As a profession, British psychologists have traditionally been slow to rush to the forefront when it comes to societal, political or social injustices. This is in spite of available information and data – the British Psychological Society, which represents psychologists in the UK, has a list of articles related to Government and Politics alone.
Dr. Libby Watson of the University of East London wrote, “Rather than sitting in ivory towers or locked in clinic rooms, we as a profession need to get out – reach out to communities in need; talk to the people with the ‘power’”. In Keith Tuffin’s Understanding Critical Social Psychology, he notes that political ‘neutrality’ has led to a lack of reflection on where psychological research and practice sit within society – notably, what ideas and values underlie certain research topics.
There has been a call to go ‘beyond the therapy room’ and for psychologists to ‘speak out’ about things that matter. ‘Things that matter’ to psychologists might include the overuse of deadly anti-psychotic drugs in dementia, the personal and social implications of psychiatric diagnoses, gender disparity in ‘attempted’ and ‘completed’ suicides (the article’s terminology), and race differentials in treatment for ‘schizophrenia’. More recently, however, the United Kingdom’s austerity measures have mattered. They have mattered a lot. The key question is – why does austerity matter to psychologists?
Arguably, psychologists’ “speaking out” action has started with petitions. There were some intra-professional actions, for example psychologists have joined initiatives to provide free psychotherapy to the poor. However, now psychologists have started to march, and they marched 100 miles from Leicester to London.
The Walk the Talk 2015 campaign was set up by psychologists who wanted to walk alongside those affected by austerity – most notably, the benefits system, food poverty, and homelessness. They state that the UK is the second most unequal country in the world; over 25% of British children live in poverty and the use of food banks has quintupled since 2010. “Social inequalities have been shown to have a detrimental impact on mental health and well-being, as well as physical health and academic achievement, across the lifespan”.
What of these claims? Take the first point, the UK benefits system. Sanctions drove one gentleman to set his car alight, with him inside. Another man hanged himself due to his disability benefits being cut and the coroner ruled the benefits cuts as an unequivocal cause. Stephanie Bottrill wrote in her suicide note, after being subject to the ‘bedroom tax’, “The only people to blame are the government”. Calum’s list, a memorial for those who have ended their lives due to cuts, put the number at 60+. And the deaths don’t end there.
Between 2011 and 2014, 90 people per month died after their Employment and Support Allowance was stopped and approaching half of these had appealed the decision; this does not support causal effect, but proportions of deaths were higher than the general population. Indeed, research from the World Health Organisation suggests that the life expectancy of people with disabilities in 2010 should be 68.6 (compared to 79.9 for people without disability) – how many ‘working age adults’ whose benefits were stopped have reached close to 68.6 years old? Research by UK mental health charity The Samaritans found that poorer men are 10 times more likely to end their lives than richer men; ideas of money and power being salient in cultures with toxic societal ideals of masculinity.
Few people would disagree that food poverty is detrimental to wellbeing. We have this understanding in all areas of Western life, from a well-known chocolate bar suggesting “You’re not you when you’re hungry”, to psychologists talking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (Maslow & Lewis, 1987). The hierarchy of needs suggests that a human needs a foundation of being well-fed and physically safe and secure to pursue other goals that facilitate wellbeing. However, it may be reductionist to suggest that food is only at the bottom of the ‘needs’ pyramid.
More broadly, food is an important ritual – friends meet for coffee, birthdays are celebrated with meals in restaurants, gifts are often edible or drinkable, people may invite close ones to their house for dinner. Food poverty can exacerbate social isolation, as one is unable to partake in such seemingly ordinary social rituals. The group Psychologists Against Austerity have specifically noted the social shame of having to attend food banks. Malnutrition affects a child’s cognitive development. A lack of breakfast has little effect on a well-nourished child, but affects malnourished children.
Homelessness, which no doubt exposes people to food poverty, paints a bleak picture of people’s psychological wellbeing, according to the American Psychological Association. Crucially, there are a number of interlinking factors that leads to lack of housing having an impact on mental wellbeing. Feeling low or ‘depressed’ is characterised by loss, powerless and guilt (not necessarily all at once, or by all theorists), problems with anxiety or anger are related to threat, substance abuse can be related to ‘numbing’ difficulties.
Add to this an uncertain, transitory lifestyle, condescending or abusive social environments, the increased risk of sexual assault and physical assault – not to mention traumatic events that might have led to homeslessness, or ongoing physical of mental health problems – and we have an utterly deplorable picture. Problems such as poor hygiene (hair, teeth, clothes, body…), sleeping lightly or sporadically, exposure to unsavoury weather conditions, and a lack of basics such as deodorant or shaving equipment have a huge part to play in our self-image and overall wellbeing.
So yes, it seems that psychologists do have a stake in the UK’s current austerity measures.
And psychologists are by no means the only group invested. The anti-austerity movement is growing across the county. Psychologists aren’t just walking with other mental health professionals. On October 4th 2015, Psychologists Against Austerity marched against austerity in Manchester, with tens of thousands of British people – from disabled people against austerity, an alliance of psychotherapists, anti-fracking groups, concerned parents, charity workers, student assemblies, human rights activists, junior doctors, university lecturers, anti-racism campaigners, politicians, trade unions, although not all of these groups got a mention in the media. Indeed, the media is reporting numbers up to 40,000 people fewer than the “100,000 and growing” number given to those who attended the march before it had even started moving.
Notable clinical psychologists David Smail wrote extensively about the effects of society on the individual – his “radical environmentalist theory of personal distress” rejects the idea that personal problems are inside an individual and their immediate environment, and advocates consideration of macro, political factors. The British Psychological Society is to hold a conference in his honour in November 2015, crucially stating “David proposed that to understand why we are unhappy, rather than insight, we must cultivate ‘outsight’ into the world around us. This perspective – which encourages personal modesty, appreciation of luck, compassion, and recognition of our common humanity – is today more relevant than ever”. More relevant than ever.
So – psychologists are marching because it’s necessary. They’re marching because it makes sense. They’re marching, crucially, because even an apolitical profession in an apolitical organsation is unable to stand by and keep quiet whilst austerity measures disempower, disable, and dismiss British citizens. Whilst people beg, and die begging. That’s not what national wellbeing looks like. That’s not what basic humanity looks like. And until things begin to change, psychologists will continue to march.