Reaching the summit?

For a long time, I’ve had a metaphor in my mind about how it feels to run a small business aiming to change children’s social care. The image is of me rolling a massive boulder up a hill. Progress is slow, it is hard work and I often find it tiring. Even when I rest I have to do so holding the rock in place. At times I feel like I might be reaching the summit, only to see that there is another climb ahead. I sometimes wonder why I’ve taken on this mammoth task, or whether my goals are even possible, but I am stubbornly determined that now I’m so far up the hill I don’t want to give it up. Maybe that is about sunk cost. But I’ve chipped off the worst of the bumps from the rock and got my rolling technique worked out, so I keep telling myself that if anyone can get this thing to the top of the hill, I can. Over the years of my journey I’ve tried to encourage other people to help me to push, so I am not bearing all the weight, but whilst I’ve had good company at times and plenty of encouragement, it has always seemed like the task is mine alone. That has been reinforced by numerous people telling me how I’m uniquely skilled at rock-rolling, even though I know that I was no better than many other people at the start of my journey. In fact I’m pretty sure anyone with some pretty basic skills who rolled a rock for this long could be standing in my shoes.

Of course, that bypasses the fact that I had to be willing to spend a lot of time on this, be resilient in the face of obstacles, and give up other easier opportunities to stick with it. And the fact I had the intellectual, social and personal characteristics to work out how to do this, choose a viable route and make improvements along the way. And it also omits to mention that had I known the real scope of the task would take me over a decade I might not have taken it on at the beginning. On the other hand, perhaps the fact it was difficult enough for nobody else to take on was why I did it. I think those who know me might point out it isn’t the first time I’ve jumped in at the deep end, and that I don’t do things in half measures. I don’t like taking the easy route in life, and if I set myself a challenge I like doing the task properly. I’ve always thought about what I can do to make the most impact, rather than to have the easiest life or earn the most money. I prefer to cut my own path, than to take one that is already well-trodden, and to find a way to enjoy the challenges of the journey.

So here I am, pushing my boulder and feeling like I’ve come quite a long way over the years. I might be deluding myself, but the gradient appears less steep these days. In fact, it feels tantalisingly close to reaching level ground, and I am starting to imagine what it might be like to roll my boulder down the other side of the hill. I’m trying not to be complacent that I’ve reached a point at which the boulder is stable enough not to roll back the way we came up, but people are starting to talk about how this boulder is not just on the level, but given one more push might gain enough momentum to create a landslide that will divert the river to irrigate the lands the local population need to farm. That would be beyond my wildest dreams. I mean, the motivation behind all this is to improve the lives of people who are having a tough time, but to think that it could have impact on the scale some people are now anticipating is mind-blowing. That would mean my big gamble of investing so much time and effort into this project could pay off in terms of impact. In a way that’s the great thing about indirect interventions – that they can make change that ripples out on a much bigger scale. In my boulder metaphor I’m trying to make change not by trying to teach them new farming skills one by one, but by trying to address some of the systemic barriers that impair their life chances, so that they have the opportunity to find their own ways to thrive.

So this blog is a marker of me standing at what I hope might be the top of the hill, and crossing my fingers the gaining momentum part happens. The mixture of hope and uncertainty is stressful to balance. When it’s a bit more concrete I’ll write a bit more, and hopefully I’ll not need a metaphor to couch my cautious optimism in, and can tell you about the actual project and the steps I’ve taken to progress it.

What to do when you can’t do it all

There was an interesting little discussion on the forum this week about the perceived pressure to do everything, and to do it all right now. That fits with the concept of the insecure overachiever that is actively sought out for certain high demand jobs (and was the topic of a recent radio 4 show) and also the concept of Imposter Syndrome, where you constantly feel like a fraud who might be found out and identified as inadequate for the job. There is a widely perpetuated narrative in modern society that people should be willing to work longer and harder, and there is always a mythical person who is doing more than you. Whether that is more revision before exams, or more prep for their clinical application or assessment day, or more voluntary work, or managing to juggle more things in their working week, it always makes you feel a bit guilty and inadequate no matter how much you are doing or how hard you are trying. The truth is we are in a profession where demand for our services will always exceed supply. The early stages of the clinical psychology career path are competitive, and there are lots of people who claim impossible workloads and huge amounts of experience that can make you feel like you’ll never measure up. So how do we tackle this pressure to do more?

There are probably lots of layers to the answer. Some are political, as this culture springs from job insecurity, underfunding, and the focus on attaining wealth and status – so the ideal is to change the game, rather than trying to win a game that is rigged against us. Another layer is to communicate with others and band together, as this undermines our personal insecurities that see it as our own personal failings, and allows us to normalise our experiences and work together to resolve the systemic issues that underlie them. But even at a personal level, there are things that we can do.

So this blog is about my top ten suggestions to tackle that feeling of having too many plates spinning and not enough time, and the cognitive distortions that maintain the belief that we should do more. I’m not saying I’ve got all the answers, or that that I’ve resolved all these issues in my own life. Far from it! I’ve mentioned many times that I’m not a good role model in this regard. I think I am a bit of a workaholic, and whilst other people say I’ve achieved a lot, I always feel like there is more I could/should be doing. However, the things that have started to help me change my own patterns are:

1) Know when you are taking on too much. Having had a minor car accident, the physical repercussions made me cut down my work to a more manageable level. They remain a good reminder if I’m overdoing things, as I get aches and pains in my ear/jaw and shoulder. Obviously, I’d not recommend having an accident as a self-care strategy to others! The bit worth sharing is to be aware of your own physical and mental state, and to learn to recognise your own signs of stress as early as possible. Then you can be responsive to your own needs, and learn to stay within your own limits. It is also a good reminder to ensure that you build self-care and exercise into your routine.

2) Fit in friends and fun. Giving higher priority to the people and things you enjoy and are recharged by. We all need to have support networks, and family and friends need to be given enough time and priority in our lives to perform that role. I can’t persuade myself to “do less work” or to leave gaps in my diary, but I can put in commitments to the people and activities I value in my life that compete with work. I make it a personal rule that I finish work at 4pm on Mondays to take my kids to their swimming lesson and do my 30 lengths. Every evening the 7.00-8.30pm slot is time I always give to my kids’ bedtime routine, and 8.30-10.30pm is time I always spend with my husband. I’m also trying to cook with the kids twice a week, to fit in a creative activity each month and not to work on weekends. My advice it to start small, commit to something for at least a month and then build on good routines once they are established. Once in a while make time for fun or frivolous things like having a spa day, or sneaking out for a cinema or lunch date with my husband, or booking a holiday.

3) Sleep. No matter what else is going on, make sure to get enough sleep. For me that means eight hours per night. I’m a night owl, so I often work until the task is done, even if that means resuming work after everyone else in my house is asleep and working through until the small hours. Then I often have to get up and fulfil work commitments the following day. If I could stop doing those extra bits of work after everyone else is asleep and get a proper sleep routine where I sleep during the hours of darkness and get out into the sunlight more in the daytime, that would have positive knock-on effects on my energy levels, mood, appetite and attention span. You can see from the fact I’m drafting this post at 2am that I’m not managing that yet, but for now allowing myself to have at least one lie-in on the weekend is a lifesaver.

4) Use your time better. Stack commitments together with similar content, that involve particular colleagues or that you can do in particular locations. Get the right kit to do the job efficiently. Travel less. Use video chat rather than meeting in person. Minimise your commute, or use it for something relaxing like reading a novel or listening to music or audiobooks. See if you can work from home even if it is just a small proportion of your time. Work out what the blocks or bottlenecks are in your process, and how you can solve them, For me having templates of common reports and letters was one helpful step. According to where you are in the power structure, you can also look at how you can draw in support or what you can delegate to others.

5) Diarise the in between stuff. Don’t just fill your calendar with the face to face stuff and expect to fit in the admin and support tasks in the cracks, because they either escape into non-work time or don’t get done.If you have to write a report between appointments, give yourself a diary slot to do it in. Need to read the papers before a meeting? Book the hour beforehand for that task. Want to write up a paper? Diarise three days for it. Then make sure that you keep that time for that sole purpose. Book an admin slot at the beginning or end of each day, or a half day at the beginning or end of the week. Check out how much time you need and when you are most productive. If that is a time that is earlier or later than other people work, make sure that you take the time back somewhere else*.

6) Prioritise, then focus on the key tasks. Isolate yourself if you need to get something important or time critical done. Turn off your phone and your email alerts, ideally unplug from the internet, and prevent distractions. Then give it your full attention. Work out what is interrupting you, and then stop it so you can get work completed in one steady sprint, rather than having to come back to it again and again after dealing with phone calls, emails, other people interrupting, or diverting onto the internet. Deal with the quick stuff straight away. But then make yourself a task list and work down it. Prioritise the important stuff over the seemingly urgent but unimportant. Try to check email and messages at the beginning and end of the day, not every few minutes. When you need to get something done turn off social media, email alerts, etc. Turn your phone onto silent and then put it out of sight.

7) Clarify your goals, and how to reach them. Envisage where you are trying to get to, what the steps you need to take are, and what barriers are preventing you getting there. If you wanted to lose weight you could picture yourself thinner and see how it would play out in your life, then think about what you need to do to consume less calories or burn off more. Then see what is stopping you. You could identify that you aren’t getting to the gym if you go home from work first, or that you are always tempted when there is cake in the office, or buy unhealthy snacks when you don’t take a lunch to work. Once you recognise them, you can then make an informed choice, and if the benefits are worth the extra effort you then need to address the barriers. One of my goals is to make my business self-sufficient enough to continue even if I went off long-term sick, and could provide me an income in retirement. So I have been thinking about how to recruit and train others to sustain the business, and create products that can utilise my skills and knowledge without me having to deliver everything in person (eg can I train others to deliver training, deliver it as a webinar, or make videos of the training available to subscribers).

8) Get a better bubble. They say that we are the average of the five people we spend most time with, and whilst that isn’t a scientifically validated concept, I think that it has some merit to it. We are all normed by those we spend most time with, so I’ve actively chosen to seek out the company of people I admire and want to learn from, and who will challenge my assumptions and habits. More specifically, I’ve been trying to spend more time with other social entrepreneurs, rather than the long-term NHS, education and social care professionals I already know, so that I move away from the common assumptions of this kind of work, and can be more creative and less risk averse in how I look to create impact. You also need to enlist the support of the key people in your life so they reinforce your goals, rather than unwittingly draw you back into old habits.

9) Get reflective. Use your supervision, your trusted confidants or keep a journal. If you want to take it one step further, why not seek out therapy, or coaching, or personal development opportunities. Give yourself time to think and regroup, particularly after stressful or emotional experiences. As well as the benefit of some wonderful supervisors, I’ve had various coaches and mentors since I left the NHS, and I’ve attended various groups and training programmes. Each one has helped me understand myself better, and refine my plans to make them more likely to success. It is really good to take time outside the pressure of spinning all the plates to look at why you are spinning them, which are most important, and how they make you feel. It can help you to consider the pros and cons of different options, and to identify goals and actions.

10) Be kind to yourself. Remember that you need to attach your own oxygen mask before you can help others with theirs. Take time out when you need to, and find the things that replenish you. Be realistic about what is possible or what you have capacity for, and learn to say no to unreasonable demands. Don’t be too self-critical. Seek out and remember the positive feedback, and the things you have already achieved. Take the time to note the positives and be grateful.

And above all: Enjoy the journey. There is no rush to get to the destination. Dance whilst the music is playing.

 

*with the agreement of your manager, of course.

The attraction of small rewards

I went to the Y Not Festival last month. It was a bit of a mixed bag because of the weather, and the terrible app that was supposed to function as a map and timetable was a daft idea on a site with limited mobile in the first place and totally useless in practice as it wasn’t updated when things changed. But we saw some good bands, and ate some good food, and it was only half an hour from home so we also slept in our own beds! But the reason I mention it was because of a trivial but unexpected thing: They had an incentive to recycle the plastic pint glasses that were being used and dropped on the floor. They offered 10p per glass to take them to a recycling point in sets of five. For the most part that wasn’t enough for people drinking to bother keeping and pooling their glasses to cash in. But a small economy developed amongst people who found it worthwhile to go around collecting the dropped cups. There were some sets of kids excitedly supplementing their pocket money by collecting piles of cups during the day, and also a few adults who increased in numbers in the evenings.

At £5 per pint the beer was not cheap, and I joked with my husband that I’d see if I could collect 10 cups to offset the cost each time he drank one. But as soon as we started collecting cups, we realised that there were loads of them, and it was easy to make quite good money from them. In three hour-long collecting binges, and whilst listening to bands I enjoyed, I stacked and recycled well over 500 cups. That was enough to pay for all our food over the weekend, and the couple of drinks my husband had. Of course my legs ached like crazy the next day, after all that walking around punctuated by 500 bodyweight squats. But I felt good about being part of the efforts to clear up the site and recycle the cups.

Of course I’d much rather they used reusable cups as they did at Timber festival, or ones that are biodegradable as they did at Woodside. And it doesn’t really make much sense to pay random people more per hour than they pay their bar staff or rubbish pickers, let alone to pay the people who were simply emptying out the plastic recycling bins, stacking up the plastic cups and taking them to the recycling point like their own little black market scheme. And I wasn’t persuaded that they were actually going to recycle the cups at the end of the weekend. But I was interested in the fact that I somehow found it fun to do a dirty, smelly, physically demanding job earning way less than I can earn from work. Apart from the novelty and fact it filled in the gaps between artists, the reason was as obvious as those demonstrated in Pavlov and Skinner’s seminal experiments: The small but proximal rewards were enough to reinforce the behaviour, and make me want to repeat it over and over again. In fact it became quite addictive. The small payments made it feel like a game in which I was succeeding and earning five to ten pounds per trip to the recycling point made it really tangible that I was being rewarded. I could have spent the entire weekend picking up those crushed and broken plastic cups and straightening them out into stacks to cash in, and my kids were jealous that they’d missed out on the opportunity to earn cash because they had chosen to go to their grandparents rather than the festival.

In another example, I’ve been playing a really rubbish game on my iPad called Hidden City. It is a hidden object game, where you have to find items within a picture of a scene before the time limit runs out. For example, there might be a picture of a greenhouse full of caged birds and exotic plants, and you will then be asked to find a pair of binoculars, a fan, an oil lamp, a walking cane, a string of rosary beads, a bunch of chilli peppers, a pair of shoes, a turtle, and various other objects to click on and collect. Each will be visible within the scene, some in plain sight and others tucked away or masked by being in front of similarly coloured items. In certain quests there are also keys to find in the scene that are smaller and better hidden. Whilst this has some inherent mental challenge and novelty, it really is a very simple premise for a game, and quickly becomes repetitive, so you’d think the game would be very boring – in fact it seems boring to have explained it in writing, so I hope I haven’t sent you off to sleep! You would therefore assume that people would drop out of the game very quickly, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. In fact, the makers are so confident that players won’t be bored enough to drop out that they make you search each scene for objects selected from the same list and placed in the same range of places in the scene many times. In fact, to complete some quests you search the same scene over a hundred times. The task becomes more difficult because you are expected to find more objects in a shorter time interval, and the scene becomes more cluttered so it is harder to pick out the specified items, and you have to alternative with searching other scenes to get the tokens required to go back to the main scene. To compound that, there are multiple locations in the game, and each needs to be searched a large number of times, so to complete the whole game you probably have to complete about ten thousand search quests.

It sounds like an enormous and monotonous task, and the game itself is full of bugs, glitches and poor translations, yet it is the most popular hidden object game in the world. More than half a million people have played it, and there are tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of players active at any one time. They are not only signing up to play in huge numbers, they are choosing to pay for the optional purchases to assist their searching, making this game and the multiple other games by the same company, and the multitude of similar games available, highly profitable.  Estimates suggest that over £3 million of in game payments have been made since the game launched four years ago, and tens of millions of pounds are being spent in in-game micro-payments across all the games by this maker each year. It seems illogical, but many players spend way more than they’d need to pay to purchase a really good game to play this glitchy game that is constantly interrupted by advertising for in-game purchases and other games by the same company.

So why do people keep playing, and why do some of them keep paying? I think it is the same idea of reinforcement through small rewards. As a player you experience a lot of small successes. They make the first few searches really easy. Then each time you search and don’t find all the items you are told to try again. If you find them all you are rewarded by a random selection of small icons, and you can collect these items in sets. Completing the set gets you a rarer icon, with some bonus points or magical powers to boost your energy or increase your ability to find other bonus items. In the bigger quests you might also get tokens to unwrap gift boxes containing more icons. You also get overnight bonuses, daily bonuses and components of a magical piece of jewellery each time you play again after more than 8 hours but less than 24 hours. They compound so an unbroken chain of about a month gets you the finished item, and 12% more items to find for a 10 day period. If you break the chain you either have to use or buy in game currency to restore it, or you lose the components you gained. Something about our psyche likes gaining these pseudo possessions and dislikes missing out or losing them, enough that these games are quite addictive. But they are all just small pictures of random things. Why should I care if I have a magical tuning fork in my collection, or whether I get the apple strudel icon that completes the huntsman set that gives me the Austrian clock? There is no intrinsic value in the drawing of the clock, or the strudel or the tuning fork. They bear little relation to the scenes I search, or to the token plot about the magical city trapping people, or the candy-crush style mini-games. My life is not better in any tangible way if I collect 75 keys and open the golden chest to receive 6 bonus items, or if I play the scene 100 times and get a new avatar of the lady of the manor, or the Samuri, or the gardener. Being at a higher level on the game doesn’t convey any greater skill that would garner respect from other players, let alone in the real world, nor does it teach me anything I can generalise outside the game.

So why is a badly made game with such a simple and repetitive premise so popular? I’d suggest that is intentionally designed to be rewarding to play, and to tap into what we know about reinforcement with the number of small rewards it offers. Our brains are set up to love rewards, no matter how meaningless they are, or what the longer-term cost is. Like scratching an itch, or eating something tasty but unhealthy, using drugs or smoking cigarettes, the immediate rewards are often much more effective as an incentive than the longer-term consequences are as a deterrent. The logical decisions we make about changing our behaviour struggle against these proximal sources of gratification. It doesn’t feel like a big effort or commitment, because we are only playing a three-minute mini-game. We are tempted to take the small action to sample the reward, but this then lures us in to take the next step with another small effort, and the result is that we repeat that for far longer than we planned. Even if this means losing out on sleep, or getting things we objectively rate as more beneficial or necessary done.

The same is true of our online behaviour. We chain from one news article to another, or one social media post to another, or one youtube video to another until whole evenings disappear into a black hole. Even when we are going about our daily lives, we constantly check for the small rewards of messages, likes or responses on social media. For many people this becomes something done obsessively, to the detriment of other activities in our lives. As well as hitting our reinforcement pathways, these small social connections also fire up our desire to feel belonging and acceptance in a group, and to gain the approval and/or attention of others. I’ve blogged before about the toxic aspects of social media. Studies have shown that stopping using social media, whether for a couple of hours per day, a day per week, a longer block of time, or permanently, makes people happier (journal articleanecdotes, article citing studies, more anecdotes, even more). Yet for most of us, we are enticed by the sense of connection (albeit often a much more distant and less authentic connection than we make in real life) and the promise of these small rewards.

It makes me think how despite all the progress of technology, we really are quite primitive creatures in some ways, tied to the way our biology has evolved to reward behaviours that had some adaptive function that had evolutionary benefits. So can we make a conscious choice to use these inherent reward systems for more positive purpose? Possibly. For example, we can benefit by building chains of positive behaviours that we don’t want to break – like a colleague who told me he hasn’t drunk alcohol for 92 days after realising he was drinking almost every night. That challenge of having a dry month, or to do without meat, or caffeine, or cigarettes for a set time period seems an effective way to change behavioural habits. It is less final and impossible sounding to have a break from something than to give it up permanently, but it can give you a chance to see what life is like without it, find alternatives that fill that gap and build up some of these rewards for going without. It then becomes easier to continue that pattern, and there can be a reluctance to break the chain, particularly if there have been social or financial or health rewards for the change.

Likewise we can gamify exercise. When I used to weight lift I would share my achievements with a group of other weightlifters online. This gives a sense of a peer group who can reinforce your behaviour and some social pressure to sustain the pattern (though I was never one to post every gym visit on facebook the way that many runners/cyclists use their apps to, or to post lots of philosophy and photos the way that yoga fans seem to – I just posted to a weightlifters group when I made gains, and could compare my progress to others in the group). But even without this online support I had a sense of achievement each time I went to the gym, or completed my routine, or increased the weight I could lift in a specific exercise. I liked to record my weights in a journal and to feel that I was making measurable small gains. I also liked confounding expectations by being an overweight middle-aged woman who had hidden physical strength. I’ve mentioned my joy in having “ninja muscles” before. I’d like to get back to it, and I’m sure my core strength would return. I’ve still got surprisingly muscular legs, though I wouldn’t risk picking up an 18 stone barbell these days!

So I guess the knack is working out how to make our innate reward systems work for us in a modern world. I’m certainly far from achieving that. Change is hard. But maybe I can at least recognise the patterns better now I’ve thought about it more. Maybe I’ll come back to that theme in a future blog.

 

 

Runway: A blog about whether being self-employed or starting a business is a viable option financially

If an aircraft runs out of runway before becoming airborne then it will have to stop or it will potentially crash horribly. For this reason, runway is used as a metaphor for the relationship between the money available in a business and its running costs. If the business does not generate enough income to keep the cashflow up to cover costs, then it will either come to a stop or come to a horrible end. But unlike an airport, where sufficient runway already exists for the purposes of launching planes, with a new business you have to find or create the money that will hopefully let the business become self-sustaining. And unlike an airport, at which planes get up into the air uneventfully every few minutes every day for many years, most businesses fail within the first three years, often because of not being able to generate enough income to sustain the business in the longer term.

I think a lot of people in employment have fantasies about being self-employed or starting their own business. For clinicians, the fantasy is often about offering therapy in private practise to insured or well-heeled clients with milder problems. Whilst the hourly rates for private practise might seem attractive compared to a salary divided down into an hourly rate, the figures represent something really different. Salary is paid on leave days, bank holidays and when you are sick. It covers maternity/paternity leave and redundancy if you are no longer needed. You get supervision, CPD, equipment to use and premises to work in. You also have a team of other professionals supporting you in the background from admin to HR, finance, operational management, procurement and maintenance. You don’t have to think beyond providing the clinical and associated psychological services. Salary packages, particularly from the NHS, also contribute to very favourable life insurance and pension schemes. When you are self-employed you need to think about premises, insurance, supervision, CPD costs, DBS checks, accountancy, advertising, tax and how you will generate income if you don’t or can’t work. You may also need equipment from computers and stationary to psychometric tests (which are enormously expensive both to purchase and for record forms).

Remember that the bills need to be paid immediately, but clients may not pay you as promptly – and some may not pay at all. This is particularly true for me when doing expert witness work where the timelines from accepting the work to receiving payment for it are amazingly extended. If I accepted an instruction in principle on 1st January, I would typically receive instructions for it 1-3 weeks later. My appointments would take place 4-8 weeks after that, and my report would be submitted a fortnight later, perhaps in late March. There might then be further instructions or clarifying questions, before the case is heard at the end of May. Any invoices will only be processed when the case closes in June, and then sent to the Legal Aid Authority for scrutiny in July. If there are no queries the LAA then send payment to the solicitors, who eventually send it on to the expert in the August or September, though some will drag their heels for several more months. So I have to wait six to twelve more months to receive payment. And about 8% of the work is never paid, because the solicitors closes after the Legal Aid claim is made, or because the LAA determined that some of the work wasn’t “reasonable” or because there was a problem somewhere in the line of communication and one of the parties doesn’t claim a share of your invoice. Meanwhile the work is taxable in the financial year in which it is completed, and the VAT is payable at the point the invoice is issued. I also have to pay any staff who contributed at the end of the month in which we did the work.

Even as a sole trader working from home in a service industry with relatively low set-up costs, most of us need to earn some money to cover our living expenses, and can’t go for months or years unpaid. That means that unless you have a massive inheritance or lottery win to draw on, it might not be possible to give up salaried work to take the gamble of trying something independent. My rule of thumb is to have a minimum of three months living expenses saved before you consider leaving salaried employment. You might get this from a redundancy or mutually agreed resignation scheme, or by putting money aside whilst you are planning. You should also compare your current and projected earnings. My way of calculating this to calculate your annual salary plus 25% (the approximate value of the pension and protections) divided by 210 (the actual number of days an average NHS employee turns up to work). You can then compare this to what you think you could earn in a day if you had private clients, a contract with a large company to deliver training or services, a calendar full of supervision or consultancy, or whatever you imagine doing. You really need a multiple of three between the first number and the second to make being self-employed pay equivalently after costs, though if you really hate your job or are prepared to take a reduction in income (at least in the short-term) you might consider a multiple of two. I don’t believe it is viable to go below this because in my experience people never properly account for the amount of expenses involved, or the for the amount of non-income generating time required. As well as the fact that not all of your available slots will be filled until you are well established, it is worth bearing in mind that most full-time clinicians spend about 15-18 hours per week on direct clinical work, and the rest on work tasks that would be non-income generating in the private sector, such as screening referrals, setting up appointments, phone calls, email, supervision, meetings/indirect work, writing letters/reports, other admin and CPD.

That said, money isn’t everything. I know some amazing selfless people who have earned less than minimum wage for many years, but followed their heart because they cared passionately about what they were doing, and the impact it could make in the world. I’m not quite that altruistic, perhaps because I am the main earner for our family unit and feel an obligation to sustain our quality of life, but I’ve had to learn to live on a much less regular income. I pay myself minimum wage then supplement this with lump sums when the business is profitable. To make this even more unpredictable, I have often had to loan money into the business in order to pay salaries when others have been slow to pay us for work we’ve done. Overall I’d say my income is lower than when I worked in the NHS and did some court expert witness work on top, but nowadays on balance it probably matches my consultant grade salary. The amount I earn feels sufficient for our needs – and probably stretches a little further as some expenses have been absorbed (eg my mobile phone bill is paid by the company, as is the cost of any CPD I want, the costs of my accountant, and some little things like a sandwich and soft drink when I’m away from the office on business).

There are also some things that money can’t buy. I’ve loved the freedom and flexibility of being self-employed, even though there have been times that have been quite tough financially. Whilst it initially increased my workaholic tendencies to quite alarming proportions (peaking at working 9.30am to 6.30pm in the office and then 10pm until 2am at home most weekdays, and fitting in 5-10 hours of work per weekend), more recently I’ve been able to achieve more of a work-life balance. I’ve stopped doing as much consultancy and training that involved staying away over night, and reduced the court work that created so many high-pressure deadlines. I’ve started to cluster meetings in London once a month, arranging other meetings over videoconferencing where possible. I’ve withdrawn from the committee and policy work that was taking up a big chunk of my time. I’ve also recognised the wise advice of a past supervisor that said I needed to fill up life outside work with commitments that would compete with work, rather than expecting to ever be the kind of person who can ring-fence free time. So I’ve started putting social appointments in my calendar, made a commitment to swimming regularly, I’m doing more adventurous things with the children, and I’ve even been able to sneak out for the afternoon with my husband from time to time. Running my own business has also given me a chance to relocate to an area that I love, where my qualify of life and working environment is much nicer.

When weighing up the options, bear in mind that working as a sole trader can be quite isolating. In the NHS or other organisations we usually work within teams, often with the benefit of colleagues to bounce ideas off, or who can contribute to formulations from other perspectives. Working with others also allows you to collaborate or to delegate work to people with complementary skills or interests. It shares the risk of complex cases, and means you don’t feel solely responsible for the waiting list or the stuck cases. It can allow you to prioritise work and manage your workload. When you are the only one doing the work this becomes much more difficult, and the pressures and sense of responsibility for clients can increase substantially. Even though the waiting list might be shorter, you might feel more guilty if there is a delay in starting work with a new referral, or more responsible for ensuring a good outcome for everyone. When your income literally depends on how much work you do it can be hard not to end up over-working to the detriment of everything else in your life. However, on the flip side you can feel pride in positive outcomes, and a waiting list becomes a marker of success (that people are willing to wait for you) rather than a mark of failure like it is construed in the NHS (where there is pressure to meet targets, and services don’t have enough resources to keep pace with need, and are the only available option for most people).

You also need to realistically appraise your business plan. Most people go into business in the belief that they have found a niche in which they can earn a profit, and hope that demand for their services or product will arrive as soon as potential customers know it is available. However, that can lead people to be overly optimistic about how fast they can gain traction in the market, or the level of profit they can make. Unless the plan is to seek external investment, most small business owners need for the business to become profitable fairly quickly, and few would be willing to pour their life savings into a new business in the hope of a return further down the line. When trying to start up a company or expand a sole trader enterprise into a business that employs others it can often feel like a Catch 22 situation, that you can’t afford the things you need to generate the income that will fund the things you need. But unlike on Dragon’s Den or in Silicon Valley, few people have access to capital investment and most professionals (in the health and social care field at least) are wary about taking on loans before the business has the means to repay them, even if they can access lending.

My point is that even if you have a great business idea and an established reputation getting enough money to start and sustain a business is tough. Cashflow is a make or break issue. Generating sufficient working capital is one of several elements that challenge new start-ups. In fact, of small businesses that fail (based on figures from the USA), 82% attribute this to cashflow issues and 29% say that they ran out of cash, whilst 42% said that the issue was a lack of market need for their products or services, 23% don’t have the right team to deliver the business, and 19% can’t match a competitor.

I guess that makes me a survivor. I launched my small business seven years ago this month, and it is gratifying that we’ve managed to weather the politics of adversity to still be trading. However, making money is still something I find quite challenging. I’ve come out of a career in the NHS in which the financial transactions involved were far removed from my daily life, and the idea of making a profit was quite aversive. But I’ve had to learn to make my business financially viable. Whilst there have been times that have tested me almost to my limits, the business is still functioning and financially we are still on the runway. I view that as a success. However, I feel like we have never quite reached the position of being airborne, where the business is self-sustaining without me personally doing income generating work as a substantial proportion of my time – and that would be an enormous issue if I ever needed time off sick.

My penultimate piece of advice is to speak to people who understand business and finance before you embark upon your journey, and regularly as you go along. I’ve had the benefit of great guidance as I’ve travelled outside of the NHS and into the world of business. As well as my fantastic ongoing mentoring from Impact Hub, which has included some work on the financial elements of the business plan, I recently won a place on a scheme sponsored by Barclays bank to help social purpose businesses to scale up. I’ve been attending Judge Business School at Cambridge University with several other small businesses, where we have had a series of days to explore our options and make a growth plan for the business. Having identified gaps, I’ve then taken actions to rectify them. For example, we’ve built a website for BERRI so that prospective subscribers can see what our tools have to offer, and that has brought in a flurry of new subscribers. I’ve also explored the options to help me scale up more rapidly and increase the impact of what we can deliver. Thankfully we have a strong business case, and I’ve been increasingly able to articulate that as a result of the work I’ve been doing. Over the last month I have spoken to two potential sources of investment. That would give me more runway to play with, but I need to work out whether we are fully aligned in terms of the destination and route to get there before I can be sure that is the right move to make compared to continued slow organic growth.

My final advice is to recognise your own limitations, and to find ways to delegate the tasks you are not good at or not enthused about, and spend time with people who share your passions or the skills you want to grow. For me that means having an administrator who makes up and chases up my invoices, accountants who can deal with payroll, tax, NI, pensions etc and advisors who guide me to apply for the right grants, tax rebates and training schemes. I also meet up regularly with other social entrepreneurs to share our progress and plan collaborative projects. I just appointed an experienced Business Development Lead for the company, who I hope will help me to weigh up the options for investment, and help us to grow quickly but in a way that feels right and prioritises making an positive impact on the lives of vulnerable children over maximising profit. I’m hoping we’ll reach sustainability by the end of the year, but there are still hurdles to overcome, and even when we get into the air I can’t imagine it will be a journey without occasional turbulence.

Communicating the value of evidence

I presented at a couple of conferences over the last few weeks about my BERRI system. And I was struck, once again, by how little weight is given to evidence when it comes to services that are commissioned in the social care sector. Various glossy marketing claims and slick consultants were successfully persuading commissioners and service managers that it was equivalent to use their systems and “metrics” (in which people gave entirely subjective ratings on various arbitrarily chosen variables) to using validated outcome measures. By validated outcome measures, I mean questionnaires or metrics that have been developed through a methodical process and validated with scientific rigour that explores whether they are measuring the right things, whether they are measuring them reliably, whether those measures are sensitive to change, and whether the results are meaningful. A pathway that then leads to an established scientific process of critical appraisal when those studies are presented at conferences, published and made subject to peer review.

But outside of the academic/scientific community it is very hard to prove that having a proper process is worth the time and investment it takes. It means that you are running a much longer race than those who work without evidence. At one event last week, I asked a question of a consultancy firm making hundreds of thousands of pounds out of “improving children’s social care outcomes”, about their basis for what they chose to measure, how they measure it, and how they had validated their claims. The answer was that they were confident that they were measuring the right things, and that having any kind of scientific process or validation would slow down their ability to make impact (aka profit). My answer was that without it there was no evidence they were making any impact.

They couldn’t see that their process of skipping to the doing bit was equivalent to thinking that architects, structural drawings, planning permission and buildings regulation control slow down building houses, and selling houses they’d built without all that burdensome process. Thinking anyone can build a house (or a psychometric measure to track outcomes) feels like an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, the idea that those with the least knowledge overestimate their knowledge the most. But the worst thing was that those commissioning couldn’t see the difference either. They find the language of evidence to be in the domain of academics and clinicians, and don’t understand it, or its importance. We are in an age where expertise is dismissed in favour of messages that resonate with a populist agenda, and it seems that this even applies when commissioning services that affect the outcomes of vulnerable population groups. I don’t know how we change this, but we need to.

For those who don’t know, I’ve been working on BERRI for 12 years now, on and off, with the goal of being able to map the needs of complex children and young people, such as those living in public care, in a way that is meaningful, sensitive to change and helps those caring for them to meet those needs better. For as long as I’ve worked with Looked After children, there has been a recognition of the fact that this population does worse in life along a wide range of metrics, and a desire to improve outcomes for them for both altruistic and financial reasons. Since Every Child Matters in 2003, there have been attempts to improve outcomes, defined with aspirations in five areas of functioning:

  • stay safe
  • be healthy
  • enjoy and achieve
  • make a positive contribution
  • achieve economic well-being

A lot of services, the one that I led included, tried to rate children on each of these areas, and make care plans that aimed to help them increase their chances in each area. Each was supposed to be associated with a detailed framework of how various agencies can work together to achieve it. However, whilst the goals are worthy, they are also vague, and it is hard to give any objective score of how much progress a young person is making along each target area. And in my specific area of mental health and psychological wellbeing they had nothing specific to say.

As with so much legislation, Every Child Matters was not followed up by the following government, and with the move of children’s social care and child protection into the remit of the Department for Education, the focus shifted towards educational attainments as a metric of success. But looking primarily at educational attendance and attainments has several problems. Firstly it assumes that children in Care are in all other ways equivalent to the general population with which they are compared (when in fact in many ways they are not, having both disproportionate socioeconomic adversity and disproportionate exposure to trauma and risk factors, as well as much higher incidence of neurodevelopmental disorder and learning disability). Secondly it limits the scope of consideration to the ages in which education is happening (primarily 5-18, but in exceptional circumstances 3-21) rather than the whole life course. Thirdly it doesn’t look at the quality of care that is being received – which has important implications for how we recruit, select and support the workforce of foster carers and residential care staff, and what expectations we have of placement providers (something I think critical, given we are spending a billion pounds a year on residential care placements, and more on secure provision, fostering agencies and therapy services that at the moment don’t have to do very much at all to show they are effective, beyond providing food, accommodation, and ensuring educational attendance). Finally, it masks how important attachment relationships, and support to improve mental health are in this population. I can see that strategically it makes sense for politicians and commissioners not to measure this need – they don’t want to identify mental health needs that services are not resourced to meet – but that is significantly failing the children and young people involved.

In my role as a clinician lead for children in Care and adopted within a CAMH service, I kept finding that children were being referred with behaviour problems, but underlying that were significant difficulties with attachment, and complex trauma histories. I was acutely aware that my service was unable to meet demand, leading us to need some system to prioritise referrals, and that there was a lot of ambiguity about what was in the remit of CAMHS and what was in the remit of social care. I wasn’t alone in that dilemma. There were a lot of defensive boundaries going on in CAMHS around the country, rejecting referrals that did not indicate a treatable mental health condition, even if the child had significant behavioural or emotional difficulties. The justification was that many children were making a normal response to abnormal experiences, and that CAMHS clinicians didn’t want to pathologise this or locate it like an organic condition inside the child, so it should best be dealt with as a social care issue.

On the other hand, I was mindful of the fact that this population have enormous mental health needs, having disproportionately experienced the Adverse Childhood Experiences that are known to lead to adverse mental and physical health outcomes. Research done by many of my peers has shown that two thirds to three quarters of Looked After children and young people score over 17 on the SDQ (the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire – the government mandated and CORC recommended measure for screening mental health need in children) meaning they should be eligible for a CAMH service, and various research studies have shown that 45% of LAC have a diagnosable mental health condition, but the resources are not available to meet that need. As The Mental Health Foundation’s 2002 review entitled “Mental Health of Looked After Children” put it:

Research shows that looked-after children generally have greater mental health needs than other young people, including a significant proportion who have more than one condition and/or a serious psychiatric disorder (McCann et al, 1996). But their mental health problems are frequently unnoticed or ignored. There is a need for a system of early mental health assessment and intervention for looked-after children and young people, including those who go on to be adopted.

My initial goal was to develop a new questionnaire to cover the mental health and psychological wellbeing issues that this population were experiencing, as well as considering attachment/trauma history and the child’s ability to trust others and form healthy relationships, and the behaviours that these often expressed through. I was also interested in what issues determined the type of placement given to a child, and the risk of placement breakdown, as well as what opened doors to specialist services such as therapy, and whether those services and interventions really made any difference. I therefore ran two focus groups to explore what concerns carers and professionals had about Looked After children and young people, and asked them about what they saw that might indicate a mental health problem, or any related concerns that led people to want my input, or that caused placements to wobble or break down. One group contained foster carers and the professional networks around them (link workers, children’s social workers, the nurse who did the LAC medicals, service managers) and one contained residential care workers and the professional networks around them (home managers, children’s social workers, the nurse who did the LAC medicals, service managers). I wrote their responses down on flip-charts, and then I sorted them into themes.

I had initially thought that it might cluster as behavioural and emotional, or internalising and externalising, but my items seemed more complex than that. In the end there were five themes that emerged:

  • Behaviour
  • Emotional wellbeing
  • Risk (to self and others)
  • Relationships/attachments
  • Indicators (of psychiatric or neurodevelopmental conditions)

The first letters gave me the name for the scale: BERRI. I then piloted the scale with various carers, and then with a group of clinical psychologists involved with CPLAAC (the national network within the British Psychological Society that contained about 300 Clinical Psychologists working with Looked After and Adopted Children that I was chair of for about six years). I then added a life events checklist to set the issues we were identifying in context.

The working group I chaired in 2007 on the state of outcome measurement for Looked After and adopted children (on the invitation of CORC) came to the conclusion that no suitable metrics were available or widely used. We therefore agreed to further develop and validate the various tools that members of the group had home-brewed, including my BERRI. There was acknowledgement that it takes a lot of work to develop a new psychometric instrument in a valid way, but a consensus that this needed to be done. So I resolved to find a way to follow that proper process to validate and norm BERRI, despite the lack of any funding, ring-fenced time or logistical support to do so. The first challenge was to collect enough data to allow me to analyse the items on the measure, and the five themes I had sorted them into. But I didn’t have the resources to run a research trial and then enter all the data into a database.

My way around this barrier was to get my peers to use the measure and give me their data. To do this I took advantage of some of the technically skilled people in my personal network and developed a website into which people could type anonymous BERRI scores and receive back a report with the scores and some generic advice about how to manage each domain. I tested this out and found my peers were quite enthused about it. We then had a formal pilot phase, where 750 BERRIs were completed by Clinical Psychologists about children and young people they were working with. I then talked about it with some young people and care leavers to check that they felt the areas we were covering were relevant and helpful to know about*. Then I started to use the system in a large pilot with residential care providers and developed tools to focus in on particular concerns as goals to work on, and track them day by day or week by week, as well as creating tools to give managers an overview of the progress of the children in their care. We’ve had a lot of feedback about how useful and game-changing the system is, and how it has the potential to revolutionise various aspects of commissioning and decision-making in children’s social care.

But I really wanted the process to be one in which we were truly scientific and based our claims on evidence. I’ve never marketed the BERRI or made claims about what it can do until very recently, when I finally reached a point where we had evidence to substantiate some modest claims**. But to me the process is critical and there is still a long way to go in making the data as useful as it can be. So from day one a process of iterative research was built in to the way we developed BERRI. As soon as it was being used by large numbers of services and we had collected a large data set we were able to look closely at how the items were used, the factor structure, internal consistency and which variables changed over time. We ran a series of validity and reliability analyses including correlations with the SDQ, Conners, and the child’s story – including ACEs, placement information and various vulnerability factors in the child’s current situation. But even then I worried about the bias, so a doctoral student is now running an independent study of inter-rater reliability and convergent/divergent validity across 42 children’s homes.

BERRI will always be developed hand in hand with research, so that there is an ongoing process of refining our outputs in light of the data. The first step in that is getting age and gender norms. But the data can also indicate what we need to do to improve the measure, and the usefulness of the output reports. For example, it seems that it might be meaningful to look at two aspects of “Relationships” being distinct from each other. If the evidence continues to show this, we will change the way we generate the reports from the data to talk about social skills deficits and attachment difficulties separately in our reports. We might also tweak which items fall into which of the five factors. We also want to check that the five factor model is not based on the a priori sorting of the items into the five headings, so we are planning a study in which the item order is randomised on each use to repeat our factor analysis. We also want to explore whether there are threshold scores in any factor or critical items within factors that indicate which types of placements are required or predict placement breakdown. We might also be able to model CSE risk.

The results to date have been really exciting. I have begun to present them at conferences and we are currently preparing them to submit for publication. For example, I am currently writing up a paper about the ADHD-like presentation so many traumatised children have, and how we have learnt from our BERRI research that this reflects early life ACEs priming readiness for fight-or-flight rather than proximal events or a randomly distributed organic condition. But the findings depend on all the groundwork of how BERRI was developed, our rigorous validation process and the data we have collected. It is the data that gives us the ability to interpret what is going on, and to give advice at the individual and organisational level.

So you’ll forgive me if I’m somewhat cynical about systems that request a subjective likert rating of five domains from Every Child Matters, or an equally subjective score out of 100 for twelve domains pulled from the personal experience of the consultant when working in children’s social care services, that then claim to be able to map needs and progress without any validation of their methodology, areas to rate, sensitivity to change or the meaning of their scores. Having gone through the process the long way might put me at a commercial disadvantage, rather than going straight to marketing, but I like my houses built on the foundations of good evidence. I can feel confident that the load bearing beams will keep the structure sound for a lifetime when they are placed with precision and underpinned by the calculations and expertise of architects, structural engineers, surveyors and buildings control, rather than cobbled together as quickly as possible, marketed with amorphous claims and sold on rapidly to anyone who will pay for them. After all, I’m not in it to make a quick buck. I know my work is a slow and cumulative thing, and BERRI still has a long way to go before it can create the greatest impact. But my goals are big: I want to improve outcomes for children and young people who have experienced adversity, and I want that impact to influence the whole culture of children’s social care provision in the UK and to continue to be felt through the generations. And to do that, I need to build the thing properly.

*I’m still intending to act on the advice to also have a strengths scale to recognise resilience and positive factors, so that it doesn’t feel like we see the children purely as a list of problems. However, I didn’t want to duplicate the work of others, so I am following up a potentially exciting lead in terms of a collaboration with the Mulberry Bush School, who have explored the positive factors they have seen as markers of progress in their environment.
** that carers, therapists and managers find it useful and easy to use, that using the BERRI pathway demonstrated an improvement of 14% over 6 months for the first 125 children placed on the system, and that BERRI has the basic statistical qualities that suggest sufficient validity for use. We also have some testimonials, including a commissioner who used BERRI to map the needs of 15 high tariff children and found four suitable to move to foster or family placements with support, saving nearly half a million pounds per year from his budget – a finding we would like to replicate with a much larger study, given the opportunity.

 

 

Drama vultures: Some comments on social media

For young people, social media can be a very significant part of their social life. As Mark Brown put it, “Social media went big at the same point that austerity did. We lost our libraries, youth clubs and schools funding but we got smartphones and snapchat instead.” It has also been a means of connection for people who were technologically savvy but socially isolated. This is a surprisingly broad group, including both “geeks” (with subgroups of angry young men who have been radicalised by anti-feminism and the alt-right), those with social communication deficits (who like entirely written communication, as it means that they no longer feel excluded by the pace and non-verbal elements of real life social interactions) and people who are socially isolated because of their geography, disabilities, sexuality, gender identity, culture or more introverted personality, as well as an increasingly broad demographic who have simply discovered the convenience of social media as a means to connect with likeminded others. It can be enticing as a way to gain some social validation, either through “likes” of your content or photographs, or through a sense of belonging to a community of people with shared values or interests. And with so many different platforms, there can be many different qualities to this interaction, and functions that social media serves in people’s lives.

With niche communities, pockets of self-referencing and self-reinforcing cultural norms appear. Whether it is the sensitive niche sexualities of tumblr, or the offensive-as-possible culture on 4chan, the visual memes of imgur, the glamorous selfies of instagram, the endless stream of headlines from twitter, the business focus of linkedin, the many facets of reddit, videos on youtube, livestreaming on twitch or periscope, various blog platforms, an almost endless variety of podcasts, massive web forums on every topic imaginable, or even the comments sections of various publications, each has a different personality and norms. Some are ephemeral, with content disappearing after a certain time. Others stand as searchable archive with a long-term record of past content. Some allow people to broadcast outwards and collect followers, whilst others are focused on more reciprocal relationships. Some allow privacy restrictions that mean you can limit access to friends and family. But most have some means for others to indicate their approval or disapproval. And that means that there can be a sense of being judged or rewarded according to what you post. Sometimes this is based on the quality of the content, but it can also be based on political/group affiliation or appearance – with attractive young women who post photographs or video in particular getting a lot of attention. Some sites allow interesting or amusing content to float to the top where more people will see it, allowing particular posts to be read by remarkably large numbers of people. These can include inspiring content like non-zero days or unintentionally hilarious content like the penis dunking thread on mumsnet (mildly NSFW) that had me failing to contain my laughter during a BPS committee meeting. Some people seek out notoriety by writing controversial or entertaining content. Others who feel they don’t get enough positive attention seek out more negative peer groups, or seek attention in less functional ways. There are also less healthy pockets of social interaction on the internet. There are pro-anorexia communities, and sites that discuss and even encourage self-harm and suicide. There are bullies and trolls, and even people who fake being bullied in order to seek sympathy or justify introspective disclosures*.

One of the great advantages, and problems, with social media is the potential to be anonymous. This is a great leveller because it makes other users blind to your gender, age, race, appearance, physical ability/disability, sexuality, wealth, social class or other sources of prejudice – although many people choose to display these characteristics anyway and seek out similar people for a sense of belonging within specific online communities. However, the very anonymity and ability to create a character for yourself online can be problematic, as anybody can pretend to be anything. As well as the proverbial middle-aged lorry driver pretending to be a teenage girl, there are people pretending to be of different social demographics to infiltrate or undermine these communities. For example, many alt-right trolls attempting to fuel the gamergate conflict signed up “sock puppet” accounts as women and people of colour to pretend that their movement was more diverse or to defend them from criticism for sexism and racism. More obviously there are trolls, who use the anonymity to bully, harass and try to get a rise out of others, safe in the knowledge that social media is functionally a lawless zone, where only the very most serious of attackers, who challenge national security or make repeated overt threats towards targets in the public eye ever see any attempt at identification or prosecution.

By contrast, if you slip up on social media and say something stupid or embarrassing it can be shared with hundreds of thousands of people, your identity can be outed, and the impact can spill out into your real life in unpredictable ways leading to a roulette of inequality in which an ill-judged racist or sexist joke having more consequences than a year-long campaign of rape and death threats.  Or, you can become a target whose personal details are released on the internet (known as doxxing) by someone who dislikes your opinion or feels slighted by you, or subject to “revenge porn” where intimate photographs are published by an ex-partner without the consent of the subject. In America you can even become the target of hoax calls intending to send in an armed response team (known as swatting). And (as in many things) it is women and people of colour who always end up being disproportionately punished.

Having been on the internet since the 1990s, I’ve had an interesting personal history on social media. I was part of the eBay forums around the launch of eBay.co.uk for several years. As well as giving advice about scams and using eBay to buy and sell, there were lively off-topic discussion, running jokes and fundraising activities. But even within a seemingly diverse and healthy community of strangers there were many interesting signs of dysfunction. There were cliques and factions with marked animosity between them. There were people who claimed to be things they were not, including a “detective” and a “vet” (who was so desperate to uphold the facade she tried to get the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons to amend a register entry for a genuine vet to match her name). There was a lady who faked her own death and posted as her (supposedly bereaved) husband, but was rumbled by an astute poster spotting contradictions in her story. When I foolishly mentioned being a psychologist in a conversation that only contained four other active users, that information spread much more widely than I had expected. I started to receive disclosures and allegations, messages about distressing feelings and even what appeared to be a suicide note (with the help of moderators I alerted authorities, and the suicide was not completed) so I soon learnt to be much more private and anonymous.

On clinpsy we have also had our fair share of tea-cup sized dramas, despite having very little need to intervene as moderators compared to the large volume of members and posts. I blogged about some examples two years ago, and I can only think of two people we have banned since then (although I did block someone from registering after they were very antagonistic and inappropriate on facebook after we failed to activate their registration between 10pm one night and 4am the following morning). I did recently have the interesting experience of having someone apply to work for me who had been banned from the forum. They didn’t seem to think I’d know about that, despite the fact that they used the same email address in their application as they had when they had been banned. They withdrew their application when I said that I knew and we’d need to have a conversation about it if they wished to progress their application.

It is an interesting thing that social media crosses the boundaries of communication that we are familiar with. The written form seems somehow impersonal and emotionless compared to forms of communication that contain the non-verbals, and yet somehow emotions are conveyed and evoked. The nature of speaking to strangers who may or may not be conveying the truth, and where we know little about them except for what is posted, involves a lot of extrapolation and ambiguity. It is hard to judge the response of the audience or how far information will spread, and deceptive safe feeling that we are posting in our own homes and usually under pseudonyms, yet it can suddenly become very personal and intrusive. On the clinpsy forum we monitor usage quite closely, and have zero tolerance of personal abuse or inappropriate content. In order to avoid knee-jerk responses or being hooked into unhelpful patterns, and to help us keep on top of maintenance and development tasks on the clinpsy forum, we work as a team. We keep a log of moderator discussions, user reports of concerns and reasons for banning users in a hidden moderators area on the forum. We tend to have quite a rapid response time for removing content for moderator consideration, and quite consistent views about where to draw the line, which has made clinpsy relatively drama free.

That isn’t the case on other forums, where much more banter and jokes are let fly, and these can be quite offensive, particularly if the dominant demographic is young white men. Racism, sexism and misogyny are quite prevalent in some online communities. Many women hide their gender to avoid quips about getting back in the kitchen, or banter about rape (which can be a term used in video gaming communities to refer to trouncing another player). But in some places it can even go a step further than that. 4chan, for example, used to ask for topless photos if anyone mentioned being female with the delightful phrasing “tits or GTFO”, and provoked many young women (at least one of whom appeared to be below the age of consent) to share sexually explicit images of themselves. 4chan also had links to child pornography (although I believe that this was eventually prohibited and split off onto another forum). Reddit has subreddits for misogynist men’s rights activists, pick-up artists, and incels (men who consider themselves to be involuntarily celibate – that is, they are too unpleasant to attract consenting female partners but do not recognise this, and turn the blame onto the women instead, with extreme examples like Elliot Rogers and the man behind the recent Toronto van attack), although again some attempts at prohibition and moderation are creeping in after bad publicity following the recent school shooting.

As a female poster in some male-dominated communities it was initially quite a culture-shock, but it is good to socialise outside the same narrow bubble, and there are also very positive aspects of being part of an online community. There is a hive mind of information on every topic that means you can gain immediate and often highly skilled advice on everything from how to rewire a light fitting, or how to distinguish a wasp from a mortar bee, to which model of television has the best features within a certain price bracket, or how to complain if a parcel doesn’t arrive. The community might be a rapid source of news, or entertaining new memes. There can be reviews of films, music, events or games that lead you to try new things, and erudite discussion about politics, current affairs, history, different cultures, religion, sports, science, religion, mental health, relationships and any topic that takes your interest. There can also be mutual concern and support when things are not going well, and shared delight when people experience unexpected success. So there are definite positives. The problem is that they can come at a price, and some people are more likely to pay the price than others.

Anyone who has been part of an online community knows about how they seem to inevitably create remarkable interpersonal dramas. These are like road traffic accidents – as a neutral spectator they both repulse you and make compulsive viewing, but as a participant they have the ability to cause genuine harm. When a person starts posting erratically or there is public conflict, or even when a person or group is bullying a vulnerable member if they do so in a way that is seem as amusing, it is viewed as entertainment or public spectacle. And, like a fight in a school playground, they inevitably attract a circle of spectators who both encourage and influence the unfolding drama, both joining in to sub-conflicts in the audience, and throwing in more fuel if it seems to be petering out. I’ve been in that circle a few times for different reasons, and it isn’t a fun experience. And as it starts feeling more personal and more antagonistic emotions start showing in how you post, and that seems to fuel the aggressor to go in for the kill, and other posters to join in. Our ability to reason and to predict the way that others will interpret and react to our posts reduces, and the stakes start to feel higher, and yet it somehow becomes harder to leave the conversation whilst feeling threatened or misunderstood. So you get drawn in to the battle, trying to clarify your intended meaning, defend yourself from perceived attack, or persuade others to see your point of view. Perhaps you criticise the other person, who then becomes more antagonistic or defensive. By the time you are in the thick of things there isn’t an obvious exit without either victory or shame.

Walking away from an online community because you don’t like how you are treated feels a lot like social exclusion and can have a significant impact on your sense of self, but to stay once you have attracted negative attention can mean the slow attrition of insults and snide digs that someone once described as “death by a thousand paper cuts” (a less severe/more protracted version of the Chinese torture method death by a thousand cuts, in which it is hard to criticise any individual action as being unduly aggressive or breaking any rules). Frustratingly these can often be the kind of microaggressions that align with real life experiences reflecting the casual degradation of disempowered/minority groups. And, as ever, women and minority groups seem to be disproportionately the target for them. Even a phrase like “calm down love” is loaded with patronising layers of meaning about women being ruled by their emotions and lacking the calm logical analysis of men. It implies that caring about anything enough to show some emotion about it is already losing the battle.

There is little time for compassion or reflection online, and it is hard for an onlooker to intervene in a way that is helpful to diffuse conflict. Thus vulnerable people may end up re-victimised, and people with dysfunctional ways of relating often play these out over and over online. I can particularly recall one poster who had a distinct cycle of debate, feeling criticised, rage and then burning out to a final phase of being shamed and apologetic, trying to make amends to avoid rejection – and the community becoming increasingly intolerant of these emotional extremes. At times it felt like observing a digital version of a disorganised attachment relationship, with the forum community functioning as the inconsistent/abusive parent. It came as no surprise to read disclosures about an abusive childhood, use of crisis mental health services and a personality disorder diagnosis. But s/he was far from alone in having dysfunctional ways of relating to others online. In fact it seems that many people with such difficulties are strongly attracted to the accessibility and 24 hour nature of online communication, and can find significant support from strangers there. But it often comes at a high cost, or with significant risk, because of the prevalence of trolls and the way dramas are amplified by having an audience, and the way social media can serve as a written record of whatever unfolds that is hard to erase. There might be the right to be forgotten under GDPR, but how does this actually work in practise when comments are quoted and replied to, or captured in screenshots and posted elsewhere?

There are plenty of examples of how vulnerable people are enticed by the sense of belonging in a group, or the superficial success of social media influencers, but harmed by the messages they are given. This can range from unhealthy roles models such as the one I blogged about previously to being encouraged to harm others or given advice on how to harm themselves or commit suicide (the Daily Mail recently ran a scare piece on a “Blue Whale” game that culminates in telling children to commit suicide, though snopes felt there was little evidence to substantiate this). It would seem to me that the bigger concern is the indoctrination of larger numbers of young, socially isolated people in toxic beliefs such as alt-right ideologies, through writing that blames others for their ills. Whether it is “psychologist” Jordan B Peterson whose 12 rules for life serve as an introduction to his regressive beliefs including “enforced monogamy” in which he appears to advocate that to prevent male violence women should be allocated to partners and forced to remain monogamous to them (which is rightly being called out as sexist/stupid/victim blaming). It might have sold 1.1 million copies, and he might make £80k/month in patronage, but this isn’t a new enlightenment. Enticing simplistic sexist answers are not the cure for angry young men who feel left behind by progress, I would argue they are the very fuel that will convert them into the school shooters, rapists and perpetrators of future violence and harassment. But it is hard to offer up an alternative perspective or contradictory evidence when an angry mob descends on any divergent opinion, claiming that they are the true victims and that the sexist/racist drivel they promote is being censored by sensitive snowflakes (the new version of “its political correctness gone mad”). Ironically, these repugnant views that are allegedly suppressed/unspeakable are getting lots of airtime, whilst stifling free expression of opposing/alternative views** as progressive voices fear becoming a target of the mob.

In short, its a messy and unregulated space, and there are both interpersonal conflicts and large scale culture wars playing out in it. How to protect people in a digital age needs a lot more thought, both at the level of educating children about critical thinking and empathy, and in terms of regulation of social media, and enforcement of crimes committed via digital media. But with middle aged and older politicians doing the legislating it is hard to see how that is going to happen.

*if you find this surprising, consider the bug chasing community, who are people actively seeking HIV infection in order to gain care, sympathy and a sense of belonging
**including me, as I avoid using certain terms on social media or in the tags and category labels for this blog, as I dislike the surge of abusive/antifeminist responses they trigger

Solve for happiness: Some thoughts on big data/AI and mental health

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.