Psychology in the community

Kate Brennan-Rhodes reports from the Society's Annual Conference.

Thursday afternoon’s symposium posed two questions: What can psychology do in communities? And what are psychologists doing? The answer was ‘a lot’, as shown by the four papers presented. The symposium, jointly held between the Division of Health Psychology and the Qualitative Methods in Psychology Section, showed that psychologists are tackling societal issues as diverse as obesity, immigration and austerity, using traditional and novel research methods.

Lucy Byrne-Davis (University of Manchester) described her work with the Change Exchange, a programme where an organisation in a high-income country is partnered with one in a different country with fewer resources. As behaviour is a core component of global health interventions, psychologists have an important role to play in bringing expertise in evidence-based practice. An audit of behaviour change techniques showed that across the 10 different countries, techniques used were common, but defining the behaviours used posed a challenge; as did finding the space for additional training for healthcare providers who already have full agendas. One suggestion is that future work could involve focusing on ‘near-misses’– if a behaviour change technique nearly works, it could be that adjustments will rectify the without the need to try something different from scratch.

Simon Goodman (Coventry University) took the discussion away from collaboration between countries to look at a more adversarial process: the immigration interviews undergone by asylum seekers. He noted that thousands of asylum seekers in the UK are children separated from their parents. They are alone, have often undergone a very difficult journey and are at increased risk of psychological difficulties – but are treated the same way as adults. Goodman and his colleagues took a discursive approach, looking at recordings of real-life asylum interviews. He found that the rules to safeguard children are not always followed, and that interviewers use adversarial strategies to discredit the child, such as by asking unanswerable questions or interrogating perceived inconsistencies. Psychologists can help these situations not only through research, but by working with campaigners and sharing findings.

Eleanor Bull (University of Manchester) highlighted another type of discourse: the language we use to describe behaviour change interventions. Whist descriptions of drugs are usually unambiguous, we struggle to outline the ‘active ingredients’ of behaviour change techniques. Her research, a systematic review and meta-analysis, looked at studies of interventions in low-income communities aimed at tackling healthy eating, physical activity and smoking. Are interventions effective; and if so, which components (and combinations) are associated with behaviour change? She found that interventions had small, positive effects on behaviour compared to controls. In healthy eating interventions, feedback was ineffective but self-monitoring was helpful. In physical activity interventions, setting was key: they should be delivered in the community or at home, with instruction included.

Katy Day from Leeds Beckett University concluded the session with preliminary findings from her research into austerity, lone motherhood and wellbeing. By using a participatory action research process, researchers worked directly with the community to co-produce the study. Each party involved brought their own skills to the table. After all, it’s the participant who is the expert when it comes to knowing their own community. The data collected included fieldnotes from community walks, recorded group discussions and PhotoVoice, a tool that uses images to build a narrative.

Whilst her research is ongoing, Day and colleagues' preliminary findings show that lone mothers living in austerity do not connect to how they are portrayed and discussed in the media, and are actively angry about how they are represented on TV. They are alienated from the very concept of austerity – it’s not a word they use, but their quality of life has decreased since its introduction. How can psychologists help these communities? Day suggests that one way is through consciousness raising. Psychology has enabled these participants to tell their own stories; psychologists can help by championing the issues they raise. 

- You can read more coverage from the Annual Conference online, and in the June and July print editions.

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