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

Why did I think that?

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

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

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

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

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

Yet if it was someone else, I’d be the first to appreciate them as they are, and tell them that their cup is quite full enough to not waste mental energy on comparing themselves to unrealistic ideals. When I see photos of friends and family I see the person that I love and their relationships, activities and emotional expressions, not the awkward posture, double chin, or spot on their nose that they see first. There are times I feel frustrated with others, but if they are apologising about being late or messing up a plan, the chances are I’m probably viewing that as trivial in the context of what they mean to me, and all the times they’ve been there when I needed them. So on balance I think I judge myself harshly, and my friends and loved ones generously, but I have a strong sense of them as an individual.

With people I meet through work, I don’t know them as an individual before we meet, and there is often a negative narrative that is being told about them, but I find empathy as I hear their story and see their challenges in the context of their (usually traumatic) history. That is true of the parents I meet through court proceedings or social services, as well as with the children and young people themselves. Even if the person has done some bad things, I can usually find something to like about them, or feel sympathetic about their experiences. Yet with a stranger or when thinking about a population demographic (eg “rough sleepers” or “brexiteers”), we don’t have these relationships or individual narratives to inform us, so we often fall back onto stereotypes, no matter how much we try to resist them – perhaps because we don’t have the additional information required to flesh out that initial impression.

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

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

Footnote (added 25/5/18): I wore some of those fancy shoes I’ve been hoarding to visit the House of Lords the week before last. They seemed really comfortable when I set out that morning, but by 6pm I had quite severe blisters. I ended up walking back to the hotel barefoot before buying some flip-flops the following morning.

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

Pushing upwards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

I am not a therapist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Sticking plasters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well-being check-ups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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).