Your friendly Neighbourhood Psychologists

23 March 2021

The Community Action and Resilience workstream of the British Psychological Society’s Covid-19 response have launched a ‘resources hub’ which, they say, ‘takes a different approach’ and signposts new ways of working for Psychologists as the world seeks to ‘build back better’. 

Dr Carl Harris, a Clinical and Community Psychologist based in Birmingham and co-Chair of the group, told us: ‘Some of the other Covid working groups in the BPS have been rapid and focused on producing guidance, whereas we’ve maybe been more slow and steady. We’ve looked to produce and signpost a range of different resources, including articles, videos, infographics, and dialogues with community groups to showcase their vital work and what’s needed for marginalised communities in response to the pandemic. The hub is the consolidation of that. Pulling it together has been a real community effort!’

Learning from the community

The hub features ‘co-created’ content, and Dr Sally Zlotowitz (Community and Clinical Psychologist and also co-Chair) said: ‘We wanted to hear directly from community groups and activists about how they have responded to Covid-19. But in the end we had to do it based on the relationships that we had, because we weren’t able to pay people to participate – something we have challenged the BPS about. These groups can often be consulted in a “box ticking” way: they never hear what’s happened to their input, so we have tried our best to ensure there have been feedback loops. We also want to encourage people to act on what they learn from these groups, such as on what the asylum seeker and refugee advocates told us about how people can help (see’

Dr Rebecca Graber (University of Brighton) said the group are ‘keen to amplify the voices of those groups we’ve engaged with. Another example is the work we did with Fiona Sharp. She was talking about the people in the community who’ve been doing frontline support work, but they’re not first responders like medics. They’ve been in it for the long haul, without preparation. Those people also need support and partnership from psychologists, to process what they have been through.’

There are resources relating to the experiences of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, people with disabilities, those in the criminal justice system and much more. A section on Community Psychology Practice summarises actions psychologists can take in their teams and services right now. 

Transforming adversity

The group outline their primary aim as recognising the role that communities have played in looking after each other and our essential workers, ‘and in doing so speak up for the importance of strengthening communities and inclusive participation processes as we try to #buildbackbetter after this pandemic’. They advocate for a focus on resilience, but centering on Professor Angie Hart’s definition as ‘Overcoming adversity, whilst also potentially changing, or even dramatically transforming, (aspects of) that adversity’. Whilst community action during the pandemic has brought this resilence to the fore, the group argue that ‘we must not lose sight of the fact that many communities have long faced and struggled to overcome adversity. In particular, we recognise the ways in which structural oppression threatens this resilience and government policies exacerbate, rather than relieve, adversity. Highlighting the nature of these forms of resistance are well within the remit of a psychological approach to the response to the pandemic.’

Working differently

This emphasis has implications for the jobs Psychologists may seek to create in the ‘new normal’. Dr Rachel Morley, a Clinical Psychologist on the group, said: ‘One of the things we’re hoping to change is the way that psychologists think about what they do, what they regard as their role. How do we take what we now know about social inequality and the importance of community responses more seriously, and how does that build into our practice?’ This discussion has led to a ‘Neighbourhood Psychologist job description’ – ‘prepared by all members of the workstream, but special mention must go to Carolyn Kagan’s input’. The document includes case examples of ‘working differently’. A person specification calls for ‘a range of psychological skills, knowledge and experience to enhancing community resilience, citizen empowerment and positive place identity’. The emphasis is on supporting the local authority, in developing their workforce, and on ‘participatory, asset-based working with local communities’.

We put it to Carl Harris that the ‘community’ feel seemed to underpin all this activity: that it is not about working with people from a position of power and expertise, or a place that privileges knowledge, training and qualifications. ‘Yes, I think that’s fair’, he said. ‘The world, and our position in it as Psychologists, is changing all the time. Listening should be at the forefront of everything we do. Build reflective and reflexive practice skills and put these at the heart of every aspect of the work. Know when to pull back and be able to respect and work with a position of “not knowing”. Ultimately, we want Psychologists to offer expertise to their community in a spirit of partnership and curiosity.’  

- Visit the hub now, and the Neighbourhood Psychologist job description. Find more community psychology in our archive – and we plan to follow up with members of the Community Action and Resilience group over the coming months.