Any views expressed within media held on this service are those of the contributors, should not be taken as approved or endorsed by the University, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University in respect of any particular issue.

Is it not mad, not to have choice? by Aileen Maughan

I am currently studying a Masters in Social Work at the University of Edinburgh. Thanks to Dr.Sumeet Jain’s (Senior Lecturer in Social Work) recommendation to read the “Mad in America” magazine, I came across a radical, medication free treatment option for people within Norway’s public psychiatry system. In the “Mad in America” magazine, I discovered an article on Åsgård, a psychiatric hospital offering a medication free treatment for people with a diagnosis of psychotic disorders and bi-polar in Tromsø, Norway. Thanks to my approved application for funding from the Go Abroad Fund, offered by the University, it enabled me to follow my curiosity and covered the cost of my flights and accommodation. I was afforded the opportunity to visit the hospital to see this treatment in practice.

The medication-free treatment interested me because I have worked with people who have had complex mental health needs in both Éire (Ireland) and Aotearoa (New Zealand). Generally, the approaches I observed were predominantly orientated around the medical model. The medical model frames the cause of an issue as biological or physical and medication is generally the primary treatment form. For example, the rational is that a neurotransmitter issue is causing the presenting symptom which is treatable with medication. While the medical model has its merits there are criticisms of using this model exclusively within the context of mental illness. It fails to incorporate the complex psycho-social factors within a person’s life. The medical model perceives the illness as a deficit of the individual, which can be pathologizing.

In my previous work experience, some of the people I have supported did not want to be on medication and complained of the side effects. The medication they were prescribed did not “cure” their symptoms. They were in repetitive cycles of unwellness which led to admission, which led to an increase in medication, and repeat. For some people, medication treatment is necessary, life-saving describe it as beneficial. However, I began to question when it doesn’t work for some individuals, why is it the only option on offer? I’ve occasionally observed that when someone refuses their medication it can be viewed by professionals as a symptom of the patient’s illness.

I was very curious and excited to visit Åsgård hospital in Tromsø, Norway that was offering medication-free treatment within their public health system. The reason for my excitement and curiosity was because a medication-free treatment offered a different route to recovery, as opposed to the medical model which primarily relies on medication. I wasn’t the only one interested, people from all over the world were either requesting treatment or were professionals asking to visit. Some of the questions I had on my mind when arriving to Tromsø were; is it successful for the patients? And how are they delivering the treatment?

The hospital I visited has a ward with six beds offering medication free treatment to patients from one region. It is important to note that the patients the hospital treat are very motivated to be there. The patients being treated are not in current acute psychosis, nor are they experiencing severe suicide ideation. Patients generally stay two to three weeks at a time and are engaged with the team as long as the patient feels necessary. The majority of the patients who come, are on medication and wanting to taper down, or come off medication altogether. This is a lengthy process and can take anywhere from six months to three years. The general report back from patients is that they experience getting their own thoughts and feelings back, which is of value to them.

I spent two days at Åsgård hospital, and I was included in every aspect of the daily schedule. This was thanks to the organisation skills of the two lovely clinical social workers who worked there, and their desire to share and open up this treatment to other professionals. The schedule included attending team meetings, speaking with members of the team individually, observing the recovery workshops with patients, and chatting with a patient.

The first thing that struck me about Åsgård hospital was the beauty that surrounded it, built along a shoreline and surrounded by mountains. The opposite of other psychiatric wards I have visited. This was the view each patient had from their rooms…

Pictured below is a cabin the staff and patients assembled and painted themselves. During the winter they come out to the cabin to light a fire to cook food, and it can be used for therapy sessions.

While I was in the hospital a patient decided to share her experience with me. This patient (let’s call them Maria), felt it important that a patient’s perspective should be included in the discussion of medication-free treatment, and agreed I could share our discussion in this written piece. Maria said that she became unwell in her early teens and was then placed on medication. The years through adolescence that Maria was on the medication, she described as a “nightmare”, with no benefits and she fears the long-term impact of this. When the symptoms of Maria’s initial unwellness weren’t changed by medication, the medication was increased or added too. Maria said that she was never asked about her symptoms, or had any open dialogue about them with her treatment team. Maria’s recovery pathway was primarily to take her medication. Maria described that when she stayed in psychiatric hospitals with locked wards, it created dependency and loss of autonomy for her. Maria said this was because staff did everything for her and this made her recovery challenging.

Maria said coming to Åsgård hospital was scary because, for the first time, she was asked what she wanted, something she had never been asked before. Maria was told that she was responsible for looking after herself, which she believes is more helpful in the long run compared to her previous experiences. Maria spoke about how this hospital focused on her strengths and on what she could do. Maria started to explore her symptoms for the first time with her professional team. She began to ask questions about the voices she heard in her head, and what it might mean. Maria said the main difference is that this hospital is focused on recovery and there is nothing they can’t talk about, which is very helpful. I asked what recovery meant to her and she responded it was to find out who she is, without being under a haze of medication. Being on medication from an early age Maria said she doesn’t know who she is, but now she can start to find out.

I asked Maria what she thinks is important for other people to understand about this model of medication free treatment. Maria explained that she is the youngest patient staying on the ward, and a lot of the people who come here are much older. The older patients have spent most of their life on medication, and they feel as if they have missed out on their life. Maria said it’s sad that young people are not given a choice about medication. Maria attributes her quality of life completely changing for the better with coming off medication and coming to Åsgård. Maria can do things now that she wasn’t able to do before. Maria recognises that of course some people need to be on medication, but not everyone does. Maria said it’s sad to think how some people’s lives are being taken away from them. Taken away from people, who with the right support, are capable of recovering without medication and forced treatment. Maria has become active in her treatment instead of being coerced. Maria believes that choice should be available for other young people and wants to share that message.

My initial question of “how are they delivering the treatment?” was answered by observing and speaking with the staff and patients. These interactions affirmed my own belief and gut feeling that one of the most influential or powerful “tools”, is treating people who have a mental illness like humans first and foremost. With respect and dignity. Seeing the individual and their humanity, not the stigma and assumptions attached to their diagnosis. Exploring symptoms with the individual and what they might mean specifically for that person, as opposed to just logging them on a system. When speaking with the Experience Consultant (peer worker) he emphasised the power of healing within authentic relationships. He spoke about building professional relationships with patients where they feel safe and can trust the team. The patients feel like they can be open about their symptoms, which is often accompanied with a sprinkle of humour. This open dialogue with a trusted member of the team is difficult to quantify, but the experience consultant described how you can observe this internal shift within patients when it occurs. Personally, I think these relationships are pretty powerful medicine. Particularly when you consider how marginalised some of these patients may feel due to the stigma attached to these illnesses.

Based on my learning from this trip my primary question changed from “Is it successful?” to ‘why isn’t there a choice’? I learned that the medication free option is not the silver bullet for psychiatry and mental illness. The symptoms are still there for some. They aren’t “cured”. However, in this safe and trusting environment patients are able to discover their own internal capacity to manage the symptoms and self-regulate. It’s hard but incredibly meaningful to them. It’s a life many would prefer to live, over a life of coercion and disempowerment. This approach is so much more than a question of successful outcomes. A medication-free approach is about a person being able to exercise their own autonomy, their own right to choose and their dignity, which fundamentally can change people (like Maria’s) direction and quality of life.

So…. Do you think it’s a bit mad that there isn’t choice for more people?


A partnership approach between the Crown Office & the University of Edinburgh Social Work practice learning programme.

In the middle of adversity lies opportunity, is a quote attributed to Albert Einstein, theoretical physicist.   In light of the recent and current world wide pandemic it can be so easy to get lost in the fog and not see the potential of developing partnerships and new endeavours. Which for those of us involved in ensuring we enhance our student learning experiences is not an option.

Prior to 2020, social work practice learning opportunities had been on the national agenda for most organisations involved in Social Work education across Scotland, due to both the availability and quality of placements.  The pandemic has amplified the challenges of finding suitable, high quality and relevant placements for students preparing to enter professional practice.

The role of a social worker (student or qualified social worker) is diverse and wide. However the central parts focus on the use of skills, informed by theory/knowledge and underpinned by sounds values.   There are a number of organisations and placement agencies who offer our students great opportunities to develop in these areas either with children or with adults, and there are a few that will develop that generic approach of both working alongside adults and children.

In September 2021, I approached the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) in Scotland about the possibility of students undertaking placements with them, as I was aware that as well as having established processes for progressing the prosecution of individuals, they provided a Victim Information Advice (VIA) service to victims/survivors of crime.  This service offers help to child and and victims of crime in cases of domestic abuse, hate crime, sexual crime or where it is likely that a trial will involve a jury.  The main purpose of my contact with them was to explore a mutually beneficial project of VIA hosting social work student placements as part of our BSc Hons and Master of social work programmes.

Our students have a great deal to offer the recipients of the VIA service, as well as enhancing the service provided by existing staff members, given students up to date knowledge and understanding of trauma informed practice. Students bring with them the opportunity to transfer their teaching within the University of Edinburgh in a number of ways:

  • knowledge and understanding of the impact of trauma
  • the ability to engage with a range of people, some of who will be in a crisis
  • an understanding of the value of providing people with individual support, advice and guidance especially a part of a larger organisation and a society which at times can marginalise them.
  • And so much more………..

Our students will gain some invaluable knowledge in relation to criminal justice process processes, including:

  • Developing a working knowledge about the criminal justice systems in Scotland
  • Assessing where a victim appears to be vulnerable for any reason
  • Intervening, where the prosecutor believes the victim will benefit from VIA involvement
  • Providing those who access the service with up-to-date information on key developments in the case that affects them – such as, dates of hearings, decisions about bail, verdicts and sentences – or why no proceedings are being taken
  • Supporting and signposting those who access VIA to get in touch with organisations that can offer practical and emotional support
  • Negotiating and accessing any additional supports for a victim of crime for example, if they have to give evidence in court.
  • Supporting the organisation of a visit to court so that victims of crimes know what to expect if the case goes to trial and they are to give evidence
  • Maintain contact with the victims and witnesses to ensure they remain engaged in the prosecution and feel supported

“This is an excellent opportunity for COPFS and the University of Edinburgh to work together to provide a service offered to victims and witnesses as well as contributing to the development of our future social workers. Further, it will provide COPFS with valuable insight into the most up to date research into trauma informed practice and domestic abuse and demonstrate partnership approach which will inform the practice of all those involved both now and in the future” Deputy Crown Agent Operational Support (COPFS).


This pilot project will run from Feb 2022 and will operate from both Glasgow and Edinburgh courts, with an evaluation taking place in June.  Initially ten students will be offered this opportunity with a planned increase across other geographical areas across the Scottish courts system in November 2022 and beyond.

The benefits to COPFS and to our social work students are mutual and aimed at reflecting “Social work as a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work.  Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge’s, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing”(International Federation of Social, International Association of Schools of Social, & International Council on Social, 2012).  In summary I believe this is a win win for both the Crown Office and for social work as a profession.

Therefore in a situation which of course is difficult and further heightened with a pandemic, this pilot provides an opportunity which will lead to a great deal of learning and development for all those involved.

Avril McIvor

Director of Practice Learning

Lecturer in Social Work

School of Social & Political Science

Mob 07525183236


Recent publication

McIvor, A.  2022. Social Work: A profession that chose me.  In Cree V (Ed) Becoming a Social Worker a Social Worker London: Routledge. Chapter 2.






Photos taken by Avril McIvor

International Federation of Social, W., International Association of Schools of Social, W., & International Council on Social, W. (2012). The Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development: Commitment to Action. Journal of social work education, 48(4), 837-843.

World Social Work Day – A truly international celebration with shared hope for change and for the future

 “The meeting was very enlightening, in my opinion it deserves to be televised.” Attendee #wswd2021 

This year’s World Social Work Day was celebrated on 16 March 2021 with a shared theme of Ubuntu: I am Because We Are”, Strengthening Social Solidarities & Global Connectedness.  

A hugely successful collaboration between the SPS Social Work department (led by George Palattiyil), Rajagiri College of Social Sciences in India and Johannesburg University in South Africa saw academics and students join together in a Zoom session to discuss the theme and identify opportunities for change.  

The keynote was delivered by Paul Ladd, Director of United Nations Research Institute for Social Development. He emphasized the importance of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals: Transforming our World and the associated challenges in delivery.  

The two-hour event included presentations from our very own John Devaney, PhD (Centenary Professor and Head of Social Work at SPS), Professor Adrian van Breda, Head of the Department of Social Work and Community Development, UK and Johannesburg University and Dr. Joseph M.K, Head of the Department of Social Work, Rajagiri College of Social Sciences.  

An engaging panel discussion explored “Realizing Ubuntu in everyday practice” and was followed by an enlightening student-led presentation of videos highlighting approaches, methods and subjects covered by their respective universities. The session closed with opportunities for questions and discussion from the attendees.  

The event, which had reached capacity registrations 2 days prior, was found to be “enlightening”, “informative” and “inspirational” by those attending.  


Don’t just take our word for it… 

The following is a selection of feedback from attendees of the session who couldn’t have been more effusive in their praise.  

  • Excellent event. Really well organized and run and fabulous content. For future – suggest students could organize themed panel discussions to develop critical perspectives on a particular theme(s). Students themselves could be on the panels possibly with staff, practitioners and service users. Well done and congratulations! 
  • It was really good to know social work experience from other universities  
  • It was a good programme and (I) benefited professionally. Congratulations to the organizers. 
  • It would be amazing to hear more about the way in which the students of the different universities tackle the issues of their societies and what approaches they learn 
  • It was a wonderful collaboration. Good job. 
  • Hope this will be made an annual event. 
  • Really insightful presentation and really good to see the university campuses in India and South Africa 
  • It was a very great experience, I would love it to be more open next time, to ensure that even students from other countries can be able to ask questions. 
  • This webinar should be a yearly program, during world social work day celebration 
  • I believe this was a very noble idea and I would suggest that more universities should also be brought on board. I am a student from Kenya pursuing a Masters of Social Work. This partnership should also be stretched to Kenya and other parts of the world. 
  • Thank you to all involved who collaborated to make this webinar possible. Interesting insights and food for thought. Perhaps more dialogue around how we ensure Ubuntu does not become just another fashionable idea or concept discussed but rather an everyday lived experience of social workers and those we serve. 


Congratulations to all involved – inspirational to us all.  

Professor Joyce Lishman, 1947-2021

We were all very sorry to hear about the death of Joyce Lishman last week. Joyce was one of those special people. Not only was she an academic leader, teacher, researcher, publisher and writer, she was also a proud social worker, and it was her mission throughout her life to make social work and social workers the best they could be.  But even that does not tell the whole story. Joyce was a devoted wife, partner and mother, and a loyal friend – a genuine human being who was modest about her many achievements and who genuinely cared about everything that she was involved in.

Joyce graduated from Oxford University in 1968 with a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. She subsequently came to the University of Edinburgh where she undertook a Diploma in Social Study, followed by a Diploma in Social Work, graduating in 1970. She then worked as a social worker for many years, firstly in child and family psychiatry in Edinburgh, and then moving to Aberdeen where she worked on a research project investigating social work practice. The methodology used in this research as ground-breaking at the time in its use of video to analyse social work interviews. This research became the subject of her PhD at the University of Aberdeen. Joyce went on from this to develop a new social work service for children with cancer or leukaemia and their families, and a bereavement service for families where a child had died.

In 1985, Joyce joined Robert Gordon Institute of Technology, Aberdeen, as a Lecturer in Social Work and was later promoted to Senior Lecturer. By 1993, she had become the first woman Professor at what is now called Robert Gordon University (RGU) and Head of the School of Applied Social Studies, a position she held until her retirement in 2011. During her time at RGU, Joyce continued to research and write on social work practice as well as leading in the development of social work education in Scotland. She was Chair of the Heads of Social Work Education Group for a number of years, and through this work, promoted much stronger links between social work programmes and with the Scottish Government. She also played a key role in the development of knowledge within social work worldwide, through her editorship of the pioneering book series, ‘Research Highlights in Social Work’, published by Jessica Kingsley in London. This series not only put social work research in Scotland on the global map, but also contributed to the creation of a firm evidence-base for social work policy and practice across the world. Joyce was responsible for taking 26 books through to completion, on subjects as diverse as co-production, child protection and women offenders. But it was her writing on practice learning and on communication that has probably had greatest impact on the profession. Students, practice educators and social workers themselves all remember fondly what they learned from Joyce, as the flurry of tweets over the last week demonstrates.

In retirement, Joyce continued to champion social work through her appointment as council member of the Scottish Social Services Council. She also developed her connections with the voluntary sector in Scotland. She was a co-founder of the venture philanthropy organisation, ‘Inspiring Scotland’, as well being a Director of the ‘Aberlour Childcare Trust’ and a trustee of ‘Voluntary Services Aberdeen’. In 2018, as part of its social work centenary year, The University of Edinburgh awarded Joyce the Degree of Doctor honor causa, in recognition of her contribution to social work and social work education worldwide.

When Joyce was invited to write her story for our centenary pages, she was asked what her thoughts were, looking ahead. Her response was so ‘Joyce’. She said, “Times are tough for new graduates…”

Viv Cree

Emerita Professor of Social Work Studies

The University of Edinburgh

2nd February 2021

If you want to read more about Joyce please see our Centenary Alumni pages

Mental Health and Care Experienced Children and Young People: A partnership for change

Why is it so difficult to get the help we need?  Why don’t residential care workers and others know more about our mental health needs?  These questions were at the heart of why care experienced young people at Who Cares? wanted to create a training for workers about mental health.

Our project, ‘Mental Health and Care Experienced Children and Young People: A partnership for change’  has brought together CEYP from West Lothian and Glasgow, Who Cares? Scotland, academics and the Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services (IRISS) in order to improve understanding of the mental health challenges facing CEYP and to develop an online interactive workshop on the approaches that are found to be effective.   This week, as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science, we are piloting our online training course with social workers and young people.  We have also developed a Podcast with the support of the Triumph Network , please give it a listen.

Research evidence indicates that care experienced children and young people (CEYP) face significantly higher levels of mental health issues than the general population (Dale et al., 2016).  It doesn’t have to be this way.  If we engage with  the views and experiences of CEYP and work in partnership, we can find solutions that will work (Children and Young People’s Mental Health Task Force, 2019).   For more information about our project get in touch with

Dr Autumn Roesch-Marsh at: or Dr Pearse McCusker at:

4 Ways of Conducting Participatory Research With Children

children drawing

In a report by the World Bank Group (2018), 10 countries had a significant number of migrant children who had been living without their parents. This movement of the children within national boundaries has been enormous in India. Among the many organisations that work towards combating this phenomenon is Salam Balak Trust (SBT) and this is where this research had taken place. SBT pioneers in aspects of inclusion and providing basic education, medical health facilities and institutional care to migrant children. The children in their centres mostly hail from states of Delhi, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Orissa, Punjab, and Maharashtra.

Participatory research methods help us to better understand the lives and experiences of children. The creative and visual methods help in developing communication, bond, faith and enhanced engagement. Moreover, it allows researchers to initiate discussions to explore the any topic that one is interested in exploring with children in comparison to other mundane methods. However, there can be some disadvantages for incorporating such methods. For example, not all children consider it to be fun and others may be inhibited by their capabilities. Older children may call it ‘babyish’ and not interesting. Beginning such methods with very small exercises acting as icebreaker games creates a happy and comfortable environment.

Participatory methods have proved to be an extremely handy tool for children in the age bracket of 10 years and above. As a researcher working on child migration in an urban setup, the approach was to enable participants to use and engage using the tools in order to gain in-depth knowledge on the marginalised and often neglected section of our society.  It was quite an emotional experience for both participants and the researcher that enables children to not only have time full of fun and frolic but as well as engage with other children to enhance stimulation. Pain and Francis (2003) explains how participatory techniques create a space of inclusive accounts among the participants by enabling them to make use of their own words and frameworks of understanding through a range of exercises such as mapping, drawings and similar techniques.


  1. Drawing maps or plans

A popular participatory method used in many studies to gather information about significant spaces for children and to explore their perceptions of these places. This tool enables children and young people to explore the risks they face such as in their local communities, to identify protection factors in their local communities, also identifying the risks they most want to change. It provides views and opinions on their current situations. For instance, drawing a village or a community with the help of other children of the group or the researcher.

  1. Thought showers

A popular tool to explore their views and ideas. Children are asked to write or draw a picture in the middle of a large piece of paper to enquire what ideas come into their heads associated with that word or thing. The picture drawn will act as a stimulus for children to think about the journeys and decisions taken, fears faced and cultural context of the environment they are and have come from. Such as, how do you feel around say, a brother or father, how do you like your village and similar circumstances.

  1. Drawings

As a method, it is regarded as an appropriate warm-up activity to enable the children to become familiarized with the adult researcher. The use of drawing gives children time to think about what they wish to portray. The image can be changed and added which gives children more control over their form of expression, unlike an interview situation where responses tend to be quicker and more immediate.

  1. Tree activity

This is specially designed as an assessment exercise helping to initiate discussions on resilience and stress factors in the lives of participants. To initiate this activity, pens, A4 size paper and a quiet space are the basic requirements. Children are often good at making and listening to stories. Hence, in this activity they think of themselves as a tree and draw or write on the roots about the things or people who keep them safe and sound. This activity is great when one wants to know about personal/innate attachments of the child in the family or maybe how he/she deals with a person they don’t like.

While the roots represent resilience factors in the life of the child, the trunk will show the strengths and positives surrounding them. The leaves and branches will explain the vulnerabilities, risks, negatives and stress factors in their lives. In this activity, questions such as who looks after you, supports physically and emotionally, what qualities this person has that makes the child comfortable, what skills did you use? How did you feel after you coped with it?

From the many experiences during the 6 months duration of incorporating participatory  methods, I have learnt a lot.. For example,  the activities that are prescribed and many more that one wants to conduct needs proper planning and execution. Chances of children leaving during the activity is normal and high. Therefore, it must be planned and initiated according to the age and interest related children groups. One should know the characteristics and interests of the children they  want to involve to make smooth beginnings and endings of each activity.In addition, it is recommended to create small groups of less than 10 people (in each group) in order for children to enjoy the whole process in a group setting and gauge their interests for longer hours. At the end, just go with the flow and enjoy the journey with children!!

The author of this blog is Yukti Lamba, PhD Candidate in Social Work at the University of Edinburgh.


World Bank Group. (2018). Migration and Remittances. IDEAS Working Paper Series from RePEc.

Pain, R., & Francis, P. (2003). Reflections on participatory research. Area, 35(1), 46–54.

Darbyshire, P., Macdougall, C., & Schiller, W. (2005). Multiple methods in qualitative research with children: more insight or just more? Qualitative Research, 5(4), 417–436.

Morrow, Virginia. (2008). Ethical dilemmas in research with children and young people about their social environments. Children’s Geographies.

Punch, S. (2002). Research with Children: The Same or Different from Research with Adults? Childhood: A Global Journal of Child Research, 9(3), 321–341.

Wosu, H., & Tait, A. (2013). Direct work with vulnerable children : playful activities and strategies for communication. London: London : Jessica Kingsley Publishers.



If Black Lives Matter then we have to tackle Hate Crime in Scotland

 Photo by Adam Wilson on Unsplash

Scotland is often considered to be one of the world’s most friendly, welcoming countries (as well as being voted as such), and having the best LGBT+ legal equality in Europe.

However, is this borne out in reality? Annual data published by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service demonstrates that hate crime and prejudice in all their forms continue to be lived, everyday realities for many of our citizens in Scotland, with an increase in the number of charges reported in 2019-20 compared to 2018-19 for all categories of hate crime.  There were 5612 charges in 2019-20, an increase of 698 from the previous reporting year. Worryingly, this will only ever be part of the picture – there is a consensus in the literature that it is under-reported (for many reasons), particularly hate crime relating to disability and transgender identity (Walters et al 2016).  It is also notable that the data gathered and published by the Crown Office reflects only the amount of charges and not convictions (these are typically far less), and does not account for crimes that have not been reported, the numerous hate incidents (any incident that is not a criminal offence, but perceived by the victim or any other to be motivated by hate or prejudice), or unconscious, institutional, and structural bias.

There are also troubling reports that hate crime has increased during (or as a direct impact of) the coronavirus pandemic, with England and Wales reporting a three-fold increase in hate crime, and anecdotal evidence on this emerging in Scotland.  This potentially reflects notions of ‘scapegoating’ when theorising the causes of hate crime, a blaming of ‘others’ for society’s ills (Roberts et al 2013). This is also against a backdrop of the growing body of evidence demonstrating that ethnic minority groups are disproportionately affected by the pandemic, highlighting fundamental socio-economic inequalities in the UK and beyond.

Of course, it’s not just about the numbers and statistics.  Research indicates that hate crime is more harmful to victims and communities than parallel offences, with wide-ranging emotional and psychological harms, and vicarious trauma felt by community members.  It’s damaging to community cohesion, and often aims to ‘send a message’ (whether literally, or symbolically) to individuals, groups, and communities that they are ‘not welcome’ (Walters et al 2016).  Many authors highlight that black and ethnic minority victims of hate offences are likely to be more negatively impacted by the offence than white majority group victims due to it constituting “a painful reminder of the cultural heritage of past and ongoing discrimination, stereotyping, and stigmatization of their identity group” (Iganski and Lagou 2015).  This is a potentially important point to note for practitioners working with people who commit hate crime belonging to ‘majority groups’, who may blame victims or groups for perceived slights and/or the offence(s) for which they have been convicted.

Recent events in the USA have served to bring racial prejudice, bias, and hate into stark relief, with people across the world mobilising like never before in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.  Scotland is not exempt from racial prejudice, injustice, and harm; racial crime remains the most commonly reported hate crime, with 3,038 charges relating to race crime reported in 2019-20, an increase of 4% compared to 2018-19 (with the aforementioned caveat relating to underreporting). These international events have sparked a much-needed interrogation of many of our own institutions and practices, and it remains vital that, despite improved responses to hate crimes/incidents by statutory agencies in Scotland, we must ensure we are not supporting the perpetuation of prejudice and take necessary action to prevent and reduce this.

Scotland is also at an important moment in time in terms of its innovative review of hate crime legislation, with the new Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill being introduced to Parliament on 23 April 2020.  The proposed changes have not been without criticism, however, with concerns regarding freedom of speech coming from several quarters and potentially obscuring the positive changes the legislation seeks to bring.

In these troubling and challenging times, it is clear that hate and prejudice remain an issue at all levels of society, across the globe, and it appears to be more of an issue in Scotland than many of us may think.  For me, as a social work practitioner and researcher, it is therefore imperative to explore some key questions:

  • What drives people to target and harm other people on the basis of certain identity characteristics?
  • What are the individual/interpersonal, community-level, and wider structural ‘causes’ of hate crime?
  • Can we truly say that purely hate is the motivating factor?

The motivations or drivers that lead people to commit hate crime are an under-researched area. The very recent SCCJR report, ‘Taking Stock of Violence in Scotland’ recognises this, noting that existing inequalities and exclusion are exacerbated by the “repeat and routinised” nature of everyday hate crime and incidents in Scotland’s communities, many of which are not reported to the police as has been highlighted. The report emphasises that hate crime in Scotland should therefore be a focus for future research.

To this end, my social work PhD research is an attempt to shed further light on how and why hate crime occurs, by speaking directly to the very people convicted of hate crime in Scotland and gaining their accounts. This became of significant interest to me during my role as a Justice Social Worker, seconded to explore hate crime and our role in working with people who commit it, and led to the implementation of a restorative justice service within the statutory justice social work service I worked in to address the harms of hate crime. I feel it is vital to listen as closely as we can to the accounts of people who commit hate crime, in order to begin to truly understand the ‘motivators’ that underlie hate crime.  This will add to the body of research and interventions to address the harms of this type of offending, with the aim of reducing re-offending in this area.  I hope to be able to add depth to the existing research, and to explore the different intersecting levels that may contribute to hate crime occurring. Greater knowledge of the dynamics of hate crime may better inform our responses to it (including the wider use of restorative justice), and prevent further re-victimisation and harm.

The author of this blog is Rania Hamad, PhD Candidate in Social Work at the University of Edinburgh.   Follow her work on Twitter @RaniaHamad11


Iganski, P and Lagou, S (2015) ‘Hate Crimes Hurt Some More Than Others: Implications for the Just Sentencing of Offenders’, Journal of Interpersonal Violence 2015 Vol 30(10): 1696-1718.

Roberts, Dr C et al (2013) Understanding who commits hate crime and why they do it.  Welsh Government Social Research Report No. 38/2013.

Walters, M, Brown, R and Wiedlitzka, S (2016) Causes and motivations of hate crime.  Equality and Human Rights Commission Research Report 102.

Humanity must unite lest we can’t breathe…

George Floyd’s last words, ‘I can’t breathe’ as he was dying, have in some strange way touched humanity’s moral chord. Handcuffed and pinned to the floor, the killing of a 46-year old black man by a white police officer kneeling on his neck has reenergised the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, rallying a cry for equality and justice and propelling global protests against racism hitherto unseen. It has also led to a period of reflection by majority populations, about how minorities are viewed, understood and treated. As a social work department we need to be engaged with these debates, while also giving a commitment to looking at the change we can and must make alongside expecting change of others.

The deaths of Sheku Bayoh, Jimmy Mubenga and Stephen Lawrence amongst others in the UK is emblematic of a deep malaise that inflicts our society – racism and social inequalities that mar the lives of minorities, and is reflected internationally, for example, in aboriginal deaths in custody in Australia, the decades of missing indigenous women in Canada or the lynching of minorities in India. Such deaths raise a profound question – what value do we place on the life of a human being?

These deaths painfully demonstrate the lack of institutional willingness to address wider issues and implement reforms. In these cases, and many more, we have witnessed people losing their lives through strong arm tactics, driven by racial prejudices and bias, causing untold pain to the families, friends and communities of victims. The systemic violence against black and other minorities cannot be viewed only through the lens of the civil rights movement in the US, or that of the West alone – the othering of minorities is a deeply entrenched lived experience of many across the world, though manifested differently due to context. For example, the caste system in India which continues to cause enormous divisions is a bane on India’s conscience, while in Scotland the treatment of travellers and the Roma population reinforce the need for change. It is not helped when politicians and leaders, in the UK and elsewhere, use belittling or inflammatory language which gives comfort to those who seek to marginalise, oppress and scapegoat.

We need to see violence as one of the many outworkings of systemic racism. The history of minorities is one of struggle – the US civil rights movement, India’s freedom struggle, Mandela’s fight against apartheid and the treatment of the Windrush generation are replete with memories of people peacefully protesting against oppression and tyranny. Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent movement—a powerful, passive resistance to brutal colonial powers, leading to the collapse of the British Raj in India is a perfect embodiment of people power standing against the strangleholds of the mighty. As Michelle Obama said: “when they go low, we go high”.

As the Black Lives Matter demonstrations show, reimagining a brighter future for us and for the generations to come, requires courage and kindness, and humanity must unite to defeat racism and prejudice in our society. We cannot forget the history of colonialism and slavery – we need to learn from these, if we are truly committed to promoting equality, fairness and justice. We need to ask ourselves how history and social issues are taught in our contemporary educational curricula from kindergarten through to our universities: Do colonial lootings and trading of Africans as slaves to work in the plantations of the New World feature in our history books, and accounts of the history of our own institution? Is the systematic mistreatment of first nations people in Australia, New Zealand and north America discussed? What about the current hostile climate and policy towards migrants, evident in the harsh treatment of asylum seekers, including the abuse of people in immigration centres? How might we decolonise the curriculum and view events through a subaltern lens? The oppressive practices of the powerful continue to cause climate change, destroying the natural world and impacting the poorest most, disenfranchising the indigenous people – the clash of haves and have nots. Envisioning an egalitarian society requires us to sow the seeds of inclusive learning from early on so that we have a fuller understanding of our own history.

The need of the hour is a genuine commitment to address the structural issues that engender and perpetuate the inequalities that divide our society today, and ultimately lead to situations where individuals feel they have the right and the justification to oppress others. It is also about what we do that upholds and reinforces discriminatory and oppressive attitudes and practices. Be it in academia, our criminal justice system or in the corridors of power, we need to appreciate the true meaning of equality. While social work has played an important part in challenging racism and oppression over many decades, we cannot shy away from the part that social work has played in supporting racialised and oppressive practices at both an individual and institutional level. If change is to be lasting, it has to come from within – one way to move forward is a critical evaluation of the workforce in an organisation, including the University of Edinburgh, and to see how diversity is represented in the structures of decision-making; as Mahatma Gandhi said: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world”.

Lives lost are a reflection of our collective failure to stand up for others in their time of need. It has never been a greater truism that evil thrives when good people do nothing. There is therefore a moral imperative to support peaceful protests and to create awareness and a genuine global conscientization. The cost of moral injury when we do not stand up for the disenfranchised, the voiceless and the millions of invisible men, women, children and non-binary people in many parts of the world who struggle on a daily basis against naked oppression and tyranny will continue to lead to many lives lost to oppressive strangleholds.

As a department of social work our commitment is to look again, with a critical eye at what we teach and how. We have asked our student body to join us in doing this over the summer, and we are grateful for the many offers of assistance received to reconceive and co-produce our curriculum around race and ethnicity. We are also hopeful that initiatives such as Race.ED, a cross-university hub for research and teaching on race, ethnicity and decolonial thought, can help us as an institution to make meaningful change. It is about committing to promote diversity, inclusiveness and non-violence, while recognising that we need to do more than provide equality of opportunity to redress more significant structural inequalities.

Finally, it is positive to see the wider social work community in Scotland, other parts of the UK and internationally engage in this process of reflection, discussion and action. We look forward to collaborating with colleagues on these issues as we must all play an active part in making and sustaining the change which is required.

Humanity must unite so that we all can breathe – breathing the healing air of ‘shared humanity’ – where Martin Luther King Jr’s dreams can be realised for all; where Rabindranath Tagore’s vision of a world “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high … into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake” engenders a real reflection of who we are and how we value and treat others as equal human beings.

Dr George Palattiyil, Prof John Devaney and the social work staff group at the University of Edinburgh

(Thanks to James Eades @jmeeades for sharing his image on Unsplash)

Justice in the time of coronavirus


The coronavirus pandemic is a public health issue, but it is also a justice issue. It is causing a great deal of harm, suffering and death; the harm is not falling equally, and to some extent it is preventable. In the UK, the risk of dying from COVID-19 is higher for those who are older, male, live in deprived communities, or are from Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic backgrounds (Public Health England, 2020). People are also at increased risk of contracting the virus if they work in occupations that put them on the ‘front line’, including medical professionals, supermarket workers, teachers, refuse collectors, and a range of other jobs. Many people working in these occupations are on low wages. The inequity of the harm creates a need to consider this from a justice perspective.

The coronavirus and related lockdown have also effectively suspended some aspects of the criminal justice system. Court business in Scotland effectively stopped during the lockdown, although it is now beginning to restart. We’ve also seen a significant drop in crime, most notably in relation to crimes such as serious assault and house-breaking. However, some other types of crime may be increasing, such as fraud, domestic violence (Brooks-Hay, Burman, & Bradley, 2020), harms against children, and some forms of criminal activity committed online.

COVID-19 presents a particular risk for people in prisons (Jardine, 2020). Due to the suspension of court business, more people are not being sent to prison, yet people are still being released from prison, so the prison population is decreasing. There are also some emergency measures which allow the early release of some categories of prisoners. The number of people in Scottish prisoners has dropped by approximately 15%, from 8,094 in mid-March 2020 to 6,869 near the end of May; the number of women in prison decreased by about a third during this period, from 395 to 264. Given that the spread of the virus within prisons is particularly dangerous, there is good reason to try to reduce the prison population further (Nowotny, Bailey, Omori, & Brinkley-Rubinstein, 2020).

Community sentences are also significantly affected (McNeill, 2020). For example, unpaid work is effectively suspended during the lockdown, and the time periods for completing these sentences has been extended. Physical distancing has also changed the nature of the supervision of people on community sentences. For instance, some of the therapeutic interventions are more difficult to provide without face-to-face contact, meaning that support has shifted more towards supervision than targeted interventions for addressing offending behaviour, although some face-to-face meetings are still going ahead where the risks of offending are particularly high. The pandemic also appears to be leading towards a global recession. In the context of mass job losses, one of the main sanctions for criminal behaviour – the monetary fine – is a less desirable or socially just response.

So, with many aspects of the criminal justice process changed or halted, with a need to reduce the prison population, a pause on court business, challenges in delivering community sentences, and the undesirability of monetary fines, where does this leave us? Many argue that ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’ With court cases severely delayed, this creates significant problems for meeting people’s justice needs. One potential approach is restorative justice. One way of defining restorative justice is as a justice mechanism (Daly, 2016) that facilitates safe communication between someone who has committed an offence and the person harmed by that offence, for the purposes of asking and answering questions, discussing and deciding how to make amends, supporting people to address the harm, and making plans for avoiding the occurrence of similar harm in the future (Kirkwood, 2018). While these processes normally take place face-to-face, it may be possible to facilitate such processes using online methods if physical distancing measure remain in place. This may be attractive to at least some people, especially if the alternative is either no formal response or one that is severely delayed.

Restorative justice experts across Europe recently discussed the potential of restorative justice in response to and in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. The potential included the use of restorative justice facilitated online, the use of restorative approaches to breaches of lockdown restrictions, and the possibility of restorative practices being used more widely. For example, people who have lost loved ones may find processing grief is very difficult, or at least changed, by the current situation, and restorative processes may be of value to them. This includes practices such as Circles, whereby people are given an opportunity to speak within a group, one at a time and uninterrupted, to shared their views and feelings.

Given that a number of deaths appear to be preventable, it raises questions around responsibility, and such discussions with relevant professionals and official representatives may be particularly valuable to family members of those who have died. Medical professionals and other key workers are also putting themselves at great risk, and having to make difficult decisions, therefore they may have needs that could benefit from restorative practices, helping to process difficult feelings and decisions. The use of restorative practices in relation to medical intervention can be challenging, but can also bring a lot of value to professionals and members of the public (Wailling, Marshall, & Wilkinson, 2019). There could even be a need for a national or even international conversation about the coronavirus, about issues of justice, and seeking to address these needs. The quality of such processes online might not be as high as when they are delivered face-to-face; however, some of the safety concerns may be easier to manage if people don’t actually need to meet.

Crime can be thought of as a public health issue (Middleton, 1998). For instance, violence and drug misuse can be seen as issues that harm populations, and therefore the responses should be holistic, taking a preventative approach, rather than only focusing on blame and punishment. However, public health can also be seen as a justice issue. The harm that is caused by the pandemic creates a range of justice needs that ought to be addressed, and restorative justice offers a perspective for understanding and responding to some of these needs.

Dr Steve Kirkwood

Senior Lecturer in Social Work (The University of Edinburgh)


Brooks-Hay, O., Burman, M., & Bradley, L. (2020). Gender Based Violence in a Pandemic. Retrieved June 3, 2020, from

Daly, K. (2016). What is Restorative Justice? Fresh Answers to a Vexed Question. Victims and Offenders, 11(1), 9–29.

Jardine, C. (2020). Behind the Curve: Prison and Covid-19. Retrieved June 3, 2020, from a-prisons-crisis/

Kirkwood, S. (2018). Iriss insight: Restorative Justice. Glasgow.

McNeill, F. (2020). Penal supervision in a pandemic. Retrieved June 3, 2020, from

Middleton, J. (1998). Crime is a public health problem. Medicine, Conflict, and Survival, 14(1), 24–28.

Nowotny, K., Bailey, Z., Omori, M., & Brinkley-Rubinstein, L. (2020). COVID-19 Exposes Need for Progressive Criminal Justice Reform. American Journal of Public Health, 110(7), e1–e2.

Public Health England. (2020). Disparities in the risk and outcomes of About Public Health England.

Wailling, J., Marshall, C., & Wilkinson, J. (2019). Hearing and Responding to the Stories of Survivors of Surgical Mesh Ngā kōrero a ngā mōrehu-he urupare Report for the Ministry of Health.




Who Cares Scotland? / University of Edinburgh

post it notes


A blog written by Dr Christina McMellon

It started with an idea. How can we support social workers to think more about the links between care experience and mental health?

And so, in order to answer the question, we successfully applied for a small grant from University of Edinburgh’s Knowledge Exchange Fund to bring a small group of people who know something about the topic together to explore that question.

On 30th January, three young people from 439 (West Lothian’s Champion’s Board) three members of staff from Who Cares Scotland and three academics came together to start thinking through the links between care experience and mental health. All of the people in the group have important knowledge and experiences and expertise that we can use to help us answer our question. By working together over the next few months we think we can create something pretty special.

We started with some amazing discussions about 2 main questions:

  • What are the main things that impact on care-experienced young people’s mental health?
  • What could adults do to help?

We also ate quite a lot of pizza and looked at some videos and leaflets that other groups of young people have made to share their experiences and opinions of the care system.

This was the group’s overall favourite:

Over 6 meetings we will continue these discussions to develop and facilitate a training session for several groups of trainees and professionals working with care-experienced young people. We’ll also be looking at the existing academic evidence about this topic (what we already know from the research that people have already done) and we’ll be thinking about how we can create some sort of resource to share what we are learning.

In order to give you a wee taster of the discussion we asked a few group participants to tell us what they thought was the most important thing that we discussed tonight:

“The most important this was when we discussed what adults can do to help us, cos I think we discussed multiple times what affects care-experienced young people and stuff so it was nice to think about what adults can do for us and what we actually want…like just being there for us and just listening.”

“I think the most important thing we talked about was connections, like having a connection with an adult and keeping that connection going and not losing it. Keeping that connection and keeping the trust.”

“I think it was really good to talk about what the issues are but then immediately to move into the what can we do takes us into a wee bit of a different space which is nice.”

For more information get in touch with

Dr Pearse McCusker

or Dr Autumn Roesch-Marsh at





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