A welcome spirit of openness

Dr Philippa East responds to recent correspondence.

It was so brilliant to read Vice President Jamie Hacker Hughes’s letter (November 2016) describing how he treasures the empathy with clients that comes from having his own experience of psychological health problems. Surely one of the most important things psychology has to contribute to the mental health field is the idea that there is no ‘them and us’: the alternatives are not being ‘mentally ill’ or being ‘sane’ (see @OnlyUsCampaign on Twitter). Psychological health is a continuum that we all move up and down. The challenge for psychologists is to find ways of drawing helpfully on our own experiences, however extreme, in the service of our clients, rather than pretending they don’t exist.

Our current President, Peter Kinderman, has also written openly about his emotions, his ‘particular brain’ and having used mental health services. This new spirit of openness in the Society is hugely welcome and I hope that other professions follow suit.

Anne Cooke
Salomons Centre for Applied Psychology

I have been inspired to write in response to the letter ‘Clinicians with mental health difficulties’ (October 2016) and the candid response from Professor Jamie Hacker Hughes (November 2016). I have also been inspired to write after taking part in a qualitative research study with Shamini Sriskandarajah on the experiences of therapists with a history of eating disorders (EDs). I am a practising clinical psychologist who has experienced mental health problems, specifically anorexia nervosa (and a briefer episode of bulimia). I am happily now free of both disorders and have been for many years. However, until now, I have not found the appropriate forum in which to share these personal facts with professional colleagues – so thank you for opening up the discussion.

I know my experience of EDs influenced my decision to specialise in the field, ultimately leading to a job as a psychologist with the Maudsley Eating Disorder Service. I have often thought that my personal experiences gave me some important advantages in my work there. Firstly, not surprisingly, I have always found eating disorders easy to understand. I ‘get’ them. This, I’d say, is a helpful starting point for treating them. Secondly, having already overcome an eating disorder, I think I was (paradoxically) more able to resist the pernicious distortions of diet, eating behaviour and body image that we are surrounded by when working with EDs. Thirdly, historically at least, EDs have been viewed as chronic, entrenched and even untreatable disorders. Having successfully overcome my own ED(s), I’ve always had a strong belief in the very real possibility of recovery, meaning that I always approached my clients’ difficulties from a position of robust hope.

I’ll add that I was later fortunate enough to engage in my own course of (Jungian) therapy (for separate issues). This has given me invaluable experience as a client, as well as a unique role model as a therapist, both of which continue to guide my practice.

I hope this letter will further encourage others to share with colleagues their personal experiences of mental ill health. Such openness can surely only strengthen our profession: allowing us to better support each other, gain greater insight into the disorders we work with on a daily basis, and reduce the stigma on mental health by practising what we preach.

Dr Philippa East
Chartered Psychologist in private practice

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