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 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!

Six degrees of separation

My brother, David Silver, is panning out to be one of the significant players in the world of artificial intelligence. His PhD topic was applying reinforcement learning to the oriental strategy game of Go, and he has gone on to be the lead researcher on AlphaGo at Google DeepMind. That is the program that last year beat the world champion human player and became the best computer player of Go. More recently AlphaZero has taught itself to play Go from scratch (AlphaGo started by learning from thousands of top level human games) and has also taught itself to play chess and shogi, all to unprecedented levels of excellence. It has been very exciting following his progress, and going to the premier of the documentary film about AlphaGo (which is a lovely human drama, even if you don’t know or care much about the technology, so do give it a watch on netflix/prime/google play/itunes if you get the chance).

It is no surprise to me that David has gone on to find a niche that is intellectually impressive, as he has always been a pretty smart guy and done exceptionally well in education (though reassuringly he isn’t all that practical, makes the same silly mistakes as the rest of us, and has remained quite down to earth). I’ve always been glad to be the older sibling, as I think it would have been difficult to follow in his footsteps. As it was, I could be proud of my relative achievements before he came along and beat them all! He has always had a very analytical mind and enjoys solving logical puzzles. I guess I do too in some ways, but I’m much more interested in how people work than complicated mathematical calculations, and how we can reduce suffering and help people recover from trauma, rather than pushing the boundaries of technology. We’ve chosen quite different career directions, but I think we still have quite similar underlying values and ethics.

Although I’m proud of him, I’m not mentioning my brother’s achievements to show off (after all, I can take no credit for them) but because they’ve given me cause for reflection. Firstly, it would be easy to feel inadequate by comparison. After all, he is making headlines and working on the frontiers of technology, whilst I’m just a clinician running a tiny company and have made relatively little impact to date. It would be easy to be jealous of the financial security, publications and plaudits that he has got. He has made the news all around the world, and even has a wikipedia page! But I think I’d find that spotlight uncomfortable, and I suspect I’d find his job pretty stressful, as well as finding all the maths and computing pretty boring and unfulfilling. So whilst there is plenty to admire, I don’t really envy him and wouldn’t want to swap places.

Secondly, and perhaps more interestingly in terms of this blog, it has made me think about what my goals are. Making the best possible AI to play Go is quite a narrow and specific goal, and within that he selected a specific methodology with reinforcement learning, and he has focused on that for the past decade, before looking at what other applications the same system might have. Yet in that same time period I’ve been pulled in many different directions. I’ve been an NHS CAMHS clinician and service manager. I’ve been an at home mum. I’ve helped to found a parenting charity. I’ve set up and evaluated a project to improve outcomes for diabetes patients. I’ve bid for grants. I’ve tried to help recruit psychologists and improve clinical services within a children’s home company. I’ve undertaken specialist assessments of complex cases. I’ve been an expert witness to the family courts. I’ve delivered training. I’ve run a small therapy service. I’ve conducted research. I’ve tried to influence policy, and sat on committees. I’ve written a book about how to care for children affected by poor attachments and trauma. And I’ve developed outcome measures. Most of the time I’ve done several of these things in parallel. It is hard to keep so many plate spinning, and means I have not been able to invest my full energy in the things I most want to do. I’ve also had hesitations about investing in entrepreneurial ideas, because of guilt about saying no to other stuff, or fear that it won’t pay off  that have taken a really long time to shake off.

Greg McKeown says in his brilliant articles for Harvard Business Review about ‘essentialism’, that success can bring on demands that cause you to diversify, and ultimately reduce your focus on your primary goal and cause failure, and that is exactly what I’ve experienced. It reminded me of a reflective exercise I did as a trainee on a workshop about creative methods, where I made an amoeba shape out of clay to represent the pulls I felt in different directions. The amoeba was a resonant image for me as it can’t spread too thin without losing its depth at the centre, and it can’t travel in two directions at once. Finding the right direction of travel and resisting other pulls on my time is something I am still working on 20 years later! It has been a growth curve to learn what to say ‘no’ to so that the company does not become overloaded or incoherent*. There are also other forces that influence what a small business can deliver – we have to do work that we are passionate about, uniquely skilled to deliver and that there is a market for. There is no point offering services that nobody wants to buy, or that other people can provide better, or that you are not enthusiastic about, so we need to stick to things that we can deliver brilliantly and build a positive reputation for. However, with the breadth of clinical psychology there will always be multiple demands and opportunities, and it is necessary to find a focus so that we have a single defined goal** in order to attain the most success.

I’ve taken time to refine my goal from “applying clinical psychology to complicated children and families facing adversity” (which is actually quite a broad remit, and includes a wide range of neurodevelopmental, mental health, physical health and social aspects of adversity, being applied to all sorts of different people) to “applying clinical psychology knowledge to improving services for Looked After and adopted children” to “using outcome measurement tools developed through my knowledge of clinical psychology with placement providers and commissioners to improve outcomes for Looked After and adopted children”. Likewise, it has taken me time to clear space in my head and in my diary, and to be in good enough physical health to give it sufficient time and energy. But I am finally able to dedicate the majority of my working time to making people aware of BERRI, doing the statistical analysis to validate and norm it, and supporting/training those who subscribe to it. I have secured an honorary research fellowship at UCL and some data analyst support, and a trainee from Leicester is making it the subject of her doctoral research, so I very much hope that 2018 will be the year that we publish a validation of the measure and methodology, and can then roll it out more widely. I believe that is my best chance to make a difference in the world – to improve the standards of care for children living outside of their family of origin by encouraging universal psychological screening, regular outcome measurement, and the ability to identify and track needs over time.

Finally, my brother’s achievements have given me pause for thought because him working at Google has made me feel a sense of being somehow distantly connected to silicon valley, and all the technological and entrepreneurial activity that goes on there. Suddenly the people who founded Google, Facebook and Tesla/SpaceX are no longer as abstract as Hollywood actors or international politicians, but are now three steps away in a technology game of six degrees of Kevin Bacon. It makes the world feel a little smaller and making an impact seem more possible, when your kid brother is connected (however peripherally) to the technology giants who are changing the world.

Alongside this, in my ImpactHub coaching peer group several people have gone on to make successful social businesses that have rapidly scaled and made an impact on the world. Proversity for example, have expanded massively into the digital education space. Old Spike Roastery & Change Please have expanded their coffee businesses that employ homeless people, and School Space have scaled up a project they started at the age of 17 to help their school rent out its premises out of hours into a thriving business that has generated £350,000 of income for participating schools. Code Club have partnered with the Raspberry Pi Foundation to teach children in 10,000 clubs in 125 countries all around the world to program computers. And Party for the People have made a competitor for TicketMaster or SeeTickets where the fees go to a good cause, and have set up arts spaces in old factory buildings.

In this context, it seems possible to dream big, to think that an idea could become a reality that has an impact on the world. So whilst my main vocation remains to bring the process of regular outcome measurement to services for Looked After Children (and that is making some really positive steps at the moment), I’ve started to work out how to make my back-burner project a reality. This one is a proper entrepreneurial idea in the digital space and tied in a little to my previous blog topic of the issue of how the public understand the evidence for different kinds of interventions. I’m hoping I can develop a pilot and then seek some investment, so watch this space as I’ll report back how it goes.

In the meanwhile, I still want to make some changes in my personal life. I’m generally feeling quite upbeat about the future at the moment, and I’ve sorted out the issues I mentioned in a prior blog about disappointment. We’ve also pulled in payment for many of the outstanding invoices, and the business is the best organised it has ever been. But after reviewing how I spend my time and who I interact with the most, I have become much more aware of my various different networks, and to what degree I feel able to express myself authentically within them. I am being a bit more thoughtful about my networks, both in real life (where I want to make greater efforts to meet like-minded people locally) and online, where I need to spend less time (and I’ve recognised my shamefully judgemental feelings of rage and disgust when interacting with people using image filters, especially those that put puppy ears and noses onto reshaped faces with features made to conform with patriarchal standards of beauty). I have realised that I haven’t been choosing the company I keep well enough, so I am trying to connect more  with those who are positive influences on my life, and to pull away from people who are a drain on my emotional resources. I am also choosing to engage more with people in the social entrepreneurial space. As Jim Rohn is much cited as saying “you are the average of the five people you most associate with” and hanging out with inspiring people allows us to be more creative and entrepreneurial ourselves.

So hopefully 2018 will be the year where I make a success of BERRI, complete the validation research and get some publications out. I’d also like to get a pilot of my entrepreneurial idea up and running. And in my personal life I’d like to get back to the gym, to get the planning permissions sorted out for my house, and most importantly to make more real life social connections with people who share my values. If I’m only a few degrees of separation from people who have achieved all of these things, then maybe I can too.

 

*I wrote more about developing my business model and setting up a social enterprise in clinical psychology forum number 273 in Sept 2015

**or failing that, a primary goal, secondary goal and fall-back plan, in ranked order of preference (with an awareness than only exceptional polymaths like Elon Musk can achieve in more than one area at the same time).