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Presidential Blog

Name-checks, bullet points… and children

25 January 2017 | by Peter Kinderman

Psychology spans the whole range of human experience. So it’s tempting to use a political opportunity on an issue of social justice as a hook to mention all those issues about which we feel a burning passion. But it’s unwise.

There are very good reasons for keeping media statements and press releases brief, easily digestible, and, where possible, to make a single, clear, point. We must seek to understand our audience – their priorities, the competing demands on their time and attention, the depth of their knowledge. Balancing these demands is challenging for those of us charged with promoting the science and practice of psychology.

We should not use our public statements as opportunities to reiterate a series of ‘name-checks’ of our divisional professional identities because it’s merely clumsy. Such identities, while sources of pride, make little sense to the public, who will probably need these terms defined.

Nor do they make sense to some of our academic colleagues, whose identities are different again – working in human geography, in social psychology, in cognitive neuroscience, in child development, etc. Bullet points and lists and exhaustive name-checks are profoundly un-engaging and unhelpful. They are serving our purposes, not meeting the needs of our audience.

It’s important to ensure that we highlight, from time to time, each branch of our wonderful profession. We’ll actively try to ensure that the spotlight of attention shines on different areas of academic and professional psychology.

Our wider aim is to bring the benefits of the profession to the public. Across Europe and the USA, we’re seeing the rise of the alt-right, the neo-liberals, those politicians who wish to shrink the state and leave vulnerable people – and our grandchildren – to their own devices. Psychology has a role in helping those people. We have much to offer.

The prime minister’s speech on 9 January covered issues that spoke to the work of almost every section and division of the British Psychological Society. One of the key messages in our response was about the role of psychology in schools. An issue clearly worthy of sustained attention from the Society. Over recent years, every survey has indicated an increase in psychological distress amongst children and young people alongside serious and reducing levels of lack of capacity in the services to help them.

Half of lifelong mental health problems develop before the age of 14, with 75 per cnet developing before we’re 25 years old. Estimates vary but it is widely agreed that at least 10 per cent of 15-16 year olds have a "diagnosable mental health condition" and, of those, only 25-40 per cent receive input from specialist mental health services, if at all.

Primary prevention and early intervention with children, young people and their families could significantly reduce the prevalence of psychological distress across the whole age range and yet only 6 per cent of the mental health budget goes to them and that is mainly spent on services dealing with the problems which have become serious, complex and long-standing.

There has been increasing interest over recent years in developing mental health provision in schools and this was positively advocated in the Coalition government’s publication 'Future in Mind' in 2015.

Commissioning of such services often lies with individual schools or academy chains resulting in piecemeal and often idiosyncratic provision which may pay no attention to evidence based practice. 

Often there is an attitude of “fixing the child”; locating the problems in the individual and not in their circumstances. There is some excellent work going on in some areas, led by educational, clinical and counselling psychologists and others. This highlights again the distinctive value of formulation; a multiprofessional approach that is widely applicable.

Without a wider look at some of the social and environmental determinants, we’re in danger of missing some of the key questions. Why is the mental health of our children and young people deteriorating? What should we be doing to prevent problems, build resilience and nurture psychological wellbeing?

We know many of the risk factors from poverty, trauma and maltreatment, social isolation through to bullying and the impact of excessive testing and unrealistic academic pressures. That’s why the British Psychological Society is proud to support the ‘More than a Score’ campaign. That’s also why we need a whole school approach to protecting and promoting psychological wellbeing.

We also need to recognise psychological distress in our teachers. Surveys indicate that they are one of the most stressed occupations with high levels of anxiety and depression, increasing suicide rates and poor physical health.  Whilst many teachers do try to help their students who are having difficulties either in their role as teachers or as part of a pastoral team, most report feeling ill equipped for this aspect of their work. Training in aspects of psychological wellbeing is largely absent from teacher training, and there is little CPD or support for them in this area once qualified.

We have a great deal more to do, but I am proud of what the BPS is doing in this area and elsewhere. As always, an ethos of public service should guide our work.


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