Thinking about vulnerability and risk

Sometimes you pull on the littlest of threads and the biggest of issues appear at the other end.

Today I have been training in quite a remote location in the Welsh borders. It is the first time in quite some time that I’ve been in a location with no mobile signal. And no mobile signal meant no satnav to find my location last night, and no means to let my husband know I had arrived. I soon found there was no working phone box, and given the late hour there was nobody around to ask directions. And all of a sudden I realised that I was lost, alone and that nobody knew where I was! For those few minutes before I found the hotel, I realised how much I have grown to rely on technology to feel safe and oriented in my day-to-day life. And then I wondered if I felt less fearless before those technologies were so ubiquitous, or whether it is just the absence of a crutch I have grown to rely on that made me feel more vulnerable. After all, what was the real risk?

I started to think about about how we are trained to over emphasise certain sorts of risk (like stranger-danger, or the risk of immigrants on unemployment rates), and to under-recognise others (like the risks to children from exposure to domestic violence, or the risks that so many families face from poverty and discrimination). It seems that the media trains us to be most afraid of the things we have least control over. A cynic might think they want us to have an external locus of control and a certain degree about learnt helplessness when it comes to social issues. Whatever the motivation, the result is that many people go about their lives with little awareness of the risks that I see as the most important in society today – how vulnerable many children and adults are to abuse and exploitation, how maltreatment is normative in certain families and communities, and how interpersonal violence, trauma and abuse can change the path of people’s lives.

One example of risk and vulnerability that has been prominent in the media recently is how the press has turned once again to discrediting victims of abuse who speak up. This has taken several strands. First the media narrative has changed from “survivors of child abuse” to “alleged survivors of child abuse”, sowing the seed of doubt about every person who makes a disclosure. Second politicians are telling their colleagues to withdraw allegations due to loyalty to their party, and trying to shame the brave few who spoke up and asked for multiple disclosures and allegations to be investigated into apologising for maligning a powerful public figure. And third we are repeatedly hearing that those with allegations against them which are dropped by the police or CPS have been “proven innocent” or that victims have “lied” or “fabricated” rather than the more accurate truth of the matter, in which there is insufficient evidence to have a high enough chance of successful prosecution to merit public funds to proceed. The climate of being willing to look into abuse allegations against the rich and powerful, which gained such momentum from the public disgust about how Jimmy Savile got away with such extensive crimes for so long, has turned once again into a climate in which victims feel that the authorities are biased towards powerful and they are not going to be believed. This blog is an eloquent example of that.

Whilst I firmly believe in the principle of innocent until proven guilty, and the need for exceptional reasons to name someone against whom allegations have been made before the case has sufficient evidence to come to trial, we are dealing with a system far more weighted towards false negatives than false positives. Let us not forget that as many as 1 in 5 children are sexually abused, and yet only 15% are able to disclose in a way that leads to a police investigation. That’s the scandal here, not the impact on the reputation of a dead politician.

We need to remember that the victims of abuse are human beings like us who have been failed by society. If all politicians see is demographics and price tags, or characters and plots in which the goody is the one who becomes rich and powerful, then they don’t treat people like people. Recognising human beings and their ability to suffer is necessary to form policy, to offer justice and to be objective in investigations. In fact, that recognition of our common humanity and how people are shaped by their experiences makes you more able to consider that the perpetrators who are too often written off as incurable and evil are mostly people who have been victims themselves and never had the positive learning experiences children need to develop healthily in their own lives.

I think tackling child maltreatment is the primary social problem in the world today. To address this problem we need a multifaceted approach. I believe that if we can prevent child abuse and help people to have secure attachment relationships they will learn to be more resilient, empathic and socially skilled. In time this will have immeasurable positive impact on society. It will reduce crime, addiction, conflict, mental health problems, and even reduce the incidence and severity of many major physical health problems such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. And interventions to help reduce maltreatment, improve attachment relationships and support children to make an optimal recovery from abuse or poor care are highly cost effective. Every pound spent in addressing childhood adversity through evidence-based interventions is repaid tenfold to the state in savings before adulthood (for example, we know that mental health interventions in childhood can save £83 more per pound spent where issues are prevented or treated in childhood rather than remaining into adulthood). But it doesn’t stop there. These changes continue to make ripples that save costs in health, social care, criminal justice, employment, benefit, and tax spheres for the rest of the person’s lifetime, and then for their partners, children and future generations.

We just need to stop blaming the vulnerable, and imagining risks where they don’t exist, and start trying to solve the systemic problems that make them vulnerable in the first place.

If you build it they will come: The impact of making space in my professional life

When my personal development coach told me that the first steps towards having a happier working life and better work life balance were to a) figure out what I wanted to do most and b) clear out some space in my life for it to fit into, that seemed a bit back to front and almost too obvious.

Although I’ve always known that I want to apply clinical psychology to helping the most complex children and families, I felt a real lack of clarity about what I wanted to do. I think in retrospect this was because I’d originally envisaged nothing more creative than a career in CAMHS in the NHS. But even once I was outside the NHS I still felt this lack of vision for my ideal future, perhaps because I wanted to choose it from the options available to me, and I hadn’t explored what those might be very far beyond returning to the NHS or continuing what I was doing already (court expert witness work, with a side helping of trying to influence policy and practise by being involved with national committees, standards groups and supporting the next generation of CPs).

I had also internalised the idea that the right process was to build up my investment of time in what I wanted to do more, until that took off and allowed me to do less of the other stuff. I felt like clearing out space from my established work streams was of no value (or even a potential risk to my income) unless I had figured out what I wanted to do, or ideally created the alternative channels already. But slowly I realised that if all my time and energy was being consumed by my current workload, then there was no capacity to imagine anything better, to seek out any opportunities or plan any change, and I’d still be overloading myself and worrying about my work life balance in a year from now, or five, or ten.

So I decided to take a gamble and cut down my work commitments for a while and give myself thinking space to figure it out. Of course, being me, I took on the new part-time consulting role that was going to pay the bills whilst giving me time to think before I had managed to reduce my existing workload. So I had six months in which I had to overlap this new role with my all my ongoing court and committee work, before I was able to wind them down very much at all, and then a minor RTA to contend with (see previous blog). So I sure didn’t take the easy route to cutting down.

But the physical jolt was the final straw to help me to realise that I needed to change my work patterns and I have been able to spend more time with my family, and have now stepped down from almost all of my committee roles. This is an enormous change after 4 or 5 years on the BPS CYPF committee, nearly double that of being involved with CPLAAC, and more recently being part of the BPS/FJC standards group for psychology experts to the family court and the NICE guidance development group for attachment interventions, and a rep from the BPS to BAAF. I am now at the very tail end of the court work, with just three small pieces of work to complete (each an addendum to prior work or work that was delayed after I agreed to complete it) and a couple of single days in court.

Although my time is still very fraught for another couple of weeks and we will then segue into Christmas (meaning my winding down schedule will have taken me almost a year to achieve), I’ve managed to get onto some tasks I have been avoiding for a long time. I’ve started to work my way through the financial tangles that constantly stop things running smoothly – this is mainly the enormous pile of unpaid invoices where parties to court work have disputed their share, gone bust, or just not paid for years and years, but also includes the un-invoiced work that we have completed, expenses I have not claimed back from the company, and the administrative task of reconciling our records with the bank statements. My team have stepped up to help me and as I have made sense of it bit by bit it feels like that tangle is turning into a single logical thread I can follow and wind up as I go.

As I sort and put away the clutter that consumes my time and energy step by step, I am starting to feel less overwhelmed by running the business. As the volume of court work I undertake reduces, so does the emotional weight of the work. And as the burden I am carrying gets lighter, psychologically at least, some small gaps between the demands on my time and energy are already starting to appear. Into those gaps has come the beginnings of the vision I lacked of where I want to take my career in the future, and what kind of life I want.

I’m sure I’ll talk more about that next time. But for now I just wanted to share that it feels great to put down some of the load I have been carrying, to untangle the frustrating little issues that have been tying me up, and to create space for the stuff that I care about the most. With the help of a new business mentor I’ve been able to connect with the motivation that started me on this journey, and to finally work out where I want to go both personally and professionally. And that makes all the steps I have to take to get there much clearer.

I made the space, and sure enough, the goals of how I want to fill it have come to me.