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Presidential Blog

Rollercoasters

03 May 2017 | by Peter Kinderman

The best things about being President of the British Psychological Society have been similar to the best things in life.

I don’t really like Steve Martin’s movie ‘Parenthood’. But there is a nugget of genius in the script. When a character complains that “Life is messy; I hate messy”, the Grandmother says:

“You know, when l was little, Grandpa took me on a roller coaster. Up, down, up, down. Oh, what a ride. I always wanted to go again. It was just interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened... so scared, so sick, so excited... and so thrilled all together. Some didn’t like it. They went on the merry-go-round. That just goes around. Nothing. I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it.”

I started my presidency on the Terrace of the House of Commons and finished it in the company of royalty. I’ve marched in solidarity with those of us who use mental health services and research scientists. Meeting students and recent graduates has been a particular highlight - seeing how the study of psychology offers us the highly valuable assets of the scientific method, numerical skills, logical and analytic skills, and the ability to write in intelligible prose.

Psychology is a discipline and profession that spans the whole range of human experience. As President for the past year, I’ve tried to make sure that the work of British Psychological Society reflects the things that really matter to people:  relationships, optimism, a sense of meaning and purpose, personal agency.

Over the past 12 months, we have seen tumultuous political events, and we are required to speak truth to power; to use - and defend - our academic freedom to give voice to sometimes unpalatable truths. As professionals, we have a duty to act in the best interests of our clients and to protect and promote their fundamental rights. Perhaps most importantly the British Psychological Society is a charity, and therefore it does not primarily exist to serve itself or even its members, but the public.

But rollercoasters go down as well as up. I have sometimes been frustrated at the pace of change as I have tried to turn this vision into practical action. Some of this frustration is technical. The Society is bound by its Charter and Rules, some of which date back as far as 1901, and the proper (and welcome) requirements of employment and charity law that we must follow.

The inevitable tensions in this role can be distressing. I dislike conflict and this year has had some painful moments for me personally. In my opinion, the Society needs to make some significant changes, and change is challenging… exciting but scary.

But, my principal regret is that I should have been bolder. I look to my colleagues in Psychologists for Social Change as a model for what I (and the BPS) could look to achieve. There is so much more that we can do to condemn xenophobia and falsehoods, hate filled political rhetoric, increasing inequality, threats to social inclusion and humanitarian principles.

We can do more to encourage the engagement of scientists, social scientists and psychologists with political discussions, we can continue to engage more assertively with threats to welfare and public services, the Prevent agenda, with austerity politics, and with the everyday violation of fundamental human rights in mental health care…

And there is a huge hunger in the public for new approaches - in my own area of mental health and psychological wellbeing, but also in the arenas of physical health, work and unemployment, in our benefits system, austerity policies - even Universal Basic Income – and how we approach crime and justice.

In many ways, the best things about being President of the British Psychological Society have been similar to the best things in life – the relationships with expert, dedicated, colleagues, the sense of agency and effectiveness that you get when you are working on this that are meaningful and purposeful, the mental and emotional stimulation, and the ability to see the positive impact that your work has on others.

Life is messy. I understand messy.

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