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Making sure psychology punches its weight

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.”