predicament Chinese-Australians currently find themselves in. He warned that “hyper-anxiety” about “baleful Chinese” was

making it harder than it has ever been for Chinese-Australians to aspire to leadership positions, or indeed any position at all in fields that are seen as even remotely security-sensitive.

One attendee, Chinese-Australian businessman Jason Yat-sen Li, remarked,

I hear anecdotal stories of people who work for big companies, or work for government, who are just feeling this sort of creeping distrust.

Many Chinese-Australians connect this “creeping distrust” to the tone of the broader concerns around “Chinese influence” at the moment.

Another summit attendee, Jieh-Yung Lo, said,

Unfortunately Chinese-Australians have become collateral damage in the foreign influence debate and as a result, some, including me, have had our loyalty and commitment to Australia repeatedly questioned.

When reasonable questions become insinuations

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) has consistently warned since 2017 that the threat Australia faces from “foreign interference” – defined as activities that are covert, deceptive and/or coercive – is “unprecedented”.

Last month, retiring ASIO Director-General Duncan Lewis went so far as to say he considered it an “existential threat” to Australia.

Last week, these concerns led to many questions being directed at Gladys Liu, Australia’s first and only “Chinese-born” member of parliament. (Liu was actually born in Hong Kong and has never been a citizen of the People’s Republic of China.)

Prime Minister Scott Morrison leaped to Liu’s defence when questions about her ties to associations with direct or indirect links with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were raised – first in the media, and then in parliament.




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But shouting “racism”, as Morrison did, is inaccurate. There is nothing racist about scrutinising an Australian MP’s previous connections. But it becomes problematic when reasonable questions are cast as insinuations and allegations – about a citizen’s loyalty, for example – that run ahead of the evidence.

And one of the most prominent groups in Australian society calling for tougher push-back against foreign interference has been the Chinese-Australian victims of CCP operations abroad.

Gladys Liu’s ties to organisations with connections to the Chinese Communist Party have come under question.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

The ‘China influence’ narrative

As our anxiety over foreign interference has intensified, it’s also had an impact on the way China – and Chinese-Australians – are discussed and viewed by the public. As a group of China academics has noted, the media, in particular, have sometimes taken a sensational approach that has led to a “racialised narrative of a vast official Chinese conspiracy”.

In today’s commercially challenging media landscape, China scare stories sell newspapers and generate clicks. Even the publicly funded ABC is not immune. As China media scholar Wanning Sun noted:

Over the past few years, the ‘China influence’ narrative, which manifests in a multitude of political, social and cultural issues, has grown to dominate the Australian news media’s coverage of China. In this context, the ABC has conspicuously failed to set a broader agenda.




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Why do we keep turning a blind eye to Chinese political interference?


Until this week, major media outlets such the Sydney Morning Herald and the ABC were tagging their reporting around these serious issues under the banner of “Chinese influence”. Only in recent days did they finally switch to “CCP influence” and “China power”.

Similarly, last year, academic Clive Hamilton wrote a bestselling book with a cover that warned of a “Silent Invasion” owing to “China’s influence”.

The consequences of such loose talk – when CCP interference is the real problem – can alienate Australians born in China or those of Chinese ethnicity. Worse, they can be seized upon by racist groups and individuals as justification for their views and to incite hatred.

How Asian-Australians experience discrimination

Recent research has shown that Australians of Asian backgrounds were the most frequent victims of race-motivated hate crimes.

In the ANU survey, discrimination against Asian-Australians was reported as occurring in a host of environments, such as at shops or restaurants. Perhaps most troubling, though, was that two-thirds of Asian-Australian respondents said they suffered discrimination in the workplace.




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More than half said that discrimination, or the fear of discrimination, had changed the way they acted at work. The most common reactions were to be less outspoken and adopt a more submissive work style.

The consequences of this sometimes unconscious bias are far-reaching. Previous studies, for example, have shown that Asian-Australians only comprise 1.6% of chief executive officers of ASX200 companies, federal government ministers, heads of federal and state government departments and vice-chancellors of universities.

This pales in comparison to their 12% share of the Australian population.

More responsible reporting on Gladys Liu

All of this makes it critical that politicians, journalists and commentators are precise in their language and balanced and rigorous in their assessments and analysis.

Consider the Gladys Liu case again. The questions about Liu relate to her being “associated” with organisations that are “linked” to the CCP. But as China analyst Ryan Manuel observes,

no-one has alleged that Ms Liu herself, nor the Liberal Party she belongs to, holds any communist sympathies.

Last weekend, an ABC report made much of a motion proposed by Liu’s Liberal Party branch in 2017 to make it easier for foreign investors to buy Australian agricultural land and agribusinesses by raising the threshold needed for Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) scrutiny.

But what it didn’t say was that the motion was entirely in keeping with the agenda of the Business Council of Australia (BCA), not the CCP. In 2015, when the Abbott government was considering lowering the thresholds, the BCA openly fought the change on the basis that

it increases costs, brings uncertainty and leads to a chilling effect on investment.

Moreover, the motion proposed by the branch Liu belonged to said nothing about changing the threshold for scrutiny faced by companies owned by the Chinese government. (Under current regulations, every single investment proposal from a foreign, state-owned company has to be approved by the FIRB, no matter how small.)

And how exactly owning an Australian dairy farm or fruit processor would constitute a vector of CCP interference that could potentially undermine Australian sovereignty is a mystery.

But this is precisely the type of reporting we need to avoid – lacking context and firm evidence – to avoid mischaracterising Chinese-Australians.The Conversation

James Laurenceson, Acting Director and Professor, Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI), University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

More Australians are diagnosed with depression and anxiety but it doesn’t mean mental illness is rising



Women are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety as men.
Eric Ward

Anthony Jorm, University of Melbourne

Diagnoses of depression and anxiety disorders have risen dramatically over the past eight years. That’s according to new data out today from the Housing Income and Labour Dynamics (HILDA) Survey, which tracks the lives of 17,500 Australians.

The increase spans across all age groups, but is most notably in young people.

The percentage of young women (aged 15-34) who had been diagnosed with these conditions increased from 12.8% in 2009, to 20.1% in 2017.

In young men, there was a similar increase, from 6.1% to 11.2%.

But this doesn’t mean Australians’ mental health is worsening.




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What’s behind the numbers?

HILDA surveys collate data on the “reported diagnosis” of depression and anxiety disorders. Many people with these conditions have remained undiagnosed by a health practitioner, so it could simply be a matter of more people seeking professional help and getting diagnosed.

To find out whether there is a real increase, we need to survey a sample of the public about their symptoms rather than ask about whether they have been diagnosed. This has been done for almost two decades in the National Health Survey.

This graph shows the percentage of the population reporting very high levels of depression and anxiety symptoms over the previous month, from 2001 to 2017-18.

Rather than worsening, the nation’s mental health has been steady over this period.

Shouldn’t our mental health be improving?

So it seems while our mental health is not getting worse, we are more likely to get diagnosed. With increased diagnosis, it’s no surprise Australians have been rapidly embracing treatments for mental-health problems.

Antidepressant use has been rising for decades, with Australians now among the world’s highest users. One in ten Australian adults take an antidepressant each day.




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Psychological treatment has also skyrocketed, particularly after the Australian government introduced Medicare coverage for psychology services in 2006. There are now around 20 psychology services per year for every 100 Australians.

The real concern is why we’re not seeing any benefit from these large increases in diagnosis and treatment. In theory, our mental health should be improving.

There are two likely reasons for the lack of progress: the treatments are often not up to standard and we have neglected prevention.

Treatment is often poor quality

A number of treatments work for depression and anxiety disorders. However, what Australians receive in practice falls far short of the ideal.

Antidepressants, for example, are most appropriate for severe depression, but are often used to treat people with mild symptoms that reflect difficult life circumstances.

It takes more than a couple of sessions with a psychologist to treat a mental health disorder.
Kylli Kittus

Psychological treatments can be effective, but require many sessions. Around 16 to 20 sessions are recommended to treat depression. Getting a couple of sessions with a psychologist is too often the norm and unlikely to produce much improvement.

Treatments are also not distributed to the people most in need. The biggest users of antidepressants are older people, whereas younger people are more likely to experience severe depression.

Similarly, people in wealthier areas are more likely to get psychological therapy, but depression and anxiety disorders are more common in poorer areas.




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When it’s easier to get meds than therapy: how poverty makes it hard to escape mental illness


Prevention is neglected

The big area of neglect in mental health is prevention. Australia achieved enormous gains in physical health during the 20th century, with big drops in premature death. Prevention of disease and injury played a major role in these gains.

We might expect a similar approach to work for mental-health problems, which are the next frontier for improving the nation’s health. However, while we have been putting increasing resources into treatment, prevention has been neglected.

There is now good evidence that prevention of mental-health problems is possible and that it makes good economic sense. For every dollar invested on school-based interventions to reduce bullying, for instance, there is an estimated economic return of $14.

Much could to be done to reduce the major risk factors for mental-health problems which occur during childhood and increase risk right across the lifespan.

Parents who are in conflict with each other and fight a lot, for example, may increase their children’s risk for depression and anxiety disorders, while parents who show warmth and affection towards their children decrease their risk. Parents can be trained to reduce these risk factors and increase protective factors.

Yet successive Australian governments have lacked the political will to invest in prevention.

Where to next?

There is an important opportunity to consider whether Australia should be heading in a very different direction in its approach to mental health. The Australian government has asked the Productivity Commission to investigate mental health.

While we’ve had many previous inquiries, this one is different because it’s looking at the social and economic benefits of mental health to the nation. This broader perspective is important because action on prevention is a whole-of-government concern with resource implications and benefits that extend well beyond the health sector.




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The Conversation


Anthony Jorm, Professor emeritus, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Anxieties over livestreams can help us design better Facebook and YouTube content moderation



File 20190319 60995 19te2fg.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Livestream on Facebook isn’t just a tool for sharing violence – it has many popular social and political uses.
glen carrie / unsplash, CC BY

Andrew Quodling, Queensland University of Technology

As families in Christchurch bury their loved ones following Friday’s terrorist attack, global attention now turns to preventing such a thing ever happening again.

In particular, the role social media played in broadcasting live footage and amplifying its reach is under the microscope. Facebook and YouTube face intense scrutiny.




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New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has reportedly been in contact with Facebook executives to press the case that the footage should not available for viewing. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called for a moratorium on amateur livestreaming services.

But beyond these immediate responses, this terrible incident presents an opportunity for longer term reform. It’s time for social media platforms to be more open about how livestreaming works, how it is moderated, and what should happen if or when the rules break down.

Increasing scrutiny

With the alleged perpetrator apparently flying under the radar prior to this incident in Christchurch, our collective focus is now turned to the online radicalisation of young men.

As part of that, online platforms face increased scrutiny and Facebook and Youtube have drawn criticism.

After dissemination of the original livestream occurred on Facebook, YouTube became a venue for the re-upload and propagation of the recorded footage.

Both platforms have made public statements about their efforts at moderation.

YouTube noted the challenges of dealing with an “unprecedented volume” of uploads.

Although it’s been reported less than 4000 people saw the initial stream on Facebook, Facebook said:

In the first 24 hours we removed 1.5 million videos of the attack globally, of which over 1.2 million were blocked at upload […]

Focusing chiefly on live-streaming is somewhat reductive. Although the shooter initially streamed his own footage, the greater challenge of controlling the video largely relates to two issues:

  1. the length of time it was available on Facebook’s platform before it was removed
  2. the moderation of “mirror” video publication by people who had chosen to download, edit, and re-upload the video for their own purposes.

These issues illustrate the weaknesses of existing content moderation policies and practices.

Not an easy task

Content moderation is a complex and unenviable responsibility. Platforms like Facebook and YouTube are expected to balance the virtues of free expression and newsworthiness with socio-cultural norms and personal desires, as well as the local regulatory regimes of the countries they operate in.

When platforms perform this responsibility poorly (or, utterly abdicate it) they pass on the task to others — like the New Zealand Internet Service Providers that blocked access to websites that were re-distributing the shooter’s footage.

People might reasonably expect platforms like Facebook and YouTube to have thorough controls over what is uploaded on their sites. However, the companies’ huge user bases mean they often must balance the application of automated, algorithmic systems for content moderation (like Microsoft’s PhotoDNA, and YouTube’s ContentID) with teams of human moderators.




Read more:
A guide for parents and teachers: what to do if your teenager watches violent footage


We know from investigative reporting that the moderation teams at platforms like Facebook and YouTube are tasked with particularly challenging work. They seem to have a relatively high turnover of staff who are quickly burnt-out by severe workloads while moderating the worst content on the internet. They are supported with only meagre wages, and what could be viewed as inadequate mental healthcare.

And while some algorithmic systems can be effective at scale, they can also be subverted by competent users who understand aspects of their methodology. If you’ve ever found a video on YouTube where the colours are distorted, the audio playback is slightly out of sync, or the image is heavily zoomed and cropped, you’ve likely seen someone’s attempt to get around ContentID algorithms.

For online platforms, the response to terror attacks is further complicated by the difficult balance they must strike between their desire to protect users from gratuitous or appalling footage with their commitment to inform people seeking news through their platform.

We must also acknowledge the other ways livestreaming features in modern life. Livestreaming is a lucrative niche entertainment industry, with thousands of innocent users broadcasting hobbies with friends from board games to mukbang (social eating), to video games. Livestreaming is important for activists in authoritarian countries, allowing them to share eyewitness footage of crimes, and shift power relationships. A ban on livestreaming would prevent a lot of this activity.

We need a new approach

Facebook and YouTube’s challenges in addressing the issue of livestreamed hate crimes tells us something important. We need a more open, transparent approach to moderation. Platforms must talk openly about how this work is done, and be prepared to incorporate feedback from our governments and society more broadly.




Read more:
Christchurch attacks are a stark warning of toxic political environment that allows hate to flourish


A good place to start is the Santa Clara principles, generated initially from a content moderation conference held in February 2018 and updated in May 2018. These offer a solid foundation for reform, stating:

  1. companies should publish the numbers of posts removed and accounts permanently or temporarily suspended due to violations of their content guidelines
  2. companies should provide notice to each user whose content is taken down or account is suspended about the reason for the removal or suspension
  3. companies should provide a meaningful opportunity for timely appeal of any content removal or account suspension.

A more socially responsible approach to platforms’ roles as moderators of public discourse necessitates a move away from the black-box secrecy platforms are accustomed to — and a move towards more thorough public discussions about content moderation.

In the end, greater transparency may facilitate a less reactive policy landscape, where both public policy and opinion have a greater understanding around the complexities of managing new and innovative communications technologies.The Conversation

Andrew Quodling, PhD candidate researching governance of social media platforms, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Egyptian Court Refuses to Return Passport to Christian


Convert from Islam tried to leave country to save his life.

ISTANBUL, March 15 (CDN) — An Egyptian court last week refused to return the passport of a convert from Islam who tried to leave Egypt to save his life, the Christian said on Friday (March 12).

On Tuesday (March 9) the Egyptian State Council Court in Giza, an administrative court, refused to return the passport of Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary. El-Gohary said he was devastated by the decision, which essentially guarantees him several more months of living in fear.

“I am very, very disappointed and very unhappy about what happened,” he said, “because I am being threatened – my life is being threatened, my daughter’s life is being threatened very frequently, and I don’t feel safe at all in Egypt.”

Nabil Ghobreyal, El-Gohary’s attorney, told Compass the government declined to give the court any reason for its actions.

“There was no response as to why his passport was taken,” Ghobreyal said.

On Sept. 17, 2009, authorities at Cairo International Airport seized El-Gohary’s passport. El-Gohary, 57, also known as Peter Athanasius, was trying to leave the country to visit China. Eventually he intended to travel to the United States. At the time, El-Gohary was told only that his travel had been barred by “higher authority.”

El-Gohary, who converted to Christianity from Islam more than 30 years ago, gained notoriety in Egypt in February 2009, when he filed a court application to have the religion on his identification card changed from Muslim to Christian. El-Gohary’s action caused widespread uproar among conservative Muslims in Egypt. He was branded an “apostate” and multiple fatwas, or religious edicts were issued against him. In accordance with some interpretations of the Quran, some Muslims believe El-Gohary should be killed for leaving Islam.

Since filing his application, El-Gohary has lived in fear and has been in hiding with his 15-year-old daughter. Every month, he said, they move from apartment to apartment. He is unable to work, and his daughter, also a Christian, is unable to attend school.

Their days are filled with anxiety, fear and boredom.

“We are very fearful,” El-Gohary said. “We are hiding between four walls all day long.”

El-Gohary went through extraordinary efforts to get the documentation the court demanded for him to officially change his religion, including getting a certificate of conversion from a Coptic Christian religious group. The certificate, which was the first time a Christian church in Egypt recognized a convert from Islam, also caused an uproar.

But ultimately, in June the court denied his application. He was the second person in Egypt to apply to have his religion officially changed from Islam to Christianity. The other applicant was denied as well. El-Gohary has not exhausted his appeals and may file legal proceedings with an international legal body. He has another hearing with the administrative court on June 29.

“I don’t understand what I have done wrong,” El-Gohary said. “I went though the normal legal channels. I thought I was an Egyptian citizen and I would be treated as such by the Egyptian law. I went through the front doors of the legal system, not the back doors, and for that I am being threatened, chased, and I live in continuous fear.”

The National Constitution of Egypt guarantees freedom of religion unless it contradicts set practices in sharia, or Islamic law. While it is easy to change one’s religious identity from Christian to Muslim, it is impossible to do the opposite.

El-Gohary’s case was mentioned by name in a human rights report issued Thursday (March 11) by the U.S. Department of State. El-Gohary said he was pleased that his case was in the report. He said he believes it is his duty to open new doors for his fellow converts in Egypt.

“This is something I have to do,” he said. “It is a duty. I have become a symbol for Christians in Egypt.”

El-Gohary said he hopes U.S. President Barack Obama, other world leaders and international groups will pressure the Egyptian government to allow him to leave the country.

In spite of his ordeal, El-Gohary said faith is still strong and that he doesn’t regret becoming a Christian.

“I don’t regret it at all,” he continued, excitedly. “This is the narrow road that Christians have to go through and suffer to reach eternal life. I have no regrets whatsoever. We are very grateful to know Christ, and we know He’s the way.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

PAKISTAN CHRISTIANS JITTERY AS ISLAMIC LAW ENFORCED IN SWAT VALLEY


Churches have joined rights groups in expressing anxiety over Pakistan’s federal government agreeing to enforce Islamic law in the troubled Malakand Division of the country in order to broker a truce with pro-Taliban groups there, reports Ecumenical News International.

In the region that includes the Swat Valley, which is about 160 kilometres from Islamabad, the Pakistan government agreed on 17 February to introduce the Islamic legal system called Sharia, thereby making constitutional and the juridical law redundant.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

COLOMBIA: CHURCH LEADERS UNDER FIRE


One pastor missing, three others reported killed in past month.

COCHABAMBA, Bolivia, November 4 – Christians in Colombia are anxious to learn the fate of pastor William Reyes, missing since Sept. 25, even as three other pastors have gone missing.

Reyes, a minister of the Light and Truth Inter-American Church and member of the Fraternity of Evangelical Pastors of Maicao (FRAMEN, Fraternidad de Ministros Evangélicos de Maicao), left a meeting in Valledupar, Cesar, at 10 a.m. that morning heading home to Maicao, La Guajira. He never arrived.

Family members and fellow ministers fear that Reyes may have been murdered by illegal armed groups operating in northern Colombia. Since March of this year, FRAMEN has received repeated threats from both the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and right-wing paramilitary units.

Abduction is another possibility. Often criminals hold their victims for weeks or months before contacting family members to demand ransom, a tactic designed to maximize the anxiety of the victim’s loved ones before proceeding with ransom negotiations.

In the past month, three other Christian pastors were reportedly killed in separate incidents across the country. According to Pedro Acosta of the Peace Commission of the Evangelical Council of Colombia (CEDECOL, Consejo Evangélico de Colombia), two ministers died in the northern Caribbean region and a third in Buenaventura on the Pacific coast.

At press time, members of the Peace Commission’s Documentation and Advocacy team, which monitors cases of political violence and human rights abuse, were traveling in those areas to verify the identities of the victims and circumstances of the killings.

 

Demand for Action

On Oct. 4, churches organized a public demonstration to protest the disappearance of Reyes. Thousands of marchers filled the streets of Maicao to demand his immediate return to his family. The FRAMEN-sponsored rally featured hymns, sermons and an address from Reyes’s wife, Idia.

Idia Reyes continues to work as secretary of FRAMEN while awaiting news of her husband. The couple has three children, William, 19, Luz Mery, 16, and Estefania, 9.

CEDECOL and Justapaz, a Mennonite Church-based organization that assists violence victims, launched a letter-writing campaign to draw international attention to the case and request government action to help locate Reyes.

“We are grateful for the outpouring of prayer and support from churches in Canada, the United States, Sweden and the United Kingdom,” stated an Oct. 26 open letter from Janna Hunter Bowman of Justapaz and Michael Joseph of CEDECOL’s Peace Commission. “Human rights violations of church people and of the civilian population at large are ongoing in Colombia. Last year the Justapaz Peace Commission program registered the murder of four pastors and 22 additional homicides of lay leaders and church members.”

Some of those killings may have been carried out by members of the Colombian Armed Forces, according to evidence emerging in recent weeks. Prosecutors and human rights groups have released evidence that some military units abduct and murder civilians, dress their bodies in combat fatigues and catalogue them as insurgents killed in battle.

According to an Oct. 29 report in The New York Times, soldiers commit the macabre murders for the two-fold purpose of “social cleansing” – the extrajudicial elimination of criminals, drug users and gang members – and to gain promotions and bonuses.

The scandal prompted President Alvaro Uribe to announce on Wednesday (Oct. 29) that he had dismissed more than two dozen soldiers and officers, among them three generals, implicated in the murders.

Justapaz has documented the murder of at least one evangelical Christian at the hands of Colombian soldiers. José Ulises Martínez served in a counterinsurgency unit until two years ago, but left the army “because what he had to do was not coherent with his religious convictions,” according to his brother, pastor Reinel Martínez.

Martínez was working at a steady job and serving as a leader of young adults in the Christian Crusade Church in Cúcuta on Oct. 29, 2007, when two acquaintances still on active duty convinced him to go with them to Bogotá to request a pension payment from the army. He called his girlfriend the following day to say he had arrived safely in the capital.

That was the last she or his family heard from him.

Two weeks later, Martínez’s parents reported his disappearance to the prosecutor’s office in Cúcuta. The ensuing investigation revealed that on Oct. 1, 2007, armed forces officers had presented photographs of Martinez’s body dressed in camouflage and identified as a guerrilla killed in combat. Later the family learned that Martínez was killed in Gaula, a combat zone 160 kilometers (100 miles) northeast of Bogotá.

Such atrocities threaten to mar the reputation of Colombia’s Armed Forces just as the military is making remarkable gains against the FARC and other insurgent groups. Strategic attacks against guerrilla bases eliminated key members of the FARC high command in 2008. A daring July 2 rescue of one-time presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other high-profile FARC hostages was greeted with jubilation around the world.

Yet in Colombia’s confused and convoluted civil war, Christians are still targeted for their role in softening the resolve of both insurgent and paramilitary fighters.

“I believe preventative security measures must be taken in order to protect victims from this scourge that affects the church,” Acosta said in reference to the ongoing threats to Colombian Christians. “In comparison to information from earlier [years], the cases of violations have increased.”

Report from Compass Direct News