by Elena Zeniou, PSC member
In the landscape of Covid19, we are discovering a world that is not fit for our needs. How we socialise, travel, work, celebrate, grieve - all require extra layers of planning and thinking about uncomfortable questions.
Do we hug when we meet? Do we shake hands? Will you be offended if we don’t? Or if we do? How do I travel safely? How often do I change masks? Will my job understand that I’m finding this really tough? Will they make adjustments? Do I ask the person next to me to put their mask on? Would they be offended? Do I just avoid seeing people altogether?
Consider the above questions, and perhaps add to the list what comes to mind right now. Do you plan for these questions because you should have been immune to the virus but you aren’t? Or would you say that because of the virus our world set-up no longer allows for us to be safe, comfortable,and able to do things as in non-pandemic times? We’ve designed a world that allows us to be functional without a pandemic on the loose. Whereas before we would be free and able to navigate through our social interactions and daily activities, we are now limited, needing adjustments.
Open letter to the Secretary of State for Education and the Chief Regulator of Ofqual in response to the BTEC and A-Level exams crisis
Dear Rt Honorable Gavin Williamson CBE (Secretary of State for Education) and Sally Collier (Chief Regulator; Ofqual),
Psychologists for Social Change is a network of applied psychologists, researchers, academics, therapists and students who are interested in applying psychology to policy. We aim to generate social and political action towards a psychologically-healthier society. We felt compelled to write to you with regards to the BTEC and A-Level exam results in order to outline our concerns. We initially prepared to request a rapid revision of the application of the A-Level exam results algorithm. We are pleased to see that this process has been revised. However, our concerns about the impact of the use of the algorithm and subsequent U-turn remain.
Our concerns are as follows:
The algorithm used to award students’ A-Level grades was flawed in a way that benefited those with greater privilege and penalised those who were already disadvantaged. Data show that independent schools in England saw the greatest improvement of A* and A grades, up 4.7 percentage points. This is compared with an increase of just 1.7, 2 and 0.3 percentage points in England’s academies, comprehensives and colleges, respectively. This unfair advantage was conferred to private schools purely because the small cohort sizes meant the algorithm gave more weight to teacher predicted grades than historical data or prior student attainment. Thus, in private schools, teacher predictions were less likely to be downgraded and students who already held a privileged position in the education system were rewarded.
The following letter to the Taoiseach (Prime Minister of Ireland) and Minister for Equality and Integration was penned by Psychologists for Social Change Ireland. The letter calls for the end of the Direct Provision system for accommodating those seeking asylum in the Republic of Ireland. You can read more about this system, which has been heavily criticised by human rights groups here and here. The letter is a living document which has been covered in the Irish press. It has been signed by 150 applied and research psychologists to date.
Open letter to the Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration Roderic O'Gorman
Dear Taoiseach and Minister,
We are a group of applied and research psychologists practising in Ireland who believe that direct provision must be promptly dismantled and replaced with a more humane and ethical alternative. We wish to express our solidarity with those seeking asylum on our shores.
Our nation has a responsibility to protect those who come to Ireland seeking refuge from persecution, famine and war. We observe that the direct provision system has barely met the basic physiological needs of these individuals and families, while causing untold psychological harm. We are concerned by the many systemic barriers which deny those living in direct provision the dignity of fully participating in Irish society. Bulelani Mfaco of the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland has explained how this system “eats away at your humanity”. As a country we must do better.
By Aya Adra
I like to think of the summer of 2014, around the time I was finishing up the second year of my bachelor’s degree, as the period when I started becoming a social psychologist. For a couple of sticky, hot months in Beirut, sitting under a distinctly loud and largely useless fan, I listened to my professor share what seemed like mind-shattering theoretical and empirical knowledge on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Every bit of information that was sprung onto me felt like a revelation – the usual suspects of any Intro to Social Psych class; Milgram, Zimbardo, Asch, and their likes. Every theory, every finding, seemed to explain phenomena I had been witnessing and marvelling at for years. So much so that I went around spraying my newly found discoveries onto friends who were rather unenthused, and claiming with reverberating confidence that the world would be a better place if everyone were mandatorily exposed to social psychological knowledge. It truly felt like I, a biology student who had randomly taken this conveniently timed elective, had finally found the discipline that would equip me to fight for the world I wanted; a just world. On the last day of lectures, in between questions about the final exam’s format and informal feedback on the course, the professor asked us what we thought the main insight of social psychology was – what were we taking home with us, us liberal arts students from across disciplines who would go back to investing in whatever major we had signed up for? After a string of pseudo-sophisticated answers (one of which was very likely mine, although my motivated memory conveniently leaves that out today), the professor concluded the class with his own takeaway; “context matters.”
Challenging Lockdown Narratives in Leicester: 'Leaning in' to complexity with compassion when our community is shamed and divided
By PSC Leicester
Communities in Leicester are facing an extended lockdown following a ‘spike’ in cases of COVID-19. Public Health England are yet to find obvious reasons for this and emerging data from ‘backward contact tracing’ trials in Leicester indicate most were following stay at home guidance. The absence of a clear narrative, however, has resulted in widespread stories which ‘other’ and blame. We live in an age where unchecked soundbites or fragments of information spread quickly and carry immense power, often resulting in divisive rhetoric that damages community cohesion and obscures the bigger picture. It’s easy to fall into these traps. We must therefore continue to be curious about wider factors that are likely to have contributed.
Psychologists for Social Change have previously warned that the COVID-19 crisis has increased the visibility of existing social inequalities in our society and could further compound divisions in our communities. Tragically, we are experiencing this in Leicester today. Many of the speculative narratives focus on personal responsibility with even the Prime Minister bemoaning problems “getting people to understand what was necessary to do” in Leicester. This caricatures residents as either unintelligent or unable to speak English; the latter pointing unfairly to our Eastern European, Somali and Asian communities. There is no evidence that social distancing was understood any less here than in other parts of the country, and the reality is far more complex than that narrative implies. Blaming individuals in this way is unhelpful, shaming, feeds into nationalist rhetoric, and takes the focus away from a government who have been slow to act not just in Leicester but from the outset of the pandemic. It also obscures the more powerful and intersected systemic influences at play that people cannot change.
by Simon Goodman, De Montfort University, in collaboration with the BPS Social Psychology Section committee
As the protests for the Black Lives Matter movement continue throughout the world, in the UK this has turned public attention to the country’s colonial and slave-owning past. This comes at a time when minority groups are being infected and dying at disproportionately higher levels from coronavirus and leading figures in the government appear to accept race science, eugenics, and with it the idea that there is a meaningful relationship between race and IQ. This post will show that the history of ‘race science’ is a history of racism, as it was developed to support and justify colonialism and has no scientific basis. Instead, psychologists, like everyone else, need to actively reject the notion of race as a meaningful concept, while also recognising that despite race not being real, racism very much is.
While most psychologists tend to treat race as a common-sense idea (McCann-Mortimer, Augoustinos & LeCouteur, 2004), Montague (1964) showed the concept to be anything but scientific. He traced the use of the term race to Georges Le Clerc Buffon in 1749 in his six classifications of humans. Based on the religious thinking of the day, the races were deemed to have been created by God, but with ‘degradation’ from the original – and best – Caucasian race. While Caucasian may sound like a scientific term it actually comes from the Caucus mountains, on the border of Russia and Georgia, where it was then believed the Garden of Eden was, with Adam and Eve being the first Caucasians.
This defining of race, however, did not exist in a value-free bubble; it coincided with the European colonisation of the rest of the world where it was convenient to deem the colonised people that were dominated and exploited as less advanced than the White colonisers. These ideas of ‘race’ spread, finding their way into eugenics and Nazi ideology with all the horrors that this brought. It is these very same ideas that underpin modern race science, so this is the legacy of any psychological work that addresses race in an uncritical way as a real and scientific category.
Despite this, Tate and Audette (2001) show how race continues to be wrongly treated as a natural variable, somehow distinct from political relations. This is particularly surprising as geneticists debunked the idea of race as natural even before the Second World War (Richards, 1997) and after the war the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO, 1950) declared that the “biological fact of race and the myth of ‘race’ should be distinguished”. In 1972, Lewontin showed that the genetic difference within supposed racial groups was bigger than the differences between them, and more recently the Human Genome Project corroborated this stating that “the concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis”.
This means that no psychologists or any other scientists should be using race as a real category. This is why Condor (1988) criticised social psychologists for using the term because to ‘take the existence and significance of ‘race’ categories for granted’ is to help maintain the idea that it is a meaningful concept, which can inadvertently reproduce racism. Instead, it is the different treatment of groups that leads to the differences between the groups, which is why Morgan (2020) concludes that the differences in coronavirus deaths in the UK are not due to racial differences but “are the result of structural racism”.
This leaves us with a challenge: if race does not exist as a meaningful category, how do we oppose and challenge racism? Howarth and Hook (2005) offer some advice here: “What we do need to do is recognise the contradictory but necessary aims in presenting a critical analysis of racism … so while we have to acknowledge the continuing psychic hold and the materiality of racism … we as critical psychologists need to take up and challenge racialized practices”.
Practically, I would therefore recommend that while psychologists continue their efforts to understand the causes of, and harm brought about by, racism that they must also never again treat race as real – this just serves to legitimise divisions. Attempts to look for racial differences must be understood as ideological and racist and any research that does this must be called out (like this). Instead, as Augoustinos and Every (2007) demonstrate, psychologists should focus on how the category of race is used “to justify and rationalise existing social inequities between groups."
By Halina Bryan
It happened four thousand miles away, some people and newspapers say.
However the oppression, brutalisation and trauma transcend time and space, and are relentlessly present in the lives of black people, here in the UK.
The time we and our ancestors have given, waiting for our humanity to be acknowledged and represented in social equality and change.
Yet, this continues to be a promise undelivered, denied, with conscious efforts made to keep black people and justice estranged.
So many are content to turn their eyes and hearts away from, or ‘justify’ our suffering and pain.
Systemic racism often moves in the shadows, at other times in plain sight of day.
It always inflicts indescribable pain and trauma along its way.
Its insidious roots and branches are deep and far reaching.
But for many our testimonies, calls and cries for action and change, are rejected and claimed to be unwarranted preaching.
by Cathy Campbell, Ellen Duff and Sally Zlotowitz
“The pandemic is a portal. We can walk through it with our dead ideas. Or we can walk lightly, ready to imagine another world.”
Psychologists for Social Change aim to develop new ways of being, seeing and doing in the field of ‘mental health’* and well-being. This includes moving beyond models that focus solely on the individual. We are committed to promoting understandings of psychological health and care for others in distress as a political act - one which involves not only psychological therapies, but also efforts to promote social conditions that enable and support the possibility of well-being for all through tackling the social inequalities that drive ill-health in many local, national and global contexts.
PSC have described the mechanisms through which social and economic policy can damage the population’s psychological health, notably the impact of austerity. We also describe how it is possible to do the opposite by generating more trust, connection, security, meaning and participation through social and economy policies. It is in this spirit of hope and solidarity that PSC added our name to the campaign calling for us to #BuildBackBetter from COVID-19. The five principles in the letter map out social conditions which would significantly increase opportunities for psychological health, not only in relation to COVID, but also in relation to future health threats, including those created by climate change - particularly amongst the socially disadvantaged who tend to suffer the poorest health and the least protection from adversity.
by Karim Mitha
A decade ago, Professor Sir Michael Marmot published his landmark review highlighting the stark inequalities in our society. Along with Wilkinson and Pickett’s “The Spirit Level”, the report helped to outline the impact inequalities and other socio-economic factors have on population health, known as the “social determinants of health”. Despite the number of recommendations made, particularly in relation to good and fair employment, healthy places, and improving standard of living, the subsequent decade of austerity did little to make any improvements in tackling these issues. In many cases there has instead been a regression, particularly in relation to housing and employment. The current COVID-19 pandemic has made existing social inequalities in our society achingly visible, and seems likely to compound these divisions further. We already know that certain groups are disproportionately affected by the virus, with BME communities experiencing particular structural and health inequalities including barriers to self-isolation, and the spike in domestic violence in lockdown. As we try to weather this crisis, it seems particularly timely to reflect on the findings of the “The Marmot Review – 10 years on” recently published by the Institute for Health Equity.
“England is faltering”
The report is stark. It portrays a bleak picture of the impact of sustained cuts to social services and how this has exacerbated existing inequalities. The very first words of the report, “England is faltering”, are a call to action – asking how is it that in a high-income country social policies have been implemented to further disadvantage the working class, vulnerable, and marginalised, who experience greater years of life living with disability than those in less deprived backgrounds.
The report acknowledges the debate in the age of austerity regarding prioritising social or economic progress. The Coalition government, from 2010 onwards, used rhetoric of national identity and social solidarity, invoking a nostalgic idea hearkening back to the Second World War of “we are all in this together”, to push through reforms and cuts. This was done under the premise that Britons would band together and accept cuts which were portrayed as necessary to get the economy back on track. Marmot is careful to note it is difficult to establish a direct causal link between these austerity policies and the increase in inequalities over the same period. He does, however, suggest that sustained cuts in health and social care have combined with wider socio-economic factors to jointly reduce individual stability and security, which are important for psychosocial wellbeing. Marmot particularly highlights changes in the employment and housing sectors.
The myth of “we’re all in this together”
Marmot outlines how multiple political and economic factors have combined to contribute to areas, particularly in the North of England, feeling “left-behind” and has helped to compound the experiences within “ignored communities”, where there is little hope for alleviation of poverty or social mobility. The housing crisis, cuts to child and youth centres, and continued disinvestment in particular geographic areas have all played off each other in a negative spiral of disadvantage, further exacerbating and entrenching existing inequalities. The health impacts are severe. Life expectancy overall has stalled and has actually fallen amongst the most deprived. The social gradient of health – where those at the top have the least need – has also worsened. Men living in the 10% most deprived areas will spend 30% of their lives in ill health compared to 15% amongst men living in the 10% least deprived areas. Amongst women, those living in the 10% most deprived areas will spend 34% of their lives in ill health compared to 18% for women living in the 10% least deprived area.
Similar inequalities exist in mental health need. Vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, often concentrated in more deprived areas , tend to be disproportionately represented in mental health service use. The report notes the worrying trend of increased mortality rates amongst middle aged-adults due to “deaths of despair”, deaths due to suicide, alcohol, and/or substance misuse. These can be understood as coping behaviours in response to socio-environmental strain and pressures. Marmot explores ‘avoidable mortality’, defined as deaths which could have been avoided through timely and effective health interventions. Amongst the poorest 10% of English people, deaths of despair are three times higher than amongst those in the richest 10%. This is where examining the influence of wider factors is important as it is often those experiencing the most socio-economic disadvantaged who are particularly susceptible to job insecurity, unemployment, debt, and lack of social support, which are linked with increased suicides.
Overall, the report portrays a bleak picture. Marmot notes that those living in more disadvantaged circumstances have been besieged with substantial changes in many social determinants of health. When people experiencing the greatest socio-economic adversity are socially “written off” and lose a sense of attachment and trust to their local areas , the boundaries of social cohesion are frayed. It is difficult to believe messaging such as “we’re all in this together” when social mobility is increasingly unlikely and already disadvantaged communities feel increasingly marginalised, vulnerable, and forgotten. Given this, it is difficult to not see how these factors have, along with cuts to community and social services, have contributed to higher levels of suffering and despair we can see manifesting as a 'mental health crisis'. It is quite concerning when we see the blanket of the social welfare state fraying – with successive governments failing to understand the long-term and societal implications of policies under austerity.
The politics of poverty and wellbeing
The report critiques the “individualist” agenda - that people’s poor health is a consequence of the choices they make. Marmot notes that being in poverty limits the available choices people can make and thus poor health actually reflects the limited range of choice available, along with the psychological strain and pressures that disadvantage brings (ie: poor quality housing, debt and financial strain, etc). Marmot also notes the impact of cuts to social care and the concomitant increase in youth violence and child and adolescent mental health disorders. Given these factors, it is unsurprising that his recommendations centre on improving children and young people’s environmental living conditions, fairer employment for all, increasing living standards, and creating healthy and sustainable communities.
Marmot also argues that in an era of localisation, it is important for local authorities to embed a social determinants of health perspective into their health and wellbeing strategies, as tackling deprivation can improve health and wellbeing outcomes for all residents. Marmot highlights the “Wellbeing budget and strategy” in New Zealand which looks at wellbeing as an investment for a happier, healthier population.
Marmot views the various social prescribing programmes in England as beneficial. He notes that this approach may help to build those connections and networks, as well as help people to gain confidence and a sense of agency, through being able to be seen as an active citizen. However, he also notes that this may not be able to address some of the underlying and challenging experiences and threats to mental health that those who are the most disadvantaged may be experiencing, and thus social prescribing efforts must be made in conjunction with movement on wider determinants.
Faced with the evidence of what the past decade has dealt onto the most marginalised in society - having the social welfare system and the promise of social mobility pulled away, feeling "left behind", stigmatised, and blamed - it is easy to see the futility of trying to address psychological concerns divorced from socioeconomic context.. Understanding a “whole-systems” approach is essential in being able to address the impacts of heightened neoliberalism and increased inequalities on mental health and wellbeing, particularly for those experiencing multiple forms of disadvantage.
Ultimately, it is clear that a decade under austerity has been detrimental with those most at risk and most vulnerable most affected. If we were to take the approach of countries like New Zealand, and embed wellness into our planning, strategy, and it being an overall aspiring target to achieve, we might be able to overcome these structural factors and facilitate improved physical and mental health and wellbeing of our fellow citizens.
The BMJ has astutely noted that the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the imperative of tackling inequalities and how systemic factors such as structural racism and class inequalities can facilitate susceptibility to disease, which can have global consequences. The pandemic climate has shown us how uniting to tackle inequalities and helping our most vulnerable will actually help improve health outcomes for all. The Marmot review has shown the consequences of failing to do so. In order to address the health of the whole population, it is important to pay particular attention to the most vulnerable and address inequalities. After all, as the proverb goes, “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link”.
Author note: Karim Mitha is a public health professional and a member of PSC. He is completing his part-time PhD in the sociology of mental health at the University of Glasgow.
People across the world are facing unprecedented times. The novel coronavirus Covid-19 has been designated as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation. We all are affected, whether directly by the illness (ourselves or someone we know), or by policies and guidance being enacted by the government; or very possibly both.
Psychologists for Social Change’s previous briefing paper on austerity notes five key ways that mental health can be impacted by public policy. We believe these also come into play at times of huge social uncertainty such as during the current pandemic:
1. Being trapped and powerless
It is no understatement to say that the uncertainty around what will happen feels overwhelming at times. High levels of uncertainty can lead to more physiological stress than a known negative outcome. So the sense of powerlessness that many people are feeling in the face of the virus has led to increased levels of anxiety and distress. Some people who have been most detrimentally affected by austerity and cuts will struggle even more.
2. Fear and distrust
It is understandable that there is a very high level of fear for those of us with health conditions or loved ones who are more vulnerable. The UK government has warned that we should expect loved ones tol die, and death rates are mounting around the world each day. There is also heightened fear around how the NHS and other services will cope. This has been exacerbated by many years of cuts to health services, and a social care system which remains woefully underfunded even without the context of the current Covid-19 crisis. With beds requisitioned from the private sector, there are still question marks over who will profit from the current crisis. At times like these, distrust of those in power is likely to mount, especially for people who already feel let down by the government. There needs to be scrutiny around the new coronavirus bill to ensure that it does not undermine human rights.
3. Humiliation and shame
As humans we are naturally concerned about our status relative to others. The growing inequality gap across the UK is thought to have increased our risk to ‘social anxiety’ as a nation. This is said to be partly responsible for the breakdown in cohesion across communities and society. As the rich get richer the spread of wealth becomes polarised. This causes greater distancing between groups and a breakdown in ‘bridging relationships’ which support people to access resources beyond their immediate social position.
When under threat like this, our defenses come up, cohesion breaks down and it is easy to blame or stigmatise others. Rising inequality over at least the last decade has eroded our social ties causing division which has contributed to a rise in populist nationalism. Against this backdrop we have already seen a rise in racially aggravated incidents as people come to terms with the virus. The out-of-our-control nature of the unfolding situation can fly in the face of some of our deeply-held values as people who want to help or support others. Sitting with these values whilst feeling powerless may make us feel torn about what to do. We could feel shameful because the right answer isn’t going to always be clear.
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