In a society craving psychological support, psychologists ask for support to get a council of their own
The discipline of psychology is generally underrated and undermined in Pakistan. The common man either thinks of it as merely a little more than common sense or some mysterious ability to read other people’s minds. In public space, psychological analyses of our socio-political issues have never been sought for. In the health sector, the medical model provides the dominant remedial approach, which recommends medicines even for psychological and emotional problems. The mental health services are managed and controlled by the medics instead of multidisciplinary teams, of which clinical psychologists are important members. This already browbeaten subject, at the moment, appears to be dealing with an existential crisis on top of what was already there. It is facing two major challenges currently coming from power corridors. One, on getting foiled their bid to pass a bill for an independent council and the other being included in the Allied Health Bill. We can have a long debate on the merits of the bill and why psychologists are at this crossroads. Still, it is generally realised that society, in general, is immensely craving psychological support. That explains the mushroom growth of motivational speakers, unqualified counsellors and private counselling services and spiritual healers. The threat of medicalisation of mental health issues is looming at the same time. Mercifully, the stigma that has marginalised the field is slumping over time. However, this has resulted in another kind of issue where verbiage of the ill-equipped and untaught people has started dealing with the intricacies of mental health issues. As is obvious, such counselling vendors not only trivialise the gravity of the issue but also implicate mental health issues as the outcome of religiously and morally iniquitous conduct. This way, they add insult to the injury. These purveyors are using online mediums to counsel the various issues experienced by our majority.
We want to emphasise that psychological support by a clinical psychologist is not merely a chit chat. Rather, it is a scientific mechanism informed by evidence-based scientific knowledge, and it requires exhaustive familiarity with the functioning of the human mind, extended training in identifying the underlying streaks of psychopathology and competence in handling such matters. Our fraternity is stressing that only highly skilled professionals should be allowed to do psychotherapy and counselling in the country. Provision of such a service from an unqualified person should and must be considered illegal, as it would likely do more harm than good. The qualifications required for a practicing psychologist should be decided by the Council of Psychologists, rather than by bureaucrats, politicians, or medics for that matter. It should be the prerogative of the Council of Psychologists to decide about the eligibility of a practicing psychologist, the way it is all over the world. At the same time, this council and only this body of professionals should determine the curriculum and criteria for opening new departments and centres for training in psychology.
It is time we have a council of psychologists in Pakistan, the way American Psychological Association and the British Psychological Society work to determine the eligibility and quality standards for psychologists.
The bill for the formation of the psychological council was first passed by the National Assembly in 2013. It could not be presented to the Senate due to the termination of the government. Therefore, the bill lapsed. Since the mover of the bill did not consult stakeholders while preparing the draft, a large body of psychologists has grave reservations about this bill as some of the bill’s proposed clauses would lower the standard for the discipline of psychology and legalise some current practices by psychologists that may pose a possible risk of harm to the public.
The question is if the Allied Health Bill is already passed, does a Psychological Council Bill still stand a chance to be reintroduced? If not, how do we see the Allied Health Bill improving the standards of teaching, training and practice of psychology?
The bill was presented again in the National Assembly in 2019 without addressing the concerns raised by the psychologist body over the membership of the Council of Psychologists. We are recommending amendments that eligibility for becoming a member should be raised (from 16 years to 18 years of education in psychology), psychologists from the private sector should be included and the clause regarding inclusion of an MNA as a member of the council should be excluded, so that a body of qualified professionals can be formed.
Despite the specific reservations, there is a consensus among psychologists that it must be passed, so that standards of teaching and training in psychology can be regulated to meet the international criteria and to proscribe quackery in the name of the science of psychology.
The other aspect of the existential crisis was caused by the news that the National Assembly has passed the Allied Health Bill, and it now includes psychology and counselling (Page 21, number 24 on the list) in it.
The question is if the Allied Health Bill is already passed, does Psychological Council Bill still stand a chance to be reintroduced? If not, how do we see the Allied Health Bill improving the standards of teaching, training and practice of psychology?
The Allied Health Bill says: “Allied Health Professionals – [an] AHP is a person who provides diagnostic, therapeutic, preventive, curative, or rehabilitative services in health care, in a prescribed manner, and has undergone a prescribed course of training in a recognised institution and is registered as an Allied Health Professional by the body formed for the purpose” (Page 1).
We want to emphasise here that psychology is a broad discipline and pertains to the study of behaviour in various settings, and not all fields of psychology relate to diagnostic, therapeutic, preventive, curative, or rehabilitative services in health care. We fear that if we bring all psychology here in this bill, we will continue to see malpractices by the inadequately trained psychologists working in the health sector. The discipline of psychology is a vast one, and psychologists serve the public in many areas other than the health settings, e.g., in the corporate/ organisational/ banking/ telecom sectors, educational/ school settings, forensic and criminal investigations, and in artificial intelligence. Therefore, it would be pivotal to reintroduce the Bill for Psychological Council, obviously with suggested amendments, which legislates all the fields of psychology.
Through these recommendations, we are trying to stress that the discipline of psychology should be regarded as a science that has its own guiding principles for ethical and professional standards demanding rigour and competency to practice in the field. It may also motivate us to keep raising the standards of teaching and training psychology so that those who graduate demonstrate the required proficiency.
Regarding the bill, our stance is that the current government claims to place justice and equity as the defining principle in all their policies. Therefore, we expect that concerns of psychologists would be addressed to safeguard the welfare and interest of the society. Secondly, we should be consulted rather than dictated to regulate our services for society.
Prof Salma Siddiqui is the dean of School of Social Sciences and Humanities, NUST, Islamabad
Dr Akhtar Ali Syed is the principal clinical psychologist in Ireland