Would-be practitioners at risk

What protection is there for graduates eager to gain experience?

Complaints about the difficulty of securing assistant psychologist posts and places on the clinical psychology doctorate are familiar to your readers of the Letters page. One issue that has not received so much attention, however, is the risks that we graduates expose ourselves to in trying to get the experience needed for those posts and those courses.

After what seemed like an age of volunteering, unpaid internships and work experience, I was offered a paid post working in a charity’s day centre. The job was perfect in many ways. I worked with clients with chronic conditions, forensic patients on day release and those with dual diagnoses. I liaised with primary and secondary care services, handled referrals, wrote incident reports, learnt about safeguarding. Finally, I operationalised a project across two local authorities, working with social workers, IAPT teams and community-led projects. My CV looked hot, yet I did not.

After nearly a year I resigned, a doctor’s note for ‘work-related stress’ in my hand. I had had no training to enable me to cope with the level of risk that was presented. I had had no clinical supervision, and the level of supervision I did receive, offered by someone with less training or knowledge than me, was laughable. Traumatic incidents were never followed by a proper debrief. I was told that I could always speak to colleagues if I felt unhappy, but when I did there was little or no acknowledgment of my feelings or the issue at hand. I was given the number of a work counselling service and when I finally managed to call, discovered that the number was incorrect. Add to this two occasions of unsafe working practice and I had no choice but to go.

There is a happy ending to my story: I did eventually reach the counselling service and have been hugely helped. I will never accept a job without adequate supervision again. And the picture isn’t all bleak for graduates: a telephone and internet counselling service that I volunteer for is a beacon of good practice in terms of debriefing and supervision.

Nevertheless, my case raises important questions for the profession: what protection is there for the graduates in roles such as this? And at what cost do eager would-be practitioners gain experience? Finally, there is the much bigger question of how fit the third sector is to provide services. If a mental health charity can’t look after its staff, what good are they offering the wider population? Pressure on NHS mental health services means that the third sector is in demand more than ever. With the demise of Kids Company and the Lifeline Project, charities no longer look as stable as they once did, and from my own experience, they don’t always look safe.

Name and address supplied

Illustration: Tim Sanders

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