Psychological Society of Ireland Presidential Address

PSI  Speech

Thank you Ian for your kind introduction. It has been an honour to work alongside you not only this year as part of the presidential team but for the past number of years on council and as my friend.

I would like to begin by expressing what an honour it is to be here today alongside Vicky Phelan and to thank you for sharing your story with us.  Vicky, you never asked to be put in this position, to have a life-threatening illness, to be thrust into a position of national leadership, with the health and welfare of so many at stake. But each and every challenge you faced, you grabbed it by the scruff of the neck and you tackled it head on.

We hear about the importance of resilience time and time again.  If you want to know what real resilience looks like, take a moment to consider the inner strength necessary to look cancer in the eye, to face your own mortality while simultaneously publicly taking on the establishment, the courts, the government, all under the spotlight of the media for the benefit of others. Your selflessness, your courage, and your leadership against all odds is inspirational.

Vicky Phelan, you are the epitome of true resilience.

I would also like to extend my thanks to all of you who have come to the conference this year. It’s wonderful to see such a great resurgence in numbers coming back and this is in large part due to the honesty of the feedback from members, you told us & we listened.

It is also a testament to the work and commitment of the communications and events committee who have enacted so many of the reforms that have reinvigorated this wonderful annual event.

I would also like to extend my thanks to the staff in PSI who work tirelessly on all of our behalves. The achievements and reforms of PSI this year would not have been possible without their commitment and expertise and I look forward to continuing to work closely with them next year alongside our President Elect for 2020, Megan Gaffney.

I stand before you today not as a senior clinical psychologist, not as a chartered clinical psychologist, but as a psychologist, nothing more, nothing less, but yet good enough.   While our respective identities within psychology are a core and important part of who we are, as being a clinical psychologist is for me, from my perspective what is most important is that I am a psychologist and will therefore be a president for all psychologists in PSI, not for some, but for all. 

For too many years Psychology has been beset by its own inner tribalism, by split identities and by perceived or actual exclusivity.  For Psychology to achieve all that it can and is capable of achieving, that needs to end   And I am committed to making this happen.

It’s my aim to ensure every member of PSI, from associate to student to a fellow of the society, feels valued. As long as we value each other equally then the distance needed to reach equality for all will not feel as far.  We have recently received a commitment from the HSE to look into means by which our colleagues in both Counselling & Educational Psychology will also be funded during training.  This is long overdue. All psychologists in professional training, irrespective of psychological perspective should be treated equally and paid equally during training.

On a personal level, I am truly honoured to be your president for 2020, the 50th year of our formation.  I know one thing for certain, I will not get everything right, nor will my colleagues on council, but we will at all times endeavour to represent psychology, and to represent you to the best of our ability at all times. I am excited at the large number of new members of council that will serve next year with the breadth of experience and energy that they will bring to the society. I’m also equally terrified at the prospect of having to chair meetings of such an eminent group of psychologists, but it’s a nice terror, if there is such a thing.

Preparation for this talk has afforded me the opportunity to reflect on my own humble beginnings in psychology. It hasn’t been a straightforward journey, as I’m sure many of you can relate to. Much like PSI, it has taken time for me to tentatively find my place.

I dreamed of being many things in my early career choices and psychology was not always top of the list.  My first choice? To be a member of An Garda Siochana but at that particular time life dictated that this was not to be, because of my height.  That wasn’t the end of this particular chapter but I’ll leave the plot twist until later.

My academic journey got off to a shaky start, when I had to repeat the leaving cert. Truth be told I wasn’t ready yet to embrace the world beyond school and so I decided to repeat. After a further year of study, I achieved the princely sum of 5 additional points more than my first attempt at the leaving cert. Imagine breaking that news to your parents after a whole year.  That extra year did have one unexpected opportunity however. 

Many of you will know of the ice breaker “2 truths and 1 lie”.  Each time I’ve participated in it one of the statements I always include is “I studied in a seminary”.  I’m not sure what people think of me at the best of times but in this scenario they always think that’s the lie.  However….

My late aunt Kathleen was the administrator in St Patricks Seminary in Carlow & knowing of my interest in psychology and through her and my understanding school Principal I studied an introduction to psychology module under the tutelage of Dr Betty Cody alongside the seminarians while also studying for my leaving cert.  It was an invaluable early taster of what was to come.

I subsequently ventured forward to 1st year arts in UCD, studying psychology, sociology and politics.  Despite my desires to progress in psychology, politics was what I seemed to excel in.  But my dear grandmother had me warned to an inch of my life that if ever entered formal politics she would forever haunt me from her grave. And knowing her to be a woman of her word and never someone to issue an idle threat, I stuck with Psychology instead!

I will profess that at the end of my time in UCD I was somewhat unclear of my ultimate potential career pathway.  One day in 3rd year while wandering the corridors of the architectural wonderment that is the Arts block, I came across an ad for a masters in applied psychology in Jordanstown and in the absence of any other better formulated plans I thought why not.  If I thought the move from Laois to Dublin was culture shock then heading North was a whole different experience and while it was an anxiety provoking one it was also one I was excited about and my time there was something I continue to treasure.  A year later, masters achieved and more importantly lifelong friends met, I returned back south with the terrifying prospect of having to seek a real job for the first time in my life. 

I was very lucky to be employed in Scoil Mhicil Naofa in Athy working with a wonderful group of children who also happened to have autism.  This was my first opportunity to see how psychology might and could translate into real world change for real people. It was also my first experience of practically having to see the world around me through the eyes and perspective of another.  Primarily using the TEACCH method we learned the critical values embedded within psychological practice of consistency and predictability. We also better understood the importance of our responsibility to adapt the physical environment for children with ASD and not assuming that it was their responsibility to adapt to whatever was in their environment.

I also worked as a part time college lecturer, social care worker in a detention centre and with children with intellectual disabilities before embarking on the long, winding and at times bumpy road to professional training.

As I suspect many of you here can attest to, applying for professional psychology training programmes is certainly a test of character. Acceptance of rejection would not be a preferred learning outcome on your career pathway, but one most of us know all too well. I think the empathy I continue to feel for many of you early career psychologists battling against the odds for so few places in professional training programmes is one borne from experience and without a doubt continues to influence my determination to do all that I can to try and make your  pathway a smoother one.

We all have our own unique journeys that have led us into psychology.  The stereotypical representation of psychologists is that we link everything back to childhood.  But in this stereotype is often many seeds of truth. 

I remember being in school at lunch and seeing a big fuss of some peers looking out the window of the class at someone on the road below.  Some of my peers would shout and jeer at this particular man walking past.  If he reacted in any way it was greeted with whoops of joy.  Our school was a couple of hundred yards from the local Psychiatric hospital and the man in question attended there.  I never joined in the shouting and jeering but I also never said stop. I knew I should have said stop, but I feared they’d turn on me so I stayed silent.  I often reflect with clients how there is nothing we can do to change our past but our past has the power to shape and change our futures. I now know staying silent isn’t an option and I regularly advocate for improved mental health services. And when I do, I always think of that man and hope he’s doing well.

In the past year I’ve given a series of workshops to transition year students around Dublin.  At the end of one of them I invited questions and one came that froze me to the spot, “were you socially anxious as a teenager?” 

I never saw it coming.  What did he see in me, that made him wonder about me and my past, did I seem anxious, what gave it away? Perhaps it was just one of those out of the mouths of babes scenarios. One of the most important lessons you absolutely have to know about working with teenagers is that they have the most finely tuned bullshit detectors in the world. They know when someone isn’t being genuine and at that very moment, I found myself being put to the ultimate test by one inquisitive teenager with 100 curious others awaiting my response.

So I did something I never expected that I would do. Something I never thought I would admit to myself, never mind to a room full of teenagers… I said yes.

For a lot of my life I moved in and out of constant states of anxiety that I wouldn’t be good enough for myself or those around me.   When you constantly fear the views and perceptions of those around you, perceiving danger around every corner, it can feel exhausting. For me those paralytic feelings of anxiety became so tiring that it led me to a desire for something to be different, not perfect, not aiming for an absence of anxiety, but to discover a way to accept its role in my life, to embrace the reality of its presence without it generating day to day road blocks and getting in the way of my life, my future.

I had to have a long, hard and honest conversation with my anxiety. Until recently I found it hard to find the words to capture the essence of that conversation I had with myself until I heard the lyrics of the song Castle, by Freya Ridings

And I hate that you think that I’m weak

‘Cause I don’t wanna let you know

I’m gonna build castles

From the rubble of your love

I’m gonna be more than, stronger than

You ever thought I was

“What I am is good enough, if I would only be it openly” said Carl Rogers.  So in the spirit of this I am proud and no longer fearful of stigma or shame to say, that I am, like many others before me, and many who will follow after me, am a wounded healer. Woundedness is just another metaphor for our humanness and connectedness to our humanness is what makes everyone in this room a better psychologist.  It has without any doubt helped me. 

We have been criticised in some quarters for speaking out, on issues such as clinical leadership, recruitment of psychologists and the importance of evidence in public discourse. As John F Kennedy once said, there’s something immoral about abandoning your own judgement. I will admit at times it has been tempting, in the face of opposition and public exposure to consider staying quiet, not to speak up, to swing between the desire for down time and self-care vs the need to say what needs to be said. Leadership can take many forms but for me the most important form with PSI is visible leadership, not sitting on the sidelines, but speaking out when issues of relevance to members, prospective members or for the benefit of the public at large need to be said.

One of the areas that I’ve been most vocal upon has been in trying to consistently challenge the scaremongering and moral panics in relation to young people and social media.  My colleague Professor Andrew Coogan first drew my attention to the words of Alberto Bradolini who said that “The amount of energy necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.”  When it comes to misrepresentative and inaccurate media headlines relating to young people and technology use the amount of energy necessary to refute what gets reported would be enough to power a small country for a year. 

Despite this there is a committed cohort of evidence focussed psychologists in Ireland, the UK and USA who have been determined to raise their heads above the parapet and highlight evidence over populism.  It has been a privilege to work with and be amongst such eminent cyber psychologists who recognise both the benefits and potential pitfalls of technology use and are willing to stand behind the core principle of correlation never equals causation. I and my colleagues have often been accused of being naïve or social media apologists and failing to uphold the well-known Simpsons principle of “won’t someone please think of the children”.  Through our daily work of listening to children and young people, through not seeing social media in black or white terms, we are always thinking of the children and thinking of the ways that we can empower and educate them and their parents to use technology in safer ways.

Good Leadership is solving problems. My father began his career in the Irish army as a teenager and I’m reminded of a quote by General Colin Powell, former U.S. Secretary of State. “The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help, or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership”. There may be aspects of leadership that I will struggle to master, being available to listen to the feedback and concerns of members is one aspect of leadership I intend to fulfil.

I believe as a collective group of Psychologists we should be proactive agitators of change in public policy and public opinion. We should be the voice of those who for whatever reason struggle to find or articulate their own voice.  To do this meaningfully and effectively we will at times need to move out from our therapy rooms and academic hallways.

We may not always be popular with some sectors for what we may have to say, but if we are to have the courage of our convictions, as I believe we should, then we take that on the chin and we plough on regardless. We say what needs to be said without fear or favour, because it is the right thing to do and because the evidence supports that position. Let us move out from patriarchal governance structures or any other constraints that might threaten to silence us.  PSI as an organisation should be leading from the front.  We often ask our clients to take risks, to radically change how they view themselves, others and how they interact with the world. If we are to be true to our values then we need to lead the way.

We will soon be commissioning a documentary focussing on the 50 years of PSI and how our history intertwines with important milestones in Irish society.  I look forward to sharing this with you in 2020.

Volunteerism has been the bedrock of PSI over the past 50 years and this is set to continue. It compromises of people who care above and beyond for the future of and wellbeing of their profession.  It is an organisation that is built upon a strong foundation of volunteerism for it to function. This has been an important part of my life also. Cue plot twist….

Parallel to my Psychological career I have also been a Reserve member of An Garda Siochana for over 11 years.  The most common question I’ve been asked over those years, and am still asked on occasions, is “are you mental doing this for free?”  Many of you who know me will know that the answer to that question is a resounding yes. 

However, that same question could be asked of all those who give their time for PSI, many of whom are in this room today.  Perhaps we all have been “mental” to give back to our professional body for free, but if so the end has more than justified the means. I see many similarities between An Garda Siochana and PSI, members of both give their service for the betterment of others. This service is not always recognised for what it is but members of both organisations dedicate themselves to the protection of the public and I am proud to serve as a member of both.

So why do you do this? Why do you give up your Saturday mornings and your late nights to work on issues for PSI?  I believe you do it because of the importance of mentors, the people you have encountered in your early careers, who chose to see something in you, to believe in you, to believe that you could be something more, to grow, to learn, to prosper.  I would encourage you all to sit back for a moment and think of those who have inspired you to strive to where you have come in your psychology career so far. 

For me, I would not be here without my inspirations and my mentors, Catherine Jackman, Michael Drumm, Andy Conway, Mitchel Fleming and Odhran McCarthy in particular but also my colleagues within psychology. Perhaps more so than many professions, the oft quoted cliché that no person is an island rings very true for me in Psychology.  And I would argue nor should we be, and the strength that underlies our noble profession is the support that we give to each other through good times and more challenging times.  I can only hope that I also may have the honour of assuming the role of mentor and guide to those who follow me in the same way that my colleagues and friends have supported me.

We are 50 years old as an organisation but perhaps it could be argued we are only transitioning out of our teenage years in terms of evolution and development?   In the past, PSI has struggled at times with uncertainty, about who we are as an organisation. But thankfully this is changing. We are now much clearer on who we are and what we believe in and our having conversations on the issues that matter most to our profession and our clients. I’d encourage everyone here to be part of these conversations because as a member led organisation, our strength is in our collective voices.

However, I’m also conscious that PSI is a family and like any family we are confronted by different points of view, and experience ups and downs. We will not always agree but what is important is that we remain a family committed to common goals.  In any family the youth are the core of its future.  Recent Presidencies I hope will be defined as ones that placed an emphasis on the future of our society.  Our former president, Brendan O’Connell introduced many key strategic values which were long overdue, especially inclusivity.  I want to be judged on my implementation of these and other values. Actions will always speak so much louder than words. 

To begin, one such action was to introduce reduced rates for conference attendance for students and you have backed that decision by re-joining us in such big numbers again this year. In our first ever pre-budget submission to government this year we called for many things including equality of funding for those on the doctorates in educational and counselling psychology.  This will continue to be a core focus of our advocacy. We are also currently exploring ways to introduce webinars for our members as we are very conscious that our location in Dublin is not always practical for those around the country so that training and events will have online options also.

I’ve been asked a number of times this year by lapsed colleagues “what has/ does PSI do for me to justify paying the membership fee?” I’ve struggled with this question for a number of reasons.  I can see their perspective. PSI has not always been the best at highlighting all the work that they have been tireless doing behind the scenes for many years.  This became apparent to me during my early time on council.  Many of us will be familiar with the phrase that “justice must not only be done but be seen to be done”.  PSI has a long history of advocating for its members and the public but not enough of this has been seen to be done. 

Student and early career psychologists in my view have at times over the years struggled to find a voice and to be meaningfully heard. PSI not only needs to be their voice, but their authentic voice. I hope that we have begun that process this year and I will continue to keep the views of students and early career psychologists core to our agenda.  I am confident that the decision of council to review our fee structures and agreement to make PSI membership more affordable will be further evidence of our concrete commitment to building a solid and sustainable future for our early career psychologist colleagues. 

So what for the next 50 years of PSI? One thing I do know is that it will not be up to me to define what happens for these next 50 years but what I would hope in our 50th year is to lay the foundations for what might come. 

What I believe will be core to that foundation will be hope, hope that the students and early career psychologists who come behind me, who I have had the privilege to meet and listen to at conferences and online this year, who inspire me to believe that Psychology will continue to be both a proactive and powerful voice on all aspects of public life.

Why is PSI important to me & why should it be important to you? For me it gave me a sense of belonging, a sense of acceptance.  Something I didn’t have for the most part of my adolescence.  PSI gave me a sense of purpose, a reason to think that, together, we could achieve more.  The collective voice that PSI affords us also endows us with the power to make real change, for members, but also more importantly for those in need, for those most vulnerable in society, that we can and should be the agent provocateurs.  We have moved beyond our adolescence as an organisation, we are not happy anymore to sit on the side-lines, we want to be, we demand to be leaders insociety and we have the knowledge, the training and the inner desire to strive to improve the lives of others. It is what defines us as psychologists.

I want to leave you with probably what is my favourite quote, from Theodore Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Thank you.

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