Monday, September 19, 2016

This week’s activities (19th September – 27th September, 2016)


I apologise for not updating people as to my activities over the past few weeks – holidays, a hectic timetable, personal issues all conspired to make it difficult.

But this week sees me first (Sunday 18th and Monday 19th) at the Party Conference of the Liberal Democrats in Brighton – networking with colleagues from the charitable sector, and lobbying key politicians on the broad agenda of the British Psychological Society.

I’m then, on Tuesday 20th, at a meeting of a newly-convened (and grandly-named) BPS Presidential Taskforce on the future of applied psychology training in statutory settings. This follows from the recent Government announcement / consultation on changes to the funding of a range of healthcare training, and anticipated threats to commissioned training in psychology. It aims to develop a coherent BPS position on these issues before challenged again on these issues externally.

On Wednesday 21st, I’m meeting senior colleagues from the Department of Health / NHS England to discuss the representation of psychology and psychologists in the senior management of the NHS, and (inevitably, therefore) to raise issues of concern and mutual interest.

I’ll then be travelling up to Edinburgh, because I’m due to open a conference on Thursday 22nd in Perth on how psychology can respond to the challenge of compassion in the NHS, especially highlighted by a number of recent enquiries into failings in health and social care.

That evening, I’ll be travelling back down to London for the free annual joint lecture with the British Academy and the BPS exploring the effects of stress on the brain.

Friday allows me time to return home (and attend to some University work), because on Sunday 25th September, I’ll be off to the Labour Party Conference, for more political fun and games… perhaps spiced, this year, by the leadership contest.


Thursday, May 19, 2016

Making Sense of the World - Nature, Nurture and Beyond

This was first published on the Huffington Post on Thursday 19th May 2016.

Our mental health reflects a complex and turbulent dance between nature and nurture. But we are not merely passive slaves to these forces, we actively learn about, make sense of and respond to the world. The essential added element in the 'nature-nurture' debate, too often overlooked, is human psychology itself.
We are biological creatures. It is an undeniable fact that neural activity and chemical processes in the brain lie behind all human experiences. It is therefore very common to assume that our distressing emotions or inexplicable behaviour must stem from illnesses or disorders of the brain. And, from that perspective, individual differences in mental health outcomes (why some of us experience psychological problems while others are more fortunate) are best explained in terms of individual differences in biology or genetics.
It's undoubtedly helpful to understand more about how the human brain works. But the human brain is not only a complex biological structure, it is also a fantastically elegant learning engine. We learn as a result of the events that happen to us, and there is increasing evidence that our mental health problems are not merely the result simply of faulty genes or brain chemicals. They are also a result of learning: a natural and normal response to the terrible things that can happen to us and that shape our view of the world.
There is very powerful evidence that even serious problems as hallucinations and delusional beliefs are associated with traumatic childhood experiences (poverty, abuse, etc.). And it is important to remember that the recent economic recession has had a direct impact on suicide rates - a rather dramatic (and sad) example of how social factors impact on our mental health.
Fundamentally, our mental health depends on how we understand our world, our thoughts about ourselves, other people, and the future. Biological factors, social factors, circumstantial factors - our learning as human beings - affect us as those external factors impact on the key psychological processes that help us build up our sense of who we are and the way the world works.
This means we should think differently about the 'nature - nurture' argument, and add a third factor; human psychology. It's absolutely true that biological factors are important in mental health, and that biological differences can partially explain individual differences in mental health. But that happens if those biological factors affect the way in which we think - how we make sense of ourselves and the world. And that is equally true for environmental factors. The events we experience in our lives also affect our psychological make up and how we make sense of the world around us. In rather more technical language, the effects of nature and nurture are mediated by psychological factors.
This approach to psychological wellbeing is diametrically opposed to the traditional 'disease-model' of mental illness, and should change how we help people in distress. We should replace diagnoses with straightforward descriptions of people's problems, radically reduce use of medication, and use it pragmatically rather than presenting it as a 'cure'. Instead, we need to understand how each person has learned to make sense of the world, and tailor help to their unique and complex needs. We need to offer care rather than coercion, to fight for social justice, and to establish the social prerequisites for genuine mental health and wellbeing.
These ideas form the basis for the free, online course I'm leading on - Psychology and Mental Health: Beyond Nature and Nurture, which is available on FutureLearn, starting on the 13th June.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Presidential blog #4 - Marching for mental health services

This was first published as a 'Presidential blog' on the British Psychological Society website on Wednesday 18th May, 2016


I had the great pleasure to be in York on Saturday, marching in support of colleagues calling for proper investment in mental health services in the city. It is ridiculous, in one of the wealthiest nations on earth, to be fighting for the most basic of social services. But the march and rally were great, and I am heartened by several elements of the day. 


The local people, and media, were welcoming and positive and there was strong support from local and national politicians. I was delighted to be shoulder-to-shoulder with colleagues fromPsychologists Against Austerity and sharing the speakers’ platform with the local MP Rachel Maskell and Len McClusky from Unite.
Having been a clinical psychologist for 25 years, I was delighted to hear the message that psychological health is a matter for everyone -  one-in-one, not ‘one-in-four’ - and that our psychological health (and therefore mental health services) is intimately linked to social circumstances and the economic, political and material health of civic society. That message needs to be repeated and clarified - hence my visit to Channel 4 on Tuesday, to attend a meeting discussing media portrayals of mental health problems – but I think it’s getting across. I was delighted, for example, that Alistair Campbell has started talking about mental health as an issue that touches ‘one in one’, not just ‘one in four’ of us. For me, this is a welcome recognition of our shared humanity and common psychology.
Otherwise, issues around work and psychology have dominated my email inbox and Twitter account this week. We’ve seen reports of psychologists themselves issuing ‘zero-hours contracts’, and unpaid intern posts for people wanting to enter professional psychology careers. Is this a growing trend that BPS Members and other readers of the blog would like to share their views on?
We’ve also seen increasing discussion of the impact of Work Capability Assessments, the DWP’s in-work progression trial and sanctions in our benefits system. We’ve seen sexism in the workplace and we’ve seen further discussion of the importance of maintaining the psychological health of workers in the NHS.
So… two questions (for the comments section below, perhaps):
  1. What are readers’ views on psychologists issuing zero-hours contracts or contracts for unpaid interns?
  2. Is the time right for a British Psychological Society Presidential Taskforce on ‘Work and Psychology’?