Letters: Healing the wounds of the Scottish Referendum, and more

A round-up of other letters from the November issue.

Scottish referendum – healing the wounds

The Scottish independence referendum was unique in British constitutional history. That alone merits political analysis, but of greater interest to psychology must be the dramatic shifts in group identity, the public exposure of intense personal emotions and the fractured relationships in need of reconciliation. With a father from Northern Ireland and a mother from Scotland (who has spent most of her life in England) my own identity has been mercurial but undeniably British. The concept of no longer being of and from the United Kingdom was so challenging that I decided to take annual leave and travelled north of the border to work in the last week of the campaign.

It was an extraordinary experience, unlike any other election or political campaign in which I have been involved. It was the first time I have seen opponents turn on each other in the street, the first time I was frightened to wear a rosette identifying my allegiance, the first time I have had people whispering to me on the doorstep because they did not want their neighbours to hear how they would vote, and the first time I have been told of families split in two because of being on opposite sides of the debate.

These negative experiences need to be balanced with other exceptional memories – the engagement of young people in political debate with an enthusiasm I have not seen 
in decades; a determination to exercise a democratic right to vote that left us speechless as our polling stations reached a 40 per cent turn out by 11am; a pride that people did want to settle differences at the ballot box and not through armed conflict; a welcome from strangers that touched my heart.

It was also the first and I suspect the last time, I will go canvassing with activists from other political parties. To go door-knocking with lifelong opponents was difficult to process. It was a strange, but touchingly human experience. A time when my political identity was subsumed into something other. Will we ever see George Galloway sharing a platform with the leader of the Scottish Conservatives again? I believe not.

Exceptions to the norm are the lifeblood of psychological research and I certainly hope that someone somewhere is recording these profound individual and societal experiences. As a clinician, however, I am left with the sense that our training in initiating difficult dialogues is where we should be focusing our attention now. What will happen to those young people who put their hope in an independent Scotland? What can we do about the very real antipathy to the English that seeped out from some sections of the population? What role can and should we play in reconciliation? No one in Scotland who lived through the last two years can be in any doubt that reconciliation is needed. I would like to think that clinical psychologists of whatever political persuasion can offer their skills of empathy and the understanding of the other that the future Scotland and indeed the United Kingdom so desperately need.
Dr Isabel Ewart
Clinical Neuropsychologist
South Devon Neuropsychology Service

 The ‘Invisible College’

I am concerned about the evolving nature of our profession and, perhaps, the nature of professional science also. It seems to me that, increasingly, the peer-review process for the established academic journals has become anachronistic. This came to mind recently after two of my co-authored publications took three years to go to print (print itself being perhaps something of an anachronism); not because of the necessity of repeated edits, but simply because the journal’s editorial process took that long with a single review and copyedit. From speaking to colleagues I understand that this is, sadly, far from unusual. Similarly, I and colleagues have had papers on contentious subjects such as gender and sexuality blocked, or given major corrections based on rather strange bases; including on one memorable occasion on the basis that it was a replication. This has been termed the ‘Invisible College’ in that, instead of writing rebuttal papers psychologists are using the review process, not to check for quality and appropriateness, but to stop the dissemination of interpretations of data they disagree with.

I fear the response to this by many who seek to publish has been two things: First, it has meant a move to non- or nominally peer-reviewed online publication in the form of blogs and forums, rather than journal publications. These have the benefit of almost immediate publication and wide dissemination outside of the costly ‘open access’ (print and online) published journals. While fast, this almost necessarily lacks the scholastic rigour of the peer review system.

Second, I fear it has led to the rise of the dubious ‘Expert’. Increasingly I see people who have rightly gained acclaim and qualification in a specific chosen field leverage that ‘expertise’ to claim expertise in associated fields where they have not undertaken formal research or qualification – sometimes for the taste of celebrity which speaking in these fields bring. Not uncommonly these associated fields are ones in which the ‘Expert’ has
a personal rather than professional expertise. Thus people blog or speak as ‘experts’, without fear of the moderation (or dare I say it? – the opprobrium) of their peers. A quick search of their peer-reviewed publications and qualifications reveals this is not uncommonly on topics for which their sole source of knowledge is personal experience of self, friends and, of course, blogs.

I have some hope, however. Academic publishers must move with the times to remain commercially viable, and I hope that this is, slowly, happening with ‘Online First’ and the like; although journal editors will still need to take a firm hand with the ‘Invisible College’. I hope also that we can resist the allure of being the ‘Expert’ at everything and strive for integrity, both professional and personal, in the Aladdin’s Cave of the manifold opportunities of the digital age – otherwise surely the noble pursuit of journalism, but not professional psychology, awaits.
Christina Richards
Senior Specialist Psychology Associate and Clinical Research Fellow


‘Tinkering’ with hallucinogens

I am very critical of a whole edition of The Psychologist being devoted to hallucinatory drugs (September 2014).

Am I wrong in thinking that the general public and many psychologists must be wondering where the views expressed in this edition will lead us? Is this what the general public needing treatment expects of psychologists?! I thought they had the right to be dealt with using psychological techniques rather than the use of drugs predominantly those of a hallucinatory nature.

I wonder how many others will join the fray because they feel as I do about the articles published concerning hallucinatory drugs. You have a most liberal editor otherwise those articles would never have seen the light of day. I object to the fact that all psychologists may be tarred with the same brush in that they accept and believe in the use and value of the drugs being indicated rather than considering them, as I do, as dangerous and unnecessary for human happiness. There are of course exceptions, such as in the case of individuals who are dying who may need to be prescribed almost anything to reduce their pain and suffering during their last days. This, however, I do not consider to be the case for ordinary individuals who have psychological problems.

I believe there are much better ways to achieve contentment and to make one’s life worth living than to resort to methods which could potentially be harmful. As a now 86-year-old with fewer years ahead than behind me I have always enjoyed life through physical fitness, sports, being creative and even making love. Although I have never been averse to an alcoholic drink from time to time, I have avoided smoking and the use of substances that can only be considered drugs generally, and leading to some form of addiction.

My own work with extremely addicted individuals who do not respond to ordinary treatments and rehabilitation has led me to write about how such states of enslavement can be effectively overcome. My views are in some ways extreme and may raise hackles in some quarters, but I also feel that my ideas about preventing addicted individuals overdosing or dying from their addiction will be viewed, by some at least, as favourable compared with the substances advocated in the last edition.

I believe most psychologists are opposed to ‘tinkering’ with dangerous hallucinatory substances, whether or not they have been used by famous individuals such as Henry James, Aldous Huxley and others. I will always consider such hallucinatory substances as both physically and psychologically potentially harmful and addictive. I believe on the whole there are better ways of dealing with individuals with traumatic psychological problems than those indicated in this last edition of The Psychologist.
Dr L.F. Lowenstein
Eastleigh, Hants


What can the psychologist do to influence and change real issues?

Reading the letter and commentary about ‘Engaging with The Psychologist’ (August 2014) I admit I am one of those members who rarely engages. I open the cover but am often put off by the central topic e.g. hallucinogens and neuroscience (September, 2014). While I mean to dig deeper much of the material seems irrelevant to my everyday life as an occupational psychologist.

In preparation for writing this letter I scanned the 2014 issues and found ‘Creative Britain’ (this could mean something to me) and then April’s edition on austerity; I had completely missed this. When I could not find the paper copy I visited The Psychologist online, finding this an easy and rewarding experience. Additionally, I could listen to some of the material rather than reading it – a welcome option at the end of a working day.

However, comparing The Psychologist with other publications I receive (e.g. People Management, RSA), I am not immediately grabbed by information about the world we live and work in. For example: ‘there is more evidence… that we are shifting away from a short-termist “maximum production from minimum cost” approach to longer-term perspectives geared towards sustainable performance’ (Cheese, 2014, p.5); ‘The UK is experiencing a boom in microbusinesses and self-employment…as a result one in seven of the workforce is now self-employed’ (Update, Business, 2014, p.6).

More importantly I am not reading about what psychologists can do to influence and change real issues that affect our daily lives (such as unemployment, redundancies, restructuring of organisations, homelessness, and the changing nature of society). This is the material that I want to read about in The Psychologist that will engage members and encourage the application of psychology in teaching, research and practice to make a difference to the world we live in.

My own passion is that psychologists can encourage more organisations to create entry-level jobs for young people, thus reducing youth unemployment. As part of the Division of Occupational Psychology’s youth employment working group we have recently hosted two successful symposia on this topic. I have been talking to BPS Branches to focus psychologists’ attention on these issues (e.g. ‘Why not employ young people?’, an invited presentation given to the South West of England Branch in August). The working group is now engaged in stakeholder mapping and interviewing key individuals seeking insight into appropriate changes and interventions that will introduce more young people into the workplace. We hope to develop this work into a stakeholder conference to further demonstrate psychologists’ interests and responses aimed to rectify issues facing this ‘jilted generation’ (Howker & Malik, 2010).
Dr Angela Carter

Cheese, P. (2014, September). Talking our language. People Management.
Howker, E. & Malik, S. (2010). The jilted generation. London: Icon Books.
Update, Business (2014, September). RSA (2).


A blended approach

I was genuinely pleased to read an article about coaching in The Psychologist (‘Does executive coaching work’, August 2014). Coaching psychology is not often featured in our Society’s publication and I welcome the presence of this article to stimulate thought and discussion in a growing and important field of psychology.

However, are the authors right to suggest that measurement through controlled studies with random assignment is the only way to prove effectiveness? I dare to disagree! Cited as
the ‘gold standard’ used by medical, clinical and psychotherapy colleagues, it doesn’t always make sense, and sense surely must prevail. Consider, for example, a surgeon employing a randomised controlled trial to explore the effectiveness of a surgical operation: a control/placebo group would require the doctor opening and closing a patient with no intervention. Not only would this be unethical and risky, it would cause moral outcry!

Using traditional, controlled experimentation to measure coaching is problematic. Clients who seek coaching are far from passive and naive, rather they are active, curious and increasingly informed about coaching and self-selecting. They come to the relationship with expectations, and we have responsibilities as coaches to be ‘client-focused’ first and foremost in our response to client needs.

Coaching is applied and pragmatic and offers benefit to all strands of psychology. That it builds on a trusted relationship and activates the resources within the client to transfer intentions into practice is perhaps why it has a greater impact on performance compared with other workplace development. Bemoaning the lack of robust quantitative studies, with sufficient sample sizes is counter-constructive. It might be time to accept that there is a place for a blended approach: a coexistence of qualitative and quantitative research to continue the construction of the rich tapestry of this relatively young profession. By remaining open and being curious, we might discover a collaboration that doesn’t work to the detriment of the important client relationship and that will continue to build and enhance the reputation of the coaching psychology field.

Coaching psychologists are actively and passionately contributing to the research and publish some excellent and thoughtful research for academics and practitioners alike. These can be found in The Coaching Psychologist and International Coaching Psychology Review, two excellent publications provided free-of-charge to members of Special Group in Coaching Psychology (SGCP).

It’s a special year for the SGCP as it celebrates its 10th birthday [see also next month’s ‘Careers’ section]. To mark our 10th decade the SGCP is hosting the 4th International Congress of Coaching Psychology in London on 11–12 December 2014. The theme is ‘Changing lives, changing worlds – Inspiring collaborations’ which is at the very essence of the role of the Coach. We warmly welcome all who are interested in coaching to come along and to join our vibrant group.
Donna Willis CPsychol
The King’s Fund & Committee Member Special Group in Coaching Psychology


Commonsense and positive approaches

As many psychologists may well be aware, for three years, I have been actively promoting debate about the over-prescription of psychotropic drugs for school-aged children in the UK due to concerns that many colleagues have raised with me about such vulnerable children. I have attempted accordingly to develop a constructive contribution for psychologists who have ethical concerns about some of the children on their caseload. I have consequently produced a practical protocol to support them in this endeavour.

The link for this commonsense approach to better safeguard children in our collective care is as follows on the Global Summit on Diagnostic Alternatives website (funded by the Humanistic Psychology Division of the American Psychological Society): http://dxsummit.org/archives/2242.

I would urge child psychologists and other child mental health workers to actively consider using this protocol in their work in order to safeguard the child about whom they have serious professional concerns. Following supervisory support they can ring or write to the prescribing medical colleague, who will usually be a child psychiatrist or community paediatrician, and discuss their professional concerns, present a psychological formulation which challenges the ‘medical model’ view, or share new data that may indicate that the pattern of behaviour may fall within the normal range for children going through similar temporary and significant periods of distress.

Many of us now feel more comfortable with a socially constructed holistic model that takes account of multiple and interactive causes of distress based on models like Bronfenbrenner and our own Holistic Politico Psychological Model of Mental Health and Wellbeing, which was outlined in the December 2013 issue of DECP Debate. The model can be accessed via the following link: https://cope-yp.blogspot.com. Its intent is to facilitate a more naturalistic formulation of the needs of an individual that helps plan a creative and positive personalised intervention plan.

I would welcome feedback on either of these strategies to help refine them further to protect the children with whom we all work.
Dave Traxson
Chartered Psychologist

A taxing question

The demise of the vehicle tax disc means that my disc holder, given free to all Chartered Psychologists when chartering was introduced in 1989, will soon be surplus to requirements. As I’ve transferred it from car to car over the past 25 years I’ve maintained the belief that it has helped me to get enhanced service from garages and the AA, and has frightened off predatory parking wardens. Does the BPS archive have space for it, as a footnote in the history of psychology?
Peter Barnes
Milton Keynes


Obituary - Sandra Lipsitz Bem (1944–2014)

Sandra Lipsitz Bem may have been a small person (4' 9") but she generated big ideas that unsettled commonplace notions of gender, and helped shape the field of feminist psychology. Raised in a working class Jewish family, she received a PhD from the University of Michigan (1968) and taught at Stanford (1971–1978) before coming to Cornell University, where she was Professor of Psychology and directed the Women’s Studies Program (1978–1985) and the renamed Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program (2001–2004). In 1997 she went to Rutgers University to pursue a PsyD degree and in her later years became a practising psychotherapist.

Sandy was known for her vibrant intellect, direct and even blunt manner of communication, and the tendency to question everything that didn’t make sense to her. She pushed back against a range of accepted gender practices and in so doing helped to change them. This included gender-specific ‘help wanted’ ads and the convention of measuring ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ on a single dimension. She questioned why so many people organised their sense of self around gender, and how male power and privilege were perpetuated. She called attention to the lenses of androcentrism, gender polarisation, and biological essentialism that inform our cultural discourses, social institutions and psyches.

Her incisive thinking on these issues led to a productive body of feminist psychological research focusing on sex-typing, psychological androgyny, gender schema theory and the reproduction of sexual inequality. Her many publications, including two books (The Lenses of Gender and An Unconventional Family) won her enduring recognition and many awards. One of her earliest publications, ‘Training the woman to know her place: The power of a nonconscious ideology’, was a classic of second-wave feminism. Her ‘Bem Sex-Role Inventory, to measure psychological androgyny, is still widely used in gender research.

When I first came to Ithaca, I was eager to meet Sandy. She was unpretentious, open and easy to talk to – not at all what I expected of a ‘famous’ academic. When she first became sexually involved with a female partner, she sought me out for advice and insight about how to navigate the politics and pedagogical significance of sharing personal details of our lives with students. It was an honest and stimulating conversation, and it left an enduring impression of Sandy’s frank, inquisitive nature.

Sandy was unconventional in every respect – she was a gender nonconformist, a married woman who insisted on an egalitarian marriage, a sexual person who refused to define her identity in terms of the sex of the people to whom she was attracted, a parent who sought to raise gender aschematic children, an Ivy League professor who wrote with clarity and reached beyond academic audiences, and at the end, a person diagnosed with Alzheimer’s who made the courageous decision to take her own life before she became someone unrecognisable to herself and loved ones. She did so four years after her initial diagnosis and according to a well-executed plan, at precisely the point when she could still carry out the decision without assistance. She was clear and open about this until the very end, telling those close to her that she was ‘going to die on Tuesday’. In death, as in life, she modelled an unconventional path.
Carla Golden
Professor of Psychology, and Coordinator of Women’s and Gender Studies, Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York

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