Health: Beasts can tame their own tempers: Stanley Slaughter explains how a new type of group therapy helps violent offenders to control rage

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Indy Lifestyle Online
BESET by money troubles and loss of self-esteem, David Smith severely battered his partner, forcing her and their two young children to retreat to a women's refuge. In court he blamed his partner for 'goading' him. It was his first conviction for assault, but he admitted to a 12-year history of domestic violence.

Mr Smith, 32, claimed that all the assaults had occurred when he had financial worries and when his partner allegedly tried to provoke him. He said he had been abused by his father as a child.

In the case of Tim Jones, the violence took a different form. Each Saturday, before attending a football match, he and a group of friends would meet in the pub, drink to excess, then cause as many fights and disturbances as they could during the game. This led to a string of convictions for public disorder and violence.

Away from the stadium, Mr Jones, 27, was gentle and polite: not the usual demeanour of a football hooligan. He blamed his violence on a family that had unrealistic expectations of him. He compensated for his sense of failure by aggression at football matches, which also gained him the approval of his mates.

Both men were referred to anger control groups, whose therapy, a relatively new form of treatment for violent offenders, was first developed in the United States, and is expanding rapidly within the UK prison and probation services.

But it is not just those with convictions who are being treated. At the Maudsley Hospital in south London, Gisli Gudjonsson, head of forensic pyschology, uses anger control groups for patients referred to him by GPs. A pioneer of the treatment, Dr Gudjonsson has been running the clinics for 12 years.

Although the groups are open to men and women, his patients are virtually all male. 'These are people who are concerned that they are losing their temper, or people with a long-standing problem with anger and violence,' he says. 'They may become worried about the danger to their children or their spouse.' Their violence, he says, tends to erupt in personal relationships. 'It can be very frustrating to deal with children who are always crying or not doing as they are told.'

Anger is an important part of everyone's emotional make-up, he says, but the difference lies in how individuals handle it. Being jostled and having your drink spilt in a crowded pub, or having someone push in front of you in a bus queue, are irritating occurrences that most people manage to brush aside. But in a minority of people, such incidents provoke a wild and disproportionate response.

Another pioneer of anger control therapy, Cynthia McDougall, head of psychology in the Prison Service, says people who react in this way often reveal a similar pattern of emotion. 'They talk of being 'shown up' by a situation, or of being threatened by it, and of taking things personally,' she says. They usually claim to feel better after the explosion of violence.

Dr McDougall began her work in 1985, in a clinic at Castington, a young offenders' institute near Acklington, Northumberland. Her first course in anger control was markedly successful. Nine youngsters - 50 per cent of the group - received fewer reports for misbehaviour after taking the course while a further seven showed no change; the record of only two got worse. She went on to introduce courses at Wakefield prison, which houses murderers.

Since last year, her colleague David Thornton, the Prison Service's head of programme development, has promoted a nationwide programme of anger control in British prisons, which includes the treating of prison warders as well as prisoners. Hundreds have so far been treated, and in the next few years the figure is expected to rise to thousands.

The groups' aim is to help people to understand why they get angry, how to handle it, and how to spot the warning signs of an explosion. The therapy employs relaxation techniques to use when feelings reach boiling point. 'We try to get them to understand that anger is induced by how they perceive the situation,' Dr McDougall says. 'We discuss cases where people have become angry and what goes through their minds.

'When they say things such as, 'He was getting at me', we teach them that they should not take everything personally and to replace these negative thoughts with more positive ones. A recurrent problem with people who become angry is that they think they are always right. We have to persuade them that is not the case, by demonstrating that things will turn out better if they keep their tempers.'

Dr Gudjonsson has found a similar emotional dynamic with violent patients. 'These men feel the world is very unjust and is provoking or abusing them; that people are out to get on their nerves.' The course teaches them to understand their own emotions; that anger is a response to their masculinity being threatened or their self-esteem being undermined. We tell them not to take it too seriously and teach them how to relax. We teach them to understand the other person's point of view and what they may be feeling.'

Cliff Vass, a probation officer who runs anger management clinics in East Sussex, believes that anger and violence are chiefly male problems. He tries to make the men confront their feelings.

'In the first weeks of a group beginning, we look at the link between violence and male attitudes and beliefs,' he says. 'We have found that men who are violent tend to deny the extent of it, and minimise the effect on their victims. We make them accept a greater responsibility for their behaviour, so that they see it as an abuse of power which they can control rather than as something that just happened, or because 'I got drunk and she wound me up.' '

Dr McDougall and Mr Vass teach their groups to replace self-

serving statements - 'She wound me up' is a very common one - with those which take more responsibility for violent action, and recognise that losing one's temper is often the least likely way of achieving one's goal.

The relaxation therapy includes learning to tense and untense muscles in different parts of the body to try to gain physical self-

control. 'If you can teach people to relax, they are less likely to get angry about something,' says Dr Gudjonsson.

Are British people, particularly men, becoming more prone to anger and violence? Mr Vass points out that in the last 30 years there has developed a 'well established culture' of men scrapping: first Teds, then Mods and Rockers and now Skinheads.

Mr Vass believes that unemployment and inadequate housing are leading to 'a growing sense of frustration and a sense of hopelessness among the young, with the increasing likelihood that these feelings will explode into anger and violence'.

But he does believe that men are being persuaded to think seriously about the violence they inflict on women and children.

'In cases of domestic violence in the past, men have not liked admitting to what they have done, other than in a male, jokey way . . . 'She'll be all right if she stops nagging me'. It is now more difficult for men to laugh off their aggression.'

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