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A Conduit for Good: How Psychologists are Making the World a Better Place

When you think of a psychology, an image of a clinical psychologist listening to a patient lying on a couch might be the first image that springs to mind. But psychology professionals operate across all parts of society to improve people’s lives – from counsellors working to resolve trauma to those developing policies on how to prevent harm to a vulnerable group before it happens. 

Whether they're working in the clinical, counselling, health or another specialism, psychologists can be a good conduit for social change. Below we explore a few of the ways that those working in this field of science are making the world a better place. 

 

How psychologists are helping to combat the effects of poverty and violence 

In 1967 Martin Luther King Jr spoke to over 5,000 people at the American Psychological Association’s Annual Convention, calling on behavioural scientists to decrease divisiveness and further social justice in America. In this, he recognised the place of psychology as a force for reducing human suffering. 

More recently, medical institutions have begun paying attention to the effects of poverty and inequality on our physical and mental health.  A recent article in The Psychologist revealed that in Tottenham, the life expectancy for men is 17 years lower than it is for men living in the more affluent Kensington and Chelsea. Looking beyond physical health, the effects of social inequality were linked with anxiety, stress and other mental illnesses. In another study of poorer and violent neighbourhoods within Chicago, 29% of the African-American women who participated suffered from PTSD.  Plus, poverty also demonstrably increases the risk of suicide, with people living in the most disadvantaged communities facing the highest risk

The link between poverty and poor mental health underscores the need for policy makers to work with psychologists. And, for decades psychologists have been dedicated to tackling this complex social problem. In fact, it was as early as the 1900s that counselling psychology arose from a need to address psychological issues stemming from widespread poverty and unemployment. 

In 2019, the American Psychological Association (APA) explicitly committed itself to tackling challenges stemming from ‘deep poverty’ (defined as living on an income of less than $6,000 USD per annum). The APA’s Presidential Initiative on Deep Poverty has said that deep poverty causes considerable physical and psychological harm, that requires specific ways of readdressing. Considering this, they recommended three ways psychologists could help tackle poverty: advocating for a change in perceptions of people living in deep poverty; supporting policy changes that increase safety-net programmes; and improving clinical practice regarding poorer individuals. 

Psychology is about reducing human suffering, with psychologists helping people primarily through trying to understand why people think, feel and act the way they do. Enabling people living in disadvantaged communities to improve their mental wellbeing and health is just one way they are doing this. 

 

How psychologists are working to help create a fairer society 

In recent decades psychology professionals have also embraced the need to combat discrimination in all forms, working to make the world a fairer place.  

The link between discrimination and poor mental health has long been documented. A 2015 systematic review found a strong correlation between experiencing racism and depression, stress, anxiety and PTSD. Additionally, evidence suggests that people identifying as LGBTQ+ are at a higher risk of experiencing poor mental health with individuals who experience discrimination reporting consistently higher stress levels than heterosexual adults.  

One approach that aims to address the imbalances in society and give voice to underrepresented populations is community psychology. Arising in the 1960s, community psychology explicitly attempts to tackle the effects of discrimination on mental health. Community psychologists not only provide treatment to vulnerable, marginalised groups but also advocate for policy that protects them.  

In fact, psychologists have been effective in providing the core research public policy draws from to address such social problems. For instance, the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team brings together findings from economists and social psychologists to improve public policy, and this has translated into practical measures, such as training for police officers on how to appropriately adjust interview strategies and give care to survivors

Regarding the issues faced by the LGBTQ+ community, psychologists are making progress. From implementing more effective, informed treatment for individuals experiencing mental health issues to actively campaigning for their rights, psychologists are at the forefront. The British Psychological Society, for example, was influential in raising awareness of the harm conversion therapy does, eventually leading to a commitment from the UK Government to ban it. Psychologists are also working to combat the stigma faced by many LGBTQ+ people, collaborating with reproductive health experts to campaign for the removal of transgender as a mental and behavioural disorder

If that wasn’t all, psychologists are using research to improve counselling to refugees and asylum seekers. Often, these groups suffer from complex trauma that is uniquely different to anything experienced by the general population. Psychologists have worked to address the inequalities faced by refugees by collaborating with interpreters to provide care in their own language, demonstrating cultural awareness to avoid causing distress during treatment, as well as developing bespoke treatment that considers refugees’ needs as they assimilate into the wider society. 

 

How psychologist are helping to reduce the impact of poor physical health 

Physical health often goes hand in hand with mental health. And, today, psychologists and public health officials are realising that more needs to be done to address these issues in a holistic way.  

The links between stress and ill physical health is well documented, with elevated stress levels causing or exasperating insomnia, heart disease and obesity among many other ailments. People experiencing schizophrenia have double the risk of death from heart disease, while depression can cause chronic pain, memory loss and negatively impact the immune system, making those living with the condition more susceptible to infections and diseases. 

Today, psychologists play an instrumental role in helping people to maintain healthier lifestyles and reducing the effects of poor mental health on physical wellbeing. Specialist health psychologists work across the whole spectrum of healthcare to improve treatment and policy; examples can be seen in how they advise other healthcare professionals on the psychological impact of ill health in order to improve the care they offer to service-users. Looking towards policy, one of the many duties of public health psychologists is to work with authorities to improve the effectiveness of messaging used in wellbeing and health campaigns. Psychologists are even hands-on with supporting people who are trying to quit smoking offering services such as behavioural therapy and counselling. This demonstrates how, every day, psychologists from all walks are out there, striving to make a difference to the physical health of society. 

 

Psychology as a force for good 

Psychology is a science but, perhaps more than other disciplines, it connects practitioners with its subjects in an intimate way. Clinical and counselling psychologists work directly with their patients to resolve distress and promote psychological wellbeing, predominantly in health and social care settings. However, there are many other types of psychologists out there in health, education, social care and beyond, offering advice and support and influencing changes that are making the world a better place. 

So, if you’re a graduate looking for a dynamic, rewarding career that provides tangible, positive benefits to the lives of others, psychology might be the right path for you, whether you choose to follow the clinical route or one of the numerous other avenues available.

 

Broaden Your Mind: Join Our Psychology Masters  

If you’re interested in pursuing a career as a Chartered Psychologist, our BPS accredited distance learning Psychology MSc (conversion course) is the perfect  way to start to your career. It is open to graduates from any background, and will give you the freedom to study part time, whenever and wherever you want. Discover more about the course here

 

 


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