Letters

Structure of the BPS; siblings and mental illness; altruism; austerity; denial of impending catastrophe; and more

Making the most of what we know

Peter Martin’s letter (‘Making the most of Divisions’, October 2013) struck a powerful chord. As a psychologist working with a range of national and international organisations, including the UN, I am helping them to become more agile and flexible. In a fast-moving unpredictable world, leaders need to think about their organisations differently to enable information, ideas and resources to flow across their businesses more easily. Organisations based on assumptions about the world and nature being predictable and controllable, where people and functions can be put into self-contained pockets, often called departments or divisions, are less able to cope with discontinuous change.I am working with one international organisation at the moment where geopolitical crisis has freed the organisation from its shackles and, to its surprise,  it can not only survive the relative breakdown of structure and hierarchy, but move quickly and effectively to deliver brilliant work. The questions asked inside the organisation are much more ‘How does this issue help the mission in ——?’ Only a few weeks ago it would have been ‘How can we hold on to our control of this?’

I wonder what questions are asked inside the BPS? My limited experience of talking to people in the BPS about freeing up the organisation to embrace psychology, rather than bound parts of it, generated exclusively structural answers. There is no greater indicator of a divided organisation than to see its structural components described as ‘divisions’. I loved Peter’s description of informal subgroups willing to share what they know, subscribing to the mission of ‘It is all psychology’.

In my work as a business applied psychologist, I work with psychologists and practitioners who ostensibly belong to sports, occupational, educational, clinical Divisions. In practice we draw on a wide knowledge base from psychology and we would wish the BPS to facilitate horizontal access to knowledge, not protect Divisions that were a solution to a problem long passed.

Peter’s letter was inspirational but the heading could have been different. If Divisions are not a given, it could have read ‘Making the most of what we know’ or even, as he suggests, becoming greater than the sum of the parts. Let’s explore what an organisation based on ‘It is all psychology’ might look like.
Steve Turner
Winchester

We write in reply to Peter Martin’s letter ‘Making the most of Divisions’ (October 2013), and his questioning of the assumptions and structures of the Society’s Divisions. We have also recently had the opportunity to think about the assumptions and structures involved in setting up national systems of supervision for work and organisational psychologists. This was at the European Association of Work and Organizational Psychology’s Small Group Meeting in Katowice Poland in September. One of the aims of the workshop was to explore examples of good practice from other European countries in order to formulate plans and activities for practice development in Central and Eastern Europe.

We delivered a symposium based on our experience in three core areas of the Society’s Qualification in Occupational Psychology: (i) Qualifications Standards (Kathryn, current chair of the Qualifications Standards Committee); supervision (Angela, former Chief Supervisor); and (iii) assessment (Gail, former Chief Assessor). At the meeting in Poland the principles of academic, professional and ethical standards were well understood. The need for working in partnership was warmly welcomed. With our European colleagues we talked about, and reflected upon, the need for systems and structures that were flexible, fit for purpose and future proof. Yet we also found ourselves questioning the extent to which current ways of working within and across the Society’s myriad Divisions, Sections, boards and committees were really ‘good practice’?

Our point here is that it is relatively easy to reflect upon and challenge assumptions at an individual level of analysis – in other words as practitioners, candidates, supervisors, reflexive researchers, and so on. It may be harder, however, to question and challenge the assumptions of our discipline at divisional and institutional levels of analysis. Critical reflection is not something that only happens inside the head of the professional practitioner; it engages with the power dynamics, ideological, political and cultural contexts of professional practice. Perhaps now is a time for wider critical reflection across all Divisions in order to – as Peter Martin’s letter argued – find ways of subscribing to the view ‘It is all psychology’. We suggest that a Delphi inquiry, or related approach, with key stakeholders in Divisions and the Society may help us achieve this level of inter-Divisional engagement and critical reflection.
Dr Kathryn Waddington
Dr Angela Carter
Dr Gail Steptoe Warren

Division of Occupational Psychology

Private education – a research opportunity?

Reading about the BPS Award for Promoting Equality of Opportunity in a recent issue made me wonder why I have never seen reference in BPS publications to the particularly British issue of the lack of equality of opportunity for those attending a state school. According to the Sutton Trust, an educational charity, around 50 per cent of our ‘top jobs’ go to those attending private schools, despite only 7 per cent of pupils attending these. Our political leaders are largely privately educated, two thirds of the new Cabinet in 2010 attended such schools.

It would appear that 93 per cent of the nation’s children face massive career discrimination because our two educational systems don’t offer equality of opportunity, and yet I couldn’t recall, or find, a single article in a BPS publication referring to the issue of private/state education and its consequences. I am puzzled as to the reason for this; surely this issue isn’t only of interest to sociologists, educationalists and politicians. I can think of a number of psychological questions that might be investigated (and maybe have been, but I couldn’t find it):I    What are the differences between school leavers from the two types of school, in the areas of thinking styles, self-esteem, self-efficacy, self confidence, social skills, problem-solving skills, career perception and knowledge, networking skills?
I    How does the existence of elitist private schools affect the self-perception and aspirations of state-educated pupils? Do they see themselves as ‘second best’?
I    How do interviewers react to job applicants from the two types of school, dependent on the interviewer’s own type of education?
I    What are the mechanisms that give privately educated alumni preferential access to ‘top jobs’?
I    Is there evidence that private schools cause ‘detriment or harm’ to society? This is a crucial area in the awarding of charitable status to private schools, where public benefit has to be established. Currently the Charity Commission does not accept that there is clear evidence of harm.

Such studies would have two major benefits. First, by evaluating whether the private school advantage in career access is due to better employment-relevant skills, psychological differences in alumni, or other factors such as access to privileged networks, state schools could use the information to make changes to help their students compete. Second, they would provide hard data for the debate on whether private education in Britain should continue. We might decide, like Finland did in the 1970s, that educational equality and social cohesiveness requires the abolition of private schools, and then see ourselves rise to the top of international education league tables, as they have (Sahlberg, 2012).
Martin Fitch
Ashby de la Zouch
Leicestershire

Reference
Sahlberg, P. (2012). Finland: A non-competitive education for competitive economy. In Strong performers and successful reformers – Lessons from PISA

 

Siblings and mental illness

When I turned the page of the November issue of The Psychologist to discover the article ‘Rethinking siblings and mental illness’ , I felt an almost immediate sense of support and half-relief. Only half-relief as my elder sister is currently experiencing acute psychotic symptoms, which have been on and off for many years. She lives very far from me and has always had her partner to help her through the worst times, until recently.

The article couldn’t have come at a better time, as the past week has been the most challenging, resulting in me contacting various mental health teams and a hospital stay for my sister. It’s at times like this when it feels especially important for the health professionals involved in a sibling’s care to be as open and supportive as possible.

I have come into contact with some unhelpful staff, leading to tears of anger, frustration and helplessness. I remember visiting my sister in hospital when I was 13 years old. I had never seen anyone so sedated, let alone someone whom I love and care for. I left visibly distressed, yet the nurse who let me off the ward did not offer any words of reassurance. On the other hand, there have also been many people involved in my sister’s care that have helped immensely.

My sister is closer to me than to any of our other family members. This is why it’s important for health professionals to simply ask the patient about their different relationships, and not assume parents are their closest relationship. I agree with the article that some positives can also come from this situation – such as a closer bond and personal growth.

Reading the article almost instantly made me feel more supported and less alone. It’s great that the siblings of those with mental health problems are becoming more recognised, and if simply reading the article provided me with reassurance, I expect the forums, advice and support available on the Siblings Network (www.rethink.org/siblings)
will help me and other siblings even further.
Name and address supplied

Altruists before super-altruists

Tom Farsides’ piece on the super-altruists (October 2013) made for daunting and inspiring reading. It made me doubt that I could ever make sacrifices like those made by the super-altruists he describes, but at the same time left me knowing that I could be much more altruistic than I am now.

If increasing individual altruism is a worthwhile objective – and many people agree that it is – then it’s worth thinking about how this can be effectively achieved. An evidenced-based approach seems most promising. At the upstream level, psychology can help identify the characteristics of altruists and putative predictors of altruistic behaviour, or draw on models of behaviour change to understand and promote altruistic behaviour. Further downstream, at the implementation phase, established evaluative methods can be used to assess the effectiveness of different kinds of altruistic behaviour in terms of its real-world impact. The charity 80,000 Hours for evidenced-based altruism is a recent example of such an approach.

As Farsides notes, wealth is a relative asset and most people reading The Psychologist are likely to be richer than the vast majority of people alive today, so one of the easiest acts of altruism may be to give away some of what we earn. It may lack the glamour of some acts of ‘super’ altruism, but it can have a large impact. Extreme poverty in the developing world is a major cause of premature morbidity and mortality, and a small percentage of our income given to the right charities (see for example www.givingwhatwecan.org) will help reduce this obvious suffering. If becoming more altruistic is an important goal for us, then this is one way to achieve it.

Acts of super-altruism may move and inspire us, but they will remain the exception rather than the rule. There may be more to be gained from systematic efforts to understand and promote smaller, routine acts of ‘everyday’ altruism than from rare acts of heroism. We can’t all we super-altruists, but we can all be altruists.
Francis Vergunst
Oxford

 

Austerity – time to find our voice

We have keenly followed the articles and responses about ‘austerity psychology’ in the pages of this publication, and note with interest related ideas elsewhere, e.g. the recent column by Dr Jim White in The Herald (Scotland) newspaper (http://bit.ly/1h6dhzx). This in turn has echoes on the other side of the Atlantic in the thought-provoking consideration of contemporary clinical psychology by Gaudiano
& Miller (2013).

Although an attempt to engage readers of The Psychologist in an online debate about social change was abortive (Letters, May 2013), we have nevertheless been involved in increasingly interesting discussions with several others via Twitter. We suspect that sociopolitical engagement is an area of interest to a growing number of trainee and newly qualified psychologists across various disciplines – but wonder whether, collectively, we are still uncertain of the best way to make our voices heard. James Anderson, in his excellent ‘Manifesto in an age of austerity’ (September 2013), states: ‘Collectively, we have a professional voice.’ Do we? And even if we do, who – other than fellow psychologists – is listening? Alison Beck, referring to the Francis Report in the September 2013 issue of Clinical Psychology Forum, writes: ‘It is possible that we missed an opportunity to have political influence.’ How frequently, we wonder, is this the case?In suggesting that psychologists might become agents of social change, we accept that we are laying ourselves open to accusations of idealism. However, as articulated so clearly by Mark Burton (‘A renewal of ethics’, November 2013), the status quo is increasingly unsustainable.

There are certainly no easy answers, but is that not exactly why we should be having this debate and beginning to explore possible courses of action? We would echo Mareike Suesse’s suggestion (Letters, November 2013) for a regular community psychology column in this magazine, and hope that the BPS’s Community Psychology Section can become a more vocal and visible driver for debate and – just possibly – change.

Psychologists, as Mark Burton makes clear, hold a societal position of power. Do our professional organisations exist merely to consolidate that power? Or might they allow us to use our collective scholarship and understanding to explore – to borrow a phrase – new ways of working?

Simon Stuart
Trainee Clinical Psychologist, University of Edinburgh/NHS Lothian
@soothron

Dr Jade Weston
Clinical Psychologist, Milton Keynes
@liljadeywadey

Dr Joe Judge
Clinical Psychologist, Hamilton
@JoeJudgePsy

Reference

Gaudiano, B.A. & Miller, I.W. (2013). The evidence-based practice of psychotherapy: Facing the challenges that lie ahead. Clinical Psychology Review, 33(7), 813–824.

 

Dangers of denial

In his excellent article ‘A renewal of ethics’ (November 2013) Mark Burton writes: ‘…to some extent we are all denialists – it’s how we stay sane in the face of impending catastrophe’. He writes of a ‘perfect storm of economic, ecological, social and political crises’, which are upon us and which threaten ‘the very basis of human life’. All this is true. He might have added the nuclear issue. Dr Helen Caldicott, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, has warned that the ongoing mega-disaster at Fukushima threatens the entire northern hemisphere. At every moment we are threatened by disaster from the existence of arsenals of nuclear weapons through accidents, malfunctions or vicious intent. Einstein said: ‘The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift towards unparalleled catastrophe.’

We have not changed our mode of thinking.

Freud wrote of the ‘opposition between the ego or death instincts and the sexual or life instincts’. It would appear the death instincts are rampant.

To a lay person all this suggests many questions for psychologists. Is it possible for entire cultures to become insane? What definition of sanity is applicable to individuals who are willing to incinerate millions of their fellow humans in order to protect their ‘vital interests’, as our government puts it?

Denial is only a rational response to mortal threats if there is nothing can be done about the threats. If sufficient individuals were willing to suffer the anxiety they would experience if they dropped their denial they might work together to negate the influence of the powerful sociopaths (psychopaths?) who are our decision makers. Mark Burton writes about vulgar denial and finessed denial. What about ‘irrational denial’? Is that not a fit topic for psychological study?

Closely associated with denial is the widespread phenomenon of passivity. Why is it that when our society is clearly threatened with its untimely termination its citizens are so passively awaiting their fate? Another topic, surely, for study by psychologists.
Jim McCluskey

Twickenham, Middx

 

Noticeboard
The Psychology Department at Swansea University is promoting the fantastic potential a degree in psychology can impart. As part of our student employability strategy we would like to be able to show the variety of career pathways open to a psychology graduate. Can you help us by recounting your career stories? Have you done or are you doing anything really quirky with your psychology degree, have you had several careers, have you come to psychology in a round-about way? If you have a story to tell then please contact us.
Andrea Tales & Claire Williams
[email protected]
[email protected]

 

Forum Health Matters
In my teens, my sister and I would spend hours dissecting the minutiae of the boys we fancied. They seemed complex and deep and we analysed their every move and word. ‘He said this…’ we would say ‘What did that mean?’ or ‘He looked at me like that. Do you think he likes me?’. And in our twenties as the relationships got longer the analyses became more elaborate as we worked out who they really were, what they thought and how they felt about us. ‘It’s due to his parents’ we would say, ‘He went to a boys school’ or ‘He doesn’t know how to show his emotions’. But now, decades later, these complex beings are simply ‘an idiot’, ‘totally useless’, ‘a real sweetie’ or ‘probably gay’– pure nuggets of truth left over from all that rumination.

My gran recently died aged 100, and the older she got the more specific and narrow her stories became. We often heard how her father (who had several illegitimate families) came back one day after two years away whilst she was in the alleyway with her mother and the nosey neighbours, how my asthmatic uncle could never sleep except from on her chest (until when? we used to ask) and how her compulsive Greek gambler of a second husband had a heart attack in the chair after losing everything she owned and how she ‘didn’t rush to call the ambulance’. And as the other stories of her life vanished into the past, these stories crystallised with the people summed up in their own nuggets. Her father was ‘a one’, my uncle was ‘always difficult’ and the Greek… ‘good company’(!).

So what lasts and what is lost? Of all this life we have, what do we store and what passes us by? And why do bits of people and bits of events last longer than others?

In health psychology we spend our time studying beliefs: beliefs about behaviour (diet, exercise and smoking) and beliefs about illness (obesity, heart disease and cancer) are the mainstay of our discipline. We explore how people make sense of their symptoms, form representations of their illnesses, cope with their health and adapt as their health status changes. And we use these beliefs to predict behaviour and to change what people do.

But in our nuggets of boyfriends there are no beliefs just nuggets of emotion: mostly fun or irritation. And my gran’s nuggets were driven by feelings of shame, upset or happiness, which underpinned how all the vastness of her life was processed and distilled. We hear, store, remember or think in our personal lives because of how we feel. But this remains seriously neglected in our academic lives. And even when we recognise we are missing something, we simply add a box called ‘fear’ or ask our participants in a cognitive way ‘to what extent do you think you are happy’.

According to Einstein (via Radio 2) time passes through us; we do not pass through time. And according to my gran, how time passes through us is determined by our emotions. So only when we can properly address emotions, in an emotional way, can we start to understand who we are and why we do the things we do. 

Self-care… or procrastination?

When does an activity move from being pure procrastination into the realms of a developmental self-care strategy? As a trainee clinical psychologist I am encouraged by my tutors to participate in self-care as a way of taking time out to reflect, and look after my own well-being. However, when I do partake in acts of self-care, I find that the distinct opposite occurs. My stress levels tend to drastically increase as I reflect on the mountain of work I have to do and the dwindling time I now have left to complete it. I do not even think I would need to officially ‘self-care’ if I just got on with what I was supposed to be doing, when I was supposed to do it. Then, these ‘self-care’ strategies would be more thought of as hobbies and interests that I have the time and space to enjoy. Maybe I am being cynical and missing the point? Or maybe
I have uncovered the secrets of self-care?

The act of writing this letter could be regarded by some as a self-care reflective piece, aiding my development and supporting me on my path to becoming a qualified clinical psychologist. But I hate to burst that bubble and say that it is most certainly not the case! I know that it is just a procrastination strategy, in a slightly cuter and more socially acceptable outfit! Where previously I would ‘mindfully’ do the washing up or soak my looming deadline worries away in the bath, I now find myself writing a letter to The Psychologist. I am therefore definitely developing, just not in the way I or my tutors probably had in mind?

All has not been in vain though. Whilst writing this letter, I have realised that if I reframe my time-wasting strategies as ‘self-care’, I tend to feel a whole lot better about myself. Maybe that is the point?
Nicola Fedyszyn
Chester

 

Obituary

William Glasser (1925–2013)

Dr William Glasser, world-renowned psychiatrist, author, and creator of both reality therapy and choice theory psychology, passed away peacefully in August at home in Los Angeles.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1925, Dr Glasser reached international fame in 1965 when his ground-breaking book Reality Therapy challenged the traditional approach to psychiatry at the time and continued to do so for many years thereafter; particularly the ‘medical model’ of mental illness. As an increasing number of people wished to learn his methods he founded the Institute for Reality Therapy, now called William Glasser International. Today, his ideas on therapy, education, management and personal well-being are taught throughout the world, although still to a much lesser extent as yet in the UK.

The reality therapy Glasser developed was primarily focused on the present, the necessity of self-responsibility, and based on his contention that a vast array of mental health disorders, behavioural problems, including addictive behaviours, emotional distress and, indeed, an array of health-related problems was caused or exacerbated by the person’s continued failure and sustained frustration in being unable to meet their essential and innate human needs, and particularly the needs of love and belonging, and self-worth. He contended that the distress of such perceived loneliness, emptiness and sense of powerlessness cannot be tolerated or suppressed indefinitely by human beings and, given time, may express itself as a mental, emotional and/or physical symptom or disorder. Therefore, the approach in reality therapy is not only to deal with the presenting problems, symptoms or behaviours, but to focus more on the underlying cause (unmet needs), so that meaningful and lasting change can occur.

It was only in more recent years that Glasser was duly recognised and honoured within his own profession. In 1989 the Milton Erickson Foundation’s Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference admitted him as a member of the distinguished faculty of Pioneers in Psychology. In 2004 the American Counseling Association honoured him as a ‘Legend in Counseling’. In 2005 the American Psychological Association awarded him the prestigious ‘Master Therapist’ designation. Then, as recently as May this year, the California Senate passed a resolution to honour Dr Glasser for ‘a lifetime of achievements and meritorious service to humanity’. It was so fitting that this last honour should have been in his home state and city.
John Brickell
Director of Training, Institute for Reality Therapy UK

Obituary

Professor Rob Farr (1935–2013)                                               

Emeritus Professor Rob Farr died on Friday 11 October 2013. Rob Farr joined the LSE in 1983 as Professor of Social Psychology and was instrumental in building up the Department of Social Psychology, founded by Hilde Himmelweit. He was internationally known as a specialist on the history of social psychology and particularly well-known for bridging psychological and sociological forms of social psychology – a separation he deplored. His work bridging these traditions produced novel perspectives on concepts at the heart of the discipline: the social self, social attitudes, attribution theory, ideology as well as on the role of laboratory experiments in the development of psychological theory. Much of this was enabled by his scholarly reading and insightful interpretations of George Herbert Mead, Erving Goffman and Gustav Ichheiser. In particular, his work played a very significant role in advancing the reception and elaboration of the concept of social representations for the English-speaking world.Rob Farr’s intellectual outlook was interdisciplinary and truly international. He was acutely aware of how parochial psychology often is and dedicated himself to building bridges and awareness of psychological work conducted by colleagues from the former Eastern European countries, India, China and Latin America.

He was an inspiration for a large number of psychologists around the globe who shared his sharp critique for the de-socialisation of the behavioural sciences. One of his central empirical contributions was to demonstrate that individualism has become the collective representation of the Western world as is outlined in one of his now-classic texts The Roots of Modern Social Psychology (Blackwell, 1996). Other important works include Representations of Health, Illness and Handicap (with I. Marková, Harwood Academic Publishers, 1995) and Social Representations (with S. Moscovici, Cambridge University Press, 1984).

Rob Farr was a wonderful teacher and supervisor, a kind, warm and generous man, who always had time to give to the many generations of students who came to the LSE in search of a kind of psychology that is relevant to society. As a colleague he will be remembered by his collegiality, support of young colleagues and his uncompromising scholarship.

Daniel Linehan, Caroline Howarth, Sandra Jovchelovitch
Department of Social Psychology
London School of Economics and Political Science

Obituary
Andy Calder (1965–2013)

Andy Calder, dearly loved by his family and his many friends
and colleagues from all over the world, died unexpectedly on
29 October 2013. Born in Edinburgh in 1965, he was a loving brother to his sisters Kath and Clare and brothers-in-law Gary and Tony, and a devoted uncle to his nieces and nephews.

Andy was known internationally as a leading cognitive neuroscientist. He was a deep thinker, a meticulous experimenter, and an inspiration for those who worked alongside him. His ground-breaking research led to major new insights into vital social abilities, such as how we recognise faces, and how the brain processes and distinguishes between emotions.

After completing a PhD at Durham, Andy joined the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at Cambridge (then the Applied Psychology Unit) in 1993, becoming a programme leader in 2000. In addition to his dedicated team in Cambridge, Andy worked closely with many collaborators, bringing to each project excellence in methods and precision in scientific thinking. This led to new discoveries including the brain systems that underlie unusual social abilities in conduct disorder and autism.

The news of his untimely death is devastating for all that knew him. Not yet 50, Andy had a wonderful future as a scientist still ahead of him. His abilities to answer important fundamental questions using rigorous methods will continue to inspire his many collaborators and the broader field of social neuroscience. A passion for overseas exploration made Andy a great travelling companion and a keen guest in the laboratories of his dear friends and fellow scientists, including Gilli Rhodes and Colin Clifford in Australia.

Andy was wonderful company. He was an entertaining house guest with his family every Christmas, and took a keen interest in all his nieces and nephews Clark, Amy, Ava, Rebecca, Cameron, Tim and Eve as they were growing up. He had a passion for film and theatre, and every summer would make the trip home to take full advantage of the Edinburgh Festival. A gifted pianist and singer, Andy was a key figure in pantomimes and productions in Cambridge. He made many lasting friendships with colleagues, who were delight

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