‘Embracing the challenge of the moment’

Ella Rhodes hears from speakers for the forthcoming BPS Conference 2021.

The BPS 2021 conference will consider psychology’s role in helping us face adversity – with a focus on positive adaptations, psychological strengths, supporting resilience and compassion in psychological professions and embedding equality, diversity and inclusion in society. Ella Rhodes spoke to some of this year’s keynote speakers about their talks and the impact Covid has had on their professional lives and areas of expertise.

Compering the conference for the second year running will be Claudia Hammond, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind, visiting professor (University of Sussex) and author of The Art of Rest. She said that, when speaking about the past year, we constantly hear the words unprecedented and extraordinary. ‘What I’m looking forward to at the conference is hearing what psychologists who have been conducting research during the pandemic can tell us. What are the positive lessons we can take forward from a time that’s been so hard for so many?’

Professor of Clinical Psychology and Director of the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab George Bonanno (Columbia University) has been working to understand resilience and the impact of traumatic events for the past 30 years. He told me that, following an aversive event – including anything from terrorist attacks to major health emergencies and assaults – a majority of people continue to function and cope.

At the conference Bonanno will discuss what he calls the resilience paradox. He said that we often hear about the ‘five traits of resilient people’ – but that this was an inaccurate way to view our ability to cope after difficult situations. ‘There are things that we know that predict resilience, but every event is new, every event is constantly changing, and so we always have to work, adapt, and think on our feet. In a sense resilience is a matter of embracing the challenge of the moment.’

Bonanno warns that ‘there are no magic bullets and it’s always an active process. I think for years we’ve focused on PTSD and negative outcomes. Those are real and people do suffer, but that’s a very small minority of people. Instead of focusing on that and what goes wrong, I’ve been trying to understand what goes right – why is it that we’re able to be so resilient?’

Given the findings from his work Bonanno said he is hopeful that the looming mental health emergency following Covid, which many have predicted, may not come about. ‘I think people can handle this, and people already have handled it remarkably well. Of course there’s lots of variability, and there will be a period of adjustment, but I think for many Covid has been a mild to moderate stressor and we will get over that.’

Research Fellow Dr Amy Orben’s (University of Cambridge) talk will discuss the ways psychology needs to change to adapt to us living lives which are both online and offline, and in which the online is as important as the offline. ‘For many years, psychology has treated the online as largely separate, and the technologies as developments that need to be understood in very specific ways, i.e. how much does X use of technology Y affect my outcome?

‘However, especially in light of the pandemic and how it has accelerated societal changes, the online world has largely merged with the offline. This means we need to think of different ways to understand and study the processes we are interested in as psychologists.’

Looking back over the past year Orben, who was a guest on our PsychCrunch podcast episode ‘Should we worry about screen time?’, said the pandemic had accelerated technological change, and had also changed the questions people ask about the ways technology impacts our lives. ‘We all now understand the utility and positive benefit of technologies, e.g. video calling family. This has really made me rethink what questions my research should answer. Further, I think the pandemic has really shown me how much I get out of informal conversations with colleagues: I desperately miss those morning cups of tea with people in my department or the occasional trip to the pub during a workshop or conference. I don’t think we can ever replicate those.’

Clinical and health psychologist Professor Dominic Murphy works with veteran mental health charity Combat Stress where he established the Combat Stress Research Department, co-located within the King’s Centre for Military Health Research, King’s College London. Murphy, also President of the UK Psychological Trauma Society, will discuss some of his ongoing research into female veterans at this year’s conference.

He told me there has been little research in the UK with this population, despite women veterans often having very different experiences during their time in the military and potentially suffering different types of trauma during their service. Working with the Women’s Royal Army Corps and collaborators from other universities, he has collected survey data from 750 women veterans with an aim to create a mental health profile of female veterans as well as comparing female veterans’ experiences with the general population.

When asked about his experiences during the pandemic, Murphy said that veterans had shown resilience during the past year – as revealed by longitudinal survey data. He said those veterans with mental health problems largely showed a slight improvement in their symptoms or remained stable.

‘Part of this, I think, might be due to the lockdown and social restrictions – it has helped people have more control over their environment, also a lot of deployment experiences build resilience into veterans… What’s going to be more worrying is when things open up and people start interacting with the world again.’

Murphy has also been carrying out work with the NHS and UCL in a number of NHS trusts (with the Covid Trauma Response Working Group; www.traumagroup.org) which has revealed the impact of the pandemic on frontline staff. He said he and his colleagues had found very high rates of moral injury, PTSD and complex PTSD in frontline workers.

For more information on the 2021 conference and to register see www.delegate-reg.co.uk/bpsconf2021.

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