Psychologist logo
Community, Poverty

Four approaches for flourishing

Experiences from the Psychologists for Social Change network.

10 June 2021

The BPS theme for 2020, ‘From poverty to flourishing’, pleased many across the Psychologists for Social Change (PSC) network. In many ways, this theme seems to capture a core motivation of our group. Much of the work across the network has been influenced by critical, community and socio-material approaches to psychology and mental health. Informing our collective activity is the position that poverty, both absolute and relative, is a strong predictor for the development of mental health difficulties. PSC grew out of the London Community Psychology network; as an approach community psychology aims to work alongside marginalised communities and individuals to promote empowerment, wellbeing and emancipation.

Inherent in the theme is a call to action, for us to move people out of poverty and into flourishing. Implicit is that psychology and psychologists are to be the agent of this change. Whilst members of the PSC network have welcomed this call to gather psychologically informed resources, from both research and practice, in this area, we must also remember that poverty is not a psychological problem. Only the redistribution of resources can make people less poor. Engaging with social issues and social justice, such as poverty, involves understanding the limits of psychology as well as its power. Here we draw on the eight years’ experience across the PSC network of the different ways our members have used psychological knowledge, training and skills to work with policy, politics and activism.

The network

Psychologists for Social Change is an international network for those who are interested in applying psychology to social and political action. The network started in 2014 as Psychologists Against Austerity, arising as a response to the austerity programme – cuts to public services and benefits – of the Coalition Government. We aimed to provide a space for psychologists to take action against austerity, due to a lack of a visible response from the official bodies of the profession and what we perceived to be our ethical duty to speak out about the social determinants of distress. This small campaign soon grew to a larger network of autonomous but connected groups operating around the UK, Ireland and Jersey. The network is entirely voluntary.

A focus on austerity later widened to a broader investment in social justice and social change. Together, we have tried to find ways – as people variously connected with psychology (trainees, assistants, those with lived experience of structural inequalities and/or formal services, chartered psychologists, academics, therapists, students, graduates and community members) – to ethically respond to inequality and injustice.

These motivations have been differently taken up across the network, depending on the interests, backgrounds, skills and dynamics of each group. In this sense PSC is a form of ‘networked activism’ (Land, 2009) operating with an open and flat structure, connected through virtual and in-person meetings. This approach has left flexibility for groups to take up the PSC idea in different ways, responding to context and interest. PSC therefore taps into ‘new power’, which is collaborative, distributed, participatory and peer driven (Heimans & Timms, 2018; and the March 2020 issue of The Psychologist).

Most people in our network have tended to be somewhere on the Clinical Psychology pathway, although a much wider variety of people have been involved (academics, undergraduates, Educational and Counselling Psychologists, therapists, service users/survivors, artists, writers, and community psychologists). We see no reason to be bound by history, however, and offer this article as a way of explaining the different approaches to social change which have emerged across our network, with the hope that these will be of interest to psychologists across the diversity of the discipline.

We are, of course, not the first group of psychologists to be interested in social change. PSC exists as part of a wider trend within psychology towards political and social engagement in psychology; a development which has attracted some criticism. This article is particularly aimed at those who are interested in social change but perhaps feel they do not have the skills or knowledge to participate in political or social action. Many, if not most, people who have participated in PSC have had no experience of political or community activism beforehand. It is our belief that psychology training gives a range of skills, knowledge and experience which are welcome and often missing in political, policy, and activism spaces. We offer here some examples of ways to re-orientate psychology: beyond the clinic and the academy; from the micro to the macro. This does not necessarily involve an additional skillset, but instead requires thinking differently about the skills, knowledge and experience which exist within psychology, in all its diversity. We have characterised our main approaches into four areas: using psychological knowledge; using psychological skills; citizen psychologists; and working alongside.

Using psychological knowledge

An early observation which underpinned our first campaign was that psychological knowledge, quite standard within our world, is often not widely known. One contribution to social change we therefore identified as being able to make was to disseminate psychological knowledge beyond the usual boundaries of the discipline. This involves repackaging academic and professional knowledge in forms which reach non-psychological audiences, which we have done in the form of briefing papers, open letters, a manifesto, a blog, presentations and talks, events, media interviews, and consultation responses.

The first of these was the ‘Psychological Impact of Austerity’ briefing paper, which brought together the existing research on social contexts of mental health with material on specific impacts of austerity, such as the rise in food banks, rise in insecure working, intensification of punitive benefits culture, and loss of preventative services. We framed the literature in terms of five ‘austerity ailments’: fear and distrust; humiliation and shame; insecurity and instability; isolation and loneliness;  being trapped and powerless. The aim behind this formulation was to draw out the felt experience of austerity, as a counter to often abstract and macro policy language. Understanding that simply stating the problem is not enough to effect change, we also formulated five ‘psychological indicators of a healthy society’, which were our response to the question ‘what does good social policy feel like’. Drawing on existing literature, we suggested these could be: agency; security; connection; meaning and trust. This formulation has since been taken up by NESTA as a basis for a tool for local government policy making; and used as a framework in subsequent PSC publications, such as our 2019 Manifesto (PSC, 2019) and briefing paper on Universal Basic Income (PSC, 2017).

The insight which shaped this paper is that a psychological perspective is rarely drawn upon in political and policy discourse. In much campaigning, there is a tendency for arguments to either use the abstract, macro language of economics, or personal experience. Psychology can help to draw these together and provide an evidence basis for the individual impacts of social policy or social issues. The understanding of people’s cognition, behaviour, and emotions which we take for granted within psychology is little known in political circles. Despite Psychology being one of the most popular degrees in the UK for instance, only two current MPs have a Psychology background. Psychological insights are therefore often missing, although they may seem obvious to people with a psychology education.

We have used this insight to repackage different kinds of psychological knowledge, from the impacts of child poverty on mental health and wellbeing; the social psychology of how to talk to people who disagree with you; and the psychology of place for a redevelopment of Belfast town centre. This approach is therefore not tied to one area of Psychology. The key is to identify the issue, your audience, and what psychological knowledge is missing from the debate. These elements give you the basis to think about how to frame your argument to have the most impact on your audience.

Using psychological skills

Another approach taken by our members has been to think about repurposing psychological skills in a range of new settings. There are of course some limitations on how psychologists can practice outside of their official workplace, and any work like this needs to be properly supervised and insured. Our members, however, have found ways to work creatively to expand psychological skills beyond the clinic.

One example of this approach is the Benefits Clinic run by PSC South West. This group decided early on to focus on the experiences of benefits claimants negotiating an increasingly hostile and sparsely resourced system. In response, the group set up a regular benefits clinic in collaboration with the Citizens Advice Bureau which offers a one-hour assessment with a Psychologist, who can then provide a medical evidence letter to support benefit claims. This is a prime example of how psychologists can consider utilising their direct clinical skills outside of usual contexts, providing a resource which can materially improve incomes and combat poverty directly. Realising a wider lack of knowledge and skills amongst psychologists about the benefits system, the South West group have also provided training to local NHS Trusts on producing high quality medical evidence letters.

Another approach was taken by Suffolk PSC. Noticing a rise in food bank use in the run up to Christmas, the group approached local community organisations working with people affected by poverty or homelessness, to see what help or support they could offer. A church run homeless charity took up the offer, asking the group to come and help with their volunteers. The volunteers running the food banks reported feeling out of their depth with the kinds of difficulties experienced by the guests of the service, feeling both overwhelmed at times and having difficulty feeling empathetic. They asked for psychological support with these feelings. The group discussed this and provided psychoeducation for the service on mental distress, addiction and reactions to trauma. Volunteers reported feeling both more secure and more empathetic to the guests attending the service following the session.

There is potential for other areas of psychology to think about repurposing skills in creative ways. London PSC has worked with the organisation ‘London Roots Collective’ who offer free support for grassroots organisations on developing a functional organisational culture. Any psychologist with expertise in organisations, management, or group dynamics could be helpful for grassroots and activist organisations in this way.

Citizen psychologists

We also all have power as citizens and community members to reach out and try to influence policy and practice. An early action we undertook as PAA was to encourage psychologists to write to MPs and local newspapers, as well as to attend local election hustings and ask questions about austerity. Professional expertise and position have clout, and can help in being listened to and published. Any constituent can write to their MP, but writing as a psychologist of whichever stripe, can be effective. The psychology of persuasion tells us that the messenger is important along with the message, and so the closer the topic to your professional or academic expertise the better. PSC members in Scotland, Oxford, Newcastle, Wales, and Brighton have all been published in local media, drawing on clinical experience and psychological evidence to argue for changes to policy and practice.

Some members have expressed disquiet about making political statements using their name and professional position. This is a reasonable worry. It is worth checking if your position is politically restricted, especially in a local authority. There are only relatively few job positions which, however, have this restriction. When speaking ‘as a psychologist’ our members have also been careful not to name specific Trusts or workplaces, but instead draw on generic experience. One of the positives of a network, however, is that we can speak under the name of PSC, so those who are more limited by job role or personal preference do not have to be individually named.

As well as individual action, our groups have engaged in collective community and citizen action. As a network, we coordinated an open letter responding to the Government Green Paper on Children and Young People’s Mental Health, gathering 1400 responses from a variety of psychology professionals invested in the future of CYP services. This action was led by South Wales PSC, who have chosen to focus specifically on children and young people’s mental health. Their main target has been the devolved Government in Wales. In 2018, they held a joint event with Leanne Wood, the then head of Plaid Cymru, and developed a close relationship with members of the Welsh Assembly.

Another approach has been to organise community events. Our North East group is one of the longest running, and decided to remain as Psychologists Against Austerity NE to keep their campaigning focus clearly on the impact of austerity. They have run community events and street stalls directly aimed at improving public understanding of austerity and poverty.

As citizen psychologists, therefore, we have the ability to influence at various levels – directly in the community, through media, and through engaging with the different levels of government (local, regional, national).

Working alongside

As PSC, we try to work from the position that we don’t have all the answers, there are multiple kinds of expertise, and that we should seek to avoid reproducing unequal power dynamics. A key example of this is the professional/service user power relationship present in mental health services. Being humble, listening and being responsive can be as important as being dynamic and speaking out. Part of this approach is recognising that issues which psychologists interested in social change may want to act upon – such as poverty, homelessness, inequality, racism, sexism, climate change, mental health, disability – will already have a rich ecology of groups and people taking action, ranging from grassroots activists to professional lobbyists. Activists in these groups will often have decades of experience campaigning on the relevant issues, and professionals and academics have a history of taking over or taking credit for work done by grassroots activists.

As psychologists entering political or activist spaces the first advice we give to new groups is to research, make connections, and listen, before considering if the contribution of psychology and psychologists is required. Sometimes this can be as simple as adding some professional backing to existing campaigns. In 2017, for instance, PSC produced a joint statement with activist group Recovery in the Bin objecting to the appointment of Esther McVey to the board of the Samaritans, considering her role in benefits cuts which had damaged both mental health and mental health support.

The other element of this approach is to acknowledge and consider the ways that societal power dynamics play out within activism and campaigning. Any work on poverty, for instance, involves an inherently marginalised group of people, who are often stigmatised and side-lined. Drawing on community psychology thinking, we have aimed to work alongside rather than speak for people directly affected by, for instance, poverty or austerity, disability or mental health difficulties. Since the beginning of the Psychologists Against Austerity campaign, we have worked alongside groups led by those at the sharp end of poverty, austerity and benefit cuts, such as Disabled People Against the Cuts, Black Triangle and Mental Health Resistance Network. Sometimes this joint working has been direct, such as joining with the DPAC and MHRN work critiquing the inclusion of IAPT services in Job Centres. Sometimes this has involved actively stepping back and passing on invitations to speak as experts on austerity or benefits to those with experiential, rather than professional, expertise. 

Possibilities in policy, politics and activism

These four approaches – using psychological knowledge; using psychological skills; citizen psychologists; and working alongside – have emerged through the work that people across the PSC network have done over the past six years. The focus of PSC has also continued to evolve, with new groups working on trans rights, disability and inclusion, as well as racism and Covid. The examples listed are not definitive, but offered as a picture of our collective experience of navigating policy, political and activist spaces as psychologists, with the hope that psychologists from across the discipline might also find these useful. Whilst the work that we have done through PSC has shown us the possibilities for psychology in policy, politics and activism, it has also been humbling to meet many reminders of the limitations of our discipline as well. Psychology is not a replacement for material security, resources or housing; psychology cannot make people less poor. We can, however, help to make the case, shape the debate, and build the evidence for policy which makes our society a more equitable place. 

If you would like to get involved in a local geographical group, a specific ‘issue’ based working group or an operations based working group, please email [email protected] or visit our website Follow us on Twitter @psychsocchange.

Illustration: Eliza Southwood