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Our international colleagues see UK psychology as world leading

Yohohama skyline

I have been travelling a lot over the past week, representing the British Psychological Society at ‘scifoo’ in California and at the International Congress of Psychology (ICP2016) in Yokohama. The lurking plausibility of a Donald Trump Presidency, perplexity over the Brexit result have been common talking points. Our place as psychologists in an international network of scientist and practitioners is hugely important, but needs some nurturing and care… especially now.

Our international colleagues see UK psychology as world leading, especially in fields that require critical or idiosyncratic (or even iconoclastic) thinking. Major worldwide trends in psychology have leading thinkers from UK universities and our admired health and social care system. We need to be continually mindful of our position in major international discussions.

On the one hand, many of our international colleagues are on the cusp of overtaking us in terms of both ideas and delivery. I have liaised closely with Norwegian colleagues over the past few years on conceptual psychosocial models of mental health care.

Now we see an unashamed psychosocial focus in Norway, with a recent ministerial recommendation for universal provision of medication-free services. Norway is approaching a ratio of 1 clinical psychologist for every 500 members of the public; a ratio that would equate to 120,000 clinical psychologists in the UK. While I would proudly suggest that UK psychologists are offering world-leading ideas, some of our international colleagues have leapfrogged us.

On the other hand, some of the ideas that are common currency in the UK are rather unknown elsewhere. My views on psychiatric diagnosis and the nature of ‘disorder’ and psychological distress may not be universally accepted, but these debates are vibrant and active in the UK.

We have a number of BPS documents – on psychotic experiences and on the contested nature of diagnosis – and are having active discussions, not only within the BPS, but in such bodies as the Council for Evidence-based Psychiatry, the Critical Psychiatry Network and Mental Health Europe – Sante Mentale Europe.

We’re not at risk of being leapfrogged, but international colleagues seem to be unaware of these discussions, which is just as alarming.

Scifoo is a meeting of leading scientists, largely in the physical sciences. Here, the disputed notion of biomedical psychiatric illness was very positively received, but seemed entirely new and different.

Even at the purely psychological ICP2016, the idea that we need radically different approaches appeared difficult to integrate into colleagues’ views of the core purpose of their profession and discipline. The limitations of traditional psychiatric diagnoses, and the impact of such medicalised language on people’s understanding of the fundamental nature of their problems seemed new to many colleagues.

We need to be nimble and present to maintain our position in international debate. As individual academics and practitioners, we have a responsibility to speak with colleagues across the world. After the Brexit vote, that responsibility is particularly acute.

As President of the BPS, I have a particular responsibility to ensure that our links with the international scientific and professional communities are maintained. Our international profile is good  but it is not guaranteed. The effort involved in maintaining our international links is definitely worth it.