Last year there was a picture meme going around on the theme of What people think I do/What I actually do. After I made some sarcastic remarks about the meme on Facebook, I was challenged to come up with one for my own role as a nurse therapist in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). Being one never to ignore a thrown-down gauntlet, I went on a trawl through Google Images, and promptly knocked together the following illustration.
A few days ago, I noticed that this graphic (which I’d probably devoted an entire half-hour to creating) was being passed around on Twitter. Since that’s the case, perhaps I should elaborate on it a little, and explain the different images. that I selected
What adult mental health services think I do.
Okay, it’s probably an exaggeration to suggest they think I work with Teletubbies. Even so, there is something of a disconnect between adult services and CAMHS. Our core client groups are palpably different, and so too are our ways of working.
We don’t work a lot with people who have psychosis. Despite the American fad for diagnosing “pediatric bipolar disorder” (which even the Americans have been backtracking on in the last couple of years), conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are rare in children. I see maybe one psychotic young person a year, usually in their mid-to-late teens. I do work with young people who hear voices, but it tends to be at the level of pseudohallucinations rather than outright hallucinations.
One unfortunate consequence of this is that on those odd occasions when a psychotic child comes to a CAMHS team, they may not be as geared up to supporting them as an adult service. Conversely, adult services often aren’t as geared up towards treatment of eating disorders as CAMHS.
Another difference is that people with depression and anxiety are more likely to be seen in primary care during adulthood, and in secondary care during childhood and adolescence.
These difference tend to result in all kinds of problems when a young person turns 18. They often discover that they’re either transitioning to a very different kind of service, or they simply aren’t being offered a service at all.
What Peter Breggin thinks I do.
It is true that use of psychiatric medication has risen in the UK in recent years, and I’d be lying if I said I’m entirely comfortable with all aspects of that. Despite this increase, it’s still fair to say that CAMHS are much more cautious in their use of medication than either their American counterparts or their colleagues in adult services.
I could count on one hand the number of medications I’m likely to come across in any given working day. If a young person is prescribed an antidepressant, 9 times out of 10 it’s likely to be fluoxetine, not least because it’s the only one licenced for under-18s. For ADHD there’s some relatively new drugs on the market, such as lisdexamfetamine aka Elvanse, but they’re not being prescribed much. The great bulk of young people with ADHD are still prescribed good old-fashioned methylphenidate (you know it as Ritalin, but it’s far more likely to be issued in various slow-release preparations such as Concerta XL, Medikinet XL or Equasym XL) with a smaller number taking atomoxetine aka Strattera. For sleep problems there’s melatonin. For highly agitated children there’s some use of low-dose antipsychotics (this has usually been risperidone, though there’s increasing use of aripiprazole instead) – and it’s this use of antipsychotics that I tend to feel uncomfortable about, even at low doses.
Outside of the higher-tier services dealing with deeply-unwell young people, that’s pretty much all the medication you’ll see. Despite the controversies about dubious use of psychiatric medications in childhood (by no means all of which are unjustified) a high proportion of the kids I work with are on no medication at all.
It’s also worth pointing out that I’ve worked with quite a few kids whose lives have been significantly improved through some judicious, well-monitored use of fluoxetine or methylphenidate.
What the Church of Scientology thinks I do.
All I have to say to this one is…If their argument is that psychiatry is superstition masquerading as therapy, and it’s all just a big scam to control people and take their money….Well, that’s a bit rich coming from the Church of Scientology.
What society thinks I do.
This image illustrates one of my major bugbears about what mental health services are perceived to be for. There’s a whole plethora of language devoted to it. “Oppositional defiant disorder.” “Conduct disorder.” “Behavioural problems.” “He has an anger problem.” “He needs anger management.” “She has difficulties with impulse control.”
All of which translates as, “Please make this child behave themselves.”
There seems to be an idea out there that all of society’s problems – unruly classrooms, chaotic family lifestyles, juvenile delinqency, crime – can be therapied away with six sessions of anger management. I can see why it would be an attractive idea to politicians, civil servants, parents, teachers, GPs, social workers – but it ain’t true. The psychiatric profession hasn’t helped itself in this regard by coming up with silly non-illnesses such as “oppositional defiant disorder”, but I don’t think mental health services should be there to get children to behave themselves, and I don’t think we generally do a good job when we try. If anything we can make the problem worse by trying to distil a wider systemic or social difficulty into a “condition” that the child has “got”. Hence why many CAMHS teams simply don’t accept referrals for ODD or conduct disorder.
What I think I do.
It would be fair to say I’ve put in quite a lot of training and studying into what I think I do. I’ve attended training on cognitive-behaviour therapy, as well as enhanced CBT for eating disorders. I’m currently paying out of my own pocket for some postgraduate study in systemic and family therapy. Over the years I’ve ploughed through a reading list of the great and the good. John Bowlby. Carl Rogers. RD Laing. Carl Jung. Paul Watzlawick.
What I actually do.
What do I do? Listen. Talk. Try to be a listener, an ally, a facilitator of reflection and problem-solving. Someone who works to build a relationship with young people and their families, and at times to help them build their relationship with each other.
When one puts it like that, perhaps what I do isn’t that complicated after all.