Where have all the flowers gone?

This week Liam Fee’s name was added to the list of toddlers killed by their caregivers, alongside Peter Connolly, Victoria Climbie, Daniel Pelka, Ayeeshia Smith and Keegan Downer. And the newspapers have turned their gaze to their favourite post-mortem task of placing the blame. The conclusion, as ever, will be the ‘born evil’ women who killed him, and social workers who ‘failed to prevent’ the death. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Firstly, how can social workers prevent child deaths when their services have been cut back so much that thresholds for intervention have risen ever higher?  Social workers are over stretched and morale is at an all time low. When they intervene too much they are demonised by the press as baby-snatchers. When they don’t intervene enough they are demonised as failures who didn’t protect children. Since legal aid was slashed, court proceedings expect them to be both case worker and to cover the role of expert to the court. The social workers I know are amazing people, dedicated to helping make a difference with families, but tell me that some workplace cultures focus on form-filling and don’t allow as much time out in the field intervening with families as they would want.

Personally, I think prevention takes more than reactive services like the current remit of social work. We need proactive screening services to spot where there is need much earlier, when interventions for families are cheaper and more effective. In my opinion we need universal health visiting back, for every birth registered to be followed by mandatory visits twice a year until the kid starts school and for that to include weighing and measuring the child and seeing them in just their pants. It will also see the home environment and the relationship between parent and child. Old fashioned, maybe, but it would hopefully catch malnutrition and serious injuries earlier, and save lives in cases like these.

Secondly, what kind of lives must those two women have had that they were so un-empathic that they could witness and ignore such suffering, let alone create it? There must have been great trauma to end up like that, and a total absence of nurture. Of course no experiences are an excuse for the sadistic things they did to the children in their care. But they can help us to understand what happened, and in doing so to help prevent a future recurrence of similar issues. If we just blame it on innate characteristics of the individual perpetrators there is little we can learn to prevent the same thing happening again (except perhaps chase the fallacy of a genetic marker for evil, which I’m almost surprised is not already being done, given the overly biological focus of research topics that are clearly more influenced by experience).

I’m not convinced that anybody is ‘born evil’. I think people are born with the capacity to be a wide range of things, and their experiences (particularly their early experiences with their caregivers) determine the direction of travel, the types of skills they develop and the behaviours that are in their repertoire. Given exposure to enough trauma, a total lack of safe attachment figures, few skills and loads of dysfunctional strategies, people can end up doing awful things, particularly with a hair-trigger tendency to fight or flight under stress.

This is an evidence based position, not just my opinion as a clinician. We have known for at least a decade that childhood experience is the leading predictor of the health and social well-being, and that this applies on the individual level as well as for the nation. But as well as the self-evident human cost, there is also a huge economic cost to society. Studies show that the financial impact of child maltreatment on the economy amounts to billions of pounds per year, and the impact on lifetime health and employment is equivalent to a diagnosis of diabetes. However, the costs are hard to measure, and occur throughout the person’s lifetime so they are not as obvious.

Violence in society is neither universal nor inevitable (in fact it is almost absent amongst central Thai or Lapp society). Violence is a behaviour that is caused and can be prevented. When it comes to predicting violence, it is clear that the propensity is hugely influenced by experiences in the home before the age of 3. We also know that various interventions to improve care and the quality of the attachment relationship, or the more drastic intervention of removing the child and placing them in a household with better care are highly effective. However, there are also sociopolitical factors at play. Once the use of violence is established in a society, the levels are influenced by many factors, including:

  • Economic inequality
  • Unemployment
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Violence in the media
  • Poor housing
  • Availability of weapons

And yet, over the last decade economic inequality has increased, social housing has been sold off, and more violence has been shown in the media. More hopelessness has been created by the cuts to benefits for people with disabilities, or living in homes with an extra room. Services for people using drugs and alcohol have been cut by austerity measures whilst the need for them has increased. So the government has increased the risk of violence, whilst (as with immigration, single parents or benefit fraud) blame is being directed onto vulnerable individuals and public services.

Liam Fee, Peter Connolly, Victoria Climbie, Daniel Pelka, Ayeeshia Smith and Keegan Downer are the tip of the iceberg. There are many child deaths from maltreatment that never make the news. Best estimates based on serious case reviews suggest 40-80 deaths of preschool children are caused by their caregivers per year. And of course, many more children are injured physically or emotionally every day. For every child experiencing abuse who is known to services, eight more are going unseen. But this is not down to individuals who are born evil, and it is not down to negligent social workers. It is a socioeconomic and political problem. And whilst the media propagates the narrative of individual blame and politicians turn a blind eye, children will continue to die.

Where have all these children gone, long time passing?
Where have all these children gone, long time ago?
Where have all these children gone?
Gone to graveyards every one.
Oh, when will we ever learn?
Oh, when will we ever learn?

How do we know what we need: differentiating evidence based treatments for the public

I am interested in making a website to help direct people at the right kind of sources of support when they are hitting a block or feeling unhappy with their lives. So I started to look at what was out there. I found lots of small silos full of professional jargon that would help people to identify a counsellor, psychotherapist or psychologist if they knew that was what they needed. But I also found lots of sites that point people at all kinds of snake oil that has no evidence of efficacy at all. For example, Findatherapy.org lists the following categories as “therapies”:

Abdominal-Sacral Massage
Acupressure
Acupuncture
Alexander Technique
Allergy Therapy
Aromatherapy
Arts Therapy
Autogenic Training
Ayurveda
Biofeedback
Bioresonance Therapy
Body Stress Release
Bowen Technique
Chiropody
Chiropractic Treatment
Clinical Pilates
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
Colon Hydrotherapy
Colour Therapy
Counselling
Craniosacral Therapy
Crystal Therapy
EMDR
Emmett Technique
Emotional Freedom Technique
Energy Medicine
Flower Essences Therapy
Foot Health
Havening Techniques
Healing
Herbal Medicine
Homeopathy
Homotoxicology
Hydrotherapy
Hydrotherm Massage
Hypnotherapy
Indian Head Massage
Kinesiology
Life Coaching
Manual Lymphatic Drainage
Massage Therapy
Matrix Reimprinting
Maya Abdominal Therapy
Meditation
Microsuction
Mindfulness
Myofascial Release
Naturopathy
NLP
Nutritional Therapy
Osteopathy
Physiotherapy
Pilates
Psych-K
Psychotherapy
Reflexology
Regression Therapy
Reiki
Relationship Therapy
Rolfing
Sex Therapy
Shiatsu
Speech Therapy
Sports Therapy
Structural Integration
Tension and Trauma Releasing
Thai Massage
Thought Field Therapy
Yoga Therapy
Zero Balancing

That’s a list of 70 “therapies” of which at least 40 are obvious quackery, and very few could be said to have any form of persuasive evidence base for efficacy*. But the practitioners of each are persuasive, and the websites use pseudoscientific rationales that might fool those who are not as cynical or conversant with the scientific method as we are. So how do the public know what kind of help to seek out? How does someone who is feeling miserable, has a job they hate, financial difficulties and problems in their relationship know whether to get financial advice, careers advice, life coaching or therapy? And if they pick “therapy” how do they know whether to get CBT, psychoanalysis, art-therapy or non-directive counselling? And how do they know whether to get it from a therapist or a psychologist or a counsellor or a mental health specialist or any of a hundred other job titles? And within psychology, how do they know when to seek a clinical psychologist, a health psychologist, a counselling psychologist or any of the job titles that the HCPC don’t register?

I think apart from word of mouth and google, they don’t. Most people ask their GP or their friends for recommendations, and then go with something available locally within their price range. They don’t read the NICE guidance or understand the various professional bodies or regulatory systems. They trust that they’ll get a gut feeling as to whether it is going to help or not from the first session, and most of that “gut feel” is probably based on personality and charisma, and whether or not they feel listened to. The decision then rests on whether the therapist wants to work with them and has the capacity to take them on, and the price they ask for (assuming the service is in the private domain rather than the NHS).

Even the NHS itself isn’t very consistent about evidence based practise. For example, the NHS still funds some homeopathy – possibly wasting up to £5million per year on this placebo treatment that is entirely without evidence or credible rationale. Likewise I’ve seen NHS therapists who have done training in models of therapy that are implausible and without evidence (eg ‘energy therapies’ like EFT). Perhaps this is why the majority of clients doubt the efficacy of talking therapies. Yet, despite this scepticism, most would prefer to try therapy than medication yet the use of psychotropic medications has risen much more rapidly than the use of psychological therapies.

So where do we draw the line? If we only deliver fully evaluated treatments and those where we understand exactly how they work, then the amount the NHS can do when it comes to therapy will be much more limited. Lots of therapeutic interventions in practise are derived from other models or by combining aspects of various models. This allows individualisation of care. Similarly, there are many therapies which are being developed that have promising methodologies and are tightly rooted in scientific knowledge, but have not themselves been subjected to RCTs that prove efficacy yet (eg DDP). And many RCTs seem far removed from actual clinical practise where clients have a variety of overlapping conditions and clinicians deviate substantially from the treatment manuals.

The other confounding factor is that when it comes to talk therapy, it turns out that the modality or adherence to the manual matters very little compared to the relationship between the therapist and client. It seems the key ingredients are listening to the client, genuinely caring about them, giving them hope that things could be different, and giving them the confidence to try doing things slightly differently. Whether we have years of training and follow the manual diligently or whether we are newly qualified and muddling through seems to make much less difference than we think. In fact, therapist variables are much more powerful in influencing outcomes than modality, and even than the difference between treatment and placebo. That is no surprise to me as I’ve personally benefited from physiotherapy that included acupuncture – despite having read studies that show it to be no more effective than ‘sham acupuncture’ where random locations are pricked with a cocktail stick!

In the paper I’ve linked above, Scott Miller argues persuasively that we don’t need to focus on understanding how therapy works, or in using the medical model to work out what works for whom with endless RCTs. He shows evidence that experts are defined by having deep domain-specific knowledge, earned by a process of gathering feedback and focusing on improvement. So he argues that in the same way, expert therapists are those who collect and learn from client feedback. So his answer to the issue of evidence-based practise is for us each to collect our own outcome data to show whether our work is effective according to our clients (and by comparison to other options), and to see if we can improve this by using simple ratings within each session that check we are working on the right stuff and that the client feels we understand them, and that the working relationship is good.

So what does this mean for the proliferation of made up therapies? Does it mean that we should leave the public to buy a placebo treatment if they so wish? Or does it mean we need to focus on the modality and evidence base after all? The ideal would obviously be better regulation of anyone purporting to provide therapy of any form, but given the HCPC remit doesn’t even include counselling and psychotherapy, I think we are far from this being the case. To my mind it throws down a gauntlet to those of us providing what we believe are effective and evidence based treatments to collect the outcome measures that demonstrate this is the case. If we are sure that what we offer is better than someone having an imaginary conversation with an imaginary ‘inner physician’ by feeling imaginary differences in the imaginary rhythm of an imaginary fluid on our scalps then surely we ought to be able to prove that?

And what does that mean for my idea of making a website to point people at helpful places to start a self-improvement journey? To me, it shows there is a clear need for simple and accessible ways to identify what might be useful and to allow the public to differentiate between sources of support that have evidence of efficacy, professional regulation, a credible rationale for what they do, reputable professional bodies and/or personal recommendations. Maybe such a website can be one contribution to the conversation, although I’ll need both allies and funding to get it to happen.

 

 

*I’d say EMDR, physiotherapy, speech therapy, CBT and some types of psychotherapy and counselling probably reach that bar. Mindfulness is probably getting there. Art therapy probably suits some people with some issues. Yoga, sports massage, pilates, osteopathy, meditation, life coaching and (controversially) even acupuncture probably have their place even though the evidence for them as therapy modalities is limited. Most of the rest are quackery.

Wisdom, sycophants and advice that won’t work

I have been watching and reading a lot of Brene Brown stuff recently, and for the most part I feel like she has been able to identify and tap into some important concepts that chime true with my own understanding of attachment, shame, perfectionism and self-compassion, but there is a part of me that is a bit uncomfortable. When I’ve watched recent interviews, such as this one with Oprah I find myself responding to the comments like “that is so powerful”, “right, right, right” and “there are so many things I love about you” with a bit of a cringe. I think it is partly that it feels like a sycophantic mutual love-in amongst a particular group who have formed their own self-improvement echo chamber, and partly that the whole American over-the-top-ness of it makes it come across as less than sincere.

Obviously Oprah is in herself an incredibly impressive person: She is self-made despite horrible early life experiences and someone who adds welcome diversity to the line-up of bland white males and slim, magazine-beautiful young women that populate American TV, she has popularised acceptance of LGBT people and been empathic about a wide variety of life experiences and mental health problems. Plus she is a significant philanthropist (albeit that her charitable activity in itself is not entirely without criticism). However, Oprah and her ilk are so non-critical of patent nonsense from self-help books about spirituality and positive vibrations to dodgy hormone treatments that it feels like a huge missed opportunity to have not put a threshold of scientific scrutiny (or at least critical thinking) to claims when she has such an enormously influential platform.

Likewise it is hard for me to reconcile why a credible researcher like Brene Brown would be prepared to be thrown in that mix and start marketing self-help courses for Oprah watchers. It doesn’t seem to make sense without attributing a financial motivation for accessing the wider audience that is more powerful than professional ethics.

I’m going to read all her books and then I’ll be in a better place to comment, but I’d like to think I’m not being naive or rigidly judgemental here. I’m sure if I felt that I had an important message to share and Oprah offered access to her audience of millions, and I felt that would help to change the world I would make compromises too, both to get the message out and to get the book sales, raised profile and funds that would enable further work. And I fully accept that there have to be coffee table books that are accessible to wider segments of the population than the referenced texts of scientists and clinicians that are more closely tied to the evidence base from which they are drawn. But something still feels uncomfortable.

So, is it just a cultural divide or my own hatred of insincere praise, or is it something deeper that is rotten about the self-help culture?

I’ve started to think that the self-help world, like the diet industry, is rotten at the core because it is invested in failure. I don’t mean the books often recommended by mental health services as ‘bibliotherapy’ that address mental health problems based on well-evidenced psychological techniques like CBT here, which are predominantly helpful. I mean the 2000+ books per year of home-brew wisdom about how to be happier, grasp control of your destiny, be more successful, fix your marriage in a week, get more energy, unlock your chains! Most of these have no evidence base whatsoever, and the authors often have no scientific or mental health credentials. A cynic might say they are selling false hope. Yet the same unhappy people try again and again to change their lives by reading the next book, spending more and more money to make changes presented as easy that are actually unsuccessful for the vast majority of those that try them out.

Just like the diet industry, self help is an industry that has had meteoric growth. Yet little of that is based on any evidence of either the underlying principles or the efficacy of outcomes. There is minimal evaluation, and what there is isn’t promising. In fact, recent research (albeit on a very small sample) has shown that reading self-help literature actually makes people more depressed and anxious!

“The sale of self-help books generated over $10 billion in profits in 2009 in the US, which is a good reason to find out if they have a real impact on readers,” said Sonia Lupien, Director of the Centre of Studies on Human Stress (CSHS). The results of the study showed that consumers of problem-focused self-help books presented greater depressive symptoms and that growth oriented self-help books consumers presented increased stress reactivity compared to non-consumers. No difference was found in any variable according to whether people had read self-help books or not, suggesting they have little impact on functioning. In fact “the best predictor of purchasing a self-help book is having bought one in the past year” suggesting that the same group of people repeatedly buy self-help books but aren’t actually changed by reading them.

In the same way, every new year consumers with weight-loss resolutions in the UK spend £335 million, yet a month later for more than half of them there is no measurable impact on their weight or fitness. Overall the diet industry has an incredible failure rate: 95% of people re-gain the weight they lose. Yet the consumers keep on spending. In the USA consumers spend more on diet-related purchases than the combined value of the government’s budget for health, education and social care. And yet a little basic knowledge of the subject could inform them that most of the things they try won’t work, and that there are very well established links between diet and health.

It seems I am not alone in this discomfort, and Brene Brown herself has felt it and responded. I still think she is one of the good guys, and clearly there are gender politics and marketing influences she struggles to counter, but it remains a fact that there is little to distinguish the good from the bad in the self-help field. I wonder if it is time for those of us who write from an evidence base to respond to that and to start a website to evaluate claims from self-help literature?

Talking about depression and seeking help

Someone I know emailed me this week, saying he was feeling depressed. He was very self-critical about it because objectively his life was the best it had ever been (after a lot of difficult experiences in his childhood and early adult life he is now employed, in a relationship, with a nice home) and therefore it felt ungrateful to complain about anything (like social anxiety, work stress, sleep disturbance, niggles in the relationship, having to care for a dependent parent) as he should be happy. He felt perpetually exhausted and like therapy and medication was for people with ‘real problems’ and talked about wishing he didn’t exist. This was my answer:

There is no ‘should’ with feelings. They just are what they are. We can learn to challenge our thoughts or change our behaviours, which can have a positive knock on effect, but feelings we have little control over. So just be mindful of them, and try to deal with the stuff that underlies them when you are feeling well-resourced and supported.

I read a rather naff explanation on facebook today, but it has a germ of wisdom in it:

I held up an orange and asked a boy in the audience “If I were to squeeze this orange as hard as I could, what would come out?”

He looked at me like I was a little crazy and said, “Juice, of course.”

“Do you think apple juice could come out of it?”

“No!” he laughed.

“What about grapefruit juice?”

“No!”

“What would come out of it?”

“Orange juice, of course.”

“Why? Why when you squeeze an orange does orange juice come out?”

He may have been getting a little exasperated with me at this point.

“Well, it’s an orange and that’s what’s inside.”

I nodded. “Let’s assume that this orange isn’t an orange, but it’s you. And someone squeezes you, puts pressure on you, says something you don’t like, offends you. And out of you comes anger, hatred, bitterness, fear. Why? The answer, as our young friend has told us, is because that’s what’s inside.”

It’s one of the great lessons of life. What comes out when life squeezes you? When someone hurts or offends you? If anger, pain and fear come out of you, it’s because that’s what’s inside. It doesn’t matter who does the squeezing—your mother, your brother, your children, your boss, the government. If someone says something about you that you don’t like, what comes out of you is what’s inside. And what’s inside is up to you, it’s your choice.

When someone puts the pressure on you and out of you comes anything other than love, it’s because that’s what you’ve allowed to be inside. Once you take away all those negative things you don’t want in your life and replace them with love, you’ll find yourself living a highly functioning life.

Now, I’m not totally on board with filling yourself exclusively with love and light (because I think negative feelings are pretty normal and have their value too), and I’m not sure that anyone can ever respond only positively to life’s pressures, but he is right with one thing – your response under stress reflects what you have learnt and experienced in your life up to that point. If you are filled with the poison of being bullied at school or denigrated by your parents, with the wounds of failed relationships, with traumas and losses, then that becomes your norm. It will tarnish your view of yourself, the world and others, and it has the potential to leak out in unhelpful ways. When you carry that baggage and aren’t buoyed up by positive experiences and relationships it becomes much harder to be resilient to the day to day stressors of life. It becomes harder to feel you deserve a better life and to seek out positive experiences for yourself, and you can instead end up avoiding or sabotaging them.

Therapy is there to help you recognise that skew, and to separate the result of negative experiences from your innate worth as an individual. It can help you to challenge your thinking, to change your behaviour, to give yourself opportunities to test and refine your beliefs about yourself, the world and others. It can help you reflect on the patterns in your relationships, why you keep replaying the ones that are not helpful and how you can begin to change this. And sometimes when you are feeling so hopeless and worn out that even the idea of therapy is too much to manage, medication can help to give you the energy and optimism back to allow change to be possible.

The biggest problem of depression is that people can see it compassionately in others, but we are very critical of ourselves for feeling that way, and unable to recognise that the stuckness and self criticism is part of the depression and – importantly – eminently treatable. If you read back your email to me and imagine someone else made it, I think you’d be a lot more compassionate to that person than you are being to yourself. The problem is that you are trying to measure the objective situation with a subjective (and in fact distorted) tool – yourself. And that distortion increases when you are depressed. So be kind to yourself, and allow others to help you. You don’t have to be stuck with feeling sad just because you can’t pin a reason for it on something specific or because there are other people who have bigger problems in their lives.

You said that you sometimes wish you didn’t exist, but I am very glad you do, and I am sure that there are lots of other people who value you and would miss you if you weren’t around. When you are depressed it is hard (if not impossible) to imagine that life can get better. But it can get better. Not only that, but it does get better for most people with depression. Most people who are depressed or even suicidal go on to happier times and to be glad they didn’t act on those thoughts. So please, seek help and don’t give up. Call the Samaritans if you feel like you might harm yourself, and speak to your GP about medication and/or a referral for psychological therapy. After all, 90% of people who turn up to therapy start to feel better, and you can too.

Bump!

Its been a while since I wrote a blog entry, so this is a catch-up to the little chain of events that took up my summer.

On 24th June I was driving from work to do an assessment in the community, when I gave way at a roundabout. Unfortunately the lorry behind me didn’t stop, and went into the back of me. I got jolted forward in my seatbelt, but walked out physically unscathed to find that you could hardly see the impact on the car either. Thankfully the lorry driver was lovely about it; concerned and apologetic and we exchanged details. I was right near the VW dealership where I bought the car, so I got them to check it was roadworthy and went on to my appointment about an hour late. The garage explained that cars are very well protected against straight on collisions, and the bumper would have absorbed most of the impact by crumpling inside, so it was later replaced by my insurance. Likewise I was fine on the outside, but things on the inside started to show the impact in unexpected ways, both physically and psychologically.

Physically I got a typical pattern of whiplash injury – pain in my neck and left shoulder, tightness in my left arm and a restricted range of movement, stiffness in my back, headaches and disrupted sleep. I also got dental pain, along with bruxism, the tendency to clench or grind your teeth, particularly during sleep. I’ve had similar physical symptoms from previous road traffic accidents (I’ve been hit several times before, 3 of which caused whiplash, but I’ve never had an at fault accident in 200,000+ miles since I bought my first car at age 20). But the psychological symptoms were new.

The first thing I noticed was that my concentration was completely shot. I couldn’t sequence tasks into the right order, sustain my attention or gather my thoughts enough to write coherently. I became more anxious, had an increased startle reaction to loud noises and weird scary dreams. I had to work hard to keep my mind on mundane tasks like driving, so I didn’t wander out of my lane on a quiet motorway and was attentive to the speed limit (although driving was limited anyway due to the pain in my shoulder and arm). I couldn’t draw together and reflect on the different information in my court reports, feel confident about my conclusions and present them effectively in a report, so I had to be signed off sick for a month – something I have never done before. However the weighty nature of doing expert witness work for the family court means that I had no other option, it wouldn’t have been ethical to have submitted poor work to inform the court’s decisions on such life-changing matters.

To compound things I started getting severe pain in my teeth and jaw. The dentist was initially unable to identify the source, but eventually found a crack in my wisdom tooth. He tried to fill this, but it caused me levels of pain that I have never experienced before (even in childbirth). A few days later they tried to remove the tooth but had to abort the attempt midway, due to an infection in my jaw. I spent the following week on antibiotics and analgesics, wavering between debilitating pain and a pleasant but unproductive codeine-induced haze. I was reminded how debilitating chronic pain can be, especially as I became more tolerant to codeine and had to alternate with ibuprofen to gain relief. I also found out that dental pain falls in the gaps between the out of hours services (the emergency dentist said “see your dentist on Monday, nothing we can do except let the antibiotics do their stuff, but see your GP if over the counter painkillers are not enough” whilst the walk in clinic said they couldn’t prescribe for dental pain). And to add insult to injury I got a speeding ticket for doing 36 mph on my way to the clinic. The tooth was removed the day before we flew to Scotland for our good friends’ wedding, and once there, I immediately started to feel somewhat better. On my return I was able to complete the delayed court reports and start to catch up with my email, albeit with limited intervals on the computer.

Now I feel like I’m getting back to normal. I’ve still got dental pain, and some physical restrictions (I can’t go weightlifting at the gym, my sleep isn’t 100% and I’m still very stiff on waking or if I do anything physical like playing with the kids or trying to pull a few weeds in the garden), but I feel like myself again psychologically. I can concentrate and plan to levels typical for me, and it has been an interesting experience to reflect upon. Taking time out of work was difficult for me, because it challenges both my expectations of myself as a perfectionist and workaholic, the level of input/control I’ve been able to have over my business, and my reputation as a reliable provider of services. The up side has been spending more time at home with the kids over the summer holidays, taking time to relax and being forced to think about self-care a bit more than usual. I am very lucky that my husband had just left his job and was able to postpone his freelance work and take on a lot of the domestic tasks, otherwise I don’t think that I’d have managed nearly as well.

As a self employed person, taking time off work also lost me a lot of money, but it was difficult to see this as a loss I had no control over (even though this is the case) rather than me being self-indulgent. Even though I was told that I could claim from the lorry driver’s insurance for lost earnings I was still loathe to make a claim. Plus it is hard to quantify losses when you don’t have a steady salary and payments come in months after I complete work. Of course I had to contact my insurer, as the car bumper was structurally compromised and needed replacement, and my insurance company in turn set other wheels in motion.

I genuinely loathe the personal injury claim industry from the speculative cold-calls and TV marketing to drum up trade to the impact on premiums and the motivation to malinger. I hate to be part of it. Yet I watch helplessly from the sidelines as the leaches of the insurance industry cream off maximum profit to take forward my claim, from the hire car whilst mine was in for repair (for more than twice the price of just walking into the local hire shop), to the paralegals at the ambulance-chasing law firm charging an obscene hourly rate for their cut-and-paste letters and calls. Yesterday I had my medical interview/examination with a very nice doctor who took 16 minutes to complete his assessment. Certainly an interesting contrast to the detailed day of interviews and assessments of each person I do for the family court!

So, its been an interesting summer. Despite the hiatus there is a lot I want to write about.

Slow burn: Reflecting on the emotional impact of working with chronic trauma*

*This post contains vignettes of harrowing material which may upset some readers. Case examples are all anonymised.

When I decided to do work in child protection, people warned me it was the fast road to burnout. Twenty years later I think they are right about the direction, if not about the speed.

Burnout is an insidious thing. It sneaks up on you as a chronic accumulation of many tiny things, rather than having an obvious trigger, like a single life threatening event that causes PTSD. A thousand small examples of vicarious traumatisation. Experiences that I shouldn’t complain about as I’ve chosen a career that inevitably brings exposure to distress and tragedy. It feels like I’ve chosen to wade through the grottiest parts of life, until I’m normed on that 1% of stories that cause the most concern. It saturates me. Pollutes my perceptions of life. It has been building up for a long time.

Fifteen years ago my two specialist placements included post abuse work with survivors of sexual abuse, a group for non-abusing parents of children who had been sexually abused and work with “complex” children and families, such as those on the child protection register. I knew it was emotionally harrowing work then. I talked about it with a good friend, and concluded that my drive was to go where I was most needed, to grapple with the most complex cases, and that I’d worry about burnout when I got there. I graduated onto a clinic for children who were “failing to thrive” and most of my clinical time being with Looked After Children and therapeutic work with those who had experienced trauma or maltreatment. Right from the start, it was an induction of fire, salved only by the fact that it was important work that needed to be done.

It started with individual stories.

The sad silent child who ate 7 digestive biscuits and carefully stowed extras in his pockets during clinic, but whose parents claimed he had a digestive disorder that meant he wasn’t gaining weight despite eating plenty.

The young woman with learning disabilities who repeatedly played out how the daddy bear lay on top of the baby bear and thrust, but said baby bear was a liar and nobody believed her when she told.

The adult relatives who revealed at the last moment the sadistic physical and sexual abuse that their step-father inflicted, after he had charmed the professionals enough to get residence of his grand children, when their mother was unable to cope and had reverted to chronic drug use.

The maps of children’s bodies in medical notes, used for annotating injuries, including one for babies. The paediatricians sharing photographs of torn orifices, injuries, malnourishment and legs with rickets. “This one has burns on their hands up to a straight line on their arms, showing they were held in boiling water as a punishment”. No, I don’t want to see, thanks.

The little girl in a religious cult who couldn’t disclose her abuser as she had been taught it was as bad to think or speak badly of others as what they had done, and shown pictures of people rotting in the ground or burning in hell for their sins.

The boy who was conceived through rape, whose mother couldn’t look at him, and whose grandmother thought any challenging behaviour showed he was “living up to his genes”.

A girl asking how she got the zigzag scar on her stomach. The family didn’t want to tell her about how her mother tried to cut her open to let the devil out during a puerperal psychosis. They don’t want to spoil the relationship as she goes to Mum for alternate weekends. When I meet Mum she talked incoherently about spirits and auras, telling me she likes climbing on the roof to be nearer to God. She has no need of adult mental health services, thanks.

The young woman who always claims to be pregnant. Partners are less likely to harm her that way. She is couch surfing at the moment, which is the new name for homeless. Her only possession is a photograph of her son who was removed at birth and adopted. After physical and sexual abuse at home, and attempts to stay with numerous relatives, she grew up in care. She had a sexual relationship with her male carer at 14 which she views as consensual.

Since 2000 I have done expert witness work for the family courts. That means reading bundles of documents about trauma, child abuse, neglect, loss, violence, family breakdowns and mental health problems. It means speaking to parents who have been maltreated in their own lives, lack coping resources and instead of being able to create healthy relationships and flourish have limped from one bad experience to another. It involves speaking to children who have seen too much, had to cope with awful things and missed out on the love and nurture that you’d want every child to take for granted. I read about and sometimes see the state of the home, with rubbish heaped up and rotting, flies circling, dirty nappies on the floor, no clean clothing, nowhere to store possessions and no space that isn’t filled with clutter. I hear about broken bones, bruises, burns, rapes and assaults. Sometimes there are x-rays, photographs or medical records. I see sadness and anger accumulated over many years of getting a raw deal. I measure problems with learning, attention, behaviour, life skills, self-esteem and mental health. I observe who denies the problems, who spills over with them, and who recognises themselves doing as they were done by despite all their best intentions otherwise.

I read, and I listen. I measure and observe. I pull the pieces together to see what fits and what conflicts. It is an active process, trying to understand what happened, how and why. Evaluating insight and future risks. A computer couldn’t be programmed to do this. It takes empathy, curiosity, critical thinking and detective skills. I am the barometer of relationships, of what would feel okay, of what is causing harm. If I felt nothing, I couldn’t do the job. But there is so much pain to feel. So many sad stories.

A little girl with curly dark blond hair who the foster carer told me “shook with excitement to get her own dolly for the first time and promised to keep it pristine so that when mummy gives it to her little sister she will still think it is new”. I nod politely. Take verbatim notes. I have to stop the car on the way home for a cry.

A teenage boy tells me how his father often pinned him up against the wall by his neck or beat him with a belt. He wonders why he dissociates when he perceives threat or criticism now and worries that he is going mad. I try to explain his brain learnt to protect him when nothing else could.

I observe the baby that was rescued from the fire. Her scars are healing slowly, and the medical treatments are painful. She can’t bear to be touched. There is too much pain for someone so young.

A mother tells me how it hurts her watching the foster carer do a better job than she was able to at caring for her children. “I always swore I’d be different to my mum, make better choices of partner than she did, keep my kids safe from harm. I look at where we are now and see it has happened all over again and I can’t bear it”. And neither can I.

A teenage girl tells me she took the overdose because her step-dad broke the door down and overturned the bed to reach where she and her mother were hiding, and hit her mother repeatedly with the broken bed leg. She shrugs and smiles, and says “its just how it is, you know”. I don’t know. But trying to imagine it makes my guts curl and my eyes leak involuntarily.

A mother tells me about the culture she grew up in, and how grateful she is to be here, even though the whole family live in a single room in slum conditions, and it is hard to find work as an illegal immigrant. If her son is hungry, developmentally delayed, and being beaten for misbehaviour at least he is safe. I think that isn’t safe. It is all relative.

A father tells me that his uncle sexually abused him as a young boy, but there was too much stigma to tell anyone and he was afraid to lose this special relationship. He still spends time with his uncle now, and trusts him implicitly with his own children. A few sentences later he says he is baffled why the children are showing sexualised behaviour. I am baffled that other people can’t see how obviously the pieces fit together.

I assess a couple that smell so bad I struggle not to gag. I open the windows but it is not enough. I go out for air every hour. A social worker sprays perfume on my sleeve so I can raise it to my face to mask the smell. I learn the phrase “body odour to an extent causing discomfort to anyone in the proximity”. They don’t own toothbrushes and show me teeth rotting in swollen gums.

A woman tells me she has put on 9 stone as she needs to have fat deeper than the knife blade is long, since she was stabbed by her ex-partner. She wheezes for a long time after climbing the stairs at the contact centre, and she struggles to get down on the floor to play with the baby. I worry when she is slower than expected to return from the toilet, do I need to check if she is okay?

The child was born with HIV. His mother died of it. He lives with his grandmother. She doubts the diagnosis. “He doesn’t look ill, the English doctors don’t know about us”, she says when I ask why his prescriptions have not been collected.

A lady tells me that she must have had post natal depression. If she wasn’t ill she would keep the house clean, but when she is ill she can hardly get out of bed, and gets ideas that the world is very unsafe. That is why she kept the children in her bed with her, rather than sending them to school, until they were no longer able to walk. She’s on antidepressants now, and saw a counsellor for six sessions, so everything will be fine. The social workers are making a fuss about nothing.

A man tells me he has exercised to pass the time whilst in prison. He is proud that he is bigger and tougher than his father now. He says the robbery was the fault of the friends who bought him the beer and suggested the idea, and much exaggerated by the victim. I am glad I brought with a student to observe, as the room is quite isolated and his body language makes me tense.

This couple have managed to sustain the acrimony of their separation for five years. She says he was controlling, violent and obsessive about having every last penny accounted for. She tolerated his promiscuity for far too long. He says she was moody and manipulative, and it is probably her mental health that’s the problem, and her jealousy that he moved onto another relationship. It makes me cross that both of them seem to have forgotten the kids in the middle of their conflict.

A little boy tells me what it felt like to be buggered. I try not to think about it that night in bed. I play tetris on my phone until I fall asleep at 4am.

A woman tells me that all of her relationships have been with men who present a sexual risk with children. They are all so different, she says, that whenever she learns what to avoid the next one is nothing like it. And why wouldn’t you move in with someone you’ve just met? How else do you get somewhere to live after the last relationship has turned sour?

The story stems of a girl of eight show the family repeatedly pushing the girl off a cliff and laughing at her. For variation they poison her and laugh as she vomits. She repeats the loop for 90 minutes, then returns to lying foetal under the table as I leave, just as she was when I arrived.

“I had a cold, mum caught it, and it made her sick so she fell down the stairs” says the boy with autism. “That is why she had to go to hospital”. It wasn’t the head injuries her partner caused, it was his fault. But later in the conversation “Daddy gets out of prison soon. When he finds us he will kill us this time”. It is deadpan. An emotionless fact of life.

The girl in the children’s ward tells me “I didn’t want to go home. I jumped off the bridge because it would be better to be dead. They say I will need to be in hospital at least six weeks whilst my leg heals”. She smiles showing me the metal cage and all the pins reassembling her bones, and counts the pieces in the x-ray. She won’t say what is wrong at home.

“He spat right in my face and pushed me over. I was so angry then. I hit him with the lamp until it broke, then I whipped him with the cable. I could see the shape of the switch in the bruises when I was done. They might have seen it, but that’s not the same. I’d never hurt the children.”

A boy tells me what is different in foster care. “It was the best day ever. We went to the garden centre. I got to look at the fish, and we had a drink and a slice of cake at the cafe. We eat at the table with the grown ups here. I got my own coat too, nobody wore it before me! And my skin is better”. The carers tell me that they had to wash the grime off the bath after he arrived, replace all his clothes and do twice daily treatments of his infected eczema. They had to get a court order to shave off his matted hair as his parents would not give consent.

A five year old girl tells me about the day she came into care. “I could hear they had fish and chips in the front room. I could smell it. I tried to walk there, but my legs weren’t working and I kept falling over”. The medical records show that a visitor called an ambulance when they saw her unconscious and malnourished. Her blood test results are marked with blue biro. Haemoglobin is captioned “how is she alive?”. She dances when she shows me the foster carers have a rabbit run in the garden.

In each family I hear many of these stories from each individual, and I see several families each month for assessment. I’ve been doing this for over a decade now. I have banked hundreds of such narratives, maybe a thousand. All involve a child or children being harmed. The stories are each unique, but the themes recur. James blurs into Joshua and Jared and Jacob. Samira merges with Samantha and Saskia and Sasha. Depression and anxiety, broken bones and bruises, filth and mayhem, conflict and violence, cancer, obesity and sensory impairment, neglect and abuse heap up in my repertoire of human experience and leak out into my life. I see those stories lurking at the edge of my vision, in the arguments partially overheard in the shops, or behind the headlines in the news. I see their echoes amongst people that I know; my neighbours and colleagues and friends.

I set myself impossible standards. I worry if my child has messy hair when she gets back from school, or I notice mud under her fingernails. Will people think we aren’t taking proper care of them? Are we not taking proper care of them? We go to A&E after my daughter burns her hand. I ask her to tell the story before I speak and she says “it was your fault mummy, it was your drink I tipped over”. I feel like a failure and a hypocrite. My cat has a jaw infection and needs teeth removed and antibiotics. I should have known. He smells like the couple I assessed at the social work centre last year.

I say we need to leave the restaurant. I can hear a mother saying “ungrateful brat, I should never have had you” to her son. Outside the school a mother pushing a baby in a pram says to her friend “look at him giving me evils, he’s going to be just like his father”. I walk away. The couple outside the pub argue incoherently and their voices get louder and shriller as we walk back to our car after a night out. The child in the park approaches me and asks me to push him on the swings. People on the internet disclose abuse. In the supermarket I hear a slap and the child is crying. The woman walks past on the street with a fading black eye. They are anonymous and legion. The scale of the problem is overwhelming. I can do nothing.

Friends of friends ask for advice as they have heard I am a psychologist. Its important to try to point people in the right direction, but I am depleted. Another 2 lever arch files arrive at work. Its an incest case and mother is terminally ill. Surely there can be no more stories this bad, but there is a queue awaiting my attention. The next one has police transcripts of the interviews of all of Dad’s victims. He might be a paedophile but his daughter wants to see him anyway. The one after that they want me to see Dad whilst he is in prison for abducting the children to a different country. He believes it is his right; fathers own children in his culture. Then back to the bread and butter of court work, another family where neglect and maltreatment has been the norm through many generations. One of the children is the same age and gender as one of mine. Don’t make comparisons. Don’t go there. Change the subject.

A letter from a solicitor tells me that my invoice has been reduced by the Legal Aid Agency on appraisal. I will get £400 less than the total billed, despite not billing for 6 hours work already because of the fee caps. The hours were “not proportionate”. Do I explain again that it takes longer to do assessments via a translator? I don’t have the energy. Another one is querying the hourly rate. I should work for £7 less if I only see the adults as I won’t be a child psychologist. I ask if a psychiatrist gets paid the rate for a psychotherapist if they don’t diagnose or prescribe. The solicitor is sympathetic but there is nothing they can do. A father doesn’t attend an appointment. I have driven 2 hours to get here, and I wait for an hour whilst phone calls are made, then drive 2 hours home, exhausted. I can do nothing else with my day. Legal Aid say a psychologist can fill their time productively with other activities and refuse to pay anything over travel costs, even though the contract says that they will pay for any appointment cancelled with less than 72 hours notice. I can’t bill for materials, venues or typing. The questionnaires cost an average of £5.31 each. I used 6 per child and there were 7 children in the family. Does it add enough to my report to justify £220 of lost income? The LAA ask what ‘capacity’ is and why it took me 4 hours to assess it. Is it not embarrassing to work for the family court system and not to know this or to have the sense to Google? The self-funding father wants to pay in monthly instalments, but my staff get paid next week. The wealthy mother from abroad hasn’t paid her share of the bill from 4 months ago, but the court wants me to do more work for her case. Why do I do this again?

Tomorrow is the appointment to assess the teenage mother in the mother and baby unit. Yesterday her boyfriend told me about how they met online, and gave me their usernames. Google shows me his dating site entries seeking single mothers, Facebook posts about the violence in their relationship and a video of baby’s “sexy dance”. A solicitor phones. Can I squeeze in one extra case this month? Mother has been evicted. She doesn’t want to see her child and is too anxious to talk to her lawyers. Could I fit the capacity assessment in this week? I get an email. Craig is feeling suicidal. I have reached compassion fatigue. I reply with the phone numbers for the Samaritans and the local crisis service. I turn off my phone and computer and go back to bed.

I am empty. My emotional resources have run out. Is this constant aching tiredness what they call burnout? I run on clockwork. I am a robot Mum and a robot wife. I fall asleep on the sofa. I am exhausted. At night when I finally fall to sleep I dream about children with their eyes sewn shut. I can’t save them all. When I wake I go to work and do it all over again. I’m good at this. It is important. It is needed. It is never ending.

Then I pause and take a few weeks off. The bubble of numbness bursts. I cry watching a video on Youtube. It segues into crying for all the children I’ve met, and all the children someone like me never met or didn’t reach in time, including the parents I speak to so often. I cry with frustration at my own limited reach. I cry for the selfishness of politicians, the broken systems and missing safety nets. I despair at how you increasingly need money to buy justice, and how hopeless and disengaged wide tranches of society are becoming. I click to sign petitions. I donate to campaigns. I counsel compassion in online debates. But I am tired. Achingly tired. Tired in my bones and my guts and my heart. I know how much this needs to be done. And I don’t know what else I can do. But I can’t do this any more.