'What if psychology mattered?'

Ella Rhodes reports from the European Congress of Psychology in Moscow.

So said Dr Gary Latham, quoting former International Association of Applied Psychologists (IAAP) President Michael Frese, to open a series of stimulating talks on psychology’s role within the United Nations and in tackling global issues. ‘We’re phenomenally good at writing and speaking to one another, how good are we at affecting society for the better?’

If we take Dr Judy Kuriansky (Columbia University Teachers’ College) as an example, we’re certainly getting better at tackling issues on the world stage. For 16 years Kuriansky, a Clinical Psychologist by training, has worked voluntarily representing psychology within the United Nations (UN) as NGO representative for the IAAP and World Council for Psychotherapy. ‘Psychology has really advanced at the UN,’ she said. ‘We are in the right time for the world to receive and appreciate the importance of mental health and wellbeing. We’re in the right profession in the right time and the world of governments is recognising the work we’re all doing.’ 

The UN has a coalition for psychology, comprising volunteers from 12 psychological organisations, which holds events on mental health topics and advocates for acknowledgement of the importance of mental health across world governments. Kuriansky and her colleagues hold a Psychology Day each year inviting UN representatives, staff and student academics to discuss a psychology-related issue. They also take a focus on the UN’s main priorities, including human rights, poverty and peace, and links those issues to mental health.

Kuriansky and the psychology coalition also write policy statements and were key, along with support from the Permanent Representative for Palau, in including mental health and wellbeing in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. They have also been focusing on psychological resilience and showing governments the importance of services in the wake of major disasters. 

Organisational Psychologist, Emeritus Professor Walter Reichman, also a UN NGO representative and President of the UN Psychology Coalition, said the work of the UN held special personal significance. As a young boy of seven, living in New York City, Reichman witnessed the end of the Second World War. He recalled friends whose fathers were lost fighting overseas, the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima, and hearing about his own family members’ deaths in concentration camps. ‘The victors, the people who won the war, took a major step to prevent future wars by coming together to create the UN. I remember the first meeting of UN held in San Francisco. But most of all I remember my father telling me the only hope this world had for not having another world war was the UN. I believed my father then and I believe him now.’ 

Reichman said he was well aware that, by its very nature as a human endeavour, the UN isn’t perfect: but that psychologists had an extraordinarily important role to play there. He pointed to several areas where the skills of psychologists may be particularly helpful including the mental health of the UN community and gender equality. 

A 2017 mental health survey for people working in the UN and found, along with low levels of job satisfaction, almost 18 per cent had generalised anxiety disorder, almost 20 per cent had PTSD, more than 22 per cent had major depressive disorder and 23.15 per cent engaged in hazardous drinking. Of those people experiencing mental health problems a staggering 95 per cent were not receiving any mental health support and many were not aware the UN offers counselling and has an employee assistance programme. Reichman said work had begun to develop the UN’s mental health policy and reduce stigma around mental health problems. 

The UN has recently reached gender parity in its senior management roles and among Resident Coordinators who lead UN teams in more than 130 countries. However, there are barriers to achieving this on a broader scale and there are still many fewer women than men in mid-level positions. Much of the pushback against gender parity, Reichman said, had come from senior women themselves ('I worked hard for this position, so should she') and there is a place for psychology in tackling these attitudes. 

Professor Stuart Carr (Massey University, New Zealand), a Fellow of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP), was described as being renowned for doing research which makes a difference. Carr’s work is exploring the living wage. Although not based directly within the UN he said the research in this area can contribute to one of the UN’s other sustainable development goals – for decent work and economic growth. 

Access to decent work certainly isn’t a given. Even in 2019 Carr said a vast number of people in the world have irregular, informal, dangerous and precarious work, with many in a position of working poverty. The world has a working population of 3.3 billion and among those two-thirds are in informal jobs with no security or long-term tenure. 700 million workers in low to middle income economies earn less than $3.20 per day. 

Minimum wage laws are also failing around the world, with living wage campaigns springing up in places such as the UK and Malawi. A 2015 report by Oxfam found the minimum wage around the world did not give people enough money to put food on their table, while a report from the International Labour Organization this year pointed to poor working conditions as the main global employment challenge.  

Carr said that debate around the living wage was fiercely contested. On one side are those who believe if we keep wages low eventually an economy will prosper and wealth will be shared; on the other side people believe we should share the wealth now, pay people a higher wage and help increase productivity and prosperity. Currently there is little evidence for these arguments but one project set up by Carr, GLOW (Global Living Organisational Wage), has for the last year been setting up research hubs in 25 countries to begin asking whether there is a living wage that may allow organisations, individuals and communities to prosper. 

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