In her well-articulated article, Dr Jenny Strachan, Clinical Psychologist, Marie Curie Hospice, Edinburgh, United Kingdom, talks about what it is that psychology has to offer when there is no mental health problem to treat:
The ‘science of mind and behaviour’ has many branches. Developmental psychology explores how our minds and behaviours are shaped by our early years’ experiences. Cognitive neuropsychology investigates how they are determined by the structure and functions of the brain. Social psychology considers the influence of the groups, large and small, in which we belong.
If psychologists in palliative care stick to a narrow, ‘clinical’ interpretation of the role, that is, direct treatment of disorder, we miss an opportunity to promote and preserve the wellbeing of all our patients. Not to mention the wellbeing of fellow staff.
Psychology is not a complementary therapy. It should not be thought of as an ‘extra’ that we add in for the patients who are struggling. It is the theory-driven, evidence-based study of being human, and it has something to offer us all.
Exactly. Psychology comes from an academic study of ordinary people of all ages behaving the way people do in the range of conditions they encounter. It deals with extremes, of course it does, but it is rooted in normality and as such has always been more able to distinguish the extraordinary within that context from the extraordinary that marks illness than disciplines defined by the illness model of behaviour. When bad things happen to people – abuse, terror, war, poverty and deprivation – it should be no surprise that personal survival depends on making the best, consciously and unconsciously, of one’s own psychological defences. This is adaptive and normal even though its expression may seem far from being either.
Strachan is talking here about terminal care but as a clinical psychologist for adults with intellectual disabilities, that was our approach before the emphasis on therapy took hold. There was triumph in finding a way for someone to use a cash point independently, in devising a one-off experiment to establish reliability of eye-pointing for a complex decision or assessing whether or not a man accused of masterminding a criminal act was faking his disability so as to appear incapable, and enabling a woman about whom many of us had concerns regarding her apparent passivity, to show us she knew exactly what getting married meant and that she wanted to get on with it.
To me, therapy is a last resort for most people because it means we’ve failed as applied psychologists to promote well-being as a key activity, whether with vulnerable groups specifically or in society at large. Our discipline establishes and extends bodies of knowledge in every area affecting humans, from building design to neurobiology, group processes and social influence, the impact of the prenatal environment, causes and management of criminality, and the social dynamics of ageing and dying. Which begs the question – why are we so focused on delivering cognitive therapy to people who may not have needed that at all had we put the same effort and priority into prevention and resilience?
I see Strachan’s article as a call for psychology to re-establish itself as the multi-dimensional science it is; one that, instead of spending all its time pulling people out of the river, is able to look upstream to see what is pushing them in*.
*This is a paraphrasing of a quote by a senior nurse in (probably) the Nursing Times at least thirty years ago and for which I can no longer find the source. The idea has been around that long and still it seems new.