Nature versus nurture revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is your story?” Specifically:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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