25 Years Later: A psychologist in the end of days

The Road.
What does it take for the human spirit to survive?

Recently I was asked to contribute to an article on where I saw myself and my profession in 25 years. This seemed a very daunting prospect. Though I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to train as a psychologist, for much of my educational and working life I’ve been very focused on my next steps, the next couple of years, just finishing this qualification, getting the next job. 25 years on feels almost unimaginable.

And there’s another issue. Some people say that in the coming years the NHS might not exist. I’ve got greater concerns. I can’t say I’m overly convinced that in 25 years the world, as we know it today, will really exist. Maybe I’ve watched too many zombie films and read a bit too much post-apocalyptic fiction, but you only have to turn on the news to hear daily about nuclear weapons, natural disasters and outbreaks of disease – things aren’t going well. And in 25 years… I fully expect that those of us that are left will be living in bunkers underground, following some kind of large-scale disaster that will wipe out the world’s cities and most of the population.

So our modern world is probably coming to an end. But I think I’ll be ok. I may be rather lacking in survival and combat skills, I’m not sure I could decapitate a Triffid or shoot a zombie, but I think as a psychologist (I’ll be qualified by then, not that it’ll matter a lot when universities, the BPS and the Healthcare Professionals Council cease to be) I’ll have some essential skills to help in rebuilding a shell-shocked world.

Professional Identity

Given everything that’s gone down, some of the niceties of the professional will probably be going out the window. I’ll be taking psychology out to the people as and when it’s needed, so I’ll be out of the clinic and getting a bit grubby. Smart trousers and sensible shoes will be out; I see myself as dressing somewhere between Tank Girl and a character from Fallout. Probably carrying some kind of weapon. There’ll be a bit of scrambling around. As a psychologist, I’m used to working in a team and taking on a variety of roles and being a spokesperson for mental health, personal development and identity. Now I’ll also be taking on roles as something of an educator, communicator, mediator and support worker.

Trauma, adaptation and survival

Living in a post-apocalyptic society, loss and death will be even more a part of our lives than they are now. I think I’ll be taking a key role in helping people in the community to come to terms with thing, accepting what has happened and adapting to a new way of life. There are likely to have been a lot of individuals who have had traumatic experiences and complicated bereavement and there will be a place for education and individual and group-based targeted interventions. People may have to live with some longer-term medical conditions (inc neurological conditions) and difficulties that there won’t be the resources to support, as there once was. We’ll all need to adapt to survive. This might sound like a lot of misery, but I think there’ll actually be a lot of room for post-traumatic growth and developing resilience. Many people will have shared difficult experiences and I think this could bring people closer together in supporting each other and overcoming adversity. Sometimes these kind of experiences can really shake people up, but also make you appreciate what you have and give you a refreshed perspective on life. In a world where money and material possessions hold less weight, I think people might actually find themselves happier living a simpler kind of life and taking up meaningful occupation in supporting the community. It might be useful to think about the level of depression (and PTSD-type symptoms) in communities around the world where death, disaster and poverty are common-place; people find a way to live through and grow despite extreme adversity. Viktor Frankl will be essential reading for everyone.

Leadership and group dynamics

A disaster like this can leave people feeling very confused and frightened, and it can be a time when individuals with more extreme views can take center-stage and assume power, taking advantage of the situation. Fear and striving for survival and basic amenities can make people competitive and can lead to scapegoating, fracturing and conflict in the group. As a psychologist, with knowledge about the dynamics of a group, leadership and social behaviour, I think I’ll have a key role to play in helping the survivors to form a cohesive and secure community group, in mediation of disputes and being mindful of how power is used. Though I’m not sure I’d be wanting to take up a leadership position myself (I think that should go to someone a bit more practical!) I think it’ll be important for me to be thinking about what’s going on inside and outside of the group, especially when others find themselves unable to. There’ll also be a role in helping important messages to be communicated effectively throughout the group and ensuring everyone’s voices are heard, especially those who find it hardest to speak. Psychologists often take roles in advising on government and healthcare councils. This will be similar, except the matters to discuss might be a little different, like deciding how to repopulate the planet, how to educate children born after The Event and who to eat first when the food runs out.

Hope and motivation

I know what it’s like to work with hopelessness, I see it in other people and I feel it in teams, in myself. But I also know a lot about finding hope, the positive essence in life and channeling this into increased motivation and a desire to create, change and do. Sometimes my most important role is just that, to ‘hold’ the hope, to entertain the possibility of something different, even in the darkest of times. I think this will be something I hope to bring to the post-apocalyptic world (this will also be part of my argument for not being eaten if we start to run out of supplies). This doesn’t mean being unrealistic; I won’t be cheerleading and life will be hard. There’s unlikely to be a return to how things are, and there will be a time for mourning what has gone by. But this isn’t reason for despair and despondence  The old world is gone, but we have a chance to build something new and potentially better. And, like recovery, that’s something to get excited about.

So, when the days come to pass, fire falls from the sky and the dead walk the earth (or whatever else comes to be), where do you see your profession headed? Obviously we’re going to need all our soldiers, engineers and medics, but I think if you want to get on in the world of tomorrow, psychology will make you indispensable. (Don’t eat me, please).

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