Accountability

On 31st March, a week or so after the coronavirus pandemic lockdown began, I was contacted by the HCPC.

I am writing to inform you that we have received a concern about your fitness to practise” the letter began. “We will now carry out an initial investigation into the potential fitness to practise issues identified in the concern. This may involve gathering relevant information from a number of sources.
  
In order to assist with our enquiries, I would be grateful if you would provide the following information:
  
– Confirmation that you are the owner and/or moderator of the site ClinPsy.org.uk.
– Confirmation of whether you, or any of the other owners/moderator of the site have received any concerns/complaints about the content of the forum, particularly regarding [celebrity psychologists]
– If yes, please provide a copy of the complaint/s and the site’ s response.
– If not provided above, you are welcome to provide a brief response to concerns raised.
– Confirmation of your current employment arrangement.
– If applicable, please provide the name and email address of your line manager and HR director.

I replied the same evening:

I own www.clinpsy.org.uk I can confirm that I have never had any complaints in any form about any comment on [celebrity psychologists] on the forum – in fact I have never even heard of [the complainant], and can find no reference to him on the forum. I’m afraid you will need to let me know what comment is being complained about to enable me to respond to it.
As to my employment, I am self employed and run my own small business, so there is no line manager or HR involved – but I have to ask why you would think that relevant when a person is complaining about an unspecified comment on social media?

I then contacted my professional indemnity insurance provider and spoke to Mike Wang, chair of the ACP (he was my MSc supervisor and then my clinical course director, and we have stayed loosely in touch since then) who were both reassuring that this wasn’t a legitimate complaint. Later I got legal advice through my membership of the FSB, to check I had fully understood my legal obligations as a forum owner. All of us wondered why the HCPC would launch an investigation at all, given that I had never made a comment myself about any of the individuals named in the complaint, and the forum had been very proactive in ensuring no defamatory content was permitted. The forum does have a thread about “celebrity psychologists”, where legitimate concerns are raised about individuals who appear on television or in the newspapers making comment as “psychologists” who are outside of the scope of HCPC registration. But I could see nothing defamatory in it. In fact the moderating team had carefully checked the content and I had even posted a reply to remind people about our defamation policy and how to raise a concern. So I started to draft a full reply to the HCPC.

Just to be sure, I spent many hours obsessionally trawling through content on the forum and my social media and could find no interaction with the individual concerned, or any defamatory content about any celebrity psychologist on my forum. That isn’t to say members of the forum haven’t criticised such individuals, or that I don’t share similar concerns. Quite the opposite, I’ve been raising concerns about the limited scope of regulation for psychologists and therapy professionals for more than a decade and see this as another example of where the legislation fails to protect the public. However, I have never expressed this as a personal attack on an individual, or said anything unprofessional or defamatory.

At this juncture it might be helpful for me to note what defamation is, what a complainant can do about online defamation, and what the legal rights are both of the individual who believes they have been defamed, and the established defences against claims of defamation, as they will set this complaint in context.

Defamation is the action of damaging the good reputation of a person through the oral or written communication of a false statement about them that unjustly harms their reputation. The important part of that definition is that the statement must be false, and it must cause them harm (which must be demonstrable within 12 months of publication). Being rude about someone or insulting towards them would not normally be defamatory, though it might be unprofessional. As a website owner I am technically the publisher of the content shown on the site, and whilst I cannot be held legally accountable for other users being rude or insulting (though we have worked hard to create a professional culture and to have policies that prevent personal attacks or unprofessional behaviour), I would be accountable if something defamatory was published – if I was aware of it and failed to act to remove it when requested to do so by the individual it affected.

The problem here was that the HCPC did not share any details of the complaint with me, and the complaint communicated was entirely vague and did not refer to particular comments or even allege defamation. It was also made by a third party, rather than the individual that the complainant said had been maligned – making it rather extraordinary that the HCPC would give it even a cursory investigation.

But even with the assumption that someone had said something on the forum that an individual had felt was defamatory – which was far from the case – the law requires that individual (not a third party) to inform the publisher and ask them to remove the content, within 12 months from publication. And in this case most of the comments about celebrity psychologists had stood for 7 years, and no complaint had ever been raised with the forum – despite every post having a button to report it to moderators for review, and a prominent defamation policy that was linked by me in the very thread concerned, in a post giving the forum email address to make such a report.

There are also two main complete defences to defamation allegations; truth and honest opinion. If a statement is true it cannot be defamatory. For example, to say that a celebrity psychologist is not a registered practitioner psychologist or does not have a doctorate is not defamatory if these statements are factually correct. The other defence is that someone is expressing an honest opinion or making “fair comment”. This allows discussion of matters of public or professional interest, and means it is not defamatory to express a view that an honest person could have held on the basis of any facts or anything asserted to be a fact by reasonable sources available to them at the time. That is, if I said “Boris Johnson is a liar” this could not be defamatory because numerous sources have asserted this to be the case. Honest opinion can also be a reaction to something else that has been published, and can even defend someone posting something that is incorrect, if it was an honest belief based on the information available at the time (for example, writing “X isn’t registered with the HCPC” wouldn’t be defamatory if a person had their HCPC registration in a different name, or it didn’t show on the website yet, or the name checked was spelt incorrectly because that was the spelling used in the article under discussion).

As far as I could see, all comments that were on the forum about celebrity psychologists, or made or retweeted by me on social media, involved telling the truth or making fair comment about known or published facts.

On the other hand, my investigations showed me that the complainant was someone who frequently threatens properly registered mental health professionals who criticise his favoured celebrity psychologists with referral to the HCPC. I also found that the individual concerned had used anonymous IDs to respond aggressively to critics of his favoured celebrity psychologists, and to place more flattering quotes and reviews about them into the public domain. I also heard from other colleagues who had been harassed for raising similar concerns. One noted:

This is one of the perversities about the register and use of the title psychologist; as [celebrity psychologists] are not registered they are able to freely mislead the public about their status and not be held accountable and yet they can put in complaints to the HCPC about those of us that are properly qualified.  The complaint is vindictively motivated [and yet effective as a deterrent/punishment for critics]

So on 2nd April I sent the HCPC a robust reply:

I have had a better look into this and I am now in a position to reply more fully.

For reference, the forum has run for 13 years and contains 152,000 posts on over 15,000 topics. We have never had a formal complaint about our content, and we have a team of moderators who are all HCPC registered clinical psychologists who help to ensure we maintain a professional tone in all content. Every user has to agree a statement about the rules of the site to sign up (which can be read here: https://www.clinpsy.org.uk/forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=16012) and we have written guidance for users that spells out our rules (which can be read here:https://www.clinpsy.org.uk/forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=10). The guidance is sent to each user in a welcome message as they sign in for the first time and cautions against personal abuse or defamation. Rules 9 and 11 specifically talk about being respectful of others even when disagreeing, avoiding defamation and ensuring posts do not risk bringing the profession into disrepute. It also explains how any post can be reported to moderators by clicking the small triangle button and stating your concerns. We have a pinned post giving specific guidance about defamation (see here: https://www.clinpsy.org.uk/forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=9&p=10) that is linked prominently from that guidance, and note it includes the means to contact us to report any content that is potentially defamatory at the bottom of the page: “If you believe a post has been defamatory about you, or an organisation you represent, please email us at clinpsyforum@gmail.com and we will respond as quickly as possible”. 

We have a proper process for responding to a complaint, and a team of qualified CPs who act as moderators that I consult with. However, our complaints process has only been activated once (when an approach to purchase the website turned into correspondence disputing our negative review of a travel agency offering work experience placements to psychology students, but they did not register a formal complaint and we did not find any content that was not factually supported when we investigated) and I can confirm that we have never had any complaint from any of the individuals mentioned in your email. We respond frequently to reports on individual posts, which mainly notify us of spam but can also highlight inappropriate content such as potential breaches of confidentiality. These are dealt with within 3 working days. We have never had a report in relation to defamation or to any content relevant to this complaint.

We do have one thread where [celebrity psychologists] are mentioned – you can read it here: https://www.clinpsy.org.uk/forum/viewtopic.php?f=12&t=13708. It was started in 2012 where forum members raised concerns about “celebrity psychologists” who do not have HCPC registration but appear to be giving the public the impression they are regulated professionals. The thread stood for 8 years and the majority of content was posted two or more years before I contributed to it at all. I did review the entire thread at that point and found nothing defamatory. Nonetheless my response includes the following: 

“The issue of psychological therapists who practise outside the scope of professional regulation is one that is important to many of our members who work hard to gain practitioner status with the HCPC, because we believe in the principle being important to protect the public (regardless of the individuals involved).

As with any other thread on the forum, if any of the content of this thread is considered defamatory the the individual involved is welcome to email the site (clinpsyforum@gmail.com) and point this out and we will remove it.” 

The thread was then dormant for nearly six years, before being raised to discuss the way some “celebrity psychologists” were using BPS membership to give the impression of professional qualifications, whilst apparently breaching BPS guidance. I had raised these concerns with the BPS and mentioned doing so on the forum and on twitter. However, as with the content in the thread, the concerns were about the misrepresentation of professional titles and skills, and the role the BPS take in giving credibility to psychologists who are not HCPC registered practitioner psychologists, and their lack of will to intervene or regulatory teeth when concerns are raised about these individuals. Whilst one or two of my posts are critical of specific things that [individual celebrity psychologists have] written or said I cannot see any defamatory content. I have made no direct criticism of [the individuals named in the complaint], and there has never been any mention of [the complainant] on that thread or elsewhere on the forum.

Nobody has raised a complaint about that thread. I have reviewed it today, and whilst there is legitimate concern about misrepresentation of qualifications and the public perception of psychologists, based on things written or said by various unregulated “psychologists” in the media, I cannot see anything defamatory in the content. [Far from being unprofessional, I believe we have gone above and beyond requirements to prevent defamatory or unprofessional content. I posted in that very thread] how to report any concerns about defamation, and have been mindful to allow only appropriate professional concerns about misrepresentation to be raised on the forum, rather than personal attacks or potentially defamatory content.

I do not believe that it can possibly impair my fitness to practice as a clinical psychologist to have hosted or participated in discussion about potential misrepresentation of professional qualifications by “celebrity psychologists”. This has not been defamatory, and I believe it to be legitimate for members of a clinical psychology forum to raise professional regulatory concerns about public figures – especially when these are factually based, shared by many practitioner psychologists and early career stage psychologists, and have been raised appropriately with professional bodies including the BACP and BPS. The posts on the forum that were critical of these individuals were based on the content of their newspaper columns and television appearances, how they are introduced in TV programs, and their stated qualifications and experience on their websites. For example, it is a true fact that Emma Kenny is not a clinical psychologist, despite being introduced in a BBC television series as being one, and this being a breach of the regulations that brought us under the auspices of the HCPC.

I would note that it is entirely lawful for individuals to publish honest opinions on a matter of public interest and based on facts which are true – this is known as “fair comment” or “honest opinion”, and has been tested through the courts by cases such as British Chiropractic Association vs Simon Singh, which led to the Defamation Act, 2013. This introduced a number of protections against allegations of defamation, including truth, honest opinion, public interest, and a defence for website operators hosting user-generated content, provided they comply with a procedure to enable the complainant to resolve disputes directly with the author of the material concerned or otherwise remove it. This ensures that individuals who own or run websites that allow comment are not liable for the content of other user’s comments on it. It requires that the complainant must contact the site owner or administrator to raise a complaint in which they specify the complainant’s name, the statement concerned, where on the website it was posted and explain why it is defamatory, before taking any other action in relation to alleged defamation. These complaints can only be made by the person who has allegedly been defamed or their legal representative.

We have never received any complaint or notification of potential defamation, or any communication from [celebrity psychologists] or their legal representatives, and as previously stated we have never mentioned, heard of or communicated with [the complainant]. Thus a non-specific complaint to the HCPC made by an individual who has never been mentioned on the site seems quite inappropriate as a means to address concerns. I would therefore hope that the complaint can be quickly dismissed.

Yet the case still wasn’t dismissed, despite the fact I had demonstrated that a) I had not made any defamatory comments about the individuals concerned and b) there was no legal basis to hold me accountable for posts made by others on a forum that I own (even had any been defamatory, when none of them had been).

I was then asked on 6th April to provide proof that no complaints had been made to the website. Aside from the fact that it is not my burden to prove a negative, and almost an impossible task, I spent the next 3 hours responding to this request, searching the email correspondence, administrator and moderator report logs for each name or the word complaint, and submitted screen shots of every search. These were acknowledged on the following day.

Yet the case still wasn’t dismissed.

I then heard nothing for 4 months. So I wrote on 12th August to ask whether the complaint had been dismissed. This email was acknowledged, and I was told I would receive a reply within 5 working days, but received no reply. I therefore emailed again on 20th August, which again had no reply. So on 26th August I raised a complaint.


My complaint was that this “fitness to practise concern” was obviously spurious from the start, and should never have reached the point of even a cursory investigation (given the complaint was from a person I had never interacted with, about comments made by people other than me about people other than him). But even if it did, in error, reach a cursory investigation, surely the information I provided within 3 days was enough to say “sorry, it is now clear this isn’t a legitimate complaint” and not keep me under the stress of a formal fitness to practise investigation? How this can still be hanging over my head five months later is very troubling. Surely there must be a process for checking the prima facie validity of complaints, that should have dismissed this? What if I had been employed, and this had led to me being suspended or fired? How you could do this to a person struggling to sustain their business through a pandemic lockdown over such a trivial and spurious complaint is beyond me.

On 4th September the investigation was officially closed. The HCPC informed me:


I am writing to let you let you know that we have now completed our initial investigation into the concerns we received about your fitness to practise.

During our investigation, we obtained information from the Complainant and yourself. We have now assessed the concern, and all the information we received, against our threshold criteria for fitness to practise investigations.

In doing so, we have considered whether this matter may be a breach of the following HCPC Standards of Conduct, Performance and Ethics:
2. Communicate appropriately and effectively
6. Manage risk

The outcome of our assessment is that the threshold criteria for fitness to practise investigations has not been met in this instance. This means that we do not consider that the concern, or the information we have obtained about it, amounts to an allegation that your fitness to practise may be impaired.

The reasons for our decision are explained in more detail below:

Issue 1 – comments of an offensive, bullying or inappropriate nature on social media

Registrants are not prohibited from expressing their opinions on social media, provided the content or language used is not inappropriate or offensive.

HCPC Guidance on Social Media advises Registrants: ‘ When using social media you should apply the same standards as you would when communicating in other ways. Be polite and respectful, and avoid using language that others might reasonably consider to be inappropriate or offensive. Use your professional judgement in deciding whether to post or share something.’

From the links and screenshots provided, the content of the forum appears to be confined to a discussion of professional concerns and information already in the public domain. Regarding the opinions and concerns expressed in the forum, the HCPC would be out of place to prohibit its Registrants from having a free discussion about their concerns or limit their ability to express their opinions. Of the information provided and the search conducted, I am unable to find any statements which amount to ‘trolling’  or bullying.

As our process is evidence based, we cannot proceed with our investigation without evidence to support the concerns. The Complainant was given multiple opportunities to provide evidence that you contributed to and offensive or inappropriate content, but has failed to provide information which supports the concerns.

Issue 2 – hosting comments by others of an offensive, bullying or inappropriate nature on your site

You have provided evidence that you have put multiple protections in place to ensure the tone, language and content of the forum is not defamatory and does not stray into inappropriate content or language. Where members breach these terms, you have a team of moderators who will respond.

In providing individuals the ability to report specific posts and comments, you have acted in accordance with your professional duty to support and encourage others to report concerns(SCPE 7.2). You have evidenced that you have not received complaints on this thread, and therefore have not been in a position to respond to such concerns.

In the absence of any evidence to suggest you have not complied with the relevant obligations, there is no information to suggest that your fitness to practise may be impaired.

We will therefore not be taking any further action in relation to this matter and have closed our file on this case. However, please continue to be aware of our communication guidance when reviewing your forum/website.

We appreciate that this has been a very stressful time for you and would like to thank you for your co-operation and patience during our investigation.


So, to my relief, they got there in the end and the complaint has been dismissed. However, my question is why the complaint got through the starting gates, and why it took 5 months, 2 emails and a formal complaint to resolve.

But more than this, why do the BPS continue to endorse these “celebrity psychologists” and do nothing to protect or support genuine practitioner psychologists against this kind of attack? Despite numerous complaints about “celebrity psychologist” Jo Hemmings in the context of her article about Meghan Markle being manipulative, the BPS sat her down for a chat and took her at her word that she would be more careful in future. And they’ve not replied to any of my emails in the six months since I suspended my membership, saying I would not continue membership until they responded to the concerns I raised about their endorsements not protecting the public.

And more than this, why does the legislation not distinguish genuinely qualified and accountable professional psychologists within the scope of regulation from anyone who calls themselves a psychologist? In Australia it is an offence with enormous financial penalties to misrepresent someone as a psychologist or claim to be a psychologist if not within the scope of statutory regulation. So the public cannot be misled by the media citing quacks or charlatans who claim qualifications, but actually have to check their registration before using them as experts. Here we haven’t even got that protection for who can be called as an expert witness to inform critical decisions in the courts. The scope of current regulation fails to protect the public, yet nobody – not professional bodies or politicians – seems to care.

Reflecting back

I’ve been archiving the files for a lot of my past court work this week. I moved office base and I don’t want to be cluttering up my new space with lots of old case information I don’t need any more, when it can be securely stored and eventually shredded. So far I’ve boxed up the files for 115 family court cases for which I completed an assessment and wrote a report, leaving only records that have been updated since the start of 2013 in my filing cabinet. As I check that each of the newer cases has been completed and invoiced, I will put those into storage too, and use my filing space for other things. It is another step in letting go of my role as an expert witness, and the huge weight of responsibility and emotional demand that entails.

As I put each case away, I added the family names to an index in order that I could locate them if it is ever required. I am supposed to keep files for seven years, or until the child is 21, so they stay with me a long time. As I record the names I realise I can remember the stories of many of the families, and I wondered how they were doing now. There were lots of traumas in those stories, that I heard and described in my reports, and felt in my bones. Many parents whose own childhoods meant that they couldn’t parent in a safe and nurturing way. Many of them dealt a hand full of adversity, who had no resources to cope with the stresses of their chaotic lives. Over and over again I saw children who were harmed by the care they were given, both in the children I had to assess, and in the histories of their parents and grandparents. Themes repeating across two or more generations.

It has always felt terribly sad that in order to give their children a chance at a better life, the courts have to intervene in ways that further wound the parents. But an expert’s job is to advise on what is best for the child, and sadly that is often contradictory with what is in the best interest of their parent. And I hope that I have always kept what would be best for the child paramount in my thinking, but whilst holding some compassion for the other family members. I think about the cases where I didn’t do the story justice, and the courts made decisions that I didn’t agree with. I worry about the cases where greater experience or new knowledge from the literature would have given me a slightly different perspective. I think about times I was threatened, or parents refused to talk to me, or I was cross-examined for five hours straight. Then I remember a time when a parent I assessed approaching me after I gave evidence, and feeling wary she was going to be angry that I recommended her child was removed. Instead she said thank you to me. “You were the only person I’ve met in all this that was always honest with me, and understood how I got here. I can see why you said what you did about me, and I think you are right that he will do better being adopted”. I’m still blown away by that. What an amazing gift to give me at a time that was so painful for her. I hope that she got the therapy she needed to put that reflection, empathy and kindness into practise in her life, and get out of the run of destructive relationships that had dominated her life.

I put the files into the box and lock them away. I am glad to let them go. It isn’t just physical space they take up, but mental space. Being an expert witness for the family court is a tough job. The hourly rates might seem high, but there are other ways to earn the same without the emotional burden. There have been pros and cons for me. I’m a different person now than I was when I began doing that work. I’m more observant and analytical, better able to ask the right questions, to deal with uncertainties, and to spot inconsistencies and triangulate sources. There have been rewarding moments too. I have had a lot of positive feedback about the quality of my assessments and evidence, and thanks for the impact of my work. But I’m also more cynical and I’ve seen a very dark side to the world. I’m more aware of the risks, and of how prevalent maltreatment and poor care are, even in our supposedly developed nation. I think I’m less trusting of people as a result of doing this type of work, and my norms for what levels of problems require professional help have shifted towards the more severe end of the spectrum, making me less sympathetic to people who feel very disadvantaged by more minor difficulties. I’ve also acquired the bad habits of work that has a strong pattern of boom-and-bust in demand – working through the night to make deadlines, putting in 80 hour weeks to meet demand, and generally taking on too much to leave enough of myself for other tasks and life outside work. It has also shown me that I can be a total control freak about the standards of work contributed by other members of my team, because my own standards are meticulous and I take this type of work – that can change the course of people’s lives – particularly seriously.

Letting go of court work is difficult, because it glitters. There is always demand, and it is nice to feel needed and held in high regard by other professionals. It feels as if you have genuine influence in the legal process (and I generally hold the UK justice system and public law professionals in high regard). The pay, although much reduced since legal aid cuts, still seems somehow more attractive as an hourly rate than the reality should be (given you can’t charge for much of the time these cases actually take, nor for administrative support such as typing or arranging appointments, nor for venues or materials it actually works out to be less than I make from other activities like therapy, training or consulting). It also has the kind of attraction of rubber-necking at a car-crash, as the cases each have their own grim story, are more complex than most clinical cases seen in secondary and tertiary tiers of service provision, and are often both acute and chronic in nature. I find it hard to say no when my skills are needed. But I must learn to delegate this work to others, or to decline, because I want to have my time and emotional energy back for other things.

And so it is good to archive my files, and to catch up with my invoicing, and to clear the decks of old ways of working to allow myself space for the new. It feels like putting down rocks I have been carrying for a long time….

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?

Wisdom and reflection

Every now and again I stumble across something that makes me think “yep, that’s true, that explains something really profound”. I want to record that bit of wisdom, and hang on to it, and pass it on to others. So this blog is partly to fulfil that desire, as well as to meander through some of my own experiences and ideas, which are less well-formed and still open to the process of being improved through constructive challenge. There is a certain vulnerability when expressing ideas that are not yet thought through from every perspective, but I think that reflection and feedback is an important component of personal growth. I believe that beliefs can and do change according to your knowledge and experiences. If you look at life as a journey towards wisdom, then each interaction and experience is an opportunity for reflection and learning.

One example of a simple piece of wisdom I like comes courtesy of Michael Specter’s TED talk about the danger of science denial. He says “everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but they are not entitled to their own facts”. It is a helpful thing to remember, because people believe all kinds of disagreeable things that make them prejudiced, intolerant, selfish and lead them to act against their own best interests. As therapists, we are taught to give our clients unconditional positive regard, but what do we do when people have harmful behaviour and offensive beliefs? Do we just ignore them and try to work as normal? Do we pass the client on to another therapist? Do we try to find (or fake) respect for them despite the parts that are uncomfortable? Or do we challenge their beliefs? And what if we as therapists have our own prejudices, or see them in colleagues?

The first step is to recognise and acknowledge the underlying beliefs that are at play. We can then formulate to understand where such beliefs might come from. That will increase our empathy for the individual, but it isn’t an excuse. It doesn’t make the beliefs or behaviours acceptable, just as we can understand why a person might learn to use violence or abuse substances, without endorsing that choice. Sometimes our job as a psychologist is to go back to the facts, and then explore how they fit with the opinion, and what the costs and benefits of maintaining that opinion are. This can true be from the typical inward-facing cognitive distortions of depression or anxiety, to the outward facing generalisations behind racism, misogyny or homophobia, or the poor choices that lead to substance misuse, offending or aggression.

When a colleague of mine declared some of the narrative techniques I was using with a child to be “one step away from tarot cards and the work of the devil” and a non-judgemental discussion about a young person’s self-identified sexuality and gender to be “encouraging an abomination”, it was somewhat mind-boggling to try to understand where those beliefs came from and whether or how to challenge them. Had I known Specter’s quote then, I think it would have given me some guidance. She was entitled to her beliefs, but the service needed to operate on the basis of facts. The facts were that the therapeutic technique I was using had been used thousands of times before causing outcomes ranging from neutral to positive, and had published studies of efficacy. And it is evident that large numbers of people identify as LGBTQ, and that this occurs across the animal kingdom, suggesting it is an innate drive (although the evidence suggests that early experiences do have some influence). It is not a choice. There are enormous risk factors in not accepting that and responding with empathy and compassion (including appalling levels of self-harm and suicide where such identities are rejected/devalued, or there is pressure to act like they are heterosexual and cis-gendered).

I found the beliefs that colleague expressed repugnant, whilst I was also trying to respect her culture and choices, which included the right to participate in a charismatic Christian church that held these beliefs (and no doubt many others) as doctrine. Thankfully I had a wiser supervisor I could take the issue to. Fifteen years down the line, it might be that I would be the person who had to address such a concern about an employee in my company or line management. I think that where beliefs get in the way of facts sufficiently that they interfere with your work, this raises issues about competency to fulfil the role. This should be dealt with much the same as if the person was failing to do their paperwork, or wasn’t dressing appropriately for the job – with feedback about the requirements of the role, an offer of support to develop new skills, and a timescale in which change is required. This might lead to recognition by either or both parties that the person is not suited to the role.

A past supervisor once told me another wise thing: “It is easier to grow the things you like than it is to shrink the things you don’t like”. Whether that is in terms of the balance of fun and frustration in your job, or the way your children behave, a focus on growing the good can lead to more positivity, progress and creativity.

Another piece of wisdom that I have found helpful is the serenity prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”. This is helpful as we lose a lot of energy trying to change things that are immutable (or at least moaning about them), when we would often make more progress by focusing on the things we can do, even if they seem much smaller. We only have finite time and emotional/physical resources, so we have to prioritise. As Dave Allen said, “you can do anything, but not everything”.

On the other hand, Emma Watson’s powerful questions “if not you, who? If not now, when?”, Ghandi’s instruction to “be the change you want to see in the world” and Nelson Mandela’s observation that “it always seems impossible until it is done” are reminders that we each have responsibility for progress and the power to make change. We shouldn’t be overwhelmed by big challenges and can’t rely on other people to get things done, so we need to stop procrastinating and take action to step up to the plate for things that we care about.

I’ve ended up making a website and forum that get 10 million page views per year because it seemed like a good idea and I was in the right place at the right time for that to be a possibility. I am active with my professional body and contributing feedback to national policy, because someone needs to do it and I can just about eke out the capacity. I’ve supervised Assistants and Trainees, and done personal and professional development coaching for early career stage psychologists for many years, because it feels like a helpful thing for me to do. I’ve left the NHS and set up a company and a social enterprise that have survived through a recession. I sometimes get to hear how little things I have done have rippled out and influenced people or events in ways I didn’t expect, and there are people who cite me as influential on their lives personally or professionally. Yet when people ask how I manage to do all these things, it seems like a strange question, as I feel like they are all things any of my peers could equally have done.

Duncan Law, a Clinical Psychologist who has been instrumental in setting up CYP IAPT, said recently (in the context of successful bids for service development) that it is only looking backward that things look like a straight line, because when you are doing them it seems like you are just trying lots of options in the hope of finding a path forward. I feel that about my career. Looking backwards it seems that every component of my experience has culminated to prepare me for the things I am doing now, as if I planned my career methodically. However, at the time I was just taking the most interesting available option, in ways that often seemed to deviate from what I really wanted.

I’ll give the last word to Steve Jobs, who said “the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it”. For all its periodic frustrations, I feel very privileged to be able to earn my living doing something that is interesting, worthwhile and rewarding. I wish that everybody had the same experience in their working lives.

Between a rock and a hard place – when friendship and your professional role overlap

I’ve always tried hard to keep a clear distinction between work and non-work stuff in my life. I expect my friends to be able to offer, on balance, a similar level of support to me than they require from me. If the relationship is too skew then it will be meeting one person’s needs at the cost of the other, and that isn’t a friendship. Friendships are reciprocal, and allow me to trust enough to show facets of myself that I might not want to reveal in the context of work. In the safety of such a relationship I can have my own vulnerabilities. I can worry that I am less than a perfect parent, or talk about my relationships with other members of my family. I can joke, swear, drink wine, express opinions, or laugh at the contestants on The Apprentice without fear that this will tarnish my professional reputation. The rest of the time I feel like I have my professional hat on. I am in a position of responsibility and power, and I am bound by a code of conduct. When I talk or post online as a psychologist, I run the risk that my comments will be brought back against me when I’m in the witness box, or be taken out of context and misinterpreted by a present, past or future client or colleague.

I am friends with some psychologists and other colleagues from work and via the clinpsy forum. That’s a good thing. We share common values and experiences. We have shared stressors, and we spend time together. I am also friends with other professionals that know me as a psychologist, like lawyers, paediatricians, psychiatrists and social workers. Again, our work overlaps and becomes a topic of mutual interest. I also have non psychology friends. That’s a good thing, as they bring different ideas and perspectives. They let me relax, share other interests and remind me of the other parts of me outside of being a psychologist. We can cook, eat, play, exercise, explore, talk. We can play video games, make music or art, debate politics and current affairs. As a prior supervisor would say, we are people, partners, parents and professionals as well as psychologists, and we need to pay attention to each of those roles. What marks it out as a friendship is that there is trust, and that the relationship is enjoyable or nurturing.

The difficulty comes when you feel like you ‘click’ with someone who you are seeing professionally and feel that had you met outside work it could have been a friendship, as that makes it harder to stay within a work role and remain within the more neutral and guarded boundaries that a professional relationship entails. A therapist needs to respect their clients, be curious about them, accept them, hold them in positive regard and see their potential. The relationship may be very important for the client, who may idealise you and want to bring you into their life. But that doesn’t make it a friendship. The power balance is different in a professional relationship. Within therapy the client is expected to disclose a lot about their life whilst the therapist discloses little. It is not a reciprocal relationship, and the relationship is not there to be enjoyable or nurturing for the therapist. Having started from there it is not possible to reach a place of reciprocity (at least not without a lot of time and distance after the end of the therapeutic relationship). So if you find yourself acting too casually, sharing too much information, or wanting to step outside of your normal professional role, this is definitely something to discuss in supervision.

Likewise, if someone in your personal life starts to use your professional skills, this needs to be handled very carefully. Parents asking for advice about their child’s anxiety or poor sleep may not differentiate whether you are giving advice as a friend and fellow parent or as a professional. A friend who wants guidance how to access IAPT, or is feeling suicidal and needs to be taken to A&E needs to know you can support them as a friend, but not as their psychologist. We may well know the system and the right things to say, or the right people to approach, but it is important not to end up muddling the role. You can’t ring up someone you know’s treating clinician and say “Hi, this is Dr Silver and I’m wanting to ensure you understand my formulation about my friend Jane”. They are entitled to confidentiality in their therapy and trust within their friendship. But you may also feel a greater obligation to act on concerns about someone’s mental health, or a child protection concern, than a general member of the public.

It is all too easy to get sucked into an uncomfortable place in between. What of someone that approaches you in a way that appeals to both the personal and the professional? They just find you so easy to talk to that they tell half their life story, and next thing you are feeding back a formulation at a dinner party. Where do you go from there? Do you reciprocate and tell the ins and outs of your life, or give them a business card if they want to follow up the conversation with a formal session? Or the friend who just can’t get an assessment for their dyslexia, but is self-critical about how stupid they are, when you have the psychometrics needed in the office and your assistant has a spare hour on Friday. Surely that’s not so personal? Or the friend of a friend that never seems able to access the services they need. Do you step in and advocate for them? Its a very difficult decision to call sometimes. But in my experience it is these situations that are most likely to fall down around your head.

A colleague of mine was concerned that a friend of a friend (lets call her Sarah) was discharged from an inpatient stay without proper risk assessment or follow-up. He spoke to the GP and inpatient team to raise concerns, but nothing was done. Sarah later committed suicide, and my colleague was interviewed in the enquiry that followed. The coroner did not seem able to differentiate between a concerned friend who happened to be a professional, and someone with professional responsibility, and he got given a really hard time. This was on top of the guilt he felt for not having been able to prevent Sarah taking her own life.

Another colleague ended up having to drop everything to collect a friend from various complex situations all over the country as she had psychotic episodes, and would not trust professionals when she was not taking her medication and did not have a good support network.

I ended up writing to the GP of someone I shared an office with early in my career, to report an eating disorder, suicidal ideation and risky behaviour. I felt like there was little else I could do after a supervisor said it wasn’t their problem, because I felt like it was unfair to burden me with the information without allowing me to act on it. I was very clear with the person involved that this was what I was going to do if they continued to confide this type of information, and they had written down the contact details of their GP for me during the conversation. They went on to get appropriate therapy.

When I first met my husband it was evident he was dyslexic. I did some informal assessments so that I was sure my hunch was correct and then pushed him to get formally assessed at university. This confirmed the diagnosis and enabled him to get concessions made about his spelling and handwriting in exams, and I learnt to help by proof-reading his course work. I felt like the assessment needed to be independent to have any authority, and that I could not take on this dual role.

A decade later, I started at a new post and started to become friends with the IT guy who covered CAMHS. It was clear he had a specific deficit with his memory that had never been assessed, and I owned the WAIS and WMS that were current at the time. With the consent of the directorate manager and my supervisor, I did a full psychometric assessment. We have gone on to be lasting friends, and he credits me with helping him to understand that he is a bright guy with a specific deficit, rather than a guy of mediocre intellect who has done well for himself. However he has never wanted to use the assessment formally.

More recently I spent 24 hours taking an acquaintance to A&E after they confided detailed suicide plans in the wake of a relationship breakdown. They asked me to be with them in the room and share some of their abuse history with the assessing clinician, but I had to be very clear to identify as someone from the personal network. I was not a professional to them, but I was also not somebody who could take responsibility for this person on discharge as I lived in a different part of the country.

Each of these has been a learning experience and shown the importance of differentiating the personal from the professional, but it is something I will continue to grapple with both personally and through supervising others. The third role of speaking to other people on the internet is one I will blog about at some future point, and brings with it a plethora of new and challenging ethical issues, not just the way that the informality of the medium makes roles blur more between personal and professional.