Highlights of the BPS DFP Conference - Bristol - 13 - 15th June 2017

This blog reflects on some of the sessions Forensic Psychologist, Dr Ruth Tully attended at the BPS DFP conference, held at the Mercure Grand hotel in Bristol from the 13th to 15th June 2017. 

The first day of this type of conference usually starts with seeing faces you haven’t seen for a while when waiting for the event to start, and this year’s DFP conference was no exception. This is particularly useful in the niche field of forensic psychology where networking can help your client work as you keep up to date with other services around the UK (and beyond). For those in fairly solitary roles, or even those in larger organisations, it reminds you that you are not alone, and finding out about others’ similar and different experiences to your own often stimulates reflective discussion about our work and ensuring high standards are upheld.

On the first day of the conference, keynote speaker Prof. Cathy Widom presented on adverse childhood events, explaining her work over many years in this area. She shared some of her key findings not only about the development of offending behaviour, but also about inequality e.g. arrests of black people with history of abuse/neglect. The long-term nature of her work stood out for me, and this linked in with the next session I attended on the media, as there was reference to context and lived experiences of those who then choose to offend. This reminded me that early intervention is key, and of the value of psychologists working to support those in care or at risk of abuse or neglect.

The invited symposium related to the media was chaired by Dee Anand, DFP Vice Chair. This symposium was attended by a small group of very interested delegates. Dee usefully highlighted that the symposium panel was a ‘manel’ (all-male) by circumstance and not design, which was a useful observation having what seemed to be a majority female audience. This symposium was insightful in many ways, stimulating thought about how to work with (and not against) the press to help convey a message that gives context to what can be very unpalatable crimes, explaining this so as to increase public understanding of the motivators for crime. Dee talked about the media interest in ‘risk’ and how although this is a complex issue, there are themes that can be conveyed by psychologists without reverting to the stance of ‘that’s a more complex issue’, which could disengage the journalist and public.

The difficulties of press comment whilst remaining within the BPS and HCPC standards of practice were acknowledged. Lawrence Jones, a highly experienced psychologist, discussed offending in the context of trauma, not in the sense of excusing offending, but in the sense of enhancing public understanding of trauma. Discussion about social responsibility contributed to my own reflections on the importance of early intervention with the aim of reducing likelihood of adverse childhood experience (abuse and neglect), thus aiming to avoid children growing into adults who are so deeply affected by their childhood that this influences a decision to commit crime. Erwin James, a journalist panel member, explained his lived experience of making the most of his life during his prison sentence imposed for double murder; he now writes for The Guardian despite having experienced childhood physical abuse, growing up believing that he was “thick”, and later committing serious crimes. He was told in prison that everyone can be lovable and decided that he owed it to his victims to make the most of the life he has now.

Engaging the media is a topic I am interested in, and in doing so ethically. Had there been time for more questions mine would have related to how the press seem to find experts who comment on offence related cases where the expert seemingly ‘demonises ‘the person they are talking about. Presumably, leaning to public existing views of people who have committed serious offences as ‘monsters’ could make for more exciting reading/watching for the public.

David Rose gave some insights from his perspective as an investigative journalist (amongst other roles). He reminded us that all journalists are different and they may write for a paper with a particular view, but they are allowed their own view within this. Peter Kinderman, former President of the BPS, talked about mental illness as a social construct and I thought about how getting this across to the media could be challenging, especially if the angle moved away from the medical model. How we now best engage journalists and media remains a question unanswered, but given that it is being given consideration by the BPS DFP members, we may see some progress between disciplines.

Day 2’s keynote by Professor Andrew Day brought insight and information on the correctional systems in Australia, and some of the current key concerns such as understanding and responding to marginalised and minority groups appropriately. It was positive to see that services have acknowledged past mistakes and are striving to have better informed services in the future.

The poster presentations were well attended within the dedicated timeslot, with poster presenters being busy talking about their work. The introduction of a voted poster prize seemed useful, to give recognition to the hard work put into these.

I attended various individual paper presentations, and the enthusiasm each presenter had for their topics came across. Topics varied and included fire setting (Faye Horsley) and personality disorder pathway (Jason Davies) alongside other issues such as staff burnout, desistence, Mentalisation Based Therapy.

My own paper was presented on the Paulhus Deception Scales (UK norms and links with personality) in an attempt to communicate developments in this area. Presenting to one’s peers can be more nerve-wracking than other audiences, however, it seemed to me that all presenters were made welcome by the audiences.

Overall, the venue was lovely; Bristol was sunny and welcoming, and although then a shame to be inside listening to workshops and presentations rather than being in the sun, this did not feel so bad because of the insightful presentations on the schedule, which made it worthwhile.

There were also several stands with useful information about products such as psychometric tests (Pearson), recruitment related stands (e.g. Cygnet Healthcare), and stands promoting the DFP itself.

Conferences such as this cannot run without the contributions of members which often inspires others to want to present and share their work to help enhance their clinical and/or academic practice. Such conference presentations may be one way of making more well-informed links with the media as is discussed above, perhaps an initiative to invite the press to these events so as to showcase the work and novel findings of the research presented, which may subsequently become a useful story in the media as a result.

Article by Dr Ruth J. Tully, Forensic Psychologist & Clinical Lead, Tully Forensic Psychology Ltd, Nottingham, UK.

@tullyforenpsy