Author: Kevin Wright
When I was younger, I was interested in vintage car engines – stripping them back and refurbishing them to their former glory. I loved figuring out how the mechanics worked so I could then fix them.
Psychology is similar. I am always working to find the logic behind a person’s thinking and behaviour. I’ll plot their life events from birth onwards trying to pinpoint their key challenges or experiences.
I’ll work to understand how this has led to their coping strategies that are now not helpful – or even harmful – in their present situation. Once I’ve discovered these I try to find an appropriate therapy or intervention for them.
My first career was in social work. I spent a lot of my time trying to understand the psychology of the people I was working with, as I realised it was a powerful factor that determined how effectively I could help them.
On one occasion, I was given the file of a woman who was constantly ending up in hospital. It was a huge file but, after reading it, I discovered that we didn’t really know anything about her.
There were reams of medical history, but none of it helped me understand why she kept being admitted to the hospital, many times under a Section (of the Mental Health Act 1983). Only when I met her did I realise she didn’t speak English. She was Greek. Nowhere in her file was there any note confirming that she had ever been spoken to in her own language.
I found a translator who was also versed in psychotherapy to help me take her history properly, and we found out that she was dealing with severe grief and trauma. She had been in Cyprus when the Turks attacked.
She was kidnapped and forced into marriage before she could escape. She’d also had a daughter taken from her, possibly to be trafficked. She had never had any space to help her deal with these losses and traumas.
After 10 sessions of therapy, she stopped being regularly admitted to hospital. We helped her reach a place where she could reconnect with her community in London and they helped the rest of her recovery.
One day I bumped into another social worker heading off to Warwick University to do a Masters degree in psychotherapy. After our conversation I realised that was what I wanted to do as well.
Training courses are competitive
I applied, but it was too late. The Masters course was very selective, only offering eight places every two years, so it took me another four years before I was accepted. I was the only social worker in my cohort – the rest were all senior clinical psychologists apart from one senior registrar psychiatrist.
I really enjoy the research side of psychology. One of my research projects while at Warwick focused on GPs – their training and views on referring patients for therapy. The findings were intriguing and, unfortunately, showed a lot of discriminatory practice.
The research covered 32 doctors in 16 local clinics and surgeries. I found that if patients were black, they were more likely to be referred to psychiatry services and have medication recommended. If they were white (with identical histories), they were more likely to be referred for talking therapy.
After I finished my Masters in 1992, I got a job working for a company offering therapy to stressed bankers and city workers (and their families) as part of an employee assistance programme (EAP). At the time this was quite a new idea imported from America.
This was where I honed my skills in finding quick and pragmatic resolutions for problems in the present, ie, in brief therapy. It was while there that I embarked on my part-time PhD, researching the effectiveness of brief therapy, under my professor/supervisor, John McLeod, at the University of Abertay, Dundee.
When people look for psychological help, they are advised to work with chartered or accredited practitioners. Psychologists gain chartered status via the British Psychological Society (BPS).
Practitioners can also gain accreditation via BACP (British Association for Counselling andPsychotherapy) or UKCP (United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy), which only list practitioners who have been accredited by them and who adhere to their codes of practice.
They have rigorous accreditation procedures and operate yearly monitoring of on-going evidence of continual professional development (CPD).
I became a chartered counselling psychologist after completing 450 hours of supervised practice before applying for chartered status with the BPS (see box).
"A lot of my medical colleagues are jealous of the time I get to spend with patients. They have 10 minutes. I have an hour."
Working in Iraq
Psychology can often lead you into interesting areas. In 2011, I was contacted by an Iraqi psychiatrist who was trying to rebuild the psychiatric services in his country following the fall of Saddam Hussein, the country’s former president.
I was then invited to Baghdad to teach therapeutic techniques. It was an interesting experience as I was helping newly trained psychiatrists work better with some of the very complex trauma cases that were the result of years of conflict. Bombs were still going off at the time I was there!
I have also worked in the NHS offering integrative psychotherapies through GP surgeries in IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Treatment) programme (now rebranded the NHS Talking Therapies programme) and have run many wellbeing/resilience groups for the Crown Prosecution Service, designed to help barristers, their managers and other staff manage their stress and avoid burn-out.
In addition, I have been asked, as an expert witness, to psychologically assess families and individuals in the family courts or those with mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, within the Criminal Justice system. I have been kept very busy doing this as there is an apparent shortage of psychologists willing to undertake such essential work.
I think time is the most powerful tool we have in our work as psychologists. I know a lot of my medical colleagues are jealous of the quantity and quality of time I get to spend with patients. They have 10 minutes. I have an hour. Of course, I’m going to get a better idea of how to help them. I also have the space to try different things to help.
The other element they are often jealous of is the amount of supervision I get in my role. I know lots of medical colleagues who have to chase their supervisors down a corridor to get any time with them. As a psychologist you cannot work in this field without having regular supervision.
It’s an essential process to help you understand yourself, your reactions and biases and to reflect on your work with a client. The work should not be done without this kind of in-depth supervision.
Dr Kevin Wright is a Chartered Counselling Psychologist working in private practice. He is also a Fellow of the British Psychological Society.
Complete guide to becoming a psychologist
Box: How to become a Chartered Psychologist
Attain a psychology degree (minimum a 2.2).
Obtain a psychology Masters/Doctorate (Clinical or Research PhD) in your chosen field of practice (eg, clinical, counselling, forensic, sports, educational, cognitive, developmental, environmental; neuro, research, occupational).
Build experience in your chosen field of practice. For example, to become a Chartered Counselling Psychologist you need to provide evidence that you have worked 450 hours in professionally supervised practice.
Apply to the British Psychological Society for chartered status in your field of practice with your evidence (years in practice plus written up case studies).
Register with the HCPC (Health and Care Professions Council), the regulator for 15 health and care professions in the UK, including 26,000+ practitioner psychologists. This is a requirement for any psychologist/psychotherapist/counsellor working in the NHS.
The HCPC recognises nine areas of psychology: practitioner psychologist, registered psychologist, clinical psychologist, forensic psychologist, counselling psychologist, health psychologist, educational psychologist, occupational psychologist.
Maintain the standards required to be on the professional register (held by the HCPC).
Some professionals use the term ‘psychologist’ or other titles such as counsellor, psychotherapist or therapist. In the UK, these are not protected titles, so professionals using them will not be on HCPC’s register and are therefore unregulated.