Monday, November 7, 2016

(Brief) Speech to BPS Military Psychology Conference

Last week, in my role as BPS President, I gave some opening remarks to the 5th Annual Military Psychology Conference. I've posted my notes (the exact words used may have differed, of course) below.

5th Military Psychology Conference: BPS President Opening Remarks

Thank you. I am absolutely delighted to have been invited today, to open this year’s BPS Wessex Branch Military Psychology Conference. Now in its fifth year.

The previous conferences have focussed on themes around the psychological wellbeing of serving and veteran military personnel and military families. Essentially, healthcare psychology, with the military community.

This year’s conference is focussing on a broader theme, Peacekeeping and Stabilisation, and this has further expanded the range of psychology and related disciplines involved in today’s event. You will also note that this year’s conference title includes the words ‘Defence and Security’. This reflects the establishment of a new BPS Defence and Security section – an important step for the Society. 

The Strategic Aims of the British Psychological Society are: “to promote the advancement and diffusion of a knowledge of psychology pure and applied”. As psychologists, we’re interested in prenatal care, in child and maternal mental health, in education, in criminal justice, in care for people – like me – entering what the Japanese beautifully refer to as ‘silvering’ years.

That speaks to the breadth of psychology – we are interested and engaged in everything that matters to human welfare. And that includes our collective security. Every member of our community is affected by the many ongoing security challenges, including economic, environmental, social-justice, terrorism, cyber-crime, as well as fragile states overseas.

As a result of some of the work I’ve done in the field of mental health is that, a few years ago, I was named by the Fundamental Rights Agency, in Vienna, as a “Defender of Human Rights”.  I even got a paperweight.

As a psychologist, I’ve argued that we collectively bring science, professional skills and values to our work.

That triad has failed in the past. We, collectively, failed with Guatanamo Bay and waterboarding. We have failed with Eugenics, where certainly within the lifetime of my parents, psychologists have actively supported policies that I repudiate. In my opinion, we continue to fail with labelling, diagnosis and pathologising language in the field of mental health.

But it doesn’t need to fail with respect to our collective security

In my world, the proponents of CBT – cognitive behavioural therapy – praise the philosopher Epictetus – 'there is nothing good or evil save in the will' – or ... As Shakespeare’s Hamlet puts it: 'there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so'.

I’d extend this: There’s nothing good or evil except in how we use it…

The UN says: “Military personnel are the backbone and the most visible component of a peacekeeping operation.” I agree. So… once again… psychology is at the heart of the issue:
-       the psychology of conflict
-       the psychology of trauma
o   to civilians
o   to members of the armed forces
-       and of course, the psychology of decision-making under extraordinary pressure

Military personnel are the backbone of peacekeeping operations. I’m glad the warriors are out there, protecting my children and grandson from harm… and I’m glad we’re here as psychologists helping them in their work.

My only final words are to quote – and mis-quote – Epictetus and Shakespeare: There’s nothing good or evil except in how we employ it…

I am aware of the fragility of the society in which I hope to see my children flourish. I am aware of the role played by the military in defending my safety. I would urge you as psychologists, and our colleagues in the military – to remember our primary duty to uphold and defend – to defend – fundamental human rights.

Which brings me round full circle. As psychologists, we are interested and engaged in everything that matters to human welfare. This of course includes our collective security. The new Defence and Security Section of the BPS will aim to further the understanding of the psychological issues in defence and security; to promote appropriate research; to provide a forum for discussing scientific, practical and ethical issues; and bring together researchers and practitioners inside, and outside the Society.

If you’re interested – and I hope you are - please visit the website and then spread the word!

This conference, the new Section, and the work of colleagues in the military and security services that you’re discussing here, are valuable and important. I thank you for it, and I hope you have a great conference

Thursday, October 6, 2016

This week’s activities (6th October – 16th October, 2016)

I have slipped a few days in my attempts to keep people aware of my activities, but I can offer a brief update:

Friday 7th October, I am in Manchester, speaking at a conference on psychology and the benefits system.

On Saturday 8th October, I’m still working. This time at the University of Liverpool Open day (I’ll be giving a sample lecture on the theme (of course, and sorry for the blatant plug) of my book.

On Sunday 9th, I’m off to a meeting under the auspices of the European Federation of Psychology Associations (EFPA) and the Fundamental Rights Agency, looking at how we integrate fundamental human rights into psychology education… something I believe we absolutely should do, of course.

That means I’ll be away in Italy for World Mental Health Day – on Monday 10th October. I know my colleagues will be active, however, and I am not sad to be discussing human rights on that day – because I think fundamental human rights are even more fundamental (if that’s possible) in the field of mental health.

World Mental Health day is an opportunity for us all to remember the vital importance of our psychological wellbeing. As humankind races forwards with technological and social change, we need to ensure that the undeniable benefits of progress are matched with protection for those things that make life worth living. Psychological factors are not only fundamental for our mental health - and I continue to promote a humane and effective psychosocial perspective -  but also underpin our relationships, our behaviours towards one another and, of course, our physical health.  Human relationships - not technological solutions - should be at the heart of psychological care of people with mental health problems, and that means we need to attend to the mental health of colleagues who choose to work in this area. Equally, we must recognise that the protection and promotion of fundamental human rights are also key to proper mental health care. This year, I am in Venice, working with the European Union's Fundamental Rights Agency to ensure that protection and promotion of the fundamental rights of people with mental health problems (and us all) are central to our work. For me, humane and effective mental health care must address the full range of human needs, and this means ensuring that clinical and technological approaches are used only in the context of an appreciation of the fact that there is no 'them and us', we all need to understand and nurture our psychological health, the importance of societies that provide the social prerequisites for genuine psychological wellbeing and mental health, the centrality of human relationships, the need to listen to individual life stories and experiences and, particularly, the need to protect and promote the fundamental human rights of people in receipt of mental health care.

I’m returning on Tuesday 11th, but to London, helping to plan a new All Party Parliamentary Group on Psychology (or perhaps, it’s part of the debate) Applied Psychology.

Wednesday 12th will be a complex day, which starts with a meeting about specialist training in perinatal mental health, continues with PhD supervision and grant management, before I leave for London for a meeting of Minds@Work, a “... movement for mental wellbeing in the workplace…” which “… aims to break the stigma of depression and anxiety in the working world. We want to create mentally and emotionally healthy and human workplaces where individuals can flourish and organisations prosper…” This is new for me, but an organisation that I’m very much looking forward to working with.

The 13th and 14th of October means, for me, a visit to Leicester, for the British Psychological Society’s General Assembly.

Hopefully… I’ll get a couple of days off on Saturday 15th and Sunday 16th.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Making Sense of the World - Nature, Nurture and Beyond

This was first published on the Huffington Post on Thursday 19th May 2016.

Our mental health reflects a complex and turbulent dance between nature and nurture. But we are not merely passive slaves to these forces, we actively learn about, make sense of and respond to the world. The essential added element in the 'nature-nurture' debate, too often overlooked, is human psychology itself.
We are biological creatures. It is an undeniable fact that neural activity and chemical processes in the brain lie behind all human experiences. It is therefore very common to assume that our distressing emotions or inexplicable behaviour must stem from illnesses or disorders of the brain. And, from that perspective, individual differences in mental health outcomes (why some of us experience psychological problems while others are more fortunate) are best explained in terms of individual differences in biology or genetics.
It's undoubtedly helpful to understand more about how the human brain works. But the human brain is not only a complex biological structure, it is also a fantastically elegant learning engine. We learn as a result of the events that happen to us, and there is increasing evidence that our mental health problems are not merely the result simply of faulty genes or brain chemicals. They are also a result of learning: a natural and normal response to the terrible things that can happen to us and that shape our view of the world.
There is very powerful evidence that even serious problems as hallucinations and delusional beliefs are associated with traumatic childhood experiences (poverty, abuse, etc.). And it is important to remember that the recent economic recession has had a direct impact on suicide rates - a rather dramatic (and sad) example of how social factors impact on our mental health.
Fundamentally, our mental health depends on how we understand our world, our thoughts about ourselves, other people, and the future. Biological factors, social factors, circumstantial factors - our learning as human beings - affect us as those external factors impact on the key psychological processes that help us build up our sense of who we are and the way the world works.
This means we should think differently about the 'nature - nurture' argument, and add a third factor; human psychology. It's absolutely true that biological factors are important in mental health, and that biological differences can partially explain individual differences in mental health. But that happens if those biological factors affect the way in which we think - how we make sense of ourselves and the world. And that is equally true for environmental factors. The events we experience in our lives also affect our psychological make up and how we make sense of the world around us. In rather more technical language, the effects of nature and nurture are mediated by psychological factors.
This approach to psychological wellbeing is diametrically opposed to the traditional 'disease-model' of mental illness, and should change how we help people in distress. We should replace diagnoses with straightforward descriptions of people's problems, radically reduce use of medication, and use it pragmatically rather than presenting it as a 'cure'. Instead, we need to understand how each person has learned to make sense of the world, and tailor help to their unique and complex needs. We need to offer care rather than coercion, to fight for social justice, and to establish the social prerequisites for genuine mental health and wellbeing.
These ideas form the basis for the free, online course I'm leading on - Psychology and Mental Health: Beyond Nature and Nurture, which is available on FutureLearn, starting on the 13th June.