Letters

accessing Society reports; men in psychology; Dorothy Bishop column; and more

Erecting economic barriers

I was interested to note that the BPS’s new (and I have to say, excellent) report Understanding Bipolar Disorder was being advertised as free to download until 12 August at which point the public will be charged to read it. I was subsequently surprised to see that past reports are now only available through the BPS online shop.

While I understand that these reports are costly to produce, if there’s one thing I want the BPS to do without charging, it is to provide the public with accurate and up-to-date information about psychological matters and, particularly, mental illness, in line with the Society’s aims.

There is no shortage of reviews and books about conditions such as bipolar disorder, but they are usually locked behind academic paywalls or published in increasingly expensive academic books. In contrast, there is a genuine lack of high-quality, independent information that is available to all. Stigma and ignorance are still common, and the BPS should be at the forefront of fighting that. Erecting economic barricades just ensures that those most in need of such information won’t be able to access it.

Vaughan Bell

Médicos Sin Fronteras, Colombia

Institute of Psychiatry,

King’s College London

 

Response from Graham Powell, Chair of the Publications and Communications Board:

Thank you for your positive comments about this excellent report. It has been available as a free download for a fairly extended initial period during a lot of publicity, and I am now happy to announce that it will remain free to all for the time being.

However, this report may be an exception as a popular and public-facing report which, as you say, seems squarely within our charitable objectives to provide reliable information on. You have raised an important point as to whether charging non-members for such resources contradicts our primary charter objective of diffusing a knowledge of psychology. Our resources are not unlimited and so we often do have to charge; we cannot fully subsidise all of our activities. But this is a complex debate, and I will take your feedback to the Publications and Communications Board so that we can take it into account in setting future pricing policy.

Wish I wasn’t here?

Christian Jarrett’s article ‘Wish you were here?’ (August 2011) provides an interesting review of the psychology of holidays. However, the research findings presented, although sensible in interpretations and implications, seem to give a somewhat narrow and culturally biased perspective on holidays.

For example, holiday motivation comes from the anticipated positive benefits of the experience, but this can vary from extreme hedonistic desires to escapism from a stressful lifestyle or environment, that is ‘I really wish I wasn’t here’. Obviously, where the purpose of a holiday is for a concrete experience (e.g. a specific activity or site visit), then it’s simple realisation is likely to lead to a positive experience. In contrast, where the holiday acts as a short-term substitute for a strongly yearned alternative lifestyle, then the holiday benefits can be expected to be short-lived, and the peak experiences of the holiday exaggerated. The research to date does not seem to consider the personal motivations (and life situations) of individuals and the subsequent influences of these on the holiday experience. Jarrett touches on this issue through the example of ‘coming back to a pile of work’, but I’d like to argue that in some cases more significant concerns may exist, especially in times of economic hardship or in situations of severely unfulfilled life expectations.

A second point is the cultural bias towards the holiday experience. Societal influences (e.g. through the media and peer influences) can hype up the value and benefits of a holiday, and perhaps even force an expectation for a positive recollection of experiences. In other words, even a mediocre holiday could then be rationalised as a good experience and a subconscious way of meeting cultural norms. Do the residents of a country blessed with, say, an environment and lifestyle for regular leisure and authentic escape from the humdrum of work life perceive the two-week holiday spurt in the same way as others? (And I am projecting a little here by implying that life in London does not meet such criteria for many of its residents!) In a similar manner, does the effectiveness of the weekend as a rejuvenator influence the subsequent benefits and fade-out of the formal holiday?

The short-lived effects of a holiday may be an argument for more holidays, but in some cases, a more fundamental review of the individual’s quality of life may be needed. Like many other health-promoting factors, steady consumption that is implicit within the day-to-day life of the individual, may ultimately be better than the infrequent bingeing of UK and other European cultures.

Esat Alpay

London

Appealling to men

Having just analysed qualitative data from an HEA funded mini project entitled ‘Exploring male (dis)engagement in psychology’, Marc Smith’s article ‘Failing boys, failing psychology’ in the May edition resonated. Our study, which involved focus groups with males studying for their A2 levels about their perceptions of psychology as a discipline and a potential university and career choice, was motivated by many of the statistics about gender imbalances the article highlighted. Of the 35 males who took part in our study (around half of whom were actually taking A2 Psychology) only 4 wished to continue with the discipline at university. Of those 3 were taking psychology as part of a joint honour’s subject. Discussions with the males supported some of the ideas referred to in Marc’s article: they saw psychology as a ‘sort of science’ often aligned with biology, rather than subjects which they perceived as more ‘mainstream’ science, namely chemistry and physics. They perceived the subject matter of psychology as more suited to females, suggesting that it was about ‘feelings’ and ‘emotions’. One participant even going as far as to state ‘there’s no point a male doing it’. Finally, accounts of the career opportunities afforded by a degree in the discipline were often seen as too specific, and typically related to mental health and clinical fields. Others struggled to be able to see what the longer term prospects of such a subject could be.

Where we diverge from the sentiments of Marc’s article, which seemed to place much emphasis on the apparent ‘failing’ of boys with the teaching of Psychology at A level, is that we feel this is a larger problem. The figure Marc cited of 30 per cent of the staff not having psychology degrees leaves the fact unacknowledged that a large majority of 70 per cent do actually have the gold standard scientifically based first degree in psychology. Also his line of reasoning positions the problem to be addressed at the foot of the British education system, yet the gender imbalance in favour of females can be observed in other countries where psychology is popular (e.g. Harton and Lyons, 2003) This is an issue which is further reaching than the UK.

We wonder, having listened to the views of some of the males that this article refers to, if the responsibility to address this issue runs deeper. We were struck by how confused the narratives of the males in our study were. Even those who were studying the discipline found it hard to offer a coherent account of what a psychologist was. What messages are being given by those bodies promoting and developing the discipline? The recently published ‘The Future of Undergraduate Psychology in the United Kingdom’ (2011) jointly funded by the British Psychological Society, the Association of Heads of Psychology Departments and the Higher Education Psychology Network informs us that the two strengths of the discipline are that ‘it is an extraordinary heterogeneous discipline’ and ‘can lead to a range of psychology-based professions…’ whilst affording an opportunity to ‘look outside the formal discipline for a career path’ (p5).

Psychology here seems to be positioned as all things to all men. Clearly it is not appealing to many men! Is it time to rethink how we are promoting a subject which the QAA (2007) described as the most popular scientific discipline at under graduate level if we are to encourage males to take psychology seriously?

Jenny Mercer & Paul Sander

UWIC

Cardiff

References

Harton, H.C. & Lyons, P.C. (2003) Gender, empathy and the choice of psychology major. Teaching of Psychology, 30 p19–24

QAA subject benchmarks (2007) Psychology. The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education

Trapp, A., Banister, P., Ellis, J. et al (2011) The Future of Undergraduate Psychology in the United Kingdom. York: Higher Education Academy Psychology Network

Status of counselling psychology

As a Chartered Counselling Psychologist, I empathised greatly with Catherine Coe’s letter (August 2011) regarding the lack of respect afforded to our counselling psychology, both by the BPS and by some members of the Division of Clinical Psychology. When the HPC took charge of statutory registration a couple of years ago, the BPS sent out a bright glossy booklet encouraging us to maintain our links with the BPS for ‘Chartership’ and other benefits. A page was devoted to the usual crowd of psychology disciplines. Not once was there any mention of counselling psychology. Having just completed my doctorate at the time, I felt thoroughly insulted by this. It is very disappointing to hear that in Applied Psychology (ed. Davey, G., 2011), published by BPS Blackwell, again we have been ignored.

I think the problem is three-fold. Firstly, as pointed out by Catherine, clinical psychology is funded by the NHS (and thus invites more applications) while counselling psychology is self-funded. My applied training cost me in the region of £30,000 (fees, travel, books and external courses). I wonder how many students would opt for clinical psychology if they were faced with this fee. We are inevitably the smaller party, but that does not make us ‘lesser’ in any way.

Secondly, there is a problem with the language. ‘Clinical’ suggests something pretentiously medical. ‘Counselling’ suggests something weak, along the lines of tea and sympathy. Nothing could be further from the truth for either subdiscipline, but unfortunately this is a common misinterpretation. It is interesting that the taught courses are so similar.

The main difference lies in the philosophical basis underpinning the subdisciplines. The clinical course is based on a medicalised view of the person, while the counselling course is based on a holistic and humanistic underpinning. For counselling psychology, the medical ‘script’, with its diagnosis and treatment plans, is only one of a number of possible interpretations and considerations of human suffering. I believe that both disciplines have their place and significance.

Thirdly, counselling psychologists often do not help themselves. Having graduated, they often drop the ‘counselling’ in their title and try to pass themselves off as clinical psychologists, or at least do not correct people when misidentification occurs. I know of some people who have gone on to do a top-up year to get the clinical title. It is sad that they feel they need this, and I think they have missed the point.

If we really are the third largest Division, then it is time for the BPS to promote our work professionally and seriously. This means making sure we are always included in their literature about applied psychology and that we are generally given appropriate recognition. I know that Barbara Douglas (previous Chair of DCoP) has been working tirelessly on this point, and it is a relief to know that she is taking such an influential and important position in the BPS as Chair of the Representative Council. It is also time for counselling psychologists to splash out their titles, proudly, at every opportunity.

Joanna Nowill

Chartered Counselling Psychologist

Cheltenham

Forum guest column: Survival guide

A Handbook of Skills and Methods in Behavioural Research is not the place you’d expect to find something to make you smile, but many years ago one of my graduate students pointed me to a wickedly funny piece by Ray Hodgson and Stephen Rollnick. Their ‘laws’ on how to survive in research still apply and are as pertinent to the older, seasoned researcher as to the intended readership of the ‘young, lively, questioning researcher who has great expectations but a lack of practical experience’:

Law 1. Getting started will take at least as long as the data collection The barriers are various: perhaps the most salient for the newcomer is dithering induced by fear of committing to a non-optimal design. Another is having too many people involved; this just multiplies the dithering, as each person tries to include additional measures or graft on subsidiary projects. It’s vital to have someone who will take control for decision-making.

Law 2. The number of available subjects will be one tenth of your first estimate Quite simply, ‘as soon as somebody starts to research a particular condition, people with that condition leave the district’. It’s totally true and totally mysterious.

Law 3. Completion of a research project will take twice as long as your last estimate and three times as long as your first estimate This may be moderated by whether you are a pessimist or optimist, but no true pessimist would ever embark on a research project.

Law 4. A research project will change twice in the middle Expect the unexpected, and for any changes to require fresh and time-consuming ethical approval.

Law 5. The help provided by other people has a half-life of two weeks Yes, yes, yes. Never do a study that depends on the kindness of strangers.

Law 6. The tedium of research is directly proportional to its objectivity You really do need to know this when you start out in research. If you detest mundane, repetitive activities, try another career.

Law 7. The effort of writing up is an exponential function of the time since the data were collected Hodgson and Rollnick reckon that data that sit in a filing cabinet for four years will never escape: to stand any chance, you need to document thoroughly every step of the research collection and data coding. Commonly, the failure to write up is because the results are deemed uninteresting. This has the unfortunate effect of distorting the research literature, as null results are left in the file drawer. I’d like to see journal editors adopting a policy of determining ‘publishability’ of a paper on the basis of Introduction and Methods alone.

Yet another reason for failure to publish is researchers who bite off more than they can chew. We need to move away from a system whereby the rewards for researchers are proportional to the amount of grant income they receive, to one that rewards thrift. There is a limit to how much research someone can do and do well.

Law 8. Evidence is never enough Hodgson and Rollnick note that research that conflicts with the prevailing view is likely to be ignored, but that’s not the only problem. You have to sell your science: learn to write accessibly, get out there and give talks, start a blog, and, most important of all, focus on problems that are important.

Dorothy Bishop is Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology at the University of Oxford. Read the full version of this column at http://deevybee.blogspot.com. This column aims to prompt debate surrounding surviving and thriving in academia and research.

 

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