Climate activism among members

Dr Maggie Turp and Dr Wendy Hollway write.

There is by now a considerable literature evidencing the impact of climate breakdown on mental health. (‘Increasing rates of climate-related hazards are exacerbating existing mental health problems and leading to psychological distress and the onset of new episodes of mental illness.’ (Ben Beaglehole and colleagues in the British Journal of Psychiatry, 2018)). The research evidence is backed up by clinical experience in the fields of psychology and psychiatry. In 2020, a Royal College of Psychiatrists survey revealed that over half of child and adolescent psychiatrists in England were seeing children and young people distressed about the climate crisis and the state of the environment. As a consequence, they produced a detailed position statement (PS03 Our planet’s climate and ecological emergency, May 2021). 

In the light of this situation, action to put pressure on those in power to take steps to mitigate the ever-worsening climate and ecological crises is in line with our ethical obligations as psychologists to do everything possible to relieve and mitigate mental distress. For some of us, such action includes participation in non-violent demonstrations, such as those organised by Extinction Rebellion, calling for the government to take action proportionate to the size of the threat posed by climate breakdown to human life and health, including mental health. In December 2020, The Psychologist published an interview with one such psychologist/activist, Dr Rosie Jones. Dr Jones reported that, following her arrest, the HCPC initially drafted ‘fitness to practice’ allegations against her but later decided that there was no case to answer.

More recently, another BPS member – a clinical psychologist – was likewise arrested while taking part in a peaceful XR demonstration. Like Rosie Jones, he reported his arrest to the HCPC. For reasons unknown, they decided on this occasion to take out ‘fitness to practice’ proceedings against him. He was subjected to a long and anxious wait, with his professional status and livelihood on the line, followed by a two-day gruelling hearing. Finally, the tribunal concluded that no misconduct had taken place. At the tribunal, the member benefitted from the support of the Association of Clinical Psychologists, which unequivocally supports member actions taken in the interest of mitigating climate breakdown and the associated mental distress.

As far as we are aware, the overall position of the BPS in relation to such matters is unclear. We find ourselves in a situation where certain member organisations support climate activism, while at the same time our regulatory body the HCPC sees fit on occasion to take action against those engaging in such activism. This is a source of confusion and concern to the increasing numbers of psychologists who feel called to non-violent action by the climate crisis and its ever-growing impact on mental health. 

We, in turn, call upon the BPS to urgently address this matter and clarify its position. 

Dr Maggie Turp, CPsychol, HCPC

Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA)

Dr Wendy Hollway

Emeritus Professor of Psychology, Open University, UK, Honorary Fellow of the BPS, CPA.

And 20 others

Karen Beamish, Director of Membership, Professional Development and Standards, responds

A representative of the Climate and Environmental Crisis Workstream of the British Psychological Society’s Ethics Committee, attended the recent hearing in question here, summarised the proceedings and outcome and fed them in to the wider review of the Society’s member conduct rules.
There are clearly complex issues at stake, including the Society’s approach to criminal wrongdoing in general, and how rules around membership of the Society sit in relation to HCPC procedures. 
The member conduct rules will be out for wider consultation in the near future.

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