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From poverty to flourishing

Ella Rhodes reports on the British Psychological Society’s priority for 2020, voted for at the Senate.

05 November 2019

More than four million children are amongst the 14 million people living in poverty in the UK, the world's fifth largest economy. Given the well-documented physical and psychological effects this can have, the British Psychological Society's (BPS) Senate has voted to make poverty and inequality its policy priority for the coming year.

Between 2008 and 2018 there was a 5146 per cent increase in the distribution of emergency food parcels, with a record 1.6 million food bank parcels given out by the Trussell Trust between April 2018 and March 2019. The increase in rough sleeping since 2010 has been estimated at 165 per cent.

Around 800,000 children were lifted out of poverty between 1998 and 2011, but since that time numbers have flatlined. The number of children living in poverty is projected to rise to almost 40 per cent by 2021. Children who live their early lives in poverty have poorer mental health, wellbeing and physical health, underachieve at school and experience stigma and bullying as a result of their situation.  

The UN's Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston, in his report on poverty and human rights in the UK, pointed to the 'tragic social consequences' of the coalition government's austerity regime in place since 2010. Alongside rises in food bank use and rough sleeping, Alston pointed to the growing number of homeless families: '24,000 between April and June of 2018 – have been dispatched to live in accommodation far from their schools, jobs and community networks; life expectancy is falling for certain groups; and the legal aid system has been decimated… Government reforms have often denied benefits to people with severe disabilities and pushed them into unsuitable work, single mothers struggling to cope in very difficult circumstances have been left far worse off, care for those with mental illnesses has deteriorated dramatically, and teachers' real salaries have been slashed.'

Consultant Clinical Psychologist Julia Faulconbridge, also Vice Chair of the BPS Division of Clinical Psychology, was involved in developing the poverty proposal taken to the Senate vote. She takes an interest in prevention and the impacts of systems on child development, and told me that poverty was possibly the biggest risk factor for children developing problems. 'Austerity measures have probably impacted more on children than on anybody else and it's affecting, not just families on benefits, but so many families who are not able to earn enough money to be able to look after their children in the way they want to… people on zero hours contracts, people in the gig economy and people working two or three different jobs. When you stop to think about the number of families that are reliant on food banks, schools that are having to provide food and clothes for children so they can manage the school day, it's almost unbelievable.'

Faulconbridge said the result of the general election will be crucial in tackling rates of poverty. 'Basically, there are two issues: one is what can we do to actually highlight the reality of living in poverty, not only of the levels of poverty, but also how these actually impact on people. The second side of it is what sort of structures should we have in place, particularly around children, that could at least ameliorate some of the effects? What should we be doing in terms of what support we're putting in for families right from the beginning? What sort of things should schools be doing? What sort of community facilities and support should be there? How can we build support within communities so they can help each other?'

In terms of the British Psychological Society's role in tackling poverty and its effects, Faulconbridge suggested that we should not take psychological knowledge for granted. 'I think we need to make the impact of poverty, in terms of psychological and physical health and wellbeing, so much clearer and explicit so that people who have the power will start to do something about it. It's like the air we breathe, it's so obvious to us, but whenever I go and talk about this sort of thing, even among people who are quite committed, they say afterwards I never actually put those things together. I think there's something really important about making what's currently invisible, visible, and helping people to connect the dots on the basis of psychological knowledge.

'I think secondly we should look at how we may be able to support our members in what they might be wanting to do locally. There's people who may be in a position, because of their positions in the health or voluntary sectors, to go and talk to their local councillors. It's about empowering our membership to actually go out and work locally and where we are finding things that work it's about making sure that becomes widespread.'

Educational Psychologist and tutor Dr Gavin Morgan (University College London), also Chair of the BPS Division of Education and Child Psychology, sat on the expert reference group for this year's policy priority on the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people and helped formulate plans for this new priority area. 'I think there's sometimes a misunderstanding about what us as psychologists do. For example, mental health is often seen as an individual problem. I think sometimes people expect psychologists to work with individual people when we're trying to address individual problems. I was at pains during this year to promote the idea that there's wider contexts we need to be aware of, there are systemic factors that are influencing mental health poverty, clearly being one of them. We can't escape those contextual and environmental factors that influence people's mental health.'

In his work as an Educational Psychologist Morgan said he has encountered the effects of austerity and societal issues in many of the children he has worked with. 'A mentally unhealthy child isn't going to learn. Fundamentally we need to address the basic issues first. We need to address wellbeing needs before a child is able to begin to learn or begin to develop social skills or attachments with other children, we can't have one without the other. I think because children sometimes aren't in a place where they can learn this has wider ramifications for society, it becomes, sadly, a vicious self-perpetuating circle. So we need to break that and we need to begin with addressing fairness and equality as a starting point I think. We need a systemic approach, a holistic and joined-up approach, on education, health, local authorities and the government.'

Morgan said thanks to cuts to local authority budgets many specialist staff are no longer employed to support children – leading to an increased load on educational psychologists. 'We're picking up a lot of work other agencies would've done previously. We're seeing more complex, more damaged children, we're trying to do more with less and it's having an impact on us. What we need is increased budgets and resources for local authorities, we need to ensure there are educational psychologists attached to every school. We need specialist teachers, we need to work with CAMHS and clinical psychologists and social care, we need a wider network of specialists we can work alongside and work with to support children and a joined-up approach from education, health and the government.'

Psychologists are already working on tackling the effects of poverty, Morgan said, particularly in community psychology through groups such as Psychologists for Social Change. 'I think gradually psychology and psychologists are becoming more involved in a social justice agenda with the view that equality is the best therapy and that should be our starting point. I think through the poverty to flourishing campaign that's what we're trying to do. So rather than trying to have sticking plasters of therapeutic approaches… yes, it has its place of course… what we need is equality and I think that will lead to wider societal change.'

Morgan said he hoped the BPS could use the momentum of the current policy priority area and be an advocate for psychologists. 'I think it's about trying to position psychologists as being key in our society and key drivers for positive change. Yes there's disparate professions among the psychology community but we're all fundamentally psychologists. I think this year's been really positive and I've seen some really positive change in the Society recently. We need to be campaigners – we can't shy away from political issues and we shouldn't, we've got a responsibility to the wider community.'

- If you are interested in supporting the new campaign the BPS will soon be advertising for expert reference group members. See p.47 of the December edition, or download the PDF below for details. 

Also read the Society's Chief Executive Sarb Bajwa on the topic.

We're keen to generate content on the topic for the magazine throughout 2020. Ideally, we would come at it from various angles representing the breadth of the discipline, and personal and professional perspectives. For example, 
Are you a psychologist from a background of poverty? 
Do you work with people in poverty? 
How do you ensure people in poverty have a voice in research? 
Can we truly address the '…to flourishing' angle? Do you work to lift people out of poverty, and if so what are the effects of this on a person's psychology?