Last week, I was fortunate enough to attend the annual international meeting of clinicians and researchers interested in CBT for psychosis in Philadelphia, USA. In 1999, Dr Aaron Beck, famous, of course, for his work in CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), convened a meeting in Philadelphia of primarily US and UK based colleagues to discuss how the principles of CBT could be applied to helping people distressed by psychotic experiences. Since then, with a growing and developing membership, we’ve been meeting annually, alternating between Europe and the USA, to share research, discuss the progress of clinical trials, share training protocols and discuss the implications of this important work.
This year was, as usual, fascinating and motivating. As always, it’s probably better to read the outcomes of our discussions in peer-reviewed scientific papers and in the policy documents of our various nations. For me, however, three phrases stood out as we discussed our shared interests.
In all kinds of ways, we’re learning how psychotic experiences can relate to trauma – in childhood and as adults. And we’re learning how the ways in which we purport to care for people – with the labels that we attach to their problems, with the explanations (and non-explanations) that we propose, and especially with the treatments that we use (and occasionally impose, even forcefully) – can potentiate experiences of trauma. So I welcome the fact that there appears to be increasing discussion of how we might base our therapies, and indeed our whole service design philosophy, on an appreciation of the role of trauma, for many people, in the development of their difficulties.
It’s hardly a surprise that the acronym ‘CBT’ means slightly different things to different people. There’s a valuable debate about ‘fidelity’ (whether a therapist is or is not adherent to the accepted elements of CBT). But there’s also an appreciation that, in the field of psychosocial interventions in mental health care, common therapeutic factors, the fundamental role of a good ‘therapeutic alliance’ (a relationship based on respect) and the heterogeneity of individual experiences means that we are now much more likely to talk about “CBT-informed practice”. Again, for me, this is welcome. I believe that it not only allows for valuable innovation and development of psychosocial interventions, but also permits an appreciation of the uniqueness of each person’s experience.
“… ultimately, it’s all political…”
The attendees of these meetings are all applied scientists (although some have some influential roles in shaping healthcare policies). But it was interesting that many of our discussions referred back to the social circumstances of those people accessing our services, and on the political decisions taken about how those services are commissioned, planned and delivered We discussed, for instance, the role of social determinants of health generally and mental health in particular. We discussed how different psychological and social problems seem to have similar social determinants (and the implications of this). We talked about how trauma, discrimination, racism, the struggles of undocumented migrants and the pressures on unemployed people can affect their mental health. We discussed how people access high-quality healthcare in different states and nations, and we discussed how political decisions – such as those related to involuntary detention and compulsory treatment, the funding of healthcare and provision of different forms of care – impact on our clients. We also discussed how, as a group of professionals, we are increasingly being asked to contribute to these debates.
So for me, it was a very positive and encouraging trip. I am – I remain – confident that conventional CBT, a form of one-to-one therapy that of course has its limitations, can be very positive for people experiencing psychosis. But, given the views I hold about the fundamental nature of mental heath and wellbeing, the phrases that echo most encouragingly from last week’s meeting are “trauma-informed practice”, CBT-informed practice” and “… ultimately, it’s all political…”