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.