World Mental Health Day: Interview with psychologist & All in the Mind presenter Claudia Hammond

10 Oct 2017

At its annual Prizes & Medals ceremony in central London on 27 September 2017, the British Academy awarded the psychologist, author and broadcaster Claudia Hammond the President’s Medal for her work in improving public understanding of psychology through broadcasting and writing for wider audiences.

We spoke to her after the ceremony about All in the Mind – the show she presents on BBC Radio 4 – the impact it’s had on the public's understanding of mental health and whether policy-makers are paying enough attention to psychology.

Congratulations on receiving your award, Claudia. All in the Mind is as popular as ever – do you have an agenda in mind, when you’re putting it together, to improve the conversation around mental health? Can you talk me through the process of making the show?

Yeah, we do have an agenda in mind. We’re about to start a new series now and all the time we’re discussing ideas, what will work, whether it will be interesting enough, whether it will be the sort of thing everyone else is interested in. We want to inspire people to think the mind is interesting and that psychology is an important and interesting subject.

We also want to talk about mental health very openly, we want to get people to talk about it openly, we want to question which treatments work best and we want to look at the evidence first. Everything we do is always evidence-led. We want people to know that this is the place where they’ll get evidence-led work, where things will be critiqued properly and looked at in a deeper way.

How do you work out what kinds of research are going to work well on the programme?

Sometimes not all the research that I may think is interesting is actually doable on the programme. It’s mainly a question of, ‘Is it explainable and will people relate to it? Will people feel like it’s about them?’ For example, with memory research, if you’re examining ‘chunking’ [a psychological term referring to the process of taking individual pieces of information (chunks) and grouping them into larger units] in memory, that might be too complex a thing for some people and they might not think it’s all that interesting. But if you start talking about how you remember a shopping list, then people may be able to relate to it a lot more.

How often do people bring you stories?

People come to us with stories all the time. In fact, one of the advantages of the programme having run for so long is that lots of academics come and tell us about their research. Whenever I go and interview psychologists, they’ll tell me about other psychologists they know who are doing interesting research. I do lots of public events and meet people on panels and they then tell me about the research they’re doing. Sometimes the producers will joke, ‘We need to send Claudia to more things!’ just to get more ideas. People trust that we’ll cover their research properly, so we have a big advantage there. People often think we’ll run out of ideas but that is never an issue. We’re always cursing at the end of each series that we don’t have enough time and there’s more we want to do. 

What kind of impact do you think the show has had?

Well, in 1988 it was the world’s first programme about psychology and mental health and it’s still the world’s longest running show on that subject. And now, there’s a lot more about psychology in a lot more places and there’s a lot more about mental health on radio and TV, which I think is great. Also, I meet lots of people who say it’s the only half an hour in the week when they feel really understood, so I think the programme has had a real impact.

Do you think that policy makers are sufficiently tuned in to psychology?

I’d love it if they were. On committees, you’ll always see an economist but it’s much rarer to see a psychologist. Yet there’s so much relevant research from psychology that could be informing policy. I think that, to be fair, policy-makers often don’t know where to get that research. It’s not given out in a form and they’re not necessarily going to be reading journal articles because they don’t have access to those, so psychologists need to get it out to them in another way.
Sometimes, though, you’ll hear someone say they heard something on our programme and it influenced a particular policy and that’s really lovely. It’s amazing.

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