The BPS Presidential Blog

Once again, in the horrific killing of MP Jo Cox, we’ve seen violent tragedy strike at honourable and charitable people. Our hearts go out to Jo’s husband Brendan and their children.

As Brendan has said, we should “work every moment of our lives to love and nurture our kids and to fight against the hate that killed Jo.”

We all share, I’m sure, Brendan’s views: “She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesn't have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous”. As citizens as much as psychologists, we need to review and consider how we work together to combat such hate.

Once again, we do not know the complex motives and reasons for the attack on Jo, just as we do not fully understand the background – political and psychological – of the homophobic attack in Orlando, the Germanwings tragedy or the neo-Nazi violence of Anders Breivik.

But in each case we see considerations of psychological issues – in each case there is a fierce debate as to whether we should locate responsibility within the individual or, alternatively, look to wider, societal, causes.

We need to understand the full background to such tragedies, and that includes the psychological of the perpetrators. But, in that examination, we must ensure that we cast our investigation appropriately broadly; looking not only at the psychology of the individual, and the experiences and motivation of someone who can convince themselves that to do such an act is acceptable and justified, but also the psychology of wider society - the hate and prejudice, misunderstanding and warped political ideology that also must be recognised as contributors to this, and similar, atrocities.

As I have read and watched coverage of this issue, I have been slightly concerned to detect a binary distinction – between ‘mentally ill’ on the one hand and, alternatively and in contrast, ‘politically motivated’ on the other. I do not recognise such a clear distinction.

Sad and vulnerable, lonely and confused, angry and alienated people are swayed by hate-filled rhetoric that blames their difficulties on other, different, people and offers them a distorted picture of society. Indeed, it seems pretty clear that sad, lonely, confused individuals are more, not less, susceptible to such messages.

This might make the picture more complex than a typical tabloid leader column, but it does, nevertheless lead to clear conclusions. It is vital and urgent that we put a stop to xenophobic, hate-fuelled, divisive and violent rhetoric in political and public life.

Find out more about my plans for this week.

22/06/2016 - 10:47

The world is still in shock after the horrific events in Orlando last weekend, which left many people grieving for their loved ones and many more experiencing loss, distress, confusion and fear. In our statement this week, the British Psychological Society said it was vital to recognise that the attack had targeted the LGBT community.

While any hate attack is an attack on us all, it is important to acknowledge and give voice to the experience, so that we can more effectively support LGBT people who already experience high levels of discrimination and abuse, and, consequently high levels of psychological distress and mental health problems.

After a tragedy like this, society and the media tend to look for simple explanations. And as psychologists, we are often asked to explain why people commit such crimes, and what can be done to prevent them happening again.

It may be superficially attractive to examine the minds (or even brains) of the perpetrators to explain individual events. But our experience and the evidence we produce as psychologists means we have a responsibility to offer a wider picture.

It’s perhaps uncomfortable to accept that we are all, even those of us who commit terrorist hate crimes, products of the events and circumstances that shape our lives. We need to acknowledge that. And we also need to acknowledge that our response to such tragedies must look beyond individuals.

We will never know with any degree of certainty the details of the motivations and thought processes of perpetrators of crimes like these. Indeed we should avoid an undue focus on individual psychology.

But that doesn’t mean we as a society or as a discipline are impotent. It doesn’t mean we’re forced to face the impossible and unwieldy task of ‘changing society’. Excessive focus on individual psychological issues can draw our attention away from more effective solutions.

The Germanwings airline tragedy in 2015 was another disaster ultimately caused by the actions of one individual. It is right that we provide the highest standards of screening, preparation and support for pilots, and we are working with the Civil Aviation Authority and the airline industry to do so. But practical measures, such as enforcing a policy of always having two people in aircraft cockpits, are needed too.

In Orlando, the perpetrator of this crime was apparently armed with a handgun and a powerful assault rifle. As psychologists, we know that strong emotions of anger, fear and hatred are unfortunately commonplace. But this tragedy is a reminder that the combination of these strong emotions and access to deadly weapons is a highly dangerous one.

We should and must play our role in understanding these emotions and supporting the many people who were affected psychologically by this tragedy, but the fact that it was easy for someone to get their hands on deadly weapons is a result of political decisions.

President Barack Obama has called on Congress to reinstate the assault weapons ban as well as pass legislation to make it harder for suspected terrorists to obtain firearms. To quote President Obama: “to actively do nothing is a decision as well”.

Find out more about my plans for this week.

15/06/2016 - 16:19

A great deal of my time is devoted either to asking other people to do things for us or, occasionally, telling other people what they should do. When we lobby, we’re asking politicians to change their plans or make decisions in ways that are important to us and to the people we serve.

But this week I’m shifting emphasis to highlight the things we are doing to directly address problems ourselves. The most effective solutions – both those we deliver and those we demand - are those that combine our science and our practice.

Clearly, as psychologists, we can offer psychological therapies, which are vitally important in the campaign to reduce the use of psychotropic medication and can help design and research medication withdrawal programmes. This is central to BPS policy.

I’ve continued to argue for changes to the way we deliver mental health services. I’ve signed pledges aimed at reducing the use of psychotropic medication for people with learning disabilities (see the picture below), chaired a recent All Party Parliamentary Group meeting on the subject and have supported the wider call for action.

Armed with evidence of the links between social deprivation, psychological issues, mental and physical health problems and social challenges, we can offer leadership and examples of best practice in service delivery. This week we launched a guide for commissioners of specialist services for mothers, explaining not only how psychological expertise can be incorporated, but that evidence shows it’s what new mothers want.

We are launching guidance on the management of disclosure of historic child sexual abuse for psychologists, and those who employ them, who must respond to these complex and challenging situations. Both of these pieces of work are practical examples of how psychologists can help remind us all of the social context and social determinants of our mental and psychological wellbeing.

We have solutions for many of the challenges on which we are asked to comment. Our research evidence and practical experience can provide a framework through which these problems can be understood. And I am confident that our colleagues and those policy makers we advise value our contributions. We’re also in the latter stages of preparing responses to the two government consultations I mentioned last week.

My main concern is that we still struggle to get our message about the value of psychology across to the general public. I’m sure there’s an element of ‘Catch 22’ here; as our work becomes ever more widely appreciated by the general public, and discussed in the media, it’s inevitable that we’ll get better at speaking to those audiences. The onus is on us to showcase what we do and communicate clearly with all our audiences.

Things are improving - when I first set out in this career 25 years ago, people didn't really know what psychologists are or what we do. But now, partly thanks to all those members who regularly engage with the media, psychologists are introduced to viewers and listeners in the confident (and correct) belief that the audience is (now) aware of our work. And that, I think, is good news.

Find out more about my plans for next week.

08/06/2016 - 10:48

We are always actively seeking members’ input to a great number of live consultations on policy issues related to psychology. Right now, two are particularly worthy of mention.

 In April, following the comprehensive spending review and significant further pressure on public spending in health and social care, the UK government announced that: “From 1 August 2017, new nursing, midwifery and allied health students will no longer receive NHS bursaries. Instead, they will have access to the same student loans system as other students.” That means  nursing and other healthcare students will soon be required to take out loans to fund their training.

The Department of Health has launched a consultation on how to implement this change and we are seeking our members’ views on how to respond. We are deeply concerned about the possible impact on these students, and therefore on the ability of the health and social care systems to deliver the services upon which we all rely.

Although student loans are now the norm in England and Wales, this is not the case across the UK as a whole. I remain committed to the idea that free, universal, education is an ideal of any civilised society. More importantly, for these particular students, the prospect of tens of thousands of pounds of additional debt at the end of training will have a negative impact on the future of these professionals and the patients in their care.

Our response is likely to stress the unwelcome nature of these changes for the overall delivery of psychological health care. Providing the best standards of care requires many different types of healthcare professionals working together in multi-disciplinary teams – any negative impact to one part of the system will have a knock on effect.

Currently, training for Clinical Psychology and some other mental health professions (including psychological therapists in the IAPT programme and child psychotherapists) that are funded indirectly by Health Education England are unaffected.

We are cautiously reassured that psychologists have been spared from the effects of these reforms for now. This move reflects the recognition that psychologists in training deliver invaluable services to the NHS… much like our junior doctor colleagues.

At the same time, a different arm of the political octopus – the House of Commons public accounts committee (not, technically, an arm of Government, but holding government to account) – has announced a call for evidence on the topic of ‘improving access to mental health services’.

The public accounts committee noted various positive steps taken (or announced) in this area: clear commitments from the prime minister and the Department of Health to improve mental health services, for ‘parity of esteem’ between physical and mental health, and, therefore clear access and waiting time standards.

The committee has raised concerns, following a rather sceptical report by the National Audit Office that said the cost of improving access to psychological therapies (IAPT), early intervention in psychosis and liaison psychiatry services could be 25 per cent higher than clinical commissioning groups have spent in the past and that their budgets may not stretch.

The British Psychological Society will be making a written submission to the Committee. Our view is likely to be that it is not only welcome but necessary, to follow through with these ‘Parity of Esteem’ commitments. People have a right to expect the NHS to provide NICE-recommended care whether in the field of physical or mental healthcare.

Investment in health and social care is not only a moral imperative and necessary for a well-functioning society, but it also represents value for money. Psychological health, particularly preventative and early intervention services, represents a clear net saving to the public purse in the avoidance of higher, future, costs.

The BPS has a stronger influence if we respond in one unified voice. If you wish to add to our discussions please contribute by emailing the Society consultations address or contact me directly. 

Find out more about my plans for next week.

01/06/2016 - 15:07

The cliché is that we should fix our own oxygen masks before helping others. Working in a therapeutic profession is a privilege, but there are good, even self-serving, reasons to ensure that those professionals changed with helping others are properly protected.

Many of us have been concerned by apparent pressures on junior doctors and proposals to require young people entering nursing and other professions to take out loans to fund their training. And there are pressures on the ‘psych’ professions, too.

A short time ago, we reported on the findings from the joint British Psychological Society and New Savoy Partnership staff wellbeing survey. This revealed worrying apparent increases in staff stress since a similar survey in 2014, with 46 per cent of psychological professionals surveyed reporting depressed mood and 49 per cent reporting feeling they are a failure. Seventy per cent of the 1348 people surveyed said they were finding their job stressful. More details of the survey, and the results, can be found in a detailed paper.

I’m delighted that the BPS, in collaboration with the New Savoy Partnership and with the support of Public Health England, launched a Charter for Psychological Staff Wellbeing and Resilience. But we also have a responsibility to act.

So, on 21 June, at the BPS London Offices, we’ll see the next stage in this process, when Jamie Hacker Hughes (Vice-President of the BPS) and Jeremy Clarke (Chair of the New Savoy Conference) will launch a Collaborative Learning Network to share best practice on practical measures to improve staff wellbeing.

We have an obligation to our colleagues and to those who use our services to ensure that our workplaces are compassionate and safe. We need to use our skills to facilitate accountable autonomy, reflective practice, participation in decision-making, staff engagement and creation of a non-discriminatory ethos, where difference and diversity are meaningfully sought alongside work-life balance. These are valuable for us as employees, but they are also vital if we are to have compassionate and empathic services.

Find out more about my plans for next week.

25/05/2016 - 11:13

I had the great pleasure to be in York on Saturday, marching in support of colleagues calling for proper investment in mental health services in the city. It is ridiculous, in one of the wealthiest nations on earth, to be fighting for the most basic of social services. But the march and rally were great, and I am heartened by several elements of the day. 

The local people, and media, were welcoming and positive and there was strong support from local and national politicians. I was delighted to be shoulder-to-shoulder with colleagues from Psychologists Against Austerity and sharing the speakers’ platform with the local MP Rachel Maskell and Len McClusky from Unite.

Having been a clinical psychologist for 25 years, I was delighted to hear the message that psychological health is a matter for everyone -  one-in-one, not ‘one-in-four’ - and that our psychological health (and therefore mental health services) is intimately linked to social circumstances and the economic, political and material health of civic society. That message needs to be repeated and clarified - hence my visit to Channel 4 on Tuesday, to attend a meeting discussing media portrayals of mental health problems – but I think it’s getting across. I was delighted, for example, that Alistair Campbell has started talking about mental health as an issue that touches ‘one in one’, not just ‘one in four’ of us. For me, this is a welcome recognition of our shared humanity and common psychology.

Otherwise, issues around work and psychology have dominated my email inbox and Twitter account this week. We’ve seen reports of psychologists themselves issuing ‘zero-hours contracts’, and unpaid intern posts for people wanting to enter professional psychology careers. Is this a growing trend that BPS Members and other readers of the blog would like to share their views on?

We’ve also seen increasing discussion of the impact of Work Capability Assessments, the DWP’s in-work progression trial and sanctions in our benefits system. We’ve seen sexism in the workplace and we’ve seen further discussion of the importance of maintaining the psychological health of workers in the NHS.

So… two questions (for the comments section below, perhaps):

  1. What are readers’ views on psychologists issuing zero-hours contracts or contracts for unpaid interns?
  2. Is the time right for a British Psychological Society Presidential Taskforce on ‘Work and Psychology’?

Find out more about my plans for next week.

18/05/2016 - 11:21

It’s been a busy week. I’ve attended meetings of the BPS Research Board, Education and Public Engagement Board, and had to give my apologies to the Membership and Standards Board (due to an unavoidable clash).

As well as other meetings with interesting colleagues, I’ve also chaired an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Prescription Drug Dependence and a celebration on the terrace of the House of Commons, celebrating the birthday of clinical psychology in the UK, because it was 50 years ago that the British Psychological Society was awarded its Royal Charter, and the profession of clinical psychology became an established part of British civic society. I’ve previously written about the charitable objects of the British Psychological Society (“to promote the advancement and diffusion of a knowledge of psychology pure and applied”).

And we were celebrating, in part, the fact that psychologists are also at the heart of the Government’s mental health strategy – we helped design and are spearheading the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme, and were key partners in the Mental Health Task Force. We’re part of the NHS Transformation Agenda, brining our skills in multi-professional, co-produced formulation to the heart of the skill set in mental health care.

We’re pioneers in working across health and social care – those of you who know my work will know that this is a passion of mine. And, as experts in the science of human behaviour, we’re leading on the drive to ensure that the NHS has the data it needs to deliver care. We look forward to supporting our colleagues in Government and Parliament as they work to make ‘parity of esteem’ a reality… and holding them to account!

The ‘embededness’ of psychology in public life was reflected not only in the business of our Education and Public Engagement Board (discussing our engagement with, and impact upon, education policy, but also our public out-reach activities such with the Big Bang science festival), in the work of our Research Board (liaising with HEFCE about the REF assessment of research quality, organising an event on ‘replicability’ with the Royal Society and publication of a range of research reports) and the Membership and Standards Board (discussing issues as diverse as our relationship with the statutory regulator, HEFCE, and our quality control on the use of psychometric testing), but also in some of my other meetings – with film-makers, theatre directors and colleagues from other charities.

All of this can be seen to have culminated in the fantastic announcement by Lisa Cameron MP, at our celebration on the terrace of the House of Commons, that we will soon have an All Party Parliamentary ‘Psychology’ Group. I believe that – if we step up to the mark – this will offer us a valuable new opportunity to point out the value that psychology ‘pure and applied’ brings to policy-makers and civic society.

My hero, Albert Camus, wrote in his private notebook for May 1937: “Psychology is action, not thinking about oneself.” I think it’s pretty clear that we’re being active… and it’s worth taking half an hour out of a busy week to stand on the terrace of the House of Commons and raise a glass of prosecco in celebration.

11/05/2016 - 16:38

Thank you for all your many positive comments on my first presidential blog… and thank you, too, for the (many fewer) negative comments. It’s always good to learn from constructive criticism.

I’ll be addressing many issues over the next 51 weeks, inviting comment and seeking the views of members on issues such as psychologists’ engagement with some contentious national policies

One of the issues raised from last week’s blog was the issue of the robustness and replicability of our science. I said; “…our profession and discipline is based on our science, our professional practice and our values….” It is worrying, then, that a recent paper in the journal Science found that only a third of 100 key psychology experiments published in top journals appeared to be robustly replicable.Replication and Reproducibility in Psychologyday

The British Psychological Society’s Research Board is addressing this issue head-on. Under the auspices of the Joint Committee for Psychology in Higher Education which includes, the British Psychological Society, Experimental Psychology Society and the Association of Heads of Psychology Departments, we are hosting a symposium on Replication and Reproducibility in Psychology at the Royal Society in London on May 26th 2016. The aim of the event is to have a positive, upbeat and collegiate debate prompted by the paper in Science (followed by a wine reception sponsored by Wiley). In addition, it’s worth noting that Research Board is working to secure the best outcome for the discipline in the lead up to next iteration of the Research Excellence Framework in 2020.

Psychological science can’t stand still. If there are lessons to be learned, we’ll learn them. Professor Daryl O’Connor, Chair of our Research Board, has said that the replicability project: “… represents an important step forward for psychological science specifically, and science more generally. Other areas of science have encountered problems with reproducibility in the past, for example, clinical medicine and genetics, therefore, psychology is not alone. Publication of this report in Science can propel psychological researchers forward, improve scientific practice and trigger new ways of working”.

I’d also like to let members know of two important events I attended last week. On Thursday morning, members of the BPS, experts by experience and colleagues from the Royal Colleges of Psychiatry and Nursing met under the auspices of Health Education England (although on the initiative of the BPS) to establish ‘formulation’ as a core, cross-professional, element of the Skills for Health ‘Mental Health Core Skills Education and Training Framework’. It is hugely valuable for the discipline and profession to see this core skill formally adopted in this way. The meeting represented a very positive, collegiate, cross-professional discussion.

Continuing in the same vein, on Friday, I attended the launch of the new National Guideline Development Centre led by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, with the BPS as a key partner. It brings together clinical leadership, technical experts, project managers and administrative support to produce guidelines on behalf of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Again, I believe it is hugely valuable for the Society that we are increasingly seen as central to these kinds of developments.


04/05/2016 - 15:18

Professor Peter KindermanSucceeding Jamie Hacker Hughes as President of the British Psychological Society will be both a challenge and a privilege. Jamie has done a fantastic job, and I’ve inherited a Society in good shape. We have more members than ever and we’re continuing to have a significant influence on public policy. But, as a recent article in the Psychologist asked: are we yet punching our weight?

Our profession and discipline is based on our science, our professional practice and our values. We must articulate a vision for the Society that matches those principles.

Our mission must be to improve the wellbeing of citizens, in the UK and internationally. To paraphrase the European Commission, psychological wellbeing is a resource that enables citizens to realise their intellectual and emotional potential and to find and fulfil their roles in social, school, and working life. For societies, good psychological health of citizens contributes to prosperity, solidarity and social justice.

At present, this may be only an implicit aim of the British Psychological Society, but we should make it explicit. Just to take two examples, we must campaign for everybody who needs it to have access to the very highest quality psychological care and for all children to be protected from abuse and neglect. We need to turn our implicit aspirations into explicit demands.

We are uniquely placed to assist policymakers, but we need to be prepared to speak out. On 1 September 1967, Martin Luther King Jr delivered a speech to the American Psychological Association entitled ‘The role of the behavioral scientist in the civil rights movement’ in which he argued that psychologists had a duty to support the struggle for civil rights.

His arguments are just as relevant today. We have a duty to explain the social and psychological determinants of human behaviour – how our behaviour is shaped not only by genes and biochemistry but in large part by the events and circumstances of our lives and the way we have learned to make sense of them. We need to speak out about the psychological mechanisms implicated in some of our major social problems: inequality, injustice, abuse, war, terrorism, and climate change. And we need to offer practical solutions. The point of psychology is not merely to observe, but to do something useful.

So what does this mean, in practical terms, for the British Psychological Society in 2016? What are our key strengths, what are the key challenges, what are our central concerns, and what – specifically – do we want to happen? For me personally, what do I hope we’ll achieve during my year as President?

The charitable objects of the British Psychological Society are: “to promote the advancement and diffusion of a knowledge of psychology pure and applied”. Members of the Society are experts in things that really matter to people: relationships, education and learning, mental health, health, politics, sport, crime, work, how organisations function, prejudice and intercultural understanding, designing and working with emerging technologies, and more. Psychology is not only a rigorous academic discipline but also a thriving, values-based profession, able to offer both leadership and practical solutions.

In mental health, I have promoted a psychological and social perspective. I look forward to the day – very soon – when the UK Government is prepared to issue a letter similar to one we’ve seen in Norway, practically cementing a commitment to social alternatives to traditional mental health care.

I have also studied the personal impact of austerity policies and the wider wellbeing agenda, having been part of the Office for National Statistics Technical Advisory Group for the Measurement of National Wellbeing and now leading a major study of community wellbeing.

I also have a long-standing interest in human rights, not least in my role chairing the Advisory Panel of the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) in Vienna.

I have campaigned for better recognition of the fundamental rights of people with mental health problems, and I am currently researching the impact of specialised training in human rights on the care received by people in residential dementia care units.

I am also a Trustee of the Joanna Simpson Foundation, which is dedicated to the care of children affected by domestic abuse and homicide.

Finally, I led the Society’s repudiation of the involvement of psychologists (and other professionals) in the abuse of detainees and in torture. This is clearly a difficult and contentious issue. But it’s an issue where I believe our professional body can show genuine leadership for professionals in other nations.

I feel extremely privileged that you have elected me as your new President. I am now really looking forward to working with you, with the Trustees, and with my colleagues on the Presidential Team. I’m delighted that Jamie will still be around to support me and equally delighted to have Nicola Gale joining the team as President-elect.

I have outlined some of the areas where I have particular personal interest and expertise. But my role as President is to highlight and promote the work of all the members of the Society. We need to ensure that all our systems (Boards, Divisions, Sections, Special Groups, working parties, etc) are effective.

To contact me with ideas, comments, contributions, or suggestions please e-mail me or find me on Twitter. I will regularly keep in touch with all members and shall be writing a weekly blog here.

I’m not sure if psychology is yet punching our weight. There is much more potential for us to persuade policy makers, the media and the public of the potential that values-based, scientific, professional psychology has to offer. But, as Jamie would say… “Together, we can.”

27/04/2016 - 17:05

Professor Hacker Hughes with the Society staff

One of the most enjoyable parts of this past year as President has been the opportunity to meet the Society's nearly 100 staff working in Leicester, London, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The Society's main office is in Leicester where teams look after our infrastructure (our buildings and IT) and finance and support membership and member networks, Society qualifications and training, conferences and events, public engagement and the development and promotion of policy.

We also have an extremely active press team who put out press releases, news briefings and organise media opportunities. Another team produces our monthly magazine The Psychologist,On top of all this, the Society has its own preparation for publication teams, print department and dispatch organisation.

Seeing 'under the hood' of the Society, as I have been able to do on my bi-monthly visits, and being able to meet and greet all the staff, has been a real pleasure. I have also met Society staff and contracted facility management staff, and seen them at work not only in Leicester but in Scotland, London and Northern Ireland, where the Society also have offices.

Without the support of our loyal and expert staff we would be totally lost and only able to do a fraction of the things that it is so easy to take for granted.

Thank you to each and everyone of them.

20/04/2016 - 15:51