Strength in tension

Helen Clark, Director of Membership Services at the British Psychological Society, with some parting thoughts after more than 20 years as an employee.

For over two decades I have had the privilege of working for the British Psychological Society. A privilege because of the many committed members who give their time, energy and passion for their discipline to develop psychology and promote its contribution. But also because I get to see a Society that many of these members never see. I get to see the activities going within all of our member networks, whether that is hearing about the positive impact of the Division of Clinical Psychology (DCP) psychosis document or the passion with which the Crisis, Disaster and Trauma Section work to disseminate evidence-based information for effective working with people who have experienced trauma. I get to witness the passion with which our academic members share their research, and how hard our staff work to support all of this activity and so much more. And I’m also able to see the benefits of working together across networks to produce work that draws on the range of expertise within psychology.

Working across networks to produce rich, evidence-based guidance, position statements and policy papers is a good demonstration of the value which accrues from a Society like the BPS. A glance back through the Society’s annual reports will show a history of working together to influence policy across the four nations of the UK. Recently this approach to joint working has enabled us to develop a range of behaviour change briefings to influence public policy, which you can find via the Society’s website. Our Boards are able to provide evidence-based expertise to policy makers and the public on matters of real importance. There is a lot to feel proud about when you work for the BPS.

The Society is healthy and growing, both in membership and the reach of its work. Most recently I’ve been involved in reviewing our structure and member networks and, whilst I can see that having 146 member networks creates many issues for the organisation, I have a grudging admiration for a discipline that has grown to serve so many diverse needs and interests. Growth brings with it challenges. When I became a director in 2014 we had 1100 ‘active’ members in our member networks. Now we have 1700 members giving their time, energy, ideas and commitment to the BPS. We try to support every one of those in achieving their aims. But what do we do when those aims are contradictory, pulling the Society in different directions or advancing only one part of the profession?

Recently I have been increasingly saddened by the debate raging in some parts of the DCP. The debate is not new. I’ve watched clinical psychologists talk about setting up their own organisation for over 20 years; it’s been going on for much longer. And this debate has been good for us. It has pushed the organisation to be better and continues to do so. The conflict which sometimes arises creates the space needed for growth and the momentum for change. But psychology also operates within a changing landscape. Pressure on mental health services and changes in provision sometimes mean psychologists in health services feel unheard – in the NHS, in their union and in the BPS. Fragmentation is tempting; fighting on one front seems attractive.

Talk of the DCP ‘leaving’ the BPS is, of course, inaccurate. The BPS will always have a home for clinical psychologists. Being part of the wider psychology family makes all of the parts stronger. It allows us to draw on the range of expertise needed to provide a sound evidence base to underpin our externally focused work and allows our members to share expertise and learn from each other through our conferences and CPD activities. Widening our membership boundaries to provide standards for the wider psychological workforce increases our influence. Our structural review has been considering the changes we need to make to make all the parts stronger; how we can be more effective at bringing the best from across psychology to bear on achieving real impact for our members and for the public.

As I prepare to leave the Society for the next chapter of my career I take with me a sense of immense pride in what we have achieved through members and staff working together across specialisms. Encouraging that collaboration whilst supporting the individuality of each Division, Section, Special Group, Faculty and Branch is a challenge which the BPS will, I know, continue to work tirelessly to meet. And whilst this brings inevitable tensions, it also brings strength. There is more work to do, a need to find new and better ways to celebrate individual areas of psychology as well as drawing on the strength of the whole. We need to become more efficient by finding ways of working that can better cope with our growth. And we need to evolve to meet the changing needs of our discipline and profession into the future. But I am optimistic. I know that our members have the creativity and skill to achieve these changes. I hope that all parts of the discipline and profession will join in working together as the Society moves forward.

Helen Clark
BPS Director of Membership Services

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