A mission to educate

Ian Florance talks to clinical psychologist Jane McCartney about her book, her background and her media work.

Jane McCartney has just written her first book Stop Overeating: The 28-Day Plan to End Emotional Eating for Good. Look her up in Google and you’ll find an impressive list of academic achievements (on her Dr Jane website) as well as a variety of other mentions: articles about her book in the Telegraph, Independent and Mail; quotations on issues as varied as weight loss, romance and cleaning; her own pieces for magazines and newspapers. She is a Chartered Psychologist, has worked for the NHS for 11 years and in her own private practice for nine. Given this huge amount of activity, it’s not surprising that we had difficulty setting up a phone interview.

We started with her book. Why had she written about that topic in particular?

‘A lot of people present with problems associated with overeating. Around a quarter of the UK population are obese and there’s a lot written about eating problems, but very little of that is written from a true psychological perspective. Put that together with the fact that I’m a former overeater myself and I felt I was in a good position to write something that genuinely helped, combining knowledge and experience. It’s not a trivial problem either for the overeaters and their families or for the country, given the costs involved in, say, treating related conditions like diabetes.’

Jane’s school achievements didn’t bode well for a career. ‘I left with a sorry set of qualifications. I ended up living on my own at 16 and had to work to keep the wolf from the door. But I suppose two things spurred me on. First, I’d always been good at working people out. I did every sort of job from tending bars and working as a croupier and you see all human life. At one stage I worked as a page planner and reporter for a local paper: when asked exactly why I was doing the job I answered “to see what makes people tick”. Anyone who is training as a psychologist or is thinking of studying it will benefit from any job they take. Second, one of my flatmates was on a placement in a college in Essex. That influenced me. The start of my qualification journey was an A-level at night school.’

To cut a long story short, Jane took a degree in psychology at the University of Kent before taking PG Dips, an MA and a PG/Dip at London Guildhall and Metropolitan Universities. She was awarded her Doctorate in Clinical Sciences by the University of Kent in 2010.

As is often the case in these interviews, Jane’s story is as much about personal experience as it is about intellectual achievement. ‘When I did my degree in applied psychology the two topics that grabbed my attention were Jung and behaviourism. And, despite my less than stellar school career, I’m very determined. Once I start something I finish it, and that took me through the 16-year journey between starting a BA and achieving a doctorate.’

Jane is enthusiastic about her doctorate in clinical science. ‘Clinical science courses tend to be less restricted than psychology ones. I worked on aspects of postnatal and post-traumatic conditions and had a marvellous supervisor, Dr Georgia Lepper.’

On a journey to work it out
Jane started working in the NHS in 2003 and still has a role there. ‘My first NHS position after qualifying was in an adolescent unit, which was very trying as I have children. In that situation it’s very difficult for any worker to keep the correct emotional distance. In my NHS work I describe myself as a general psychologist, not a syndrome, population or approach-specific practitioner. I address what presents, and get clients to think about the syndromes.’ She has one very specific wish for the service. ‘Many GPs are very psychologically minded and do very good work. But some aren’t and therefore don’t. They fill in their checklists, apply a label, prescribe a drug and recommend just CBT-based services. There’s an element of clock watching to get on to the next patient. All of these things – pharmaceutical treatment, CBT, identification of specific syndromes – have their critical place but a more psychological approach to this would help. When clients say “I’ve never thought of it like that before” it means they’re on a journey to working out what’s going on. It’s my favourite quotation.’

Jane started her private practice in 2005 and, not being one to rest on her laurels, started media work. ‘As I mentioned I’d worked on a local paper. I’d also been a researcher for a TV company. So, when I saw a piece in The Psychologist about a BPS media panel. I am now on the permanent list of commentators for certain programmes and I’ve appeared on This Morning, Sky News and BBC World TV as well as being interviewed in a lot of national papers.’ Many professionals are suspicious or critical of such activities. ‘You have to stay within your boundaries even if there’s pressure to comment on areas outside them. I’ve refused to comment on certain issues on air for that very reason. We also need to educate programme editors to stop using people who aren’t qualified. They muddy the water and, at their worst, give a totally erroneous view of what psychological science says and psychological practice does. That’s why psychologists should get involved in public discussions, with other areas of activity and, of course, writing.’ So, another book is on the cards? ‘Maybe next year. At the moment we’re developing a website linked to the overeating book.’ It’s at www.stopovereating.co.uk.

There’s obviously a link between Jane’s desire to educate other health workers in psychology, her approach to client work (in which she helps clients to think about their issues) and her aims in writing books and appearing on the media. She is a psychological educator trying to improve general psychological literacy and input psychological understanding into adjacent practices.

It sounds like a busy job, so I was glad we found time to talk.

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