Page last updated at 23:03 GMT, Monday, 13 April 2009 00:03 UK

UK society 'increasingly fearful'

Anxious woman
Many people think the world is more frightening than it once was

A charity is calling for a nationwide campaign to protect the UK's mental health after a survey suggested people were growing ever more anxious.

The poll of 2,000 adults for the Mental Health Foundation found 77% found the world more frightening than in 1999.

The charity described a "culture of fear" in which the media and politicians fuelled a sense of unease.

But one sociologist said the campaign risked becoming a "self-fulfilling prophecy" making people more anxious.

The report, In the Face of Fear, found more than a third of people say they get frightened or anxious more often than they used to, while 77% thought the world had become a scarier place.

While the economic climate was seen as part of the reason for the increased levels of fear, the charity said it believed there were other factors at play.

The report said "worst-case-scenario language" sometimes used by politicians, pressure groups, businesses and public bodies around issues such as knife-crime, MRSA, bird-flu and terrorism can have a detrimental effect on people's wellbeing.


Meanwhile it said devices to reassure people such as CCTV "can actually make people feel more fearful, sensing that high security suggests risk. Fear of crime continues to rise even though crime rates have fallen in the last decade".

The survey found variations - geographical as well as generational - among the 2,000 adults polled.

The modern world will test our resilience again and again and people need to know how to process their emotions better to prevent harm to their mental and physical health
Dr Andrew McCulloch
Mental Health Foundation

Londoners were nearly twice as likely to feel anxious "a lot of the time" than those elsewhere in the country.

Younger people also consistently reported greater fear than older people, while women were more than twice as likely to report experiencing anxiety than men.

The report also drew on research by the Office of National Statistics which suggested that those diagnosed with anxiety-related disorders tended to be single, divorced or separated and earning less money.

These apparently increasing levels of fear needed to be addressed, the foundation argued, as those who suffer from anxiety were much more likely to experience other problems such as heart disease, gastrointestinal troubles, asthma and allergies.

"The modern world will test our resilience again and again and people need to know how to process their emotions better to prevent harm to their mental and physical health," said Mental Health Foundation chief executive Dr Andrew McCulloch.

"A mental health promotion campaign that shows individuals how to look after their own mental health would be of immense public benefit, and help prevent common mental health problems like anxiety and depression."

Free leaflets

As well as a mental heath promotion strategy, the charity wants the government to stop "unnecessarily using the language of fear".

I get the occasional bout of anxiety but you just have to plough on as best as you can
Andrew Lye, Pembrokeshire

It wants treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy to be more readily available, and the free provision of self-help book and leaflets.

Parenting programmes could help parents learn how to raise children who have a "proportionate relationship" with fear, it says.

But Kent University sociologist Frank Furedi said "the last thing people need is parenting classes".

"There is a sense that people are more afraid, but such campaigns become self-fulfilling prophecies," he said.

"Their bottom line is always that people are not coping and that becomes the message that people take away - they lose faith in themselves.

"But we do need more of a robust communal infrastructure so that people don't feel so alone, as the report highlights," he added.

"And ironically it may be the current common threat of economic meltdown which in fact brings us together."

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