All psychology is social

Vaughan Bell, Beyond Boundaries column, The Psychologist, January 2009

The body of psychologist Ignacio Martín-Baró was found bullet-ridden and bloodied on the lawn of his house. His 1989 murder by members of the El Salvador army highlighted both the atrocities of the country’s bitter civil war and his contention that violence and trauma can only be addressed as a problem of the community.

Both a Jesuit priest and one of the most prestigious Latin American psychologists of the time, Martín-Baró starkly rejected the individualistic model of trauma where we treat people by helping them to manage their emotions while considering ourselves, as professionals, separate from the society from which the violence arose. In his view, if we are at all serious about helping the troubled then we must consider ourselves part of the same community, lest we become little except temporary relief for afflicted and willingly blind to our role in preventing the causes of the problems.

Martín-Baró’s concept of community was formed more than 20 years ago, but the information revolution has made his work more starkly relevant than ever. We are now part of a global network, and, as psychologists, our decisions resonate across the globe. I’m currently working in Colombia, which, like El Salvador, is a beautiful country still affected by violence. Psychologists here are committed to tackling both the effects and causes of trauma but being denied access to up-to-date research is a persistent problem that has grave consequences.

As researchers we like to think that our work will help people where it is needed most, but we largely rely on a distribution system where the public pay for research only for academics to give their work away to publishing companies who rent it back to us on a yearly basis. In many parts of the world, restricted access means that the preventable causes and effects of violence, trauma and mental illness cannot be tackled as effectively because they are described in privately owned, out-of-reach research papers. Many of these psychological problems are already being tackled by the research community, but we need to ensure that the distribution of the solutions is equally as inclusive, so when we publish research, it is available to all – wherever it may be needed.