Shaking things up

Ian Florance talks to British Psychological Society Vice President Professor Jamie Hacker Hughes.

Jamie Hacker Hughes’ route to becoming a clinical psychologist, neuropsychologist, psychological therapist, specialist in military psychology, BPS President, local councillor, bass player, Third Order Franciscan … (pause for breath) suggests an unconventional approach to building a life. Certainly, his route to psychology didn’t follow standard pathways. He likes to ‘shake things up’ and this attitude is reflected in the three-year review programme of the Society’s structure over which he has presided.

I talked to Jamie towards the end of his time as Vice President and immediate Past President of the Society, three months before his final review was to be presented. How to knit together such a diverse life?

Not born to treat teeth!

‘My Dad was a brewer; my Mum worked in the home and I had three older brothers. We lived in one of Manchester’s posher suburbs before moving to South Wales: I’m a quarter Welsh.’ One of his first memories is ‘squealing in the bath. An orthopaedic surgeon understood what was wrong, bone cancer.’ The treatment involved ‘taking out the bone from my elbow to shoulder, replacing that with shin bone and, in turn, with some of my Mum’s bone. It was supposed to cause problems but the only major one was when a Sergeant Major at Sandhurst reckoned I couldn’t straighten my arm properly.’

Jamie’s brother became a chorister at Llandaff cathedral school and, after attending evensong one Sunday, Jamie decided that he wanted to become a chorister himself. ‘I enjoyed singing and the experience of worship whether early in the morning, in a dark rain-lashed cathedral, or in packed services in front of microphones, cameras and arc-lights. After Llandaff Cathedral school I won a scholarship to Christ College, Brecon, which was where things began to change. My brother Simon became head boy. To differentiate myself from him I took on the identity of a bad boy!’ What did that involve? ‘Going to see bands, girls, drinking, the lot. I quickly became a hugely enthusiastic smoker.’

By this stage in the interview it was clear that Jamie is an interviewer’s dream: enthusiastic about many aspects of life – his most used expression was ‘I loved it’ – coupled with an admirable openness.

‘I breezed through O-levels and wanted to pay back for the care I’d received earlier in my life by becoming a maxillofacial surgeon – putting people back together. I wanted to do medicine but was useless at science. However, after taking A-levels twice I got a place to study dentistry at Birmingham.’ He spent the gap year, rather perversely, teaching science and athletics at a Scottish prep school, but also worked with refugees from Vietnam and Ethiopia. ‘The first year of dentistry was great: I became JCR President and this confirmed, after my eventually becoming school prefect in both my schools, that I liked leading. By contrast, the second year of the course showed I was not born to treat teeth, particularly fine dental work. But I really did enjoy the psychological elements of training, which was important in an area where the teeth were bad and patients were often nervous. I still remember how I went about calming down one very frightened young boy who had come in for a filling!’

Living in the bushes

So, Jamie was at university without a course. He looked for a different one. A poster caught his eye. ‘It was a woman in a white coat, holding a clipboard and the headline was “Do you want to be a clinical psychologist?” or something like that’. Given my experiences in dentistry, I answered “yes” in my head but my LEA grant wouldn’t pay for the course. Another option presented itself. My family had always been involved in the military and I was fascinated by it. Indeed, my plans to study medicine and dentistry had always involved the military. So, I finally decided to get the army out of my system and went to Sandhurst in January ’78. It was hard but enjoyable work and taught me huge amounts about both psychology and leadership. I learnt a basic principle that if you’re going to lead in any line of work you must have some experience of what it’s like. The military is far more imaginative in its approach to organisation, team-building and individual differences than civilians might think.’

On being asked why he’d joined a regiment, the actor and wit Peter Ustinov answered that if he was going to go to war he’d like to do it in a nice warm tank. ‘My motives for joining my regiment, 1st The Queens Dragoon Guards, were similar. In the 1970s in Germany we lived the idyllic life of a cold war soldier. But then we were posted to Omagh in Northern Ireland for a two-year residency. This was the time of Bobby Sands and the IRA hunger strikes. It was too dangerous to travel anywhere during the day and we mostly moved around by helicopter. We spent most of our time living in bushes, often for a week or more at a time: we observed the people, who were observing the people who were observing the ultimate targets of the observation. After a year, my three-year commitment was over but in any case, it was obvious that the military was, yet again, ultimately not for me.’

On leaving the army, Jamie found a job selling computers to solicitors via the Officers Association. Five years later he was working for Wang and was also an SDP councillor on Southwark council, in inner London. ‘But clinical psychology still haunted me. I decided I just had to leave selling and train to become a psychologist and applied for a role as a nursing assistant at Maudsley Hospital. The reaction of both my boss at Wang and the nurse manager at Maudsley was “are you completely mad?”.’

Jamie became a mature student on a psychology degree course at UCL then applied for clinical training, was not offered a place but then, at the very last moment, ‘someone dropped out of the Cambridge course. The course suited me down to the ground. My last placement was at the traumatic stress clinic in London. And it was only then, at 34, that I first became interested in trauma psychology which I’ve been involved in ever since. Initially, my interest had been wider, and all types of anxiety had fascinated me because I’d experienced it in the military, but also when selling.’

Helping people put themselves together

At this point we paused to grab another coffee (the interview took place in a very busy, post-Christmas Festival Hall) and I asked Jamie if his route to psychology had given him a different perspective on the discipline. ‘I definitely think so. I see it as a twelve-year formation. As I’ve said, the military, dentistry and selling, taught me a lot about how you apply psychology in real situations. It gave me practical examples before I studied theory. My experiences also prepared me for working as the Society’s President. I’d studied psychology; worked in commerce and the military; had political experience and, as you’ll see, worked as a researcher, an academic and internationally.’

Jamie also points out that ‘I had also experienced depressive periods when I worked for the NHS and these developed into hypomanic episodes and, finally, into a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. This does give me an understanding of what some of my clients are going through and being open about these experiences helps in creating a strong but not power-imbalanced relationship.’ Jamie thinks about this for a while. ‘Strange. I set out originally to be a maxillofacial surgeon – putting people back together physically. My experiences have led me to a role in which I help people put themselves back together psychologically.’

After Cambridge ‘We moved to Essex where I worked in learning disabilities, and then mental health (both in closing institutions), initially as a one day a week locum. I stayed working in the NHS for five years, in one of the first CMHTs, but worked with trauma patients whenever I could.’

Through a long series of coincidences, Jamie started as a locum at the MoD in 1999. ‘I was rung up in a great hurry to see if I could help in neuropsychological testing of people who might have been exposed to toxins. My role developed, partly, into a crusade for uniformed psychologists, which is now bearing fruit. I hadn’t been there for long before the Gulf War broke out. So, apart from treatment of PTSD we prepared service personnel for operations stressing teamwork and looking out for each other. Having also qualified as a neuropsychologist I did a lot of other study to understand and deal with trauma better.’

A class action suit came to one conclusion that the MOD wasn’t doing enough research. In 2004 he started a three-year stint heading a research unit in King’s College. ‘I’m not a natural researcher – I like writing but not number crunching. Still, the experience was invaluable.’

From 2000-2011 Jamie became head of service at the MoD, working closely with NATO, but in the end ‘I hit a glass ceiling in the Civil Service which meant my next job might not involve psychology. I got a role as head of IAPT in mid-Essex, but left after a year. People were being asked to work to arbitrary thresholds and targets, creating huge workloads and stress.’

Jamie now combines work in his own consultancy with several academic roles and international initiatives in veterans’ psychology. www.jamiehackerhughes.com describes the many areas he’s involved in and gives a more detailed professional biography. It also stresses another aspect of his work that he enjoys, ‘PR and media work. I just love the variety. After our interview, I’m supervising an IAPT service in Croydon, seeing a patient, and then delivering a talk on stress among doctors.'

It’s a society rather than a Society

I asked Jamie how he’d advise a student entering a psychology course and how his vision of the Society reflects this. ‘A psychology degree opens the door to so many jobs so it’s a great start. And given the Society has ten applied divisions, 20 academic sections and four special groups no-one should feel they must choose a direction too early. The Society can be a huge positive for psychologists but my view is that it’s a society not a Society. Wherever three psychologists are gathered around a table, that’s the society. The more people get involved the more useful it becomes. The vision is that we have more impact, a stronger identity and more influence on the world around us. I think the branches are a key to this: breaking down specialist silos and helping different psychologists to talk to each other. We also need to open up to non-psychologists. Having lay people on the Board of Trustees will be a start.’

There’s a note on Jamie’s e-mails that he only answers messages within work hours. ‘I’m fierce about work-life balance’. But this doesn’t prevent a hugely busy life outside psychology. ’I work with refugee groups. I’m learning Arabic. And one of the most enjoyable parts of the week is teaching Sunday school and playing bass in church.’ Jamie is a member of the Third Order Franciscans, a group of men and women, ordained or lay, married or single who live a Franciscan vocation in the world. ‘There are around 3000 in Europe’. Jamie has just been elected Minister Provincial of the European Province - in effect the ‘Abbott’ - a role which he takes up in June, the month after he relinquishes his role with the BPS. Do your beliefs affect how you work? ‘Totally, 3rd Order Franciscans have a number of values… and my work is informed by them, including work, study, love, joy and humility. These are essential to developing healthy therapeutic relationships and to wider organisational work.’

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