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.

Nature versus nurture revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is your story?” Specifically:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sowing seeds

I was late to plant my vegetable seeds this year. Due to Defra restrictions to prevent avian flu, our chickens were living in our polytunnel until the end of March. It then needed digging over and the raised beds building for this year, as well as some plans for irrigation. We don’t have any staging in there yet, and I don’t have a greenhouse here in which to start my seedlings. And so because it seemed complicated and I didn’t have much energy due to ongoing health irritations, we reached the second weekend in April without any seeds planted. I could have conceded, as I did last year, and bought seedlings to plant out, but that seemed like a lazy option and I knew taking a shortcut makes me feel less proud of the results. Plus I have accumulated a stockpile of seeds that needs to be used, and the kids love planting, so that is what we spent the first weekend of the Easter holidays doing. Thankfully most of them have sprouted quickly and just reached the size where I have started planting them out (though some have not grown at all).

It struck me whilst I was planting out the seedlings and topping up the seed trays that sowing seeds is an act of faith that they will sprout and grow to produce plants, flowers, fruit or vegetables given time and nurture. Whilst generally the freshest largest seeds do the best, that isn’t always the case as weather conditions and wildlife can easily disrupt your plans in the garden. Sometimes the most promising looking seeds don’t lead to viable plants, or the most lush looking plants fail to produce fruit, whilst the least promising looking seeds or most straggly plants can sometimes surprise you with an abundant harvest down the line. Some of the outcome depends on skill, some on diligence and some on factors outside of our control. Each time you have to prepare the soil, sow the seed and water it regularly to see what comes out. It is an investment of resources and energy that will hopefully be repaid in the future. That idea was resonant for me for a number of reasons.

Firstly, I am trying to invest effort in improving my physical health. The motivation for that comes from looking forward into the prospective futures available to me, and how my health and fitness will affect me and my family. It has become much clearer that what I eat today, or the exercise I do or don’t do, has an impact on me that I’ll feel in the future. I’m making an effort to be more active, get enough sleep and to eat more vegetables and less processed food (I’m a big fan of spring greens at the moment – they are so cheap to buy, but are deliciously sweet and tasty, as well as being seasonal and grown in the UK). So far I have lost 10lbs but I have bigger goals, and want this to be the beginning of cumulative changes in my life. I want my kids to have an active, happy Mum who does lots of stuff with them, rather than a perpetually tired Mum who is preoccupied with work stress. There is a famous Reddit post that talks about non-zero days and effort being a gift from past you to future you that I would recommend reading if you haven’t stumbled upon it yet.

Investing energy for the future potential also connects to the wider theme of working in mental health – where we and the client invest time and energy in trying to make the future better for them – and also that of trying to make a career in psychology. As application season passes on the forum, we can see the hope and heartache that this involves. Many people become almost obsessional about checking the forum for news of when courses have short-listed, and when the offer letters come out – so much so that it completely changes the traffic pattern to the forum (which normally has an average visit time of over 10 minutes, in which the typical user views many pages, but has two months per year in which repeat checkers raise the number of visits, but bring the average visit time down to 2 minutes, often just viewing a single page over and over again).

The early years of most psychology’ careers are seen as an investment necessary to pass the career bottleneck of being selected for training. Prior to that, many applicants feel they are gambling their time on a potential future that may never happen. There is a sense of trying to tick boxes, but not knowing exactly what the boxes are, or why they are necessary which I think needs to be explored and challenged. For many people, it seems like those early stages feel pointless in and of themselves. They are not seen as a long term career plan, and are therefore easily dismissed as being worthless except to jump hoops to try to gain a clinical training place, but I think they have merit in their own right. Many people gain great satisfaction from doing these “low level” care jobs, and they are invaluable in the daily lives of many people in their times of greatest need. They are also a fantastic way in which you can gain and apply the basic psychological skills of listening, empathy and compassion to client’s lives, and to experience the ways that the system around them can help or hinder their wellbeing. Being a mindful and reflective frontline care worker (or researcher) is the time at which people engage the most in the lives of clients, and ensures that the advice we give later down the line is grounded in reality. It also lets us experience the hard work and competing pressures of the staff we may end up advising from the lofty perch of being a qualified health professional, so it is a shame to see so many people horizon gazing to the detriment of getting the most out of the moment they are in.

The same theme of investing time and energy to create something for the future is true in setting up a small business. All over the country people are ploughing in their own money and time to set up small ventures, despite the time involved being more than full-time hours and the initial return often being much less than minimum wage. I hadn’t realised when I set out that even when the business has been running for a while, you often end up having to repeat this process over and over again. As staff move on, or contracts change, or the balance of work stops being enjoyable, or you hit hurdles along the way you have to regroup and use the available resources to fulfil your commitments, or even to start over in a new direction. That process can be disheartening, but it can also be an opportunity for growth, and is a good reminder for those running a business to take a step back and look again at the short, middle and long-term goals of the business and the methods used to achieve them. It is hard when a business feels so personal to lose a member of staff, or to have to step away from a long-standing contract or area of work, but it can allow you to invest more energy in trying to plan the business you want to create.

The toughest part of running a business rather than being self-employed is wanting to do the right thing for your employees, whilst also achieving the aims of the business and creating an enjoyable role (and some profit) for yourself. It can be particularly hard to make good financial and business decisions as a caring, empathic, progressive person who wants to do the right thing by everybody else involved, so it is extra important to have good business and financial advice if you are not just responsible for yourself, and your own plans for the future. The owner of the business is always the last to get paid, and feels responsible for the well-being of every other member of staff – even though for them it feels more like a job, and less like a personal mission.

In a social business we are also the ones responsible for deciding how we provide our services, and what the focus will be. There is endless demand for my services as a court expert witness, as a trainer and consultant to the residential and foster care sector, but I know if I get too swept up into delivering services personally I don’t leave enough capacity to steer the business. So I have to pick and choose the activities that best align with my long-term goals. I have to plan the future of my company in a way that has the most impact on recipients and creates a financial reward for me and my employees in the future. That “triple bottom line” of caring about people (employees and service recipients) and the planet (systems and wider issues) as well as profit (earning enough to pay employees and yourself) is part of the joy and challenge of running a socially worthwhile business.

The sheer number of choices and possibilities can be quite overwhelming at times, and each decision feels like it needs knowledge that I don’t have to make it in an informed way. For example, I need to decide whether to formalise the social enterprise structure within which we deliver our outcome measurement tools. If we do it will open doors to sources of investment that might allow us to scale more rapidly and would be closed to a traditional company. However investment always comes with strings attached and can easily change the direction of the company, or reduce the autonomy with which it operates. It feels similar to decide on a new office base. Do I rent a serviced office, commit to a 3 year rental of a unit on a local farm, or get a business loan and purchase a small building? What if we need to grow or shrink so that this choice doesn’t fit the company structure in 12 months time?

It is hard to predict the future impact of seemingly small choices in the present. I can see why anxiety can sometimes make these choices overwhelming, as it is easy to end up with endless background research and tables of pros and cons that are immobilising. I’m sometimes tempted to make them with a coin toss* or a counting rhyme as we did on the playground at primary school. Like sowing seeds, we just have to research and plan the best we can within reasonable time constraints and then follow the instructions and see what grows!

 

*I was once told to toss a coin and then check if your reaction was relief or to want to make it “best of three” and to then follow your gut rather than the result. It seems as good a method of decision making as any other.

My opinions about representing Clinical Psychology and the future of the British Psychological Society

I’ve probably been a member of the BPS for 20 years now, and with it the Division of Clinical Psychology and the Faculty for Children, Young People and their Families, and within that the network for Clinical Psychologists working with Looked After and Adopted Children (CPLAAC). I’ve been to the annual Faculty conference every year since I qualified, except for the one early in my maternity leave. I read some of the publications and I follow some of the social media. Over the last decade, I’ve done a long stint on the Faculty committee, and I’ve spent 5 years as chair of the CPLAAC network. I’ve responded to policy documents, represented them on committees, written papers and edited a periodical. So you’d think with all the energy and time I have put in that I am a great fan of the organisation.

Unfortunately, whilst I am hugely admiring of many of the individuals involved with the DCP and Faculty, and some of the recent Presidents of the Society, I’m pretty ambivalent about it as a whole. I think their website and social media suck. I spent ages looking at how to help them with that through the faculty, only to find out the scope for change was minimal and was within their user-unfriendly structure. Most of it was hard to navigate, and key documents were hard to find, the documents and information on the site were often out of date and much of the content was hidden behind walls for members and separated into silos by the Society structure that were impenetrable by topic. I was censored and then locked out of the BPS twitter account whilst live tweeting talks from a conference on behalf of the faculty because I quoted a speaker who was critical of the BPS’s communication with the media and public.

My experience of running clinpsy.org.uk is that we make everything accessible, searchable and google indexed (apart from the qualified peer consultation forum that is a closed group, and the archive of livechats and other member content that can only be seen when logged in). We are also able to respond to things immediately, and often talk about current affairs. So it is quite a contrast. The view of the BPS on the forum is fairly negative, despite myself and several other qualified members trying to put the advantages of having a professional body.

One theme comes up across both spaces – that lots of people like to moan, but very few are prepared to take the actions that help to change things for the better. So, when a document is put out to consultation, or members are canvassed for views by BPS Divisions or Faculties it may be that no clinical psychologists respond at all, or perhaps just one or two nominated by the committee, someone with a vested interest, or the same old voices who feel a greater sense of responsibility for the group. I’m sure the same would be true on the forum, as lots of people like to read the content, some like to ask questions but few actually write up content for the wiki, or help with the maintenance tasks like checking and updating links. However, people pay quite a lot for their BPS memberships, whilst the forum is entirely free and run by volunteers, so it is perhaps fair to have different expectations of service. The difficulty being that the BPS expect the few members who do contribute to do so for free, in their own time, over and over again. I worked out that one eighth of my working time as a self-employed person was being spent on unpaid committee and policy work, and I don’t think that this was unusual. Certainly the chairs of networks and faculties give up a large amount of their own time, and although higher up the tree some days are paid, these are not paid sufficiently to reflect the amount of time that is spent on the job.

So when the DCP sent me a link to a survey recently, I had to reflect my views and tell them that I don’t think that the BPS works for clinical psychologists in the UK, and this is predominantly because of the nature of the larger organisation.

I have witnessed time and time again that clinical psychologists, including those on faculty committees and in the DCP committees, are inhibited rather than facilitated in responding to topical issues, speaking to the media, expressing opinions or taking action by the slow, conservative and censorial wider organisation of the BPS. Even sending representatives to sit on government fora, guidance or policy making organisations involves an overly bureaucratic process of formal invitations and nominations that often means the window has closed to have our voice heard. Likewise the process for agreeing documents for publication is onerous and slow and means months of delay. The Royal Colleges and bodies for other health professions make responses to news items in a timely way, but we don’t. We are constantly told not to be political by expressing any opinion, when, as I understand them, the charity rules are not to be party political rather than not to express opinions that affect political policy at all. I would argue that our role as powerful professionals, effective clinicians, supporters for our clients and compassionate human beings requires that we are political in the wider sense, because we should be advocating for the psychological wellbeing of the population and putting the case for provision of adequate mental health services. I would consider that this includes an obligation to argue against policies that cause hardship and emotional distress, and to put forward a psychological understanding of events and individuals in the news.

Whilst there are great people involved in the committees and a lot of good will and energy, the BPS itself makes contributors impotent. It inhibits rather than amplifies the messages we should be sending outwards and it fails also to represent us as a professional group. It is not effective at representing our interests in government policy, national or regional workforce issues, professional negotiations, disputes about funding or other professional matters.

The structure of the BPS also drowns out the fact that the majority of practitioner members are clinical psychologists by giving equal weight to tiny factions and much too much weight to academics and students – the focus on the latter two groups means that the BPS failed to address issues of regulation properly and has left us with a legacy of problems with the remit and standards of the HCPC (including who is included and excluded in the scope of regulation and the criteria for equivalence of international psychologists, which I will no doubt blog about another time). In these areas it has not only failed to promote the profession, but also to protect the public.

Unlike other professional bodies, the BPS does not offer much by way of professional advice and representation for its members (eg about workforce and pay issues, disputes with employers). It doesn’t act like a union to defend individual members or the interests of the profession, or provide us with insurance or collective bargaining. It doesn’t show our value to the public or those in power through media statements, responses to news and current events and policies, representation on government and policy bodies. It is ineffective in building the status and public awareness of the profession. I believe our professional body should constantly articulate the need for proper mental health services and highlight the useful role the profession can play in meeting those needs. Likewise it should constantly express opinions about government policy and other issues that may be harmful to the psychological health of the population, and highlight what we think would help and the role we as a profession can play in systemic changes and in planning strategies at the population level that prevent or reduce distress.

So I think radical change is needed. If that isn’t possible as a program of reform from within, and Jamie Hacker Hughes’ Presidency suggests it wasn’t, then we need to split the DCP away from the BPS and/or build something new that is fit for purpose.

If you also have an opinion about the BPS and/or DCP, whether or not you are a member, please answer their survey here. Feel free to cut and paste any part of this blog into your response if you wish to do so. Likewise feel free to share a link to this page, and if you are an aspiring or practising clinical psychologist you are welcome to join in the discussion about the BPS on the clinpsy forum.

Seeking collaborator to change the world

LifePsychol Ltd is a company with a clear social purpose – to improve outcomes for people who have experienced adversity through the application of clinical psychology, particularly children who are Looked After in public care after trauma or maltreatment. We deliver effective psychological services for Looked After and adopted children by providing assessments, formulations, therapeutic interventions, consultation, training and outcome measurement tools for placement providers. And we are very much in demand. But at the moment we are clinician led, and we really need a COO with complementary business skills as the company scales up, to ensure that we make the maximum impact going forward.

We are at a very exciting time, with the potential of rapid growth and the first evidence of efficacy for our pathway emerging. We have started the process of applying for DfE Innovation Programme funding, and we have great support from key people (Sir Martin Narey, government advisor who just reviewed the future of children’s homes in the UK, described our pathway and tools as “the missing link for the sector”, Jonathan Stanley at the Independent Children’s Homes Association described them as “the new gold standard for our members”, whilst Lord Listowell said the government should fund part of the cost to ensure there is input from a clinical psychologist in every residential care home). Despite having done no marketing, we have more enquiries about joining our system than we can keep pace with. We are already used in over 100 children’s homes, and we have a growing number of local authorities who wish to roll out our pathway across their entire catchment. We are looking at how we train and license other clinicians to deliver the model both in the UK and internationally.

We have a great clinical team, a graduate project manager/admin, a fantastic professional network and a great product set. What is important to us now is getting the right person to drive the business side forward at this critical time. To do that we really need someone with business skills and experience, combined with a passion for making social change to take on a leadership role on the financial/business side of the company. We are therefore seeking an extraordinary COO who will help us achieve extraordinary things.

Who are we looking for?

You need to genuinely care about making the world a better place, and to share our goal of making a measurable difference to the lives of vulnerable children and young people. As a clinician CEO it is vital for me to have someone I trust to bounce ideas around with, who will ensure that we are on a sound financial footing to enable us to deliver our ambitious plans. You will be familiar with all aspects of the finances for running a business, have a good working knowledge of the UK social care system and be a dynamic manager, but with a willingness to turn your hand to other aspects of the business (from fundraising to recruitment to CRM) until we are large enough to take on a full team. You understand the value of evidence-based practice and you have a good awareness of the financial demands of the social impact sector. You are the kind of person that can nail down complex ideas and grand ambitions into concrete and achievable plans that will make genuine social change.

You will ideally be based in Derbyshire at our new Matlock office and will help to develop a team there, but with some travel to other sites. However, we already have a base in Milton Keynes that I visit fairly regularly, along with existing relationships and use of shared working space in North London (Kings Cross), so if you are the right person then these might be possible alternative locations, provided you are prepared to travel regularly to meet with me in Matlock and are comfortable using video chat in between times.

How to apply

If what we are looking for sounds like you, and you are looking for a new challenge, please get in touch and we can set up a meeting. Or if you know someone that might be the right fit, please pass this information along to them. Email lifepsychol@gmail.com to express an interest. No agencies or recruiters please.

Background information:

LifePsychol currently consists of a small clinical team who provide assessment and therapy services, particularly for children and families, and services commissioned by local authorities to support Looked After Children, adoption or families at the edge of care. Our Clinical Psychologists also provide expert assessments for the family court and to local authorities considering entering proceedings. We provide consultations advice on service development and service evaluations for social enterprise and third sector organisations. Our main specialist area is around attachment, trauma and maltreatment and how this evidence base can inform the care of children who do not live in their family of origin. We therefore provide training for adoptive, foster and residential carers, as well as health, social care and legal professionals, and have a network of associates who provide regular consultation into organisations.

However, our primary goal at present is nothing less than to improve the quality of placements for all Looked After Children in the UK. LAC are a particularly vulnerable group of children and young people because their needs are complex, and often include mental health, developmental difficulties, problems with relationships and behaviour. We hope to achieve this ambitious goal by training carers and implementing a new set of standards for care providers (PRIME) and through regular use of outcome measures (BERRI).

The PRIME standards are about ensuring that strategies carers use are evidence-based, individualised to the background and needs of each child, evolve as the child’s needs change, and are based on a thorough psychological assessment and a multi-faceted formulation of the child’s needs. We believe that having advice from a clinical psychologist to inform the care of all Looked After Children (and other children with complex needs) will both reduce stigma and improve outcomes, whilst helping carers to feel better equipped to meet the children’s needs. We have developed a training program and care pathway as one means to implement these standards for placements.

We have also developed a set of online tools for commissioners and placement providers to use to identify and track the needs of children in their care. The tools are known by the acronym ‘BERRI’ because they explore Behaviour, Emotional well-being, Risk to self and others, Relationships and Indicators of psychiatric or neurodevelopmental conditions that may require further assessment or diagnosis. We want every young person with complex needs to have a service that meets their needs in an effective and evidence-based way. We have therefore developed tools that allow us to gain a more holistic picture of children’s needs, to track how this changes over time and to target particular concerns and monitor the effectiveness of interventions to address them.

Our first data suggests that we can reduce concerns about children significantly within six months of using the pathway and tools we provide, and our services gain exceptional feedback from carers and professionals, but we hold ourselves to tough standards of evidence, and gather data about our effectiveness every step of the way.

Note: The BERRI questionnaire and online tools were developed to improve the outcomes for children Looked After in public care in the UK. However, the system is also applicable to those receiving other forms of intensive or multi-agency input, such as those on the edge of care, attending special schools, placed in inpatient services, secure units or involved with services for young offenders. The system would also be equally applicable in other countries, and could be adapted to other populations (eg adults using mental health inpatient services, people with learning disabilities, or those within the criminal justice system).

How to recruit (and what to do with my therapy company)

My working life has been increasingly focused on improving outcomes for Looked After Children. I deliver training and consultancy to care providers such as residential care companies and fostering agencies, as well as to health, social care, education and legal sector professionals. I have also developed a suite of online tools to help commissioners and providers to assess needs, track progress and evaluate outcomes for Looked After Children, including www.BERRI.org.uk  I think the introduction of clinical governance processes to the social care sector is long overdue, and I’m hoping that I can contribute to a culture change that drives up standards for Looked After Children. Signs are good, in that Jonathan Stanley chair of the Independent Children’s Homes Association (ICHA) said “you have set the gold standard for care providers” and Sir Martin Narey said “this is the missing link” when it comes to residential care. So I am trying to make this my business.

I’d like to find someone to help me take that forward, who has the kind of financial/business/admin skills that will complement my clinical skills and ensure we run efficiently as a company. Perhaps a business graduate with lots of energy, or an experienced admin who wants a new challenge. Ideally able to come to meetings in Derbyshire at least once a week. I’ve been inundated with demand, which is great, but it means I need help to keep organised and on top of all the competing demands in my new line of work. And that means that I need to give up, hand over or sell on other things I have been involved in.

With that in mind, I am wanting to make a plan for what to do with my existing therapy and court work business in Milton Keynes when I move out of area in a month from now. It’s a profitable business, and meets the needs of a client group who fall between health and social care. We offer edge of care assessments, psychological therapy and support to prevent kids coming into care, to support placements, enable rehabilitation to family, or for children and families who want help with parenting or a mental health issue. We also do court expert witness work for the family courts, and provide consultation into two sets of children’s homes.  However, the only other qualified CP involved is going on maternity leave soon and there is nobody else to provide cover. If I was staying in the area and/or had the time and mental capacity to continue running it myself, I would. But given I can’t, I want to make a good landing for it. And that means either recruiting a temporary or permanent clinical psychologist, or selling the business on to somebody who has the capacity to build on it.

I also need to recruit to provide cover for the services that I supervise within Keys group whilst various staff are on maternity leave, as well as to new vacancies within Keys. But despite the enormous importance of the work, and the fact it is highly valued, and as part of a well-equipped team without many of the niggles of the NHS (for example, we provide tea and coffee, you get your own desk and computer, and the caseload is manageable) recruitment pathways are not as easy when you are outside of the NHS and the first point people look at when seeking work is NHS jobs. We’ve tried BPS appointments memorandum and various recruitment agencies and websites, but so far nobody suitable has applied. So what now?

If anyone has any ideas, the company information is below:

1) My company in Milton Keynes

Lifepsychol/Evolving Families offer therapy to about 10 families, some court expert witness work, and consultation at a day rate into Keys in south Bucks and Peterborough. The qualified CP is going on maternity leave and I am moving out of area. We therefore either need to:
a) sell the business as a going concern to somebody or a company who can pick up the clinical provision (this could potentially include the evolving families business name, bank account, social media, website and email address, with ongoing referrals and enquiries – to run either as a traditional company or as a social enterprise)
b) recruit a member of staff to pick up this work and be an ongoing employee
c) recruit sessional cover of 2 days per week for 6 months to cover the maternity leave

2) To help run my BERRI project

A business graduate or experienced admin who can turn their hands to all kinds of tasks to make a small business work effectively, from responding to email and telephone messages, to keeping on top of the finances, client account management, customer support and converting enquiries into subscribers. Basic salary, plus bonus related to success of company, and the chance to grow with us and earn ‘sweat equity’ in year three. We are flexible and family-friendly. May be able to work some hours from home, but must be able to meet in Derbyshire at least once per week. It may be possible to start part-time and build up, if you are returning to work after a career break.

I would welcome enquiries about any of the above options to lifepsychol@gmail.com

2) Within Keys we have several vacancies to deliver consultation as part of our psychology pathway, and to supervise the APs doing assessments. There may also be scope for some direct therapy. We would either be able to offer permanent contracts for full or part time work, or sessional work which would be contracted for six months initially and then potentially extended.

Vacancies include:
– Full time or part-time posts to cover Warrington/Manchester
– Full or part-time post to cover Shrewsbury area
– Full or part-time post based at Sheffield/Chesterfield/Peterborough
– Full or part-time post to cover Taunton and/or South Wales (we have about 2 days work in each location, but can top this up to full-time with input into another project)

With all of the above, hours, location and salary are negotiable dependent on experience. Email lifepsychol@gmail.com and/or juliehamilton@bettercare.co.uk

Also, if anyone has any contacts to circulate the same around the clinical courses, we would be interested in prospective applications for trainees due to qualify this year.