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Psychology’s role in tackling poverty through the lens of drug treatment centres

16 October 2020 | by Guest

As Challenge Poverty week continues, Professor Philip N Murphy, a member of our Expert Reference Group for our Poverty to Flourishing campaign, explores the role psychology can play in tackling poverty and addiction.

There are few who would doubt that poverty represents a complicated problem where simple solutions will never be adequate.

There are clearly circumstances well beyond the ability of any individual to control which can lead them to a situation of poverty, and also block the ways out of poverty.

Large scale socioeconomic forces can create and perpetuate unemployment, as can long-term episodes of illness or injury.

Family circumstances, such as partner desertion or death, can trap people in situations of low income where child care needs limit the opportunities for employment.

In my own research field of substance use and addiction it is clear that poverty can lead people into substance use, addiction and crime.

Once problems of substance use and addiction have been established in somebody’s life, their contribution to increasing economic disadvantage and poverty can be long-term.

Over the past 20 years I have co-authored numerous research articles showing impaired cognitive functioning related to the use of alcohol, cannabis, and ecstasy (MDMA).

Healthy and effective cognitive functioning is essential for effective engagement in education and employment.

Beyond the bounds of the lab, it is impossible to assess the consequences of such impairments in cognitive functioning with regard to engagement in education and employment, and the further consequences in terms of income, life chances, and poverty.

It is not fanciful to suggest that for some people, impaired cognitive functioning as the result of substance use and addiction may become part of the trap which makes an escape from poverty more difficult.

The destructive and self-perpetuating effects of learned helplessness arising from the circumstances around poverty is an important issue which psychology as a discipline can bring to the attention of policy makers and the wider public. I would also suggest that as a response to learned helplessness, psychology can offer the construct of self-efficacy.

This idea refers to the beliefs which somebody holds concerning their ability to achieve specific goals, based upon their assessment of their relevant skills and expertise. It also involves their knowledge of previous performance and outcomes concerning reaching that goal, or similar goals.

Self-efficacy beliefs have been reported to have important links to successful outcomes in a range of contexts including, addiction treatment.

Given that any interventions to enhance self-efficacy in the context of combatting poverty would operate at the level of the individual, it is important to emphasise the importance of avoiding any suggestion of blaming the individual for their problems, given the complex nature of the circumstances which lead to poverty.

It is also important that such interventions be realistic in addressing what an individual can achieve on a progressive basis.

What would interventions to enhance self-efficacy for people suffering problems of poverty actually look like, and who would manage and deliver them?

Within the context of drug treatment centres, there are relatively clear objectives which can be identified.

An interpersonal environment which can be relatively easily managed compared to society more widely, and a clearly defined group of professional workers who can be responsible for interventions seeking to enhance self-efficacy beliefs.

It is clear that working with people in situations of poverty in the general run of society to enhance their self-efficacy beliefs poses a very broad range of different challenges compared to implementing such an approach in a drug treatment centre.

However, if there is agreement that self-efficacy offers a way forward, then the sooner such matters are addressed the better in order to facilitate the transition ‘from poverty to flourishing’.

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