The politicisation of clinical psychology

Social justice activism is replacing scientific enquiry

2nd November 2022
Carole Sherwood and Kirsty Miller

Clinical psychology training courses have been captured by critical social justice ideology, argue Carole Sherwood and Kirsty Miller.

Scientific enquiry has been rejected in favour of social justice activism in the UK’s clinical psychology training courses. This is the key finding of a new report published by Save Mental Health, an independent research group comprising academics, psychologists and health professionals concerned about mental health services in the UK and committed to protecting evidence-based mental health treatment.

In The Politicisation of Clinical Psychology Training Courses in the UK, Carole Sherwood and Kirsty Miller show, through the findings from freedom of information requests, that NHS Health Education England is providing substantial funding to training courses to promote critical race theory and decolonise their curricula of ‘White’ and ‘Eurocentric’ treatments. This is happening at a time when the UK is experiencing a significant mental health crisis,
following the Covid-19 pandemic. In adopting a politicised approach to training, these courses are encouraging unethical and discriminatory practices that contravene standards set by the Health and Care Professions Council which regulates health professionals in the UK.

The bigger picture

Few in the third decade of the 21st Century dispute the general perception that Western cultural, political and social systems are experiencing a period of tumultuous change. During a time of social turmoil, it is to be expected that individuals, no longer sure of their footing, might seek external sources of help and guidance. Historically, this role has been fulfilled by doctors, priests and respected elders. In recent times, it is more likely that people consult professional therapists such as clinical psychologists.

Over the last few decades, the services provided by those therapists have become increasingly regulated: professional associations and government regulatory bodies have performed the necessary functions required to maintain ethical standards within the professions.

Wider context

It is important to acknowledge that psychology does not operate in a vacuum: it is affected and shaped by larger social, cultural and political forces. For example, clinical psychologists are trained within universities and often work within the NHS and other statutory agencies: the policies operating in these wider contexts influence and place constraints on training and practice. This has, of course, been the case for decades. So why is it particularly important to consider this wider context now?

Mainly because a new world view – one that is collectivist, explicitly political and authoritarian – has increasing purchase on our cultural institutions. This world view identified as Critical Social Justice (CSJ) is shaping the wider health and social care professions, their institutions and their practices.

Social Justice v Critical Social Justice

Until very recently, CSJ and its radically different world view has been able to establish itself unchallenged in UK institutions. The reason this has happened so easily is due to confusion about definitions. The term Critical Social Justice does not mean the same as the term social justice. The latter is generally accepted to mean the pursuit of a fair and just society for everyone. While clinical psychologists might be expected to favour social justice in its generally accepted sense, it would be surprising to find them automatically accepting and advocating for Critical Social Justice which is an anti-scientific, postmodernist concept informed by Marxist Critical Theory.

In order to understand the context of the report, it is important to determine the differences in meaning of these two terms. In the recent past the term social justice would have been understood as a classic liberal notion of moving steadily and incrementally in the direction of a society that was fair and just for everyone. Although it sounds very similar to the classic liberal term, Critical Social Justice is radically different. (CSJ) is a political ideology, with utopian commitments, whose origins are in Marxist thought and postmodernist theory. CSJ is an umbrella term that includes critical race and gender ideologies that adopt a specific theoretical approach to addressing issues of prejudice and discrimination on the grounds of characteristics like race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, dis/ability and body size.

CSJ aims to disrupt and dismantle Western political and social systems which it regards as systematically oppressive. Its goal is continuous revolution. CSJ claims that knowledge is not objective but culturally constructed to maintain oppressive power systems. As such, it poses a serious threat to clinical psychology which conventionally draws on scientific knowledge to help people experiencing psychological distress.

What does CSJ look like in practice?

In the wider society, wherever CSJ gains control its key characteristics become very clear: it is authoritarian; dedicated to the dismantling of societal norms; hostile to any opposing viewpoint; hostile to evidence and reason; and its goal is the hijacking of everything for political ends.

The therapy professions have not been able to protect themselves from the encroachments of CSJ. Activists have been able to establish themselves in the professional bodies and activist scholars have been able to change the established narratives of therapy. Below are some examples:

● The adoption and normalisation of CSJ gender identity ideology has permeated all professional bodies and institutions. Those publicly holding different viewpoints have been silenced. For example, in 2021 James Esses was expelled from the Metanoia Institute, where he was training to be a counsellor, after raising concerns about safeguarding young people with gender dysphoria.

● Contested ideas such as microaggressions, intersectionality and decolonisation of curricula have been widely accepted and adopted without debate or discussion.

● Concerns raised about the lack of evidence-base and incompatibility of CSJ with standard clinical practice have been dismissed and those raising concerns subjected to twitterstorms of protest and denunciations by the British Psychological Society and its members.

● Acceptance of insulting pejorative characterisation of the majority population, for example the Moss, D., (2021) paper on whiteness as a form of parasitism and the use of terms such as toxic masculinity and white fragility.

● The NHS’s adoption of ‘anti-racist’ policies based on Critical Race Theory, a major branch of CSJ. Those who express support for a colour-blind approach and raise concerns about patient safeguarding, such as trainee psychotherapist Amy Gallagher, are accused of racism.

What is happening in training?

It is important to establish whether these examples are indications of a short-term ‘fad’ or an indication of deeper and long-term change. Clinical psychology may be undergoing a process of transformation from a therapeutic practice into a political one. The best way to find out is to look at what is happening in clinical psychology training institutions as these hold the key to the future of the profession.

There is already considerable anecdotal evidence from training institutions in North America. Here CSJ is well-established and students are unhappy with the focus on advocacy and political activism in their counselling training programmes. There are also instances of professors speaking up who have then either been cancelled or forced to resign.

Clinical Psychology Courses in the UK

In view of these worrying developments, we believe that this report is timely and that its findings will help to clarify what is happening in clinical psychology training courses in the UK. We also hope that steps will be taken to halt the incursion of CSJ ideology into those courses before it causes damage to the profession, to the NHS more widely and to the many people in need of its services.

Dr Carole Sherwood is a clinical psychologist who has worked in the NHS specialising in sexual health, chronic pain, cancer and trauma. She was an independent practitioner until 2017 and is now semi-retired. Dr Sherwood has grown increasingly concerned about the incursion of Critical Social Justice into clinical psychology. These concerns prompted her to raise awareness about the potential for harm that this ideology poses to the profession, the NHS and, most importantly, to those who clinical psychologists serve.

Dr Kirsty Miller is an academic psychologist who has worked in a variety of roles within the education sector. She has acted as a consultant for a number of media programmes and been involved in outreach activities for several charitable and third-sector organisations. In recent years, Dr Miller has become very concerned about the encroachment of Critical Social Justice into health and education and is currently working to challenge its ideological takeover in our public institutions.

The Politicisation of Clinical Psychology Courses and associated FOI responses
are available to read here.