Interview: European Psychology and the COVID-19 crisis by Christoph Steinebach, President of EFPA

CEPLIS has launched a cycle of interviews with the Presidents of its member associations regarding the impact of the pandemic on the present and the future of the liberal professions.

We hope that these interviews will provide an accurate picture of the impact of the Covid-19 crises on the different professions and countries, of the measures that have been proposed and/or adopted to support their work and of the challenges the post-pandemic situation represents for all our sector throughout the EU.

We are very grateful to Mr. Christoph Steinebach, President of the European Federation of Psychologists’ Associations, for honoring us by opening these series of interviews.

How has your profession adapted to the coronavirus crisis?

From the very beginning it was clear that this virus posed a threat not only to physical health but also to mental health. After all, the spread of this virus is associated with very fundamental fears and worries, which in many people lead to a disturbance of the emotional balance. Wherever Corona becomes an issue, psychological aspects are also addressed. And often enough, psychologists have had to answer questions when it comes to recommendations for promoting well-being, healthy lifestyles and good social interaction. How can information about the virus be communicated in a way that is understandable to everyone, how can we speak to children or people with special needs in an appropriate way, how can we support everyone staying in touch with each other, how can we ensure that everyone who needs help gets it, how do people cope with the many challenges of home office, taking care of schoolwork and family life, caring for elderly relatives or even their own job? These are all psychological questions to which psychology can provide answers by drawing on research, theory and professional experience.

These are all psychological questions to which psychology can provide answers in terms of research, theory and professional experience. Not only clinical psychology, when it comes to fears or experiencing crises, but also educational psychology, when it comes to homeschooling, or even business psychology, when it comes to work, leadership and organization under the conditions of the home office.

There is no question that psychology can contribute a wide range of skills. But the question is whether psychologists, if they have been self-employed, for example, can continue to work. Whether everyone was able to switch to online counselling methods and tools quickly enough. Whether online therapy is recognized as a billable service in the same way as therapy in the classic setting of the psychotherapeutic practice.

All in all: we are strongly challenged in terms of content and expertise. In addition, there are many questions for the profession because of the concern for jobs and financial security of self-employed psychologists.


Were the professionals prepared to face this crisis? Were they properly informed by the authorities?

Crises and critical life events are a classic topic of psychology. Helping individuals in their confrontation with serious challenges has always been a concern of psychology. Here it is about the preservation of self-determination, about the preservation of human dignity and all this in consideration of the social responsibility we all have for each other. I am sure that most of my colleagues were able to adapt very well to the challenges posed by the pandemic. Psychology helps and it helps rapidly. Our member associations have done much to ensure that the relevant information, regulations and measures of those responsible were always well documented and available in an understandable way. But we all have to adapt to new information and new challenges every day.


To what extent has this disrupted the functioning of your association?

Already in the first days we had to make many far-reaching decisions. Home office for our head office, important congresses and conferences have been postponed, meetings have been reorganized and have been taking place only online for weeks. We had to adapt to the new situation quickly and comprehensively. We had to mobilize all resources and set up an information platform for the member associations. We wanted to make sure that important information was available in a timely manner and that good ideas, good materials and excellent initiatives were also taken up in other countries.


Did this bring your association closer to public authorities as an interlocutor?

Our association represents member associations from 38 different European countries. The involvement of the associations in political decision-making processes and discussions varies from country to country. The associations have developed initiatives in their countries that are of great importance to many people. Many countries have set up hotlines for people, e.g. people with fears, people who are very insecure and very tense, people who are prone to aggression. People in need are advised there. Such offers have been very positively received by politicians. Often enough our associations were involved to find solutions to difficult questions.


Have the members been able to use your association as a relay of information and to send their feedback to the authorities?

Our information platform is now set up with a variety of different materials. The member federations have specifically accessed it and use the various information and materials, translate them and prepare them for their country. But they have also exchanged views with each other on how political decision-making processes in the individual countries look like and to what extent psychologists are involved in these processes. Best practice became a model for other countries where psychologists were not initially involved in important decision-making processes.


Did the general population come to your association and members to get informed?

There is direct contact with the population. For example, through the hotlines mentioned above, but there are also indirect contacts, if we think of the many conversations and interviews with journalists. Newspapers, radio and television, but also the social media, all have used psychological expertise.

 Christoph Steinebach, President of EFPA

Do you think that this difficult period had an impact on the relationships between members of your profession and their clients and patients, in particular as regards trust in the professional and the appreciation of his role within the society?

We have the impression that under the influence of this crisis medical aspects and psychological aspects have been discussed particularly intensively. It was and is of particular concern to us to make our recommendations on the basis of scientific research findings. We understand our practice as evidence-based, scientifically sound and ethically reflected. Professional competence, caution and thoughtfulness create trust. I believe that this is a reliable basis for our service to and for society.


What is the financial impact of confinement on the offices and SMEs of liberal professionals of members of your profession?

We do not have any verified data on this yet. However, it is quite possible that individual counselling services offered by independent psychological and psychotherapeutic practices have suffered greatly under the conditions of the quarantine. And this despite the fact that all psychologists have more rather than less to do during this time. In addition, many of them have also volunteered their time and have taken on new tasks on a voluntary basis. But of course, such a commitment does not secure any income.


How did the response from the national authorities meet or disappoint the needs of your profession?

With regard to the financing of psychological services, clear signals would certainly have been helpful at an early stage. This applies in particular to the assumption of costs for psychotherapeutic services or psychosocial counselling, the establishment of hotlines or the advisory support of doctors or nursing staff who are particularly under stress.


Were professional associations forgotten when the States proposed aid?

It is possible that in the beginning, the question of medical care was the main focus in most countries. This has certainly changed quickly. Loneliness of elderly people, violence in families, stress due to the various burdens of home office and home schooling quickly became topics. Dangers and risks were soon recognized. But often it was the initiative of our associations when they were involved in the development of offers. And often it was they themselves who developed these offers.


Was the specificity of the Liberal Professions taken into account when the governments announced their economic support and protection measures?

We have to see to what extent the announced offers of financial support cover the needs of, for example, freely established psychological psychotherapists, psychological counsellors, coaches and supervisors. Further services that need to be financed will be added. When the lock down is lifted, the advisory support of companies, of communities, but also of individuals who find it difficult to face their everyday life with trust and confidence, becomes important. Financing models are needed for these services as well.


Now that the confinement is over, how do you see your profession in the future: a return to normal life or deeply marked by new habits?

We have all asked ourselves the question what the digital world of the future will look like. Now we are really in the middle of it. As an association, we are experiencing that virtual meetings are very much appreciated. Many of our members participate in the meetings. They inform themselves on our website about the latest news about psychology and corona. Within a very short time we have been “digitalized”. There are many positive changes in it, which we should secure for the long term. Within the field of psychology, there will be an increased demand for virtual services ranging from counselling to therapy and further education. The last weeks have shown us that this is possible. Here lies an opportunity for all of us and also for our environment. Here we see many advantages for our colleagues, for our associations, but also for the people, institutions and organizations for whom we offer psychological help.

When we started our work as the new executive committee last summer, we first determined our strategic orientation in discussions with our member associations, our head office, and our committees. Together, we wanted to strengthen our external presence, make information more easily available both internally and externally, further develop cooperation between our associations and with external associations, make internal processes faster and more effective and make an important contribution to improving the quality and diversity of psychological services. We certainly imagined working towards these strategic goals differently. But COVID-19 has challenged us in exactly all these strategic points. And today we are much better positioned in all strategic points than half a year ago. Not least for this reason I am very grateful for this important commitment of all of us and for what we have achieved for psychology in Europe and for the people who need psychological help.