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‘I feel I can make a positive contribution at what is a critical time’

David Murphy took over as President of the British Psychological Society at the AGM in July. Here, Dr Roman Raczka (the British Psychological Society’s Division of Clinical Psychology England Lead) interviewed him for the DCP London newsletter, with additional question [starred] for The Psychologist.

16 July 2019

Could you say a little about your career history?

Although I’ve been in Clinical Psychology nearly 30 years, I still feel I’m developing, and I feel very fortunate about that. I trained at the Institute of Psychiatry and fell in love with working in physical health… I also fell in love with my wife Maleha, who was a fellow trainee, but that’s another story! My first job was in a spinal injuries unit which was pretty much ‘in at the deep end’. It was emotionally tough, but, unusually for a psychologist, I didn’t only see the people who were deemed to be ‘not coping’. I saw everyone. So I learned how people can find ways to cope with a life-changing injury that they could never have imagined. I think that helped me to always try and look for people’s strengths in my work, even when that’s a challenge. 

I went on to work at Charing Cross Hospital for many years, and during that time worked in a number of different medical specialities. I later came back to neuropsychology. In 2001, I was seconded as a project manager to help set up what is now Care Quality Commission. As well as developing the review methods, I also took part in reviews of over a dozen different acute trusts across England. That really helped me to be able to see healthcare as a complex system with lots of different moving parts that work together, or sometimes not!  

I went on to be head of service in an acute trust for the next 13 years, where together with many brilliant colleagues we developed a lot of great services. I was also psychology teaching lead for Imperial College medical school… that was a fun challenge, as med students can be a tough audience! I then had the opportunity to go into clinical psychology training as director of the Oxford clinical psychology course which was an amazing experience, although it was tough for staff and trainees after my co-director colleague, Paul Kennedy passed away suddenly and unexpectedly in 2016.  

Since leaving Oxford last year I’ve been working on a large-scale longitudinal research study of leadership development based at the University of Edinburgh, which is a fascinating new challange, plus of course being President Elect of the BPS!

What interested you in the role of BPS President?

This year actually marks the 20thconsecutive year that I have held roles with the Society. It all began when I answered an advert to join the committee that dealt with registration of international clinical psychologists, because I thought it would be interesting to learn about training in other countries. It was indeed interesting, but one thing led to another, and I ended up as Director of Professional Standards for the DCP, Chair of the BPS Professional Practice Board and now President. All of my Society roles have enabled me to connect with parts of the profession that I wouldn’t have done otherwise and meet so many fantastic people. I stood for President as I feel I can make a positive contribution at what is a critical time. It’s a real honour to take the role, and of course a big responsibility to do my best to represent and serve all the members.  

What are your priorities for the BPS for the next year? [Editor’s note: This answer has been updated from the DCP London newsletter]

People have been asking me this question regularly over the past year… every time, I say that the more important question is ‘What are the key issues facing the BPS at the moment and how can I help?’

Certainly the transformation programme that the BPS has embarked on this year is a major priority. It will be by far the biggest in the nearly 120 years history of the Society and is estimated to cost nearly £6million. The aim is to create an organisation that is truly fit for purpose and able to meet the high expectations we have of the Society going forward. My job as President and as Chair of the Board of Trustees is to work with our CEO Sarb Bajwa and the Senior Management Team to ensure that the programme is delivered efficiently and effectively, and that it achieves the results that we want it to. Specifically, that it results in significant improvements in our ability to achieves the objectives of the Society and improves the engagement and experience of both the 60,000 members and the 120 or so BPS staff, without whom we wouldn’t have a Society.

Of course, we also need to make sure we focus externally, and the Society is playing a really important role in enhancing the existing psychological workforce and the development of new psychological roles, particularly in the NHS. I think there is also more to do to join up and support the incredibly valuable work being done to teach Psychology in schools, which I think can sometimes be a bit overshadowed by our focus on the profession of psychology. Teaching psychology in schools is incredibly important, not just as a first step in a career in psychology but also to provide a foundation of psychological understanding in young people who are going on to careers in many other areas. I used to teach psychology to medical and dental students for many years and am passionate about the importance of psychology to these professions but an understanding of psychology, and psychological methods, can play an important role in education for a huge range of careers.

Finally, promoting inclusion of people from the whole range of diverse range of backgrounds in the Society is something close to my heart. We’ve made some good steps, and there are some inspiring examples across different member networks, but I think we’ve still got some way to go to identifying and addressing all the barriers to inclusion and ensuring that people from diverse backgrounds are fully represented and included across the Society and feel the BPS is their BPS.

What are your main concerns/challenges in the role?

Making a positive contribution. A challenge for BPS has always been the breadth of different interests of the membership and what people want from the Society, so it’s incredibly important that we are collaborative. We must listen to and understand different perspectives. It’s not easy: the Society is much broader than other similar organisations such RCPsych, BABCP and now ACP, but in the words of the famous African proverb ‘If you want to go fast go alone… if you want to go far, go together’.

What is your vision for the future for mental health in the UK, as an applied psychologist or clinical psychologist? 

Although as BPS President, my focus is on Psychology as a whole, I personally feel very positive about the future of Clinical Psychology in the UK… I think that comes from having spent so much time over the past several years with trainees who are the future of the profession, and I’m constantly overwhelmed by what a talented, inspiring bunch they are. The NHS is certainly facing significant challenges at present, such as the crisis in young people’s mental health, but I really believe that clinical psychologists can draw on skills and ways of thinking to be able to make a huge contribution to meeting these. However, we do need to step up (or ‘Lean in’ as Sheryl Sandberg would say) and take a system-wide perspective, not just focusing on our own corner or measuring success in terms of number of psychology posts. That might be a means to an end but it’s not an end in itself. We need to focus on reducing suffering, and doing so sooner rather than later, but also preventing suffering and nurturing resilience at both an individual and community level.

What values or traits do you feel you try to embody? (*)

That’s a very important question and something I tried to ensure every one of my trainees thought deeply about when I was a clinical psychology course director. Elvis Presley is quoted as saying ‘Values are like fingerprints; nobody’s are the same but you leave ‘em over everything you do’, and I really believe that to be true.

My psychological journey started from quite a ‘scientific’ beginning. I studied Psychology and Zoology as an undergraduate and my clinical psychology training at the Institute of Psychiatry was very much grounded in the scientific method. My clinical career has also been exclusively in medical settings, which has also been a significant influence on me. I do value taking an evidence-based approach-generating and testing hypotheses… ironically, I think medical students are often taught more about the self-confirming biases that can affect clinical judgment than we practitioner psychologists. 

I also have a strong value for continuously developing, both in terms of my own development, developing others and in terms of our developing psychological understanding and improving effectiveness of interventions. I gave a talk at Rochester University in New York State a few years ago and their single word motto really struck a chord with me – ‘Meliora’, which translates as ‘ever better’. The areas psychology where psychology is applied, from education, criminal justice, health are all too important to rest on our laurels, and since psychology is still such a young discipline there’s plenty more development ahead. I often say to trainees that 95 per cent of what they learn today has been developed since I was a trainee 30 years ago, and much of what they will need to know in their careers isn’t known yet. Continuous development is critical.

I think the emphasis on science and evidence does also need to be underpinned with human values, or virtues, such as compassion, honesty, respect, justice and humility. These weren’t things that were really talked about when I was training but thankfully, they are much more so now. I have always tried to base my practice and teaching on the best research and evidence, but the best evidence in the world is of no use to you unless you are guided by the right values. These are the things that service users and students notice, even if we think they don’t. My most valuable possession by far is a book I was given when I left Oxford last year that contains messages from all of the clinical psychology trainees and staff. Although I tried to make sure we were using the best training methods and using the most up to date evidence, that wasn’t what people remembered and valued the most. What they wrote about were things that most of the time I couldn’t even remember doing: a time I’d stopped to ask them how they were doing, a time I reassured someone when they were having doubts about getting through, a time I gave some positive feedback, even a time I just smiled and said ‘good morning’. This book sits in pride of place alongside all my research-based books to remind me of what’s important, and as reminder of my ‘best self’ that I aspire to live up to everyday… especially during the time I have the privilege and responsibility of being BPS President.

What other interests (leisure, hobbies, etc) do you have?

Spending time with my family, both of our children are at University now, so any time spent with them is particularly precious. I read whenever I can, I usually have at least 3-4 different books on the go at any one time, I read a lot of biographies and travel writing. I’m known to be a bit of an obsessive book buyer, to the point of what the Japanese call Tsundoku. However, I maintain that I’m only following the wise words of St Edmund of Abingdon ‘Study as if you were to live for ever, Live as if you were going to die tomorrow’. I’ve also played football twice a week for many years, which is not only a great stress reliever but also a great reminder of the importance of team work, particularly when you’re far from being the fittest or most talented player! I’ve been off injured for several months which has been frustrating, but I’ve taken the opportunity to take up Tai Chi which I’m enjoying, although I’m still desperate to get back to football!

- David Murphy is pictured at the European Congress of Psychology in Moscow earlier this month. The British Psychological Society will host the Congress in Brighton in 2023.

Follow David on Twitter.