What could Psychology look like?

Alison Clarke with a call to action.

While there may be a range of theoretical definitions of what psychology is, the most useful is perhaps the one around where people are actually using it, what it does and how its practitioners work. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that psychology is what is done to people when they engage with the NHS about their poor mental health. In the world of education it is deployed in support of the children and people whose performance has been moved from the shadow of substandard to the different shadow of non-standard. In the criminal justice system it has been used to design and implement interventions to fix broken people and stop them breaking other people and things. In the world of business it is used to generate greater performance to make a bigger contribution to the bottom line, and sometimes to make the organisation look better while managing out the poor performers or those whose faces don’t fit.  

In short, psychology is used to fit we, the people, into the system we were born into.

And yet the very context in which the parameters of what we call normal, and against which we define the users of psychology, is not called into question. We have, in my lifetime, condemned administrations who have sent their ‘nonconformist’ citizens to the Russian gulag or its equivalent in other administrations we disapprove of in China or Iran.   Meanwhile we have set our own rules for what it takes to ‘win’ in this hierarchically organised, competitively driven capitalist race up the greasy pole. We have taken no responsibility for the effect that has on those who, for whatever reason, are less able to climb or who are not interested in winning. We reward the winners for their success and blame the losers for their failure. And this system is comfortably self-sustaining – the winners make the rules, and shape them to ensure that they keep winning.

We have been guilty of condemning generations of hurt and wounded people to a life on the fringes by rewarding behaviours that fit comfortably within plus or minus two standard deviations of the norms we set, and ‘othering’ the outliers who we then offer to help by applying some sort of sticking plaster to their psyche. In so doing we have obliged many to live lives of quiet desperation and pretence, while trying – against their different or damaged view of themselves – to fit the mould. They become the ‘one in four’ (the number of people in the UK who will experience a mental health problem each year, according to Mind).

We count those statistics generated by social pressures and call it psychological distress. In England, the Mental Health Foundation reports that 19 per cent of women and 12 per cent of men have a common mental health problem and women are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders. Fewer than 1 per cent of children and young people are in the care of local authorities, but a third of boys and 61 per cent of girls in custody either are in care or have been (according to the Prison Reform Trust). The World Economic Forum estimates that the 2007 economic crisis in Europe and North America led to more than 10,000 extra suicides. Figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest over three quarters of people who kill themselves are men.

We say there is something to be fixed in those people we have counted in our statistics. But we appear to be focusing on only one part of the definition, the mental factors, and paying little attention to the context. One of governments moving to the right, the economy being driven by neoliberal principles where, harking back to Michael Douglas’s Wall Street, ‘greed is good’, and relaxed controls in the financial sector causing the economic engine to blow out in the 2008 ‘banking crisis’.

Yet the banks were saved, barely a banker was brought to book. A decade of austerity then widened the gap farther between the haves and have nots, the north and the south and the people who dealt in money and those who, cut adrift from the manufacturing base they relied on, now feared for the future of their families. This was a crisis for the security felt by the people whose lives, expectations and hopes were subject to the chill winds of homes and jobs lost or precarious.

Finger in the dyke
A GP I know in Northern Ireland tells me that 70 per cent of the regular caseload in his surgery in a working class area carry the additional burden of the ‘Troubles legacy’, and pockets of real poverty and emotional distress. All he has to offer is seven minutes of human kindness and antidepressants. It’s not a solution.

The way we do psychology in this country doesn’t make much of a difference. Great people go to work and make the difference they are able to within their services, but it’s a bit like trying to stop the water leaking out of the dyke one finger at a time. It would be more effective to take the pressure off. You cannot begin to solve a problem until you have correctly identified it. I believe that our collective willingness to, in effect, blame the victims and subscribe to the idea that we have to fix them or teach them to fix themselves, means we will be forever facing a flood.

But there is a possibility of radical change opening up before us. In the face of the threat to our population’s health from Covid-19, troubled by the anticipated suffering of our people and those who deliver our health system, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, announced on 17 March that the government would find the funds for ‘whatever it takes’ to support the people of this country in social distancing. Wages for the majority of working and self-employed people were protected to 80 per cent, welfare benefits that had become miserly are being increased, homes found for the homeless. All of a sudden the people matter more than the numbers.

We are discovering which workers really matter. It is the doctors, nurses and ancillary staff throughout the NHS. It is the suppliers of energy, the food producers and distributors, waste and recycling, the postal workers and delivery drivers, the bus drivers who continue to go out on the streets daily to keep essential services going, the teachers who remain on the front line. Armies of people from organisations of all descriptions are pioneering new distributed ways of working, refocusing the age-old question ‘do we work to live, or live to work?’

While we sit out this pandemic and deal with its human consequences, which will be hard for too many, we can also start to plan how we will be instrumental in making the world a better place afterwards. There are many reasons why we can dare to expect that there will not be a complete return to the status quo. Professor Danny Dorling tells us in his forthcoming book, Slowdown, that the growth that characterised the 20th century has already been slowing down for decades. There cannot be a return to neoliberal capitalism as we have known it, as the constant growth on which it depends will not be there. Birth rates are slowing and populations are set to plateau globally this century. The Conservative government has, in the face of Covid-19, made a left turn back to the policies and values of the one nation Tories of the past. Community is at the heart of the motivation of most of the country to ‘do their bit’ by being socially distant. The ‘Blitz spirit’ has been evoked, with the public rallying to meet the call for volunteers to help the NHS in huge numbers. On the turn of a sixpence ‘we’ has trumped ‘I’.

Psychological knowledge front and centre
So what does that say about psychology in 2040? It certainly cannot be a simple linear projection from the past, imagining more fingers stuck in more dykes. In continuing with business as usual, projecting the past into the future, we are colluding in propping up a system that is failing the people it is supposed to be serving. It is asking people to serve the system rather than making a better system that serves its people.

As the British Psychological Society, we have thousands of active members, supported by our skilled professionals in communication and policy making. Together, let us courageously put our psychological knowledge at the front and centre of a committed breakthrough into the heart of government. Let us urgently educate the policy makers who will be shaping our post Covid-19 lives, around the high long-term cost, social and financial, of exclusion, poverty and adversity. Let us foster a psychologically-informed government, and have them use us to teach others about the high cost to individuals in suffering anxiety around the narrow monetised measures of success that we have relied upon for too long. Let us teach our leaders what we know about the extent to which people falsely attribute their successes to their own endeavours while attributing their failures to the actions of others. Let us show them how the luck or good fortune of the accidents of our birth heavily influence the advantaged at the expense of the disadvantaged and let us challenge them to level up the playing field. Let us take psychology into the mainstream of education and work and teach people how human beings function and how to help them to function better rather than waiting until they are broken. Let us educate government in the importance of designing an economy that serves the people who live in it rather than patching up the people who,
like ants, have been obliged to serve the economy.

The task is urgent and important. If we are looking at 2040 we have only 20 years to achieve it, so we’d better start now. What will this call to action look like in real life, if we are going to take this opportunity to reshape the conversation for a different world? What might we stop doing? What might we do more of? And what might we consider starting to do? Over to you, fellow members… I for one am very keen to hear what you have to say.

-  Alison Clarke is Chair of the British Psychological Society’s Practice Board.

Illustration by Nick Taylor

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