The government must address the mental health crisis afflicting children and young people TODAY

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When a child experiences depression or anxiety, it is a hugely worrying time for parents. Their first port of call will inevitably be their GP.

So it concerns me greatly to read the shocking new findings that more than 70,000 UK children were prescribed antidepressants last year, including nearly 20,000 of primary school age.

It’s estimated that 11 per cent of 18-24 years olds are taking prescribed drugs and in the last three years the steepest increase in antidepressant prescriptions is among those aged 12 years and under. Yet we do not know the harm they may wreak on developing brains and bodies

The elevated rate of antidepressant prescribing in children is concerning on many levels, but not least because The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence and the NHS website state that the use of antidepressants is only recommended under certain exceptions, namely after a failed response to talking therapies.

These are very high figures, unprecedented, and they demonstrate the urgent need for improved access to a range of psychotherapies  delivered by specialist child, adolescent, and family, psychotherapists

It beggars belief that the government’s recent Green Paper on child mental health talks about training for more mental health workers by 2023.

In the UK there are tens of thousands of trained, accredited and regulated psychotherapists available to do this work now, yet numbers working in the NHS now are at a significant low and falling.

Experiencing a low mood may actually be a perfectly understandable reaction to a set of stressful circumstances. Being a child or young person can include significant feelings of shame. Whether it’s divorce, poor exam performance or playground bullying, everyday experiences can have a profound and lasting impact.

Talking with a highly trained professional is most likely to transform lives and unlock potential in long lasting ways. By psychotherapy we don’t mean a short-term ‘one size-fits-all’ approach. It is vital that children have access to highly trained psychotherapists who can tailor their support around that individual child’s needs. For example, a psychotherapist who is trained in family and systemic approaches looks at the whole context for the child.

In 2016 a review by Dr Andrea Cipriani, of Oxford University, found most antidepressants did not help children and teenagers with serious mental-health problems and some could even be unsafe.

His study concluded that the real effectiveness and safety of antidepressants for children and teenagers was unclear because of the poor design and selective reporting of trials, mostly funded by drug companies.

There is also the terrifying cliff edge facing children aged as young as 16, often in a very fragile place, who are forced to leave the CAMHS services they know and trust to enter adult services with unfamiliar clinicians and fresh waiting lists.

For some children, taking medication long term to manage depression may be a necessity but we are certain that only applies to very few.

Are parents and carers receiving enough correct support and education about medication? Any medicine your child takes poses side effects. From aspirin to cough medicine or antibiotics to vitamins – and antidepressants can have side effects too.

There can be emotional side effects, the kind that leave children feeling dulled or different, which makes it hard for them to want to continue treatment.

Then, less commonly, side effects where extreme restlessness and agitation heighten violence toward the self or others, which underlie the worrying evidenceabout the heightened risk of suicide among children using antidepressants. These are very real issues and require attention as a parent.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has clear guidelines for administering drugs to children, but we hear all the time that these are not adhered to. With horrifying frequency, I hear that children have to have reached absolute crisis point – be suicidal – in order to access NHS services. This is borne out by the Children’s Commissioner for England’s own findings.

We are medicalising adolescence and all that comes with it, and we do not know what effect that will have on the child in future.

What we do know is that psychotherapy delivered by highly-trained specialists transforms lives and unlocks potential. It offers a child or young person strategies and resources for self-care not just for the short-term, but that can last a lifetime, which is incredibly good news.

At least half of adult depression is caused by factors affecting the child by the age of 14, so we should be looking at how to prevent.

More studies are needed to determine side effects of long-term use and the relationship between the drugs and childhood or adolescent suicide.

Much more research needs to go into epidemiology to ascertain why certain areas such as south Lincolnshire have especially high prescribing rates to children.





Is The Bridge changing perceptions of mental health?


I hope Saga doesn’t mind that I once perched on the bonnet of her precious gold Porche…

I’ve spoken before that I am a HUGE fan of The Bridge and especially the character of Saga Noren. 

Last night, my adoration for the series went to a whole new level.

Avid fans of the Scandinavian detective series cannot fail to have been rapt by Saga’s  inaugural therapy session last night (Season 4 episode 3) (screened 25/5/18 in the UK).

Self-diagnosing with post-traumatic stress disorder following a spontaneous panic attack, the currently-homeless Saga’s looking for a fix to an emerging symptom that she basically doesn’t want to get in the way of her prolific 24/7/365 work rate.

No more than a minute into the consulting room, she is forensically listing an eye-wateringly harrowing set of life events.

“My mum had Munchausan by proxy. She almost killed my little sister” she starts, the therapist making a note in a book. Then, without taking a breath Saga’s speech rate quickens as she relays how she made sure her parents went to prison. “I took care of Jennifer. She killed herself at 14”. Saga’s saga continues, embracing the suicide of her boss and friend, for which she feels culpable by virtue of a paperclip.

The therapist is now doing 200wpm shorthand as Saga leaps to the fact of her police colleague’s imprisonment for poisoning his son’s killer. Still blank-faced, as if giving a court statement, she describes the return of her mother and how she took her own life in such a manner as to frame Saga for her murder.

By now her therapist’s put her pen down and is gazing open-mouthed at Saga’s description of her prison stretch, culminating in her being stabbed in the neck by a besotted fellow inmate with a broken table tennis bat.

“I see. We’ve got a bit to work with…” says the therapist. “Good” says a nodding Saga. already looking palpably relieved to got that brief glimpse of life events off her duster-coated chest.

There are two reasons why this scene particularly resonates for me. First, it is very rare indeed to witness positive representations of the therapeutic relationship on screen and in other popular culture formats. No wonder people are fearful of stepping into the consulting room when TV depicts mind-bending unethical practitioners such as in Gypsy and Dexter. Note that it’s the female therapists who are the most deadly….that’s for another post.

In complete contrast, here we see the seed sown of a listening, caring relationship, a safe space where Saga is not asked ‘what’s wrong with you’ rather ‘what’s happened to you’. That leads to the next very important point – we’re starting to see that there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with Saga at all.  She’s having a perfectly natural reaction to a litany of horror in her life that would render you or I mute.

Saga’s been dubbed by the media as a new positive role model for autism yet at no point in the making of the series have the producers ever confirmed Saga is on the spectrum. I don’t think she is and I predict neither do they.

Having been gripped by every series since the show arrived in British screens in 2012, I am now holding out every hope that this final season is about to leave us more than the legacy of a strong uncompromising fascinatingly complex female cop.

Are the writers about the dash the bio-medical model asunder and rightly represent psychotherapy as the ultimate key to unlocking our potential and transforming our lives? Roll on next Friday.


My Name is Prince: not perfect but enough

Soon after Prince’s untimely demise in 2016, I made overtures to Prince’s estate and to a leading gallery to recognise the cultural and historic value of his clothing collection.

As (at that time) one of very few people to have written and commented on Prince’s powerfully political dandy aesthetic, I was worried his ruffs, pantaloons and kinky boots could end up mothballed (or worse).

I want it all captured and preserved physically and digitally for current and future generations.

My heart sank when, opening the local paper, I saw tickets were going on sale for My Name is Prince. Billed as giving “fans the chance to get up close and personal with the music legend’s life and work” this wasn’t the reverential museum-based contextualised retrospective I’d had in mind.

Nor was it to be staged at the V&A, Met Museum or the Fashion Institute of Technology. It’s at the O2 Arena for funk’s sake.

In effect, Prince’s sister Tyka has created a pop-up Paisley Park inside a small exhibition space within the venue for his legendary 21 Nights 2007 residency. Costumes, guitars, awards and personal artefacts are laid bare amidst a purple-lit cacophony of sound and strobe lighting.

Prince lighting up the whole arena, and by extension the whole of London, purple throughout that memorable summer, entertaining at least 15,000 people a night, is one thing. Having his trinkets tucked away up an escalator, not even second-billing to Little Mix, is quite another.

It also didn’t help that excavators sounded like they were fracking beneath the arena, while wafts of fried food seeped through from the adjacent Harvester. Prince would have had the place ‘frou frou’d’ with scented candles at the very least.

But all of that was blown out of the waters of Lake Minnetonka when I marched past the audio-guide proferrers, harrumphed around a corner then laid eyes on…. The.Costumes.

Displayed on headless mannequins, there’s no glass partition so you can get within six inches of some of the most iconic Princewear dating back to the early 1980s.

Being able to get so up close to his stuff felt generous, intimate and life-affirming.

Unmediated and unretouched, un-ironed in most cases, you could see the creases in his coat tails, the scuffed toes on his silk-covered boots.

Was that a hint of foundation on the ruff of a frilly shirt? The purple flashy lighting, while on the one hand an annoyance because I couldn’t make out the exact colour of some of his jackets, also played clever tricks on the eye.

In one glass case lay his sunglasses and iconic ear cuffs. Peering close, I could see scratches on the lens of his priceless specs suggesting he’d plonked them down thoughtlessly on some surface – yes Prince had some careless habits just like the rest of us.

The effect of the disembodied outfits and artefacts was that I actively filled in the gaps with memories, visualisations and sensations. Here I go theorising again. Or rather here he goes again, framing our experience of him long after his demise.

As with a live Prince concert, in death Prince continues to make us work. Prince – like a set of shifting signifiers – meets us at the nexus of our experiences, passions, doubts and aspirations.

Witnessing his personal effects at close hand I was reminded of the influential person-centred theorist Carl Rogers’ view that we can find most fulfilment in viewing our lives as a flowing process “as a stream of becoming, not a finished product”.

“People are just as wonderful as sunsets if you let them be”, wrote Rogers. “When I look at a sunset, I don’t find myself saying, “Soften the orange a bit on the right hand corner.” I don’t try to control a sunset. I watch with awe as it unfolds.”

Akin to Carl R Rogers’ notion of self-actualisation, in Paisley Park Prince created an environment – both actual and symbolic – where he could thrive, form positive relationships with his devoted, creative collaborators and self-disclose through his art.

So, it makes sense to transpose that environment from some freeway outside Minneapolis into a liminal space like the O2 Arena. It is to all intents and purposes an act of disclosure to his fans, albeit not by himself but through his belongings. In turn, it becomes a space for us to learn a little more about ourselves.

That’s why Prince went to great lengths to build good relationships with his fans. You could see this monumental star play for a tenner down the road. And he might throw in an after show, a free copy of his latest album, or ask to sleep on your sofa.

Just as he trilled to us tunefully and ironically, muscular yet eyelashes batting, that we didn’t have to be beautiful to turn him on, he was now showing us how he had overcome so many potential barriers just to be the best version of himself that he could be in any moment. Maybe he wasn’t fibbing in Kiss after all?

The academic researcher in me wasn’t satisfied. I craved written contextualisation, fabric descriptions, name-checks of tailors. The audio guide was great for someone just landing from Mars, but didn’t satisfy my thirst for minutiae.

Where were the really early costumes, the gold lame shorts, G-strings, Rude Boy ska badge?

Then I came back to Planet Earth off my lofty high horse. I started imagining he’d decluttered one Sunday afternoon, and sent them to Chanhassan jumble sales. In fact, that would not surprise me one bit.

His now-legendary engineer Susan Rogers told me he kept his frilly cast-offs in bin bags in the studios, and encouraged female staff have a rummage through in case they fancied any of it.

One day, I truly hope to see all the brocade and satin fully catalogued and on display in climate-controlled cases. It’s historically significant stuff and time is of the essence.

But for today, as both Carl and Prince Rogers would say, it’s not perfect but it’s enough.


My new CEO role: putting theory into practice

“Really!? Are you sure about this? Can’t you just take a year’s unpaid leave from your university job in case it doesn’t work out?”

I’ve been fascinated by the oft-spluttered reactions of university colleagues to my recent change of job – from an associate dean to chief executive of the UK Council for Psychotherapy.

To those who don’t know me well, particularly what gets me up in the morning, it might seem an unusual move to step down from a coveted, professorial senior university position and take the reins of the leading membership, training and regulatory body for psychotherapists and psychotherapeutic counsellors.

To me, it makes total sense and fits entirely with my professional identity and career trajectory. In fact, it’s the realisation of all the foundations I’ve laid, theoretically and practically, over the past 30 years. And it’s brilliant.

As chief executive, my hand’s on the tiller of a bold new vision and strategy. I want our strategy and policy underpinned by significant, impactful research activity. Our members comprise Diploma, Masters and Doctoral candidates at 70+ training organisations alongside highly experienced, top level experts working in the NHS, public and private sectors. Our membership base is growing annually and spans umpteen modalities of which our therapists deliver critical practice at the cutting edge.

As I said to our Board of Trustees at my first address to them, CE stands for more than chief executive. I’m chief experience officer for our staff and varied stakeholders, both internal and external. I’m campaigning editor-in-chief. I’m vice-chancellor at a campus spanning the UK virtually and digitally.

There’s a standing desk (my one rider!) in London but my real office is in my rucksack, which travels with me up and down the land and further afield.

Collaborator , chatterbox, coach – countless, endlessly fascinating and creative functions are captured by my role.

So no, this isn’t a sabbatical from the ‘important’ business of the TEF, REF, restructures and regs. Nor is it the end of research – if anything that’s stepped up.

I’ve always straddled university life while remaining in the fray for the past 30 years. That was weird, to some, back then but not now. I’ve been talking the talk for too long – and now it’s time to walk the walk and put this theory into urgent, direct action for the benefit of our members and the public.

A month in and it has exceeded all expectations. I am looking forward to sharing my thoughts and progress….


Don’t mock “frivolous” academic studies – pop culture is always political

As an undergraduate student back in the 1980s, I made the controversial decision to do my dissertation on the pop star Prince

May 28, 2017

“I’ve never been a Prince fan but after hearing this panel discussion I am so inspired!” Tom the audio-visual technician, 24, wasn’t even a glint in his parents’ eye when the star donned his shiny trench coat and sat astride a pumping motorcycle.

But after the first day’s deliberations at Purple Reign, the world’s first interdisciplinary academic conference on the legendary musician’s life and legacy, Tom’s completely sold.

He’s not alone. More than 60 researchers presented their findings on everything from Prince’s hit records to his high heels over two densely-packed days and nights of deliberations. Even Dez Dickerson, Prince’s one-time lead guitarist from The Revolution, rocked up and sprinkled purple stardust over the event, jointly hosted by University of Salford and Middle Tennessee State University.

Eyebrows are often raised when pop culture phenomena, be they musicians or TV series, attract critical scrutiny. People may scoff at the idea of a group of indulged academics squandering bloated expense budgets on pet pursuits. But in the coffee breaks as we exchanged email addresses, it was clear how many had crossed the globe at their own expense.

As an undergraduate student back in the 1980s, I made the controversial decision to do my dissertation on the pop star Prince.

While my classmates pondered pressing questions of political economy, media ethics and regulation, I burnt the midnight oil wearing out VHS tapes of Purple Rain. A part-time MA and PhD on the star followed, done in the evenings and weekends while juggling work and toddlers.

Prince offered me a lifeline

Why put myself through this? Because as a young working class female growing up in a depressed northern town, Prince offered a lifeline; the inspiration to crash through any barriers. His own inauspicious and troubled background is a masterclass in overcoming racism, trauma and bullying over his height to achieve success. 

I spoke to many others who, like me, struggled to find academic publishers willing to make their scholarship permanent. Yet their work is no less empirically rich, methodologically-sound or relevant than studies of Mozart. Their interrogations spanned musicology, philosophy, psychoanalysis, visual culture, gender, ethnicity and sexuality.

The topics were tangible, not esoteric: His connections with black labour activism and the radical tradition were under the spotlight. His battles with the corporate music megaliths in the 1990s, which he won by dropping his name for an unpronounceable symbol, provided rich insight into commercial law. It wasn’t sycophantic hero-worship: serious questions were addressed, especially regarding homosexuality and misogyny.

I was also struck by how diverse and global the delegate list is. Ivy League scholars mingled with fans and rock stars. One man, James, visited from the USA to proffer perspectives from African studies, rather than the privileged white Western discourses that dominate student reading lists here in the UK.

I also met scholars from Russia and Poland: “Imagine listening to Prince under Putin? You cannot begin to image how much we feel personally liberated by his music.”

PhD student Scarlett, accompanied by her super-fan dad, spoke personally about how Prince taught men to value women as equals and helped her father know how to equip her with life skills as a young teenager.

No ‘easy options’

The ubiquity and popularity of stars such as Bowie, Beyoncé and Kanye can tell us much about everything from death to digital technology.

But the biggest value of these gatherings is the way they challenge the status quo of academic ‘value’. To dismiss pop culture phenomena as less worthy or ‘important’ is to totally miss the fact that higher education is meant to be more inclusive than ever.

Indeed, an oversubscribed black feminist course on the politics of Beyoncé was cancelled at Rutgers University in the US because it was so popular it threatened other modules.

Yet this was no ‘easy option’ – it centred on the complex theories of Foucault and Deleuze, although, unlike some courses, it made those critical studies relevant to the lived experiences of the participants, be they black and/or working class.

Interrogating these objects of study exposes outdated, outmoded and elitist academic discourses which exclude a diversity of voices. They serve as a wake-up call to outmoded higher education structures, syllabi and research funding barriers.

As buildings across the city were lit up in the late icon’s signature colour, we held silences in tribute to fellow music fans who lost the lives at Manchester Arena, a venue Prince loved. The music research beat must go on.


Why it’s time to consign televised political debates to the scrap heap

Corbyn’s decision to show up in Theresa May’s absence was vindicated—but the format hindered all candidates, and the viewer learnt little

June 1, 2017

All it lacked was Graham Norton doing the commentary. The BBC’s staging of last night’s Leaders’ Debate had more in common with a ratings’ driven TV contest than an informative event to help the “undecideds” vote next Thursday. It was as if the seven leaders of the main political parties and their stand-ins were vying for the top slot of most retweeted quote or most viral putdown. Admittedly BBC bosses had a tough brief: finding televisual strategies that appeal to a cross section of the entire UK’s diverse demographic is nigh on impossible. Only that can explain the rather bizarre juxtaposition of the grandiose wood paneled University of Cambridge backdrop, connoting “importance,” against the Weakest Link style semi-circle of podiums. In fact, it felt like one of those nightmares you have on the eve of a major job interview.

So much so, Theresa May—the woman who actually called this general election—made the bizarre decision to bail out and sent the recently bereaved Amber Rudd into battle. Rudd defended her leader’s decision on the grounds that “part of being a good leader is having a good, strong team.” Now, I loathe it when female leaders are maligned for showing little warmth, a criticism all-too-often laid at the door of women and not men. But Home Secretary Rudd’s rather severe demeanour did nothing to reassure a largely terrified and certainly confused British populace that it is safe under Tory rule. The moment when she said the Conservatives care most passionately about the poorest had the trappings of pantomime and a Crimewatch reconstruction rolled into one.

To be fair, the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon wasn’t there either, with deputy Angus Robertson—the party’s Westminster leader—speaking instead. And Caroline Lucas is one of two co-leaders of the Green Party. Lucas was the most impressive of the assembled, standing out from the cacophonous crowd in her challenge to the Tories’ record on arms sales. If anything, she made Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s case for him, but with more conviction.

Deciding late in the day to pitch up, Corbyn ditched the “Chairman Mao-style” cycle cap and presented one of the more polished performances of his campaign. Not only did that seem to sway the studio audience in his favour—in fact if the audience were randomly selected and representative of a cross-section of voters then it looks like a Labour landslide—it probably surprised the majority of his own MPs who’d previously voted no confidence in him. Head tilted to one side, we witnessed a resolutely statesmanlike Corbyn, a more authentic leader, happy in his own skin as a man with four decades’ experience in politics. The 1970s lecturer vibe of yore has been consigned to history, thankfully. Beside Corbyn and Lucas, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron appeared affable but ill-equipped—and somewhat too immature—to take on sole-charge of society’s challenges.

During the 90-minute debate, there were clashes over living standards, public sector pay and immigration. But I was surprised to hear nothing on school-level education, given Darth Mayder’s manifesto pledge to bring back grammars. Had the debate touched more on that fundamental bedrock—children’s, and by extension, the nation’s future—it might have given the delegates their much-needed breakthrough moments.

As for Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, he came across like a pub bore with his profoundly offensive views on immigrants unembellished with any factual grounding. As one Twitter commentator put it, he made even Nigel Farage sound like Abraham Lincoln.

If there was one big takeaway from the programme, it is that an alliance between Labour and the other progressive parties no longer looks as scary or chaotic as it might once have done. But I don’t think the programme’s format fits with the times anymore. In the wake of the Manchester bombing coupled with Brexit and the NHS crisis, the public needed deeper, thoughtful interrogation, not a battle for primacy and soundbites.


I don’t care about Pippa Middleton’s wedding—nor do most Britons

May 19, 2017

Unless you’ve been camping off-grid in the Siberian tundra, you can’t have avoided the news that Britain’s most eligible bachelorette is about to marry. Long after Twitter and Facebook stopped cooing over Prince William’s nuptials, the media is still fawning over Kate Middleton’s younger sister Pippa, who ties the knot tomorrow.

Pippa, 33, best known for her stellar in-laws and her over-scrutinised behind, will marry hedge fund manager James Matthews, 41, at a private ceremony in Berkshire. Not many couples exchange their vows in front of two British kings-in-waiting, William and his pageboy son George; even fewer in front of Matthews’s television lothario brother Spencer—known for his appearances on Made in Chelsea.

The US-based media have parked their satellite vans in Bucklebury for the weekend, but that’s not without precedent. They don’t have their own royal family, at least not since the quasi-regal Kennedys. If our monarchy has any relevance these days, it’s as a curiosity for the rest of the world, undoubtedly drawing in tourists in their droves.

What bothers me is the oversaturation of Pippa in the UK where, frankly, most of the public couldn’t give a hoot. Considering this isn’t even a royal wedding, this is garnering acres more attention than even when Sarah Ferguson took Prince Andrew down the aisle. That made three paragraphs on an inside page of the Guardian. Even that venerable stable of solid news values couldn’t resist a preview of the Middleton big day on its home page.

Stories like this clearly illustrate how UK media outlets are like penguins around an ice hole. When one brand decides a story is worth doing to death then the rest follow, each trying to catch ever more exclusive prey. I’m sure there’s a triple bonus for the paparazzo who can bring in a glimpse of Prince Harry’s paramour TV actor Meghan Markel in her rollers and bathrobe.

Another related and creepier concern is that it exposes what happens when we entrust a predominantly ageing, conservative male demographic to run Britain’s news desks. They froth over Pippa like dirty old men. She’s frightfully posh, tanned and svelte thanks to all that marathon running. If only more young brides would focus on staying pretty like her instead of pursuing careers. One tabloid has gone so far as mocking up images of what her bridal lingerie might look like. Because Pippa isn’t quite royal, they think they can get away with debasing her.

But they can’t. With every headline and caption like this, the media shift ever more seriously out of touch with what British news consumers actually want. If the outlets peddling this stuff are to have a future then they seriously need to reassess their purpose and reconnect with their audiences. Yes, audiences plural.

The real joy and opportunity in reporting UK culture is in mining the rich seam of untold narratives that exist in this diverse-but-compact island. Tomorrow, countless couples and families—white, black, rich, poor, young, old—will be forced to compare their own worth against this stereotype of the perfect wedding. I know whose stories I’d rather read about and I am sure I am not alone.