Solve for happiness

We are hearing a lot about the use of big data at the moment, mostly that it has been an underhand way to manipulate people politically, that has been used by those with no ethical compunctions to get people to vote against their own best interests*, and in favour of Brexit and Trump. Cambridge Analytica and AIQ seem to have commercially exploited academic research and breached data protection rules to try to nudge political behaviour with targeted messaging. Whether or not that was successful is up for debate, but to the public the narrative is about big data being bad – something technocrats are exploiting for nefarious reasons. I can understand that, because of the associations between gathering data on people and totalitarian political regimes, and because of concerns about privacy, data protection and consent. There is increasing awareness of what had previously been an unspoken deal – that websites harvest your data and show you targeted advertising, rather than charge you directly for services, and the new GDPR means that we will be asked to explicitly consent to these types of data collection and usage.

But what about the potential for big data to do good? I know that DeepMind are doing some data crunching to look at whether AI algorithms can help identify indicators that determine outcomes in certain health conditions and point doctors towards more effective treatments. Their work to identify warning signs of acute kidney injury was criticised because of breaches to data protection when they were given access to 1.6 million medical records without individual patient consent, but whilst the data issues do need to be sorted out, the potential for projects like this to improve health and save lives is undeniable. Computers can look through huge amounts of detailed data much more quickly and cost-effectively than humans. They can also do so consistently, without fatigue or bias, and without a priori assumptions that skew their observations.

Research often highlights findings that seem counterintuitive to clinicians or human researchers, and that means that using the data to generate the patterns can find things that we overlook. One example I read about today was the fact that admitting offending behaviour does not reduce the risk of recidivism in sexual or violent offenders (in fact those who show most denial offend less, whilst those who demonstrate more disclosures and shame are more likely to reoffend). But this is also true about telling people they are being given a placebo (which will still produce positive placebo effects), using positive mantras to enhance self-esteem (which seem to trigger more negative thoughts and have a net negative impact on mood and self-esteem) or about expressing anger (rather than this being cathartic and leading to a reduction in anger, it actually increases it). Various fascinating examples are listed here. There is also the well-known Dunning Kruger effect, whereby ignorance also includes a lack of insight into our own ignorance. As a population, we consistently overestimate our own ability, with people in the bottom percentiles often ranking themselves well above average.

I often refer to the importance of knowing the boundaries of your own competence, and identifying your own “growing edges” when it comes to personal and professional development. We talk about the stages of insight and knowledge developing from unconscious incompetence to conscious competence, and finally to unconscious competence where we can use the skill without conscious focus. Confucius said “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” And it may well be that when it comes to solving some of the big problems we are limited by our own frame of reference, what we think of as relevant data, our preconceptions and our ability to build complex models. Using giant data sets and setting technology to sift through and make sense of them using various paradigms of AI might help open up new possibilities to researchers, or find patterns that are outside of human observation. For example, certain medications, foods or lifestyle traits might have significant impact on certain specific health conditions. I am reminded of a recent article about how a third of antidepressants are prescribed for things other than their primary function (for example, one can seemingly help with inflammatory bowel disease that has very limited treatment options). A computer sifting through all the data can pick up both these unintended positive effects and also rare or complex harmful side-effects or interactions that we may not be aware of.

What difference could this make in mental health? Well, I think quite a lot. Of course many predictors of mental health are sociopolitical and outside of the control of the individual, but we also know that some small lifestyle changes can have very positive impacts on mental health – exercising more, for example, or having a healthy diet, or getting more sleep, or using mindfulness, even just getting outdoors more, learning something new, doing something for others, or spending more time with other people (and less time on social media) can have a positive impact. There are also many therapy and therapist variables that may make an impact on mental health, for people who engage in some form of talking therapy, although variance in outcomes seems to actually boil down to feeling heard and believed by a therapist who respects the individuality and cultural context of the client. And of course there are many medical treatments available.

So is there a way of using big data to look at what really works to help people feel happier in their lives? I think the potential for apps to collect mass data and test out what makes impact is enormous, and there are a proliferation of apps in the happiness niche and more that claim to help wellbeing in a broader way. They seem to have found a market niche, and to offer something positive to help people make incremental life changes that are associated with happiness. What I’m not sure of is whether they reach the people that need them most, or if they are evaluating their impact, but presumably this is only a matter of time, as real life services get stripped back and technology tries to fill that gap.

I think there is huge need to look at what can make positive change to people’s wellbeing at a population scale, and I think we need to be tackling that at multiple levels. First and foremost, we need to make the sociopolitical changes that will stop harming the most vulnerable in society, and encourage greater social interconnectedness to prevent loneliness and isolation. We need to increase population knowledge and tweak the financial incentives for healthy lifestyle choices (eg with much wider use of free or subsidised gym memberships, and tax on unhealthy food options). And we need to invest in preventative and early intervention services, as well as much more support during pregnancy and parenting, and in mental health and social care. But I can also see a role for technology. Imagine an app that asked lots of questions and then gave tailored lifestyle recommendations, and monitored changes if the person tried them. Imagine an app that helped people identify appropriate local sources of support to tackle issues with their health and wellbeing, and monitored their impact when people used them. As well as having a positive immediate impact for users, I’m sure we’d learn a lot from that data that could be applied at the population level.

*I think the evidence is strong enough that the demographics who voted for these people/policies in the greatest numbers are the very people who have come out the worst from them, so I am just going to state it as a fact and not divert into my personal politics in this blog, given I have covered them in previous topics about Brexitmy politics, “alternative facts”, Trump, why and what next, the women’s march, and Grenfell and the Manchester bomb.

Why did I think that?

On Sunday morning I moaned to my husband about the fact I always seem to wear the same familiar items of clothing over and over in rotation. He pointed out that this might be because I had less than half of my clothes in circulation, as the rest hadn’t been unpacked since we had moved – two years ago! How had I not noticed this? It suddenly made sense of my nagging sense of absence in my wardrobe. Looking back I could identify that over the last couple of years I had felt short of smarter clothes to wear to work, and aware that I was wearing more of the casual comfortable clothes I had previously worn at home even when doing work activities. It wasn’t a huge problem because I have been doing less court work, and doing more work from home. But I had sometimes felt self-conscious about whether I would appear too informal*. However, instead of having recognised that these feelings reflected a genuine shortfall, I had just acted on the vague sense of deficit by buying replacement items. When I retrieved the missing clothing from the packing cases and sorted through my total wardrobe I had bought more than ten pairs of work trousers since we moved here, and as many new work tops – meaning that when combined with my rediscovered store of clothing I suddenly had an excess of them. Doh!

I also struggle to part with old clothes that I love, even when they are quite worn out, or get damaged. I have particular favourite tops that have gained punctures or pulled threads over time, but these are not visible unless you look closely so it feels wasteful to throw them away. Our washing machine also seems to create small punctures in items from time to time – particularly just above the knee of thin cotton trousers. It isn’t that we can’t afford new clothes, I just don’t like the environmental and sociopolitical ramifications of buying cheap and disposing of things frequently. However, with my children I have a strict rule that if an item is damaged we fix it or bin it** (perhaps fuelled by having observed so much neglect, and a bit of parental indulgence) and we sort through their clothes twice a year to give away those that they have grown out of. It is a notable contrast that I find that process of review and quality control harder to implement for myself. As I said, I have a general preference for buying good quality things that last compared to buying often to follow fashions, and a strong dislike of wastefulness. Plus my body shape and size has been fairly consistent over time***. This combination means a lot of my clothes have been around for a long time – I still sometimes wear a T-shirt to the gym that I bought the week I got my A-level results, I sometimes wear hand-me-downs from my high school best friend that I haven’t spoken to in twenty years, and I only recently retired a long sleeve T-shirt I’ve slept in more nights than not since my teens (I’m in my early forties). That means that I have gradually accumulated clothes to the point they fill a two-metre hanging rail and two drawers, plus three smaller drawers for underwear and socks. I’m not convinced I need so many. Even when I had all of my clothing available to me, I didn’t wear it all and some items would get worn less than once a year, whilst favourites would get worn again each time they returned from being washed. So why do I buy them?

I also have a tendency to buy too many shoes. Part of the problem is that I am strongly attracted to shoes that I can imagine myself wearing in some kind of fantasy world where I don’t actually have to walk very far or stand up for very long or drive the car, but that I don’t choose to wear when faced with the reality of my plans for the day ahead. So I have about twenty pairs of shoes with wedge heels and/or platform soles in the bottom of my wardrobe upstairs, whilst I mainly wear sensible comfortable shoes/boots that I keep in the shoe rack by the front door. I also have quite a few sets of what I think of as silly shoes, as I have often been enticed by designs that are a contrast to traditional expectations in some way – perhaps as a small act of rebellion – that are sometimes practical enough to wear, but sometimes languish unworn in the cupboard. I’m not a big spender, as I mainly buy fairly modest brands and usually in the sales, so it isn’t that I’m wasting lots of money. But it feels quite contradictory to my wider values to be hooked into any form of consumerism. In particular, it seems to conform to stereotypes about women, and our willingness as a gender to suffer discomfort in order to appear more attractive that I don’t consciously endorse.****

So I have spent the day diligently trying on every item of clothing I own and sorting out those that are damaged to dispose of, and those I won’t wear to give to the charity shop. I’ve also sorted out ten pairs of shoes I have never worn that I intend to sell online in the hope of recouping some of the money I have wasted.

But, being a psychologist and being curious about this stuff, I’ve also been wondering about the thinking patterns that have put me into this situation. Why was it that my brain kept telling me to buy more work clothes without identifying that some of my existing ones were missing? Why is it that I set higher standards for the appearance of my children than I do for myself? Why is it that I repeatedly buy shoes that I don’t wear? I think it must reflect a discrepancy between my sense of self, and the reality. My inner sense of myself is younger, slimmer and more unconventional than the overweight middle-aged mum you see from the outside, and has almost infinite time and energy, so I have some positive delusions about myself. But, like many (most?) people, I’m also more self-critical, both about the things I don’t get done (both at work, at home and creatively), my disorganisation (kindly reframed by several people I trust as “taking on more than it is possible for one person to keep in order”), and of my face or body when captured in unflattering photographs (which seems to be pretty normal, given the prevalence of filters now in use, the selectiveness with which photos to share are selected from massive numbers taken, and the use of photoshop on celebrity images). The standards I set myself are high, and at some level I compare myself to an unrealistic ideal. That Miriam can dance about in fancy shoes without looking ungainly or falling over, and can fit in twice as many things as I am doing, whilst appearing glamorous in photos, and coming across as organised and well-presented at all times. That Miriam can be the perfect wife and mother as well as running a business and having a load of side-projects. She can have a social life, be involved in the community and support the causes she is passionate about. And compared to her I will always fall short.

Yet if it was someone else, I’d be the first to appreciate them as they are, and tell them that their cup is quite full enough to not waste mental energy on comparing themselves to unrealistic ideals. When I see photos of friends and family I see the person that I love and their relationships, activities and emotional expressions, not the awkward posture, double chin, or spot on their nose that they see first. There are times I feel frustrated with others, but if they are apologising about being late or messing up a plan, the chances are I’m probably viewing that as trivial in the context of what they mean to me, and all the times they’ve been there when I needed them. So on balance I think I judge myself harshly, and my friends and loved ones generously, but I have a strong sense of them as an individual. With people I meet through work, I don’t know them as an individual before we meet, and there is often a negative narrative that is being told about them, but I find empathy as I hear their story and see their challenges in the context of their (usually traumatic) history. Yet with a stranger or when thinking about a population demographic (eg “rough sleepers” or “brexiteers”), we don’t have these relationships or individual narratives to inform us, so we often fall back onto stereotypes, no matter how much we try to resist them – perhaps because we don’t have the additional information required to flesh out that initial impression.

That would tie in to lots of psychology research about how poor our judgements are about ourselves, and the fundamental attribution error. It also ties into our inherent prejudices about ourselves and about others. For example, it is fairly prevalent at the moment to associate being overweight with laziness, gluttony and lack of self-control, as I mentioned in my first blog, when in reality it seems to reflect socioeconomic factors, trauma history and mood more than personality deficits. I’ve previously talked about my own excess weight as a security blanket after feeling at risk of rape in my late teens but I might not have mentioned that as a vegetarian fruit and veg junkie I actually eat very well, swim regularly and was quite serious about weight lifting before my minor RTA. I don’t care too much about conforming to social expectations of appearance, but I do like to feel like my body is healthy and has the ability to do stuff (and I get a lot of secret joy from having “ninja muscles” – a term I use because, like ninjas, unless I want to reveal them nobody else would know they are there) – yet this is the reverse of what might be perceived of me by others, who might associate my body shape with a bad diet or sedentary lifestyle. Weight lifting wasn’t something I had thought of before a friend trained as a personal trainer, but when I tried it I liked. The measurable gains were rewarding***** and it felt like it might become a way to shed the security blanket whilst still feeling safe, so it is something I am trying to return to. Building some hidden muscles made me feel strong and healthy, but also tickles the part of me that likes to buck expectations – as nobody expects a middle aged mum to be deadlifting a 19 stone barbell!

Having reflected on the way I see myself and others for a while, I think the challenge is to be more self-aware, and to find a way to be authentic. The process of keeping a reflective journal that we discussed on the clinpsy forum is one means to achieve that. Personal therapy can also serve a similar purpose. Or just having a regular time in which to reflect, perhaps as part of a mindfulness practise. It is worth being aware of the common cognitive distortions, so that you can spot them in yourself too. Having rediscovered some lost bits of my aspirational self, I think I’m going to try to be a little bit more playful, and a bit less self-critical. And maybe I’ll express that by being more mindful about the clothes I choose to purchase and to wear in future. I also want to express more of the positive parts of that inner self into the world – so who knows, the next time you see me maybe I’ll be wearing those silly shoes.

*For those who care about these things, I’m not referring to wearing jeans or T-shirts with pictures or slogans on them, or anything that is distressed or damaged. I tend to favour soft T-shirt like fabrics or those with a slight stretch built in, rather than very smart clothing that is stiff and fitted. I generally like to wear trousers and tops in warm dark colours that are either plain or bold prints. I sometimes wear print dresses or skirts – and I do own four trouser suits for court work – but my staple is trousers and a top. Thursday would be fairly typical of how I dress – I wore aubergine trousers with a jeans-like cut and slight velvet texture, coupled with a three-quarter sleeved plum coloured top and a longer open dark purple top over it like a twinset.
**Or more accurately recycle or use it as rags, as we try to be a low-waste household
***I currently weigh two pounds less than the day I first tried on my wedding dress in 1996, which would be impressive if I wasn’t already obese by then
****It is strange that as a gender we seem to have a shared perception that propping ourselves up on high heels makes us look taller and slimmer, and forces us into a posture more flattering to the legs and bum – and that we are willing to sacrifice not only comfort, but our ability to move through the environment at speed or on uneven ground to do so.
*****Something I think is also true when using outcome measurement to demonstrate the impact of therapy or interventions

Pushing upwards

When I was an undergraduate psychology student, I found parts of the course curriculum kind of boring. I was interested in human behaviour and experiences, because I wanted to understand how to alleviate distress and increase wellbeing. Unfortunately I was not so interested in the neurochemistry or neuroanatomy that is the underlying mechanics for those emotions and behaviours. I was interested in behavioural ecology, like the evolutionary/survival value of altruism to vampire bats, and its parallels in human behaviour (eg why we have developed a system of rules and punishments to enforce the social contract). But I wasn’t so interested in animal perception and cognition. I found some of the early psychological experiments on both animals and humans to be really cruel and distressing, though I was aware that they helped to progress our understanding of brain and behaviour, and helped us to recognise the need for the ethical considerations we apply to experiments now.

Because I didn’t love the whole course, during the second year of the course I began to wonder whether I had selected the subject on autopilot, because my Mum is also a clinical psychologist (now retired).  A few other life events compounded this lost feeling by lowering my mood generally* and I developed an increasing existential doubt about whether I was making the right choices in my life.  I also wanted to test out my values and the options available to me, so my focus drifted to my social relationships and activities outside of psychology. I became less motivated and didn’t attend all of my lectures, and (despite having previously been quite successful in educational assessments) I got a 2:2 for one module that I hadn’t enjoyed. It was a mark that fairly reflected my effort/interest level, and in any other context it wouldn’t have been a big deal. However, I was gutted because I felt like the whole course would be pointless if I didn’t excel academically, as I was aware of how competitive the path into clinical psychology was. I considered changing course or dropping out, but I couldn’t think of anything I would rather do.

One of the images that helped pull me through that time, was from the I Ching – an ancient Chinese book of wisdom, also known as the book of changes. The basic gist is that you throw coins to point you to one of 64 readings, which can be generated with various variations and additional comments, and (like a horoscope or cold reading or fortune cookie, but perhaps with a bit more zen wisdom) the resulting text is ambiguous and non-specific enough for you to draw relevance to your life situation. The page that I was sent to was called “pushing upwards” and the hexagram was of wood below the earth. The image it described was of a seed below the surface, using all of its stores of energy to push a shoot upwards in the hope that it would reach the light and conditions in which it could grow and thrive. The text explained that to do this is an effortful process, in which you are gambling that this investment of energy will be worthwhile in reaching a goal that might still be out of sight. It describes the heaping up of small efforts to create the conditions in which future success is possible. The seed takes time to unfold into the tree: Although the results are not immediately visible and gratifying, “that which pushes upwards does not come back”. The reading tells you to put in a sustained effort if you want to achieve great things. It reassures you that if you are driven by a deeper sense of purpose (rather than wealth or glory) and willing to learn from wise people around you, you should not fear the path ahead. It implies that in time favourable conditions will help you along. In this way, it says, a person can rise from obscurity and lowliness to power and influence, provided that you make your efforts in a humble, flexible and authentic way.

This was a good metaphor for needing to put in more effort to achieve my goals, and it also reminded me of my core values and my drive to in some way make the world a better place, by improving the experience of other humans who had been dealt a tougher hand in life. Thankfully, as I entered my third year I got together with my husband (who has continued to be a supportive and stabilising influence for more than two decades since) and entered a much happier phase in my life. I also found the modules in the final year of undergraduate much more relevant to my interests, because they were much more closely tied in to the theory and practice of clinical psychology. As a result I started to put in more effort and get higher marks. I also started to gather work experience, and to seek out advice from qualified CPs. Gradually, those efforts paid dividends – I secured an AP post on a research project straight after graduating** and then worked incredibly hard to do that job, write up papers for publication and complete a masters degree by research at the same time, before gaining wider experience in a more clinical role with a different client group and then securing my place on clinical training.

From the moment I entered that third year with that mindset, I enjoyed the rest of my journey into clinical psychology. No matter what the client group or type of work, I felt like I was doing something worthwhile and I was also constantly learning and being challenged. I had some inspiring supervisors, both as an AP and as a trainee. I didn’t love every placement (they were all good learning experiences, but my enjoyment varied depending on my interest in the client group, the style and context of the work, and the amount of travel involved to get there). Likewise I didn’t click with every supervisor equally, but I did learn a lot from each of them. In my first AP role my supervisor was a role model of the true scientist practitioner, who secured grant funding to push forward the evidence base of the clinical work, and constantly published papers and disseminated findings. She pushed me to participate in that world, and with her support I co-wrote six peer reviewed journal articles during those two years! She is still my role model of embodying the link between research and practice in psychology, and I would love to emulate Esme’s energy and influence in my own field of work. I then worked in a project that trained student social workers, and assisted with expert reports on parenting – something I continue to have an interest in to this day. It gave me a much more practical grounding, and an awareness of social care systems that I have subsequently built on.

As a trainee I gained a basic grounding in brief CBT-based interventions in an adult service, and learnt more about the structure of mental health services and working as part of a multidisciplinary team. I also worked in services for people with intellectual disability, where I learnt about the value of indirect work, and gave more explicit consideration to issues of capacity and consent. I loved my core child and family placement, and the warmth, pragmatism and commitment of my supervisor, Patricia, set the tone for the kind of psychologist I wanted to become. I returned to her for a specialist placement to pick up the cases that were more complex, transgenerational or involved child protection issues that I had avoided the first time around. I was lucky enough during that second specialist placement to also have the opportunity to work one session a week into an NCH Action for Children project for child and young adult survivors of sexual abuse. There I was reminded of the value of human connections over any academic knowledge, as well as having the opportunity to use Cognitive Analytic Therapy for the first time. I also did a specialist placement in a child development service, with some work into a sexual abuse team – including working with children who had survived abuse and co-facilitating a group for mothers whose partners had sexually abused their children. I learnt more about complexity and systems, and some healthy cynicism about organisational change. I still remember the chart for the new tiered model of services pinned up on my supervisor’s wall, with ovals that widened at lower tiers, entitled “the shape of future services” to which he had added a handwritten subtitle “is pear-shaped”.

When I qualified I was torn between a post with the favourite supervisor I had spent two placements with and one that several people warned me was “burnout waiting to happen” working in child protection. After a long discussion with a good friend I concluded I wanted to continue to challenge myself, and also to put myself where I was most needed. I therefore took the latter post, and worked in a split post across CAMHS and child protection. I learnt from a fantastic supervisor how to work in complex systems and services. David also taught me how to be an expert witness for the family court. The balance between being down-to-earth, approachable and yet grounded in knowledge and theory, as well as the clear communication under pressure gave me another role model of the type of psychologist I wanted to become. He taught me to ask the uncomfortable questions, and to balance holding empathy for parents with speaking up for the best interests of the child. Then in my longest standing post, I learnt from another fantastic head of service to think about process in supervision, how to bring fun and creativity into my work, and also to pick my battles! I also did a lot more collaborative work, and got involved in service development and audit, as well as gradually stepping up to greater supervisory and management responsibility. In that post I had the benefit of working with an inspiring social work team manager who had been doing really innovative work to increase access to permanent placements for older and more complex children. I also went out to America for a couple of weeks to train with Dan Hughes, where I learnt about the power of being present in the intersubjective space, and became more willing to show my own vulnerability and emotional reactions.

I have also learnt from less positive experiences – the times where I got it completely wrong, or unintentionally triggered negative responses in others. For example, I remember an AP I supervised feeding back disliking that I had introduced her to colleagues as “my AP”, intending that to be as supportive as I had perceived it being when I had been an AP myself, rather than as indicative of any claim of ownership. I remember crying when criticised in a multi-agency meeting about the autism pathway, and realising too late that it had been a bad decision to come into work that day whilst my house was flooded and I didn’t have enough emotional resources for work. I still cringe looking back on one time I tried to be supportive to a junior colleague who had to give evidence in court, but ended up making myself look stupid and inhibiting her ability to impart her observations in a useful way. I recall the challenges of having to raise concerns about how a colleague’s homophobia might have a negative impact on service users, and how they justified this being part of their cultural and religious identity. I remember the camaraderie, but also the pressure of working within a big system, feeling responsible for protecting more junior colleagues from organisational changes, worrying about waiting lists, and defensively managing referrals.

Most of all, when I think about negative experiences, I remember how gutted I was when my wonderful employing organisation lost the competitive tender for our service, and how horrible the initial meeting with the new service directors and managers at our new employing trust was. It started with a gloating talk from the new clinical director, and him taking digs at our senior staff about how some people in the room might think they know how to run CAMH services, but clearly he new better as they had won the tender. The jokes about how nobody need worry about their job security, except the consultant grade psychologists, as “you are quite expensive and we haven’t figured out what to do with you yet”. And the patronising response of the service director to my questions about whether the plan for my service section in their tender specification was fixed: “If you think you can do better, cheaper, love, knock yourself out”. I remember the pressure to rewrite the service specification and job plans for my team whilst my kids were in neonatal intensive care, and to take on various tasks to compensate for the fact they hadn’t appointed a locum to cover my absence. I remember my team being left out of the accommodation plan entirely whilst I was on maternity leave, and after protesting, returning to an undecorated, unfurnished office without internet or telephone points (or mobile reception) that could only be accessed by swiping out the fire exit across two flights of stairs, then swiping into another wing of the building and going down to the furthest end of the corridor. I remember being told to income generate or face temporary staff on my team being made redundant, and then being told that I was allowed to neither quote nor invoice as I wasn’t a budget holder. I remember being promised time off in lieu for all that I did during my maternity leave, but then being denied this on my return as “we can’t pay you full-time pay for part time work, no matter what you did in the previous financial year”.

I remember the day I walked out of a meeting with an operational manager, out of the building, out of the car park and down the road, and felt like I could keep walking forever and never go back. In the end I walked across town to my previous base and talked to the directorate manager there, who made it feel less personal. Over the following weeks I sought out some personal therapy through Occupational Health, and picked apart what was me and what was the toxic system around me. Then I decided to take a career break and spoke to HR to confirm that I would be able to continue my self-employed activities during a career break without this being considered “taking up alternative employment” and blocking my right to return. I also wanted confirmation that I would return on the same grade to the same client group. I always joke that the HR lady I spoke to should never play poker, because as I told her my reasons for leaving her face gave away too much. I watched her non-verbally say something along the lines of “oh shit, we’re in trouble here, pretend we’re not, pretend we’re not” before casually raising the option of redundancy and a gagging contract***.

So I had to uproot and push upwards into new an unfamiliar soil. Initially I applied for other NHS jobs, but ended up withdrawing before interview for one and declining a job offer for another, because I wasn’t prepared to work in another toxic culture. In the end I used my expert witness work as my parachute, and figured I would work it out as I went along. I changed from being a sole trader to a limited company so that I could employ an AP. I felt like I had been gradually dehydrated by the conditions I had worked in until I was just a husk of myself, and as I started doing my own thing I found some rain I started to find my own shape again. At first I used my own business to try to achieve what I had hoped to in my NHS career independently. As I have said in previous blogs, I helped set up a parenting charity, but felt the political agenda of the founder wasn’t consistent with the clinical goals. I secured funding for, designed, managed and evaluated a service to support people with diabetes, but ultimately it wasn’t commissioned. I set up a psychology service within a social care provider, and trained staff all across the country, but whilst I enjoyed the work I didn’t enjoy spending so much time away from my home and kids.

The challenges have continued, as I have had to foster my entrepreneurial side and learn the skills to run a business, hold a budget and manage staff. I’ve found new ways to disseminate knowledge – through being on committees, doing policy work, and writing for different audiences in my book, practice journals and on social media and this blog. I’ve developed ways to use technology to improve services, and I’ve returned to doing research. I’ve had to be flexible enough to try new things until I’ve been able to find a way to work that feels authentic. This blog documents much of that journey.

Through it all I have never been bored or complacent about my work. I’ve always enjoyed finding new challenges, and new ways to apply psychological knowledge. I have always found that my work provides moments of flow – that sense of deep and satisfying immersion in the present moment to the exclusion of everything else, that you get when you have sufficient agency and skills to meet a challenge, and feel a sense of reward from doing something well or contributing to something worthwhile. By comparison with so many people who do repetitive, boring or physically challenging work, I feel a great deal of gratitude that I earn my living doing something that is so varied, with so much autonomy and opportunity for enjoyment. Thankfully I have always been able to find sufficient challenge and novelty in how I work, along with sufficient freedom to satisfy me. And there have always been new human puzzles that intrigue me, and the varied settings and ways of working that I have experienced each involve looking at what I have to offer afresh and customising what I do for the new context.

 

So here I am, running my small business and trying to establish the use of structured needs assessments and outcome measurements in children’s social care. Once again, those themes of pushing upwards are back, as I have been putting in a big investment of time and effort to nurture this project over many years in the hope that it grows into something productive. Now that I am more established and have a mortgage to pay, plus rent on my office and employee salaries it feels like a bigger gamble than early on in my career where I had little to lose. But I have that same feeling of clarity about where I want to make my impact in the world that I did when I decided clinical psychology was for me after wavering as an undergraduate. I also have the same faith that my cumulative efforts will eventually be repaid with positive outcomes and a move into easier progress. If I go back to the image of the seed growing underground, I’d like to think that the journey through the earth has been completed and the new shoots are now reaching up into the sunlight where they can be replenished by energy from the external elements. I know as a gardener that with good planning and regular nurture the slow growth of seeds sown over winter can quickly turn into the rapid growth of spring and summer. I can only hope that I’ve done enough to establish my new plants and all this effort comes to fruition soon!

*My landlady decided to sell the house I was renting (despite having agreed I could stay on there in my third year), so I had to find an alternative place to live. My Dad was tested for prostate cancer. And I experienced the second incident in this past blog about rape culture in which I felt at risk of rape.
** Before you say “it must have been easier back then” I would note that I got that post against 110 other applicants. So even in 1995 things were pretty competitive, and probably more effortful as we had to find job adverts in the BPS appointments memorandum booklet that was posted out with the Psychologist magazine, phone up for an application pack, and then post in a hand written application, as NHS jobs didn’t exist and internet based application systems had not been invented yet. Which makes me feel very old.
*** A legal “compromise agreement” that included terms saying I would not tell people why I was leaving or speak negatively about the trust from which I departed, and could not take legal action against them – terms I understand are pretty common in that situation, but the government has subsequently outlawed after bad publicity, as they can be seen as an attempt to silence whistle-blowers.

I am not a therapist

I’ve always been someone that likes to keep busy, and has a lot of ideas about places where psychological thinking can make a positive impact. The aspect of my character that I now identify as entrepreneurial and put to good use in my business has always led me to want to try new things and create innovative solutions to problems. I like a lot of things about being a clinical psychologist, and particularly our ability to turn our hand to multiple types and levels of work. However, unlike many other clinical psychologists, I don’t really see myself as a therapist. In fact, I haven’t seen more than a handful of clients for individual therapy over the last decade, and even before that it was a pretty small proportion of my qualified jobs. I’ve always had more of a focus on the other facets of being a clinical psychologist. I think the picture of a clinical psychologist as a therapist is so strong that a lot of people will now be wondering how I fill my time!

So I will answer that question: I have done loads of highly specialist assessments (of neurodevelopmental concerns, attachment, parenting capacity, mental health, life skills, self-esteem, wellbeing etc) and lots of formulating and report-writing – some in collaboration with psychiatric or medical colleagues or within a wider MDT, but more as an external expert or second opinion. I have advised the family courts as an expert in care proceedings and complex custody disputes, and completed numerous pre-court assessments for local authorities to help inform their care planning. I’ve managed teams and services, and supervised from 2-20 other staff at a time, along with sitting in various organisational/management structures. I have designed and delivered training to parents, carers and professionals, and I have done lots of consultancy to various organisations and professionals (mainly those providing health and social care services, or involved in the family courts), and help placement providers to improve their services. I design and deliver group programs (eg Managing behaviour with attachment in mind), but then rapidly cascade train other staff to continue to deliver them. I wrote a book about attachment/developmental trauma, and lots of papers and policy documents about Looked After children, and acting as an expert witness to the family court. I sat on a BPS committee and I contributed to NICE and SCIE guidelines. I’ve designed, managed and evaluated therapy services (but employed others at lower bands to deliver the therapy). I’ve been an expert advisor to the HCPC in a fitness to practice case and to the team investigating a death in public care. I’ve done loads of practice-led research about each client group I’ve worked with, from looking at the psychological and health economic impacts of offering brief therapy to hospital users with diabetes, to commissioned evaluations of other services. So I have plenty to fill my days despite not having a therapy caseload!

I have reflected on why it is that I don’t feel drawn to therapy, and reached the conclusion that, whilst I see it as a very worthwhile endeavour, I don’t really have the patience for resolving difficulties one person at a time over sessions spanning many months. I’m always more interested in grappling with the bigger questions of why people are in distress, and what we can do to most effectively prevent or ameliorate those difficulties. When I’ve solved the riddle (or at least, reached a plan that improves upon existing solutions) I like to evaluate its efficacy, modify it if necessary and then disseminate the learning and/or train others to replicate the solution. I try to step outwards from the individual issue to the broader themes and ways that we can intervene on a wider scale. To use a visual metaphor, if dealing with mental health problems is like bailing out a ship, then rather than scooping out water one cup at a time, I am trying to work out how to plug the leaks, and to design boats that won’t have the same vulnerabilities to leakage in the future. It also helps me to avoid feeling hopeless about factors outside my control and demand exceeding supply, or burned out by an accumulation of traumatic stories.

Jenny Taylor, a past chair of the Division of Clinical Psychology, once described our profession as the structural engineers of the therapy world. Unlike a therapist trained in a single modality of therapy, we can survey the landscape and assess the need, then design the intervention that best meets that need – even if we are not always best placed to deliver it. We can base that recommendation on our knowledge of the current evidence base, which can change as new information comes to light.  If we consider the challenges people face as a river they need to cross, a therapist trained in a single model of therapy might be a bridge-maker. A psychodynamic therapist might be a mason who can build traditional stone bridges and claims that this design best stands the test of time. A CBT therapist might be a carpenter with a set of designs for wooden arched bridges that he claims are cheaper and quicker to erect. Each sees their own skill as either suitable to solve the challenge or not, but also has some incentive to sustain their own livelihood by continuing their tradition. A clinical psychologist can survey the land either side of the river, the span length required to cross it, and the materials available in the locality. They can then advise on the various options, including the relative costs and the evidence of how they fare in different conditions. They may or may not feel that bridge required is within their own skill-set to erect, but have a reasonable overview of other bridgebuilders in the area to recommend. If new designs of metal suspension bridges are developed, this is not threatening to the structural engineer, who can adjust their recommendations to incorporate the emerging evidence base.

I really like this metaphor and strongly identify with the role of structural engineer rather than bridgebuilder. I had always thought that this was instilled in me by my first graduate job, where I was an assistant psychologist on a research project about improving quality of life in residential care homes for older people, and I could see how the research and clinical work were closely tied together and built on each other reciprocally. But now I think my love of data and the scientific method runs deeper than that and I can see it infused throughout my whole approach to life since childhood. When it comes to my work I am a scientist practitioner down to my bones, as I always collect data as I go along. Where I don’t feel like I understand the situation well enough, I first look to the literature and then to gathering data and doing my own analysis to try to gain insight. When I develop something new to try, wherever possible I try to evaluate what we are doing, and refine it through an iterative process until we can prove maximum efficacy. I see that process as being part of the USP of a clinical psychologist – that we think like scientists and gather data to inform our interventions.

But I’m not sure that we communicate this mindset well enough, or that it is universal amongst the profession. It certainly isn’t what draws people into the profession in my experience. Too many clinical course application forms I review could be paraphrased as “I want to learn to be a good therapist” with an afterthought of “and do/use research” because they think that is what selectors want to hear – but in my view therapy can be done by lots of cheaper professionals, who might do an equally if not better job of it. I believe that clinical psychologists should be more than well paid therapists. We should know the evidence base and be able to take on the most complex assessments and formulations (even if others then deliver part or all of the treatment) but also to be able to develop, refine and evaluate novel therapeutic interventions, supervise other staff, improve services, consult, train and manage – things that extend beyond the skillset of most therapists. I’m sure it is clear by now that this is where my own interests lie. And I think it shows through in everything I do.

For example, when I was asked to lead the CAMHS service providing neurodevelopmental assessments I started with a literature review and current policy and best practice guidance. I then conducted an audit of the existing pathways, then tried to make things better. We set up a new clinic system with more rapid throughput and more thorough assessments, and then re-audited showing a reduction from an average of 18 months of input to five, with increased clinician confidence in the service and higher client satisfaction. I also wrote a booklet to help provide the information to parents whose child received a diagnosis of an Autistic Spectrum Condition. Although it required dedicated clinician time for the multi-disciplinary clinic and for the psychometric assessments generated, overall the new pathway freed up capacity because less cases were being held open by other clinicians whilst waiting for assessment, or kept open for prolonged periods afterwards to help the family understand the diagnosis and connect up to local sources of support.  I also sat on a multiagency strategy group to look at establishing best practice standards for the county.

I had the same approach when I was asked to support the adoption and permanence service. I initially set up a consultancy clinic, where social workers could bring cases to discuss or book in families to see jointly. I found that I was explaining similar information about attachment, trauma and neuroscience to multiple professionals, parents and carers in the consultations. So I designed a group to share this content. I called it “Managing Behaviour with Attachment in Mind”, and developed some “doodles” I would draw on flipchart paper to explain the concepts more accessibly. I evaluated the impact and showed it to be an effective format for supporting parents in this situation. The groups were popular and over-subscribed, so I trained others to deliver the group to keep up with demand, first in my service and then more widely. Many people in the groups liked to photograph the doodles to remind them of the topic, so I decided to write a book to share them and Attachment: In Common Sense and Doodles was born.

But I also wanted to know about how we could achieve permanence for more children. I started by looking at the literature about what makes effective adoptive matches. Very little information was available, so I systematically audited the paperwork from 116 adoptive matches and followed them up over 7 years to see what factors influenced the placement outcomes. I was able to look at whether the innovative adoption project to place children with more complex needs had better or worse outcomes, and was able to explore the impact of different motivations for adopting. Whilst to me this was just a natural process of answering the question as an evidence based practitioner, it transpired that these studies of adoption risk and resilience factors were amongst the largest ever done, and I have discovered unique findings that I really should publish*.

You could argue that I was using a sledgehammer to crack a nut by doing all this research and trying to change process when organisations are notoriously slow to change, and that I could have spent my time more productively working with more individual adoptive families. But that’s not how I’d see it. The research I did helped me to understand what the key variables are when considering whether a child can achieve permanence, what kind of family we need to look for to place them successfully, and what kinds of support might ensure that the placement succeeds. I hope that I have fed that knowledge back through my court work, and into various organisational and policy work over the last decade. I have also disseminated it at conferences. However, I would still like to spread it further, because it is my belief that such knowledge can have positive impact at multiple levels – it can help to inform individual placement decisions, service-wide strategies for helping optimal numbers of children to access permanence, and national policy about adoption.

That work led naturally on to developing our services for Looked After Children when I left the NHS and set up my own company, LifePsychol Ltd. We provide training and consulting to foster carers and residential care staff, the social care organisations that support them, and the wider professional networks surrounding them, including education and health staff, police, lawyers, magistrates and judges. As I started to get more immersed in working with children in and on the edge of Care, it led me to recognise that there was a lack of validated and reliable tools to identify the needs in these populations, no outcome measurement tools that could reliably measure change over time in a way that was sensitive to the context and type of life events these young people experience, and a dearth of clinical governance in terms of the efficacy of both placements and interventions for this group of children. That seemed shocking to me, given their highly complex needs, and massively elevated incidence of mental health problems, challenging behaviour, risk to self and others, and prevalence of intellectual or neurodevelopmental difficulties.

As well as the human cost of not being able to identify the best choices for people, it seemed unacceptable that huge amounts of money were being spent on placements and specialist services for this group without any evidence of them changing their wellbeing or life course for the better. Placements seemed to struggle to identify what to work on and how, and there was little objective indication of what defined a successful placement, beyond annual visits from Ofsted (who were predominantly focused on process and procedure). The high level of need and the lack of clinical governance in the sector has allowed various specialist therapists and services to spring up that are virtually unregulated, and many placements have adopted terms like “therapeutic” without these having a consistent definition or meaning. So I wanted to see whether I could make any headway in changing that.

Meanwhile there is pressure from the government to improve outcomes for children in public Care, because they are seen to fare badly compared to the general population of children the same age. The difficulty is that this isn’t comparing like for like – children in care have many more adversities to face, both organic and in terms of their life experiences, that mean they often deviate from the norm. For example, I found that there was a 20 point skew downwards in IQ distribution in children in residential care compared to population norms, meaning that 20-25% of children in this setting had a learning disability, compared to 2% in the general population. Likewise the incidence of Autistic Spectrum Conditions and other neurodevelopmental difficulties amongst children in Care is more than triple that in the wider population. The same is true of young offenders. If we don’t acknowledge that, then the sector is being asked to seek impossible goals and will inevitably be seen as failing, even if placements and services are performing optimally and adding a lot of value to the lives of the children they work with.

To state the obvious, children in care are not just randomly drawn from the population – by definition their needs have not been met, and this can mean both the presence of additional challenges and exposure to harm or deficits in care. I believe that to look at the needs of this population and the degree to which these are met by placements or interventions, we need to either compare them to carefully matched controls or ensure that outcomes are always considered relative to baseline. The latter seems more pragmatic. Scores for young people also need to be considered in the context of what is going on in their lives – as changes in placement, daily routine, contact arrangements, or the arrival or departure of other children from the home can make big impacts on the child’s functioning.

So I’ve been beavering away exploring these issues and developing systems to measure needs and make the data meaningful for those providing care and services. The impact might not be as obvious as delivering psychological therapy directly, but I’d like to think that over time it can improve services for thousands (or even tens of thousands) of children, and make a greater net change in the world.

 

*Maybe I’ll write more about this in a future blog. But the short version is that I have been trying to secure some funding to complete the statistical analysis and disseminate this information, and would still like to do so, so if you have any ideas or useful connections to assist with this please let me know. Failing that I hope I’ll find enough time to write a book on making better adoptive matches at some point in the future.

Sticking plasters

I realise that this title won’t mean much to Americans or people outside the UK, so let me share a small anecdote by way of explanation before I get into the topic I want to discuss. I was on an American airlines flight back from New York in 2003, having done a lot of walking around the city over the preceding week. When I removed my shoes and straightened my socks it transpired that a burst blister had adhered to my sock, and it started to bleed surprisingly profusely. I asked a member of cabin crew for a sticking plaster, and got entirely blank looks in response. When I explained the situation, a steward showed a sudden look of recognition and sighed “oh, a Band Aid! I keep one of those in my wallet for my kids” and provided what I needed. So yes, a sticking plaster is a Band Aid – an adherent protective dressing for a small wound.

I found it quite an insight into American marketing, as I had also tried to buy antihistamine cream in a drug store to utterly blank looks, until someone realised I wanted “Benadryl”. I had also seen the TV advertising persuading people they had adult ADHD (with a symptom list that seemed to encourage false positives, and a link to a small quiz online that seemed to classify almost anyone as having ADHD), or that they needed Viagra (with the almost comical warnings that “erections lasting more than two hours can be dangerous and require medical attention”). Disease mongering is a pretty interesting phenomenon, and well worth reading about – Did you know that the vast majority of viagra prescriptions are “off label” and written for groups in which there is no evidence of efficacy (including women, when there is not a single study showing evidence of efficacy in this population)? And that the pharmaceutical companies are trying to medicalise “Female Sexual Dysfunction” to create mass markets to address lack of desire or lack of pleasure, with minimal consideration of the context or wider issues, because of the success of such marketing with men? Or that “restless legs” has been marketed to the public as a common condition requiring medication? It made me quite glad for our generics, and lack of medication marketing targeting the public.

But the reason I wanted to talk about sticking plasters is that they are a response after the event. A means of short-term management, and covering up of an injury, rather than preventing it. Like my blisters adhering to my sock, there were many stages at which that bleeding could have been prevented – by covering the blister earlier, or better still byby taking the subway more and/or wearing more sensible shoes to explore New York. The problem is that if we become overwhelmed by demand for the reactive response, we lose the capacity to look at what underlies the demand. And if we spend too much time reacting to distress in health services, it can mean that we fail to do the preventative work that would reduce the need for such services. With austerity politics ensuring that the health and social care sector are too underfunded to be proactive, I think that is where the NHS is heading, along with most of the public sector.

Every single day I seem to read about travesties of social justice, and the lack of thought about the people that bear the brunt of them. Time and time again the most vulnerable members of society are being abused and neglected at a national and global scale. Whether it is the man who has paid UK taxes for 40 years who is being denied essential cancer treatment because he doesn’t have a British passport (due to a paperwork oversight when he arrived as a child with his parents from the Caribbean 44 years ago), or the deportation of a humanitarian/academic couple who are being told to leave because they went abroad for too many days – to complete a government study. Or how about the person that tweeted about having waited for over a year for support after a sexual assault, with rape crisis waiting lists closed for most of London for more than a year due to the scale at which demand exceeds supply?

Perhaps we should look at the rapid rise in mortality in the UK so far this year, falling life expectancy (especially in lower socioeconomic groups) or the rise in deaths amongst mental health patients – despite the falls in smoking and improved outcomes in many health treatments. A man/woman in an impoverished estate in the north of England can now expect to enjoy 32/35 fewer years of life in good health, compared with a counterpart in a wealthy suburb in London or the Home Counties. Or perhaps we can look at the impact of cuts to NHS funding (albeit masked by fake claims of record wage rises) record waits for A&E, the cancellations of operations, and the burnout of NHS staff.

Or look at the increase in homelessness over the last few years (it went up 16% in 2016 alone, with almost 50 000 families living in bed and breakfast accommodation and many more “hidden homeless” living on floors and sofas of friends and acquaintances) with the knowledge that being homeless can worse than halve your remaining life expectancy (homeless women die on average at 43 and homeless men at 47, compared with 77 for the rest of us). As the author of the BMJ article puts it “Homelessness is not an episodic event, but something systemic. It is a neon sign that something is fundamentally wrong with policy across health and housing”. This lack of provision doesn’t even save money as the cost to the NHS of society’s failure to deal with homelessness and other examples of inequality has been estimated at £4.8bn (€5.4bn; $6.7bn) annually.

These same austerity policies have a wider impact on mental health. Psychologists for Social Change have identified five ways austerity policies impact on mental health: 1. Humiliation and shame 2. Fear and distrust 3. Instability and insecurity 4. Isolation and loneliness 5. Being trapped and powerless. They remind us that “These experiences have been shown to increase mental health problems. Prolonged humiliation following a severe loss trebles the chance of being diagnosed with clinical depression. Job insecurity is as damaging for mental health as unemployment. Feeling trapped over the long term nearly trebles the chances of being diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Low levels of trust increase the chance of being diagnosed with depression by nearly 50 per cent”.

So we can’t see mental health in isolation. Whether it is the individual context (for example in the power threat meaning framework I discussed in a prior blog) or in the wider sociopolitical context, we are not brains in a jar, but socially connected beings with experiences that impact on our wellbeing. When we talk about the shortfall in mental health services, too often we are saying that in the context of demand for services exceeding supply, and feeling strongly pulled as psychologists to provide more of the same. That makes sense in at the coal face, where it is hard to have the energy, time or resilience to look at the wider picture beyond the demands hammering on our own door. However, it means that we are discussing the lack of sufficient reactive responses to a problem that could have been dealt with more effectively further up the timeline with proper proactive and early intervention work, and in a lot of cases could have even been prevented with better social policy and provision for vulnerable population groups.

Of course, doing preventative or early intervention work also takes resources, and we can’t take them away from the people currently in need/distress now. But instead of us constantly asking for a little bit more of the same to deaf ears who reply with excuses about finite pots and efficiency savings (and sarcasm about magic money trees), maybe we need to think more creatively about intervening at different levels and in different ways to the set up of existing services. I’d rather be providing sign-posts to avoid hazards than doling out sticking plasters when people trip over them – and best of all I’d rather be fixing the hazards, and helping vulnerable people identify routes that are less risky.

I’ll give Psychologists for Social Change the last word: “Mental health isn’t just an individual issue. To create resilience and promote wellbeing, we need to look at the entirety of the social and economic conditions in which people live”.

Well-being check-ups

Two of my cats are geniuses. They have worked out how to open the cat flap inwards when it is set to only allow them to come in and not to go out. The other cat is either even more of a genius and has been able to hide his skills from me better, or isn’t motivated to go out into the cold at night, or isn’t as smart as his brothers*. I am yet to work it out. But either way a cat should not be able to “hack” an expensive cat flap fancy enough to recognise their microchips, so I phoned the maker, Sure Petcare. They said that it is very unusual for a cat to work this out – so unusual in fact that they hand make an adaptation kit for the few customers that find this an issue, and would send one out, which they duly did. If that doesn’t work they will refund us, and we can buy a design with two point locking instead.

What was interesting was the figures they let slip in the telephone call. According to the member of staff I spoke to, it seems that five percent of cats can open their catflap when it is on the setting that is supposed to allow inward travel only. That is, if you have a smart cat who wants to go out, then it doesn’t work. When looking at their customer experience, one in twenty of their cat flaps doesn’t fulfil the functions they claim for it and has to be returned or replaced. Yet somehow they have decided that it isn’t worth modifying the design, despite this failure rate. So they are reliant on cats not working it out, and/or customers not complaining, and/or the cost of making and sending out the modifications for this smaller number of cat flaps being cheaper than the change to the manufacturing costs involved in solving the problem.

They aren’t alone in that. The Hotpoint/Indesit fridge that caused the Grenfell tower fire was a model known to have problems with blowing fuses, temperature control and noise at night. Other products by the same manufacturer, such as a particular model of tumble dryer, had been known to cause fires. But neither had been subject to a recall until after the tragedy at Grenfell. Likewise many models of cars have been found to have various safety problems, and the manufacturer seems to weigh up the adverse impact of the negative publicity and the cost of the preventative work, replacements or repairs and to compare this to the cost implications of not acting – it has only been since the larger financial impact of customers taking up legal compensation cases after deaths and serious injuries, and increased government fines for not acting on safety issues that the balance has tipped towards preventative action.

My car was recalled by the manufacturer a couple of months ago because of a fault with the ABS, which can overheat and fail in an emergency situation, so I took it in last week to be checked and modified. The modification was completed without event, but the VW dealership also provided a “free service check” of the rest of the vehicle. This identified two “red” repairs they felt were urgent or affected safety, and one “amber” issue with the brakes, and they suggested I should have all three repaired before leaving, at a cost of nearly £700. What they might not have known is that the car had passed its MOT with no recommendations for work less than three weeks previously, so I took it back to my trusted local garage for their opinion on this “urgent” work. The mechanic explained that the items identified were not necessary, let alone urgent (particularly on a nine year old, 100,000-miles-on-the-odometer car destined for the diesel scrappage scheme within the next year or two).

I’m not a car person really, so I mention it only because it seemed to me that VW (or that particular dealership) had decided to offset the cost of the recall to check the ABS, by identifying other potential sources of work they could undertake and presenting minor issues in a way that appeared more serious or urgent than they really were. In that way, garages are pretty shameless about creating work for themselves, and from the start they build in customer expectations of maintenance and additional expenses. We accept the idea that safe operation of vehicles requires periodic checks and repairs, and we need to take them in for regular servicing because certain parts have a limited lifespan, and don’t see that as indicative of the original product being defective.

You would think this is even more true in healthcare, given that so many conditions can be prevented or treated simply if identified very early, saving pain and trauma for the individual whilst also saving cash to the public purse. It isn’t impossible to deliver, as this type of model is used in dentistry – we attend for periodic preventive checks and expect to need maintenance from time to time. Likewise we expect to need regular eye tests and to update our glasses. And we get letters reminding us to come for flu jabs or smear tests from the GP. But it isn’t applied to our general health and wellbeing. In fact my health had deteriorated quite significantly before I was assertive about requesting the tests that showed I was anemic, severely vitamin D deficient, had blood pressure high enough to be risky and an abnormal ECG. And the only context where there are screening and preventative measures for mental health that I can think of are during pregnancy and the occupational health checks when applying for a new job. However, there is a massive incidence of mental health problems and it has huge impact on people’s lives, the lives of those around them, and their ability to engage in education and employment, with knock on effects on physical health, social engagement, work, relationships and parenting.

When thinking about mental health and therapeutic interventions, we could probably learn from the maintenance model of dentists (or the regular intervals of car servicing) that keep an overview of how things are going, give preventive advice and identify the need for more in depth work. It would also take away the stigma of talking about mental health if it was something universally considered at regular intervals. Of course it will never happen, at least not under this government which is trying to strip away essential health and social care services, increase the wealth gap and the vulnerability of socially excluded groups, and blame individuals for the way they respond to experiences outside of their control. But it is nice to think now and again about what things could be like if we strip away the constraints of austerity. And I’d like to have an annual well-being check up where someone with a mental health qualification starts by asking “so how are you feeling at the moment?” and actually cares about the answer.

 

*I’m not judging, I love all three of them equally.

Nature versus nurture revisited

This week I have been reading the Power Threat Meaning Framework published by Lucy Johnstone and colleagues. This document is an attempt to challenge the dominant medical model in adult mental health with a more functional framework for formulation, based on the person’s experiences and circumstances. It is an interesting and challenging read, because it tries to cover the political and philosophical context of challenging the medical model, and input from service recipients about the benefits and challenges of different ways of conceptualising their difficulties. But at the core it rests on a pretty simple and (I’d like to think by now) well-established concept – that the adverse childhood experiences a person has prime them to use survival strategies that make them vulnerable to difficulties later in their life. Those early templates for dysfunctional relationships and the sense of self created by inconsistency and maltreatment also mean that people are more likely than others without those experiences to go on to have other relationships and experiences that are traumatic/harmful as they grow older, which compound the strategies and narratives with which they navigate adult life. The survival strategies which made perfect sense in response to their experiences at the time, have a lasting impact on the brain, body and behaviour. They change the way the person perceives themselves, understands the world and relates to others, and go on to have detrimental effects long after the initial trigger is gone.

As I have mentioned in previous blogs, a person exposed to high levels of trauma or adversity, especially if lacking protective relationships, will become more vigilant to signs of threat, less able to focus on the tasks that help us attain educationally and in the workplace. Where their early relationships have been dysfunctional, they are likely to struggle with forming healthy later relationships, and are more likely to express needs indirectly and in ways that cannot be ignored – including in ways that lead to negative societal responses, such as rejection and/or pejorative judgements by others, involvement with mental health services (and being given diagnostic labels), involvement of criminal justice systems. This leads to an increased risk of socioeconomic adversity, lower social connectedness and a greater chance of a range of adverse outcomes.

In short, thinking about adversity in both the person’s childhood experiences and current context, not only gives us insight into the biggest variable in personality disorder, attachment disorder and other specific conditions. It also explains a lot of the risk factors for wider issues with physical and mental health, challenging behaviour, addiction, violence, crime, homelessness, harmful relationship patterns and helps determine our sense of self and our ability to make healthy social connections. Adverse childhood experiences increase the risk of a very wide range of  physical and mental health problems, for a range of reasons including lower self-care and poor lifestyle choices, a lack of self-monitoring and seeking of appropriate care in the early stages of problems, and what seems to be increased propensity for ill-health mediated by the stress messengers in the body.

I’d go so far as to say that getting child protection and parenting right is the biggest task facing humanity, and the area where I believe we can make most difference for the future – hence dedicating my career to working with the kids who have experienced the most adversity and trying to improve their outcomes. But as I have explained above, it doesn’t just stop there, because the ripples of that early adversity continue to spread out into the lifespan for many people, forming a barrier to the protective factors of education and employment, establishing social networks, and the means to access pleasurable activities. This can then be compounded by financial hardship, hostile systems (such as benefits sanctions and fitness for work tests) and lack of access to resources (including finding it hard to identify and navigate access to social care and health services, to know and assert their rights, or appeal against decisions made by organisations). So the same people who experienced chronic developmental trauma and have unresolved psychological consequences from that are often struggling with their personal relationships, as well as practical issues like debt, homelessness and crime. In that context, dysfunctional coping strategies like substance abuse or presenting with challenging behaviour or mental health symptoms make more sense as attempts to obtain escape or safety.

There are also vulnerability factors such as being in a disempowered/minority population group, that also bring compounding adversity such as sexism, racism/xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, religious intolerance, etc. These can impact at all life stages. For example, a child with physical or intellectual disabilities is more likely to be the victim of abuse, to experience bullying, and (perhaps increasingly as they grow up) to struggle to access community resources, financial independence or a supportive social network. For people from cultures outside of the majority in the country where they live, there can be language and cultural barriers, prejudice and political/economic challenges, as well as exposure to poverty, war, terrorism and other threats to survival that are outside the experience of the majority of lifetime residents of developed nations. Certain population groups such as asylum seekers find things particularly challenging in terms of finding safety, housing, financial security, after already experiencing multiple traumas in the country they have left and during their journey to find safety. Each individual is unique and their story, current situation and past experiences are a huge influence on the way that they experience and interact with the world.

As Johann Hari rightly points out in his recent article to promote his new book, everybody knows that our experiences, relationships and living conditions impact on our state of mind. If a loved one such as a partner or child dies, you are likely to be sad (and perhaps angry, or relieved if they were suffering, or many other complex feelings). Likewise, if you are given a warning of impending missile attack most people would feel anxious, and become hypervigilant for signs of threat. Therefore, most people would not think of grief after a bereavement or loss, or anxiety when in an acutely threatening situation as pathological. Which makes it somewhat curious that the medical model has been applied to mental health in the way that it has. Why has it become that depression or anxiety or even addiction is seen as a disease, a neurochemical imbalance that needs to be treated with medication?

Perhaps the advances of modern science studying genes and neurochemicals made us think of ourselves as complex biological machines that could be understood at a physical level. Perhaps there is wishful thinking about biological models leading to potential cures. Perhaps the fact that brain injuries, tumours, dementias and neurodevelopmental conditions can make an impact on our feelings and behaviours made it seem that all feelings and behaviours could be attributed to brain changes. Perhaps the idea of massive numbers of people suffering is too distressing to think about and it is a common defence to depersonalise that, and to other the person suffering. Perhaps the narrative of mental illness has sustained the power and income of the medical profession as experts and gatekeepers to such treatments. Perhaps it was clever marketing propaganda by the pharmaceutical companies to sell more of their products. Perhaps it was so persuasive because it fits with the neoconservative narrative to think of individual failure rather than individuals showing the symptoms of societal problems (and therefore our collective responsibility to solve these problems and look after each other, rather than just thinking of ourselves). Or, more likely, it was a combination of these and many other factors.

Of course, we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. There are certainly people for whom psychiatric medication has made a massive positive difference. People who feel more able to concentrate and gain attainments when on stimulant medication, or who feel less hopeless, anxious or angry when on antidepressants, or people whose distress, confusion or aggression is reduced by neuroleptics. But we can’t work backwards from positive impact to considering that proof of a neurochemical deficit or imbalance. After all, the evidence for analgesics is very strong, but I doubt anybody thinks a headache is a symptom of lack of aspirin! We need good unbiased data to understand what is going on, not the cherry-picked examples that currently make it into the public domain. Alltrials is a good step in the right direction in this regard, but there is still bias in what research gets funded and what gets published, with bias towards the sexier topics of new technology, genetics, scans and hard science, and less towards the sociopolitical aspects affecting individual and population wellbeing.

I’m not saying that nature isn’t important. It seems likely that various medical/biological factors do mediate the impact of experience. For example, some conditions like autism, intellectual disability, and dementia do appear to have predominantly biological causes, whilst having impact on thoughts and feelings. Brain injuries and diseases can affect personality, mood and behaviour, and various hormonal and physical conditions can affect brain function and impact on mental health. There seem to be genetic differences (eg to telomeres) that make some individuals more resilient to adverse experiences than others. And some twin studies show genetic factors influence the incidence of conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, although again the epigenetic factors seem important, it is not clear whether the biological differences are a cause or a symptom of the condition, and the role of biology is not large enough on its own to explain who gets these conditions without also considering experience. Like most of these debates, the answer isn’t going to be one extreme or the other. I am glad that the pendulum has swung back towards considering nurture and experience more, and not exclusively the high tech science of genes, psychopharmacology and brain scans. It seems likely that who we are and how we feel and function in the world is affected by both our biology, our experiences, our circumstances and our relationships both now and in the past.

So, whilst Christine Courtois and Bessel van der Kolk’s efforts in the adult and child spheres respectively to get the impact of complex and multiple traumas and damaged attachment relationships recognised as a better way to understand attachment disorder and personality disorder than a neurobiological disease model (and their challenges to the DSM) have not yet been successful, I am heartened if this way of understanding the impact of experience is gaining more credibility in the field. I think the power-threat-meaning framework might be helpful for some clients, and the questions that they advise asking are certainly good way of starting a clinical assessment.

“What is your story?” Specifically:

1) What has happened to you? (How is Power operating in your life?)

2) How did it affect you? (What kind of Threats does this pose?)

3) What sense did you make of it? (What is the Meaning of these situations and experiences to you?)

4) What did you have to do to survive? (What kinds of Threat Response are you using?) and are you still doing this?

5) What are your strengths? (What access to Power resources do you have?)

It certainly resonates for me, and I wrote about a lot of this stuff in my book, Attachment in Common Sense and Doodles in relation to children who don’t live with their family of origin. I wanted to make information about attachment and the impact of trauma more accessible to carers, legal professionals and social care staff and other profesionals in the child’s network. It isn’t novel content, as it was based on themes that had been researched, written and spoken about by others before me, but I have tried to present it in an accessible and engaging way.

I am heartened that in the last few weeks the idea of experiences and nurture being important in mental health seems to be reaching the public consciousness. It seems to be being promoted more vocally by a lot more clinical psychologists, and to have reached me in various different ways. I’m glad if it is gaining traction and a wider audience, but it might be that’s wishful thinking on my part, and merely a product of my unrepresentative sampling. In light of how horrible a lot of the news is since the Brexit vote, Tory election win and Trump victory, I’m trying to be more selective about what I read and the social media I engage with, so it could be I’m in more of a bubble of like minded thinkers these days, and that is the explanation for hearing more about models that fit my own thinking!