Keeping the momentum in forensic psychology

Journalist Ella Rhodes and Deputy Editor Annie Brookman-Byrne report selected highlights from the Division of Forensic Psychology online conference. Plus an update on Division activity from the Chair Dr Geraldine Akerman.

For the remainder of 2020 at least, all British Psychological Society conferences and events are being held online; including a huge number of webinars. We dropped in on the Division of Forensic Psychology event.

Forensic psychology during the pandemic

Wendy Morgan and Claire Barker, both specialist members of the Parole Board which determines who can be released from prison based on risk to the public, spoke about the delays in hearings due to Covid-19, which have been carried out remotely since April. Video hearings have seen prisoners react in a variety of ways, including one person with a paranoid personality disorder struggling with the lag between the video and someone’s voice.

Dr Phil Willmot and Dr Emma Longfellow also reported challenges from video conferencing during lockdown. Patients in a men’s personality disorder service that Willmot works in, felt that communication was impersonal and less easy, and the main complaint was having another member of staff sitting in the room during their consultation. Longfellow slowly introduced the concept of remote working for patients in learning disability services, some of whom were not familiar with technology: ‘We had to work a little bit more at making things accessible.’ Patients found it weird or unfamiliar and difficult to engage with the person on the screen rather than the staff in the room. 

Both did note some positives from video technology. In Willmot’s service, patients said it was good to see a friendly face during lockdown, while staff appreciated the continued contact. Longfellow said that some preferred remote working for imparting information, such as telling staff about their week.

Dr Nicola Bowes spoke of the shared struggle around training routes due to the pandemic, described through the acronym WTAF, which sums up how they felt – the initial Wobble, the Transition to new ways of working, Acknowledging that everyone is working through a time of crisis, and finally, Functioning. Harriet Dymond gave a trainee perspective, emphasising the uncertainty and chaos, plus increased feelings of impostor syndrome and incompetence through being out of practice for months.

One positive impact of the pandemic is the increased connections between member networks. Dr Linda K. Kaye, Chair of the BPS Cyberpsychology Section, had thought she didn’t know anything about forensic psychology, but spoke about her relevant work on victimisation in cybercrime. Kaye’s work has identified personality profiles of those who are vulnerable to persuasion. Those with a fearful personality profile consisting of high neuroticism and worrisome traits are more likely to be persuaded by authority and consensus – two features of a bitcoin scam that Kaye examined. Overall this work shows that individual and contextual factors contribute to victimisation in cybercrime, so tailored approaches are likely to be more effective in increasing cybersecurity.

Diversity and inclusion in forensic psychology

Dr Christeen George and Dr Sue Holttum, both members of the BPS Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce, spoke about their aim to create a safe, welcoming space to encourage complex and difficult, but productive, conversations. George and Holttum suggested that the DFP could tackle a lack of diversity and inclusion through recognising racial trauma, dealing with unrecognised learning disabilities, looking into the experiences of trans people in the prison service, and examining the lack of diversity in the criminal justice system.

A group of trainees led a frank discussion on their experiences of racism within the field. Ana Dias said she has often been the only professional in her team from a BAME background, making her feel as if she doesn’t fit in and affecting the work itself. Dias said issues of race, identity, ethnicity and culture are often ignored. ‘It’s been a great shame because we know from research that men from BAME backgrounds are more likely to experience racial trauma, have early experiences with authorities and school exclusions. It’s made me wonder why we don't look at the men we work with more of a holistic approach and start thinking about their identity and the impact on offending behaviours and our clinical work and practice.’ 

Kaya Lockiby-Belgrave said she became aware of the unconscious bias held by staff in the ways they spoke to her, and wondered whether service users were spoken to in the same way. Bethany Browne said that we need to begin talking about race as a route to tackling systemic racism, unconscious bias and stereotypes. She suggested becoming self-aware – asking yourself if you are comfortable discussing race-related topics with colleagues/clients, what any discomfort may be based on, whether you are attentive to the racism experienced by colleagues or clients, and how to facilitate a space for others to talk about race safely.

The trainees suggested making routes into training more accessible through bursaries and placements aimed at BAME people, making information on getting onto training and placements more readily available, supporting BAME applicants, creating ‘thinking spaces’ to discuss experiences, and encouraging supervisors to be aware of and actively engage in race-related issues during supervision.

Keith Hawthorn, a Service User Consultant for an offender personality disorder service, spoke alongside clinical psychologist Dr Stephanie Hunter about how his current role increased BAME access to the service. Hawthorn initially asked, ‘what do I, an older white bloke, have to offer?’ but realised that his 26 years in prison mean that he’s the only member of staff who can say ‘I know what it feels like’. Three years after Hawthorn started his involvement in the service, and with changes to the service and team including increased diversity in staff ethnicity, age, and life experiences, the proportion of BAME service users increased from 30 per cent to 63 per cent – much closer to the 74 per cent of the prison population that is BAME. Keith’s pioneering role demonstrates that diversity and inclusion isn’t simply about race or gender. 

Martine Ratcliffe, another member of the BPS Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce, spoke about the intersections between protected characteristics, and the importance of other factors like social mobility. Like many of us, Ratcliffe said she didn’t understand the dark history of psychology during her degree, and pointed to the need to decolonise the curriculum. Ratcliffe emphasised that diversity and inclusion is everyone’s business – that we all need to engage and share the burden, and that we must ‘keep the momentum around this agenda’.


Despite the challenges the DFP is thriving’

I took on the role of chair of the Division of Forensic psychology Executive Committee in June and everything has been online since then. The committee members are very enthusiastic and highly motivated, and have demonstrated their ability to adapt to current restrictions.  

 There has been lots of cross-networks meetings, and this has really increased collaboration with the wider BPS, which was one of my aims when I took on the role of Chair.  It has enabled us to collaborate in providing guidance documents, which has been mutually beneficial. At present I am working on the BPS adaptation group and wellbeing of psychologists. I have encouraged involvement with the current debates, for instance discussing Psychologists as prescribers, gaining views for the forthcoming Professional Practice Board meeting on 9 October. One of our committee members, Rachael Wheatley, is leading on developing guidance for managing stalking behaviour and that should be out early next year. This is such an important and relevant topic and the document will be very useful. We are promoting the PPB awards, and our own DFP awards will go live in the next couple of months. 

The first DFP Conference at Home was a great success. There were 120 participants on day 1, with lively interaction and engaging speakers discussing the impact of Covid-19 on Forensic Psychologists on day 1 and 110 participants on Diversity and Inclusion on Day 2. The BPS President Dr Hazel McLaughlin attended and spoke about the vision for the BPS and how the DFP is aligned with that. It was lovely to get a chance to work with her and introduce ourselves to her. A courageous group of Trainees from Black and other ethnic minority groups gave a powerful and thought-provoking presentation, giving us all lots to think about as to how we can be more inclusive, another one of my aims. We were also joined by an expert by experience who spoke about his role and how it evolved. This encouraged a lot of discussion as to how this could be taken up elsewhere.  

The trainee break-out sessions worked well too, giving them a chance to discuss their needs. We learned a lot from the various presenters and will take ideas for webinars forward. So, despite the challenges the DFP is thriving. 

Professor (Hon). Dr. Geraldine Akerman 

PhD C.Psychol (Foren). HCPC Registered Forensic Psychologist, EuroPsy.

Chair of Division of Forensic Psychology Executive Committee

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