​Psychologists can’t practice in a vacuum, ignoring SA’s social conditions and rights

Albana Vega taking a nap at the Siestario centre in Buenos Aires. City residents fight work-related stress with 20-minute naps at the centre. (Martin Acosta, Reuters)

Albana Vega taking a nap at the Siestario centre in Buenos Aires. City residents fight work-related stress with 20-minute naps at the centre. (Martin Acosta, Reuters)

Psychology in South Africa is at a crossroads in terms of its identity – as are individuals, communities and society at large.

With this in mind, the Psychological Society of South Africa (PsySSA) is hosting its 22nd annual congress this month under the theme “Psychology’s response/ability”.

Being a discipline concerned with human behaviour, thinking and emotion it is not possible to work in a professional manner that extricates itself from human suffering at the broader societal level – or is it?

Through the congress theme we urge professionals and organisations to interrogate their level of responsiveness to societal issues and their abilities to involve themselves in effecting change. Social activism has been a hallmark feature of PsySSA since its formation in 1994, a few months before the birth of South Africa’s democracy.

We question psychologists who practice their profession in a vacuum that ignores matters of basic human rights or that subscribes to ideologies of social exclusion. We have consistently responded to the marginalisation, mistreatment and abuse of vulnerable groups.
These have included condemnation of the torture of detainees in Guantanamo Bay and the complicit role of psychologists, and our strong responses to the mass discharge of chronically ill patients from a Gauteng mental health facility.

PsySSA has also taken a lead role in policy development relating to the rights of the sexually and gender diverse.

It is critical issues such as these that psychologists and other health workers must be responsive to, and sharpen their ability to respond. If health professionals fail to engage the broader social and human rights affecting our society, especially marginalised and vulnerable groups, then we will cease to be a credible profession. Psychology espouses the idea of a holistic approach to health, and putting this into practice means addressing social well-being and all of the influencing factors.

As the nationally representative association for psychology professionals, PsySSA is concerned about the extent to which the discipline responds to societal issues in terms of health, social policy and human rights. For example, injustices such as criminal violence and hate crimes require strong responses.

In 2014, PsySSA past-president Siphiwe Ngcobo and president David Maree wrote a letter of concern to the country’s president about the levels of violence in South Africa, and offered to help address the problem. The letter was sent again early last year. A few weeks later Ngcobo was brutally murdered. To date we have received no response to their letters.

South Africa has numerous social-justice issues that require urgent attention and where psychology must be responsive. For example, poverty is a major stressor affecting millions, resulting in malnutrition, growth stunting and developmental delays in children, not to mention the effects on adults.

Does psychology have a role to play in this problem or is it out of “the frame” to quote psychology jargon? We have to engage the authorities on this issue. Apart from the intrinsic and immediate effect of poverty on individuals and families, the long-term effects of ill-health, disability, health care and social grant bills on the nation are severe.

Psychology training focuses minimally on poverty in the broader context of mental health care. Treatment modalities are not contextualised for poorer people as much as they are for those in the upper income and educational brackets. It is critical that the psychology profession realises this and works towards change for wider application.

There is also a major concern about the educational disadvantages of many children. Psychology needs to respond to the plight of children who are squashed into dilapidated classrooms. Children are being swept away while trying to cross rivers in their attempts to get to school. How are children who are schooled in such circumstances, often with under-qualified teachers, expected to concentrate, learn and achieve a better life?

Learning is a fundamental and most basic aspect of psychology, so the discipline is best placed to respond, but to date it has not responded in any meaningful way. We need ask why and we need to change this.

There are numerous matters of social justice and inequality in which psychology has a responsibility to involve itself. Although it has responded to a few, the discipline needs to demonstrate more substantive responses and ability in many other areas.

Professor Anthony Pillay is president of the Psychological Society of South Africa, Professor Juan Nel is its past president and Professor Sumaya Laher is its president-elect. The 22nd annual South African Psychology Congress takes place from September 21 to 23.

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