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DIY therapy

Distraction therapy, or ‘shut up and deal’

Last week, a reader called Tom wrote in with this story:

I am finally coming out the other side of a pretty deep existential crisis (possibly a result of drug use) and I am seeing the colour flood back into my life. I have just turned 29. The last 5 years have been pretty bleak and filled with crippling anxiety. Everything I once believed and valued seemed to be lies and the world felt hollow. I then began looking for the truth.

The deeper I looked into philosophy, Buddhism, meditation, health and fitness etc the more questions and uncertainty I created for myself. This ramped up my motivation to find the answers.  The more I looked, the more uncertainty I created, and the more I needed to look. During this period my anxiety became crippling.

how_the_frisbee_took_flightFortunately I was able to realize what was going on and pull myself out of this cycle. I decided for a period that I would cut everything out of my life that caused uncertainty. This included reading or listening to any self help, philosophical, health and fitness etc article or podcast. I focused on filling my days with play, eg frisbee, non-fiction books, comedy, eventually friends. Within two weeks to a month, I felt like a completely different person.

I think there is a tendency for thinkers/sensitive types, whatever you want to call us, to over-think and intellectualise depression. I think in hindsight, if I had just ridden out the depression, I would have fallen back into life fairly quickly. However, my need to find answers lead me down a rabbit hole of depression and anxiety.

I will still have questions because that is my nature. However, I now understand the importance of diverting my attention and hope I am now better able to ask whether a particular line of intrigue is helpful or unhelpful to my quality of life.

I like Tom’s advice. Sometimes, in the darkness, we need to give our minds a rest, and find a distraction. Games are good for that. It reminds me of Billy Wilder’s film, The Apartment. Shirley Maclaine’s character has tried to kill herself with an overdose. Jack Lemmon’s character finds her, resuscitates her, and then tries to keep her awake and busy by playing cards with her. When she asks him what’s the point in life, he replies: ‘shut up and deal’ – a line she repeats to him at the end of the film, when she has recovered and they’re in love.


One of the few philosophers who understood our need for distractions amid the existential confusion was Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician. He’s a fascinating figure – he was one of the leading mathematicians of his age, he almost died in a riding accident, and then had a sort of near-death experience (known as his ‘nuit de feu’ or ‘night of fire’), after which he became a religious philosopher. But he’s fascinating even if you’re not theist –  he’s really the first existentialist philosopher, in that he has an acute sense of the mystery of existence and the absurdity of human endeavour.

His Pensees, or ‘thoughts’, are a collection of brief meditations on existence. Here’s one of them:

449407The only good thing for men is to be diverted from thinking of what they are, either by some occupation which takes their mind off it, or by some novel and agreeable passion which keeps them busy, like gambling, hunting, some absorbing show, in short what is called diversion.

That is why gaming and feminine society, war and high office are so popular. It is not that they really bring happiness…What people want is not the easy peaceful life that allows us to think about our condition, but the agitation that takes our mind off it and diverts us.

That is why this man, who lost his only son a few months ago and was so troubled and oppressed this morning by lawsuits and quarrels, is not thinking about it any more. Do not be surprised: he is concengrating all his attention on which way the boar will go that his dogs have been so hotly pursuing for the past six hours. That is all he needs. However sad a man may be, if you can persuade him to take up some diversion he will be happy while it lasts….Without diversion there is no joy, with diversion there is no sadness.

Now, Pascal is being somewhat hyperbolic here. His ultimate hope is that we will make a leap of faith beyond boredom and diversion and put our trust in the Christian God. Personally, I believe in the Socratic approach – I think we can learn to discover and challenge the core negative beliefs underlying our suffering. But we can’t do that all the time. Sometimes we just need a break from our ruminations.

There is even a type of therapy built around just this insight, called ‘Distraction Therapy’. Therapists have experimented with using different forms of distraction to take patients’ mind off their physical pain, such as games, videos and music. One experiment projected nature sounds and images into hospital rooms when patients were receiving a painful bronchoscopy. The ‘significantly reduced pain’ in the patients, apparently.

You won’t feel a thing

Many hospitals now use distraction therapy, like Chelsea and Westminster, which is teaming up with the musician Brian Eno to design ambient light and sound installations to take patients’ minds off the pain. Imagine Brian Eno jumping into the operating theatre, in full glam regalia. That would be distracting.

So the next time you have the blues, you could go to a psychodynamic therapist, lie down, and really pick that scab. Or you could try the Billy Wilder approach: shut up and deal.

Five years of IAPT (Improving Access for Psychological Therapies)

It’s been five years since the launch of the government’s flagship mental health programme, Improving Access for Psychological Therapies (IAPT).

IAPT is the biggest expansion of mental health services anywhere in the world, ever. It has already trained 4,000 new therapists in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and 2,000 more therapists are being trained. It’s doubled the NHS spend on mental health services (from 0.3% to 0.6% of the NHS annual budget), and is on course to treat 900,000 people for depression and anxiety in England every year, many of whom would never have had access to therapy in the private sector. The recovery rate for people requiring two or more sessions of treatment is approaching 45%, with others making improvements even if they remain depressed by clinical standards. That is a lot of human suffering healed, though still only 10-15% of those afflicted by depression and anxiety.

It is also, by the by, been five years since I started blogging.  Five years ago, I became fascinated by the direct link between Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and ancient Greek philosophy, and also by how governments were beginning to ‘roll out’ CBT on a mass scale, in the NHS, in schools, in the US Army and elsewhere. It seemed to me an interesting moment in the history of politics, philosophy and psychology. I started the blog, which back then was called The Politics of Well-Being, in February 2008, and I’ve really enjoyed it. For a prickly Stoic like me, it’s allowed me to be the master of my own fate, not dependent on the whims of commissioning editors, able to explore what interests me at the length I want.

I’m now researching a long article on the first five years of IAPT, which hopefully a magazine will publish. This week I interviewed David Clark, the CBT psychologist who masterminded IAPT, as well as several other therapists and service-users, and next week hopefully I’ll interview Richard Layard, the economist who made the economic case for IAPT to the Labour government in 2006. IAPT only arose, by the by, because Clark and Layard happened to meet when they were both made fellows of the British Academy in 2003. They met during the tea break, and Layard said he was writing a book on happiness and was interested in mental health. Clark told him a bit about CBT, and the rest, as they say, is history.

David Clark, left, having some more tea

Here are five interesting things I’ve learnt so far about IAPT:

1) IAPT is the prime example of psychotherapy in the age of big data

Back in the early 20th century, the evidence for psychotherapy consisted of therapists’ personal case histories, anecdotal evidence like Freud’s Anna O or Wolfman cases. These were interesting to read (who doesn’t love a good story) but they also turned out to be misleading and not very scientific (some of Freud’s patients didn’t recover, like he said they did). Today, psychotherapy is embracing the era of big data, and IAPT is the prime example of that. Service-users fill out feedback forms before each session, which are used to assess how well the treatment is working. These forms are then collated to assess how well the programme is working at the national level too.

So far, the data from IAPT has been fairly rudimentary, only really looking at recovery rates. But as of next month, the data sent through will be much richer, taking account of what conditions patients have, what treatment they received, what ethnicity and demographic they are, which region they’re in, and so on. All of this will be available to the public through the NHS’ information centre, which will which therapies have worked well for which conditions, and where the service is failing to reach people, in particular regions, demographics or ethnicities. There are already signs, for example, that IAPT is not sufficiently reaching the millions of people who suffer from social anxiety – so this group may need to be encouraged to self-refer for services.

2) IAPT needs improving

There is a risk that IAPT will suffer from ‘mission creep’ and end up being allocated serious cases it was not designed to treat. It’s designed for the treatment of common mental disorders like depression and anxiety. Unfortunately, in some local authorities, commissioning boards have cut funding for other types of psychotherapy which are used for more serious conditions, so IAPT services are now treating patients with, say, bipolar disorder or personality disorders. David Clark says that’s not happening at a national level, but may be happening in some regions (it is).

IAPT also remains controversial in so far as many psychotherapists in non-CBT traditions say it only really provides CBT. This is because the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) mainly recommended CBT when it reviewed the evidence for psychotherapies for depression and anxiety (it also recommends Interpersonal Therapy, Couples Therapy, Counseling and Behaviour Activation Therapy). But psychodynamic and psychoanalytic therapists say NICE is wrong, and that in fact the evidence suggests all talking therapies work roughly as well as each other. They also suggest studies comparing CBT to other treatments are often biased because the researchers have an allegiance to CBT. And, finally, they insist randomised controlled trials aren’t necessarily the best assessment of how therapies work in practice.

These issues remain very contested within psychotherapy. This is unsurprising – IAPT must have arrived like a bomb into the world of private psychotherapeutic practice. Suddenly, there were 4000 new therapists providing therapy for free, many of them with only a year’s training. That was bound to annoy older therapists in the private sector.

Peter Fonagy

There are signs that other forms of therapy are beginning to embrace the IAPT methodology. Several prominent psychoanalysts from the Maudsley Clinic, including Peter Fonagy, are trialling Dynamic Interpersonal Therapy, which is a form of brief psychoanalytic therapy for depression. If the trial is approved by NICE, it might mark an interesting moment of mass Freudian therapy.

3) The NHS’ mental health services are about to become a free market

Just a few years after IAPT created a free national mental health service, the Coalition government’s NHS reforms are about to open it up to competition. Starting this year, Health and Well-Being Boards will be able to commission ‘any qualified provider’ to provide mental health services in their area. That might be the existing IAPT service, or it might be some new organisation competing for tenders.

Well-Being Boards will have to decide how to choose between competing organisations. They could decide to give money to the organisation with the best recovery rates. But that might create what David Clark calls “a skewed incentive” for organisations to only take on easy cases where recovery is much more likely, while turning away any harder cases. It also creates the risk of unscrupulous organisations simply faking their results in order to win NHS contracts. The Department of Health is considering how best to evaluate organisations at the moment – perhaps ‘progress made’ is better than recovery rates, in that it takes account of difficult cases who have made a lot of improvement even if they’re still clinically depressed. Some therapists think outcome measures should also assess actual changes people have made in their lives, rather than simply how they’re feeling.

4) IAPT is being expanded into new areas, and new countries

IAPT is now being rolled out for children and young people, though it appears to be happening on a smaller scale than the adult roll out. It’s also being expanded to treat patients with chronic physical health problems that may be co-morbid with emotional problems, like say cardiovascular disease or chronic pain; or for physical conditions that may be partly psychosomatic, like Irritable Bowel Syndrome. There are also trials underway of IAPT-style services for psychotic illnesses like Bipolar Disorder, Manic Depression and Personality Disorders, often using CBT but also Dialectical Behaviour Therapy. I would be interested to see if CBT might become one tool the NHS uses as it tries to reduce national obesity levels: there is some evidence it’s useful as part of a diet plan.

In terms of other countries, Scotland and Northern Ireland have still yet to put serious investment into mental health services, although their national mental health strategies have suggested they should. Canada’s new national mental health strategy also calls for greater provision of talking therapies. Norway has recently launched an IAPT-style pilot programme, with around 12 IAPT-style centres around the country.

Sweden already has a CBT programme to help people back to work, which hasn’t alas proved very successful. IAPT in the UK has more modest targets for helping people back to work, which so far it’s met – but a new article in the British Journal of Psychiatry suggests that Richard Layard’s original estimate of IAPT’s contribution to QALYs (Quality-adjusted Life Years) was “highly inflated” – so it may not be quite as good economic value as Layard originally argued.

5) There is a role for community arts organisations to work with IAPT services

IAPT services sometimes try to help patients beyond their course of therapy, so that they carry on their recovery and also meet other people working to get better. Sometimes, IAPT services will run post-treatment groups  – for example, some services run mindfulness-CBT groups for people with histories of depression. And sometimes they will connect with local community groups, such as MIND or Re-Think. That includes connecting with community arts groups – Lambeth’s IAPT service, for example, works with local sports organisations, a theatre group called Kindred Minds, an African culture group called Tree of Life, a debating club, even a circus-trapeze training group, as well as with several peer-led recovery groups. These groups have their own funding sources, by the way, they’re not funded by IAPT.

Some local authorities are also developing Recovery Colleges, which take a more educative approach to mental health recovery, treating people as students learning how to take care of themselves. I’m teaching a workshop in ancient philosophy at one such Recovery College next month, and I think there’s a lot of room for arts and humanities academics to connect with IAPT services or Recovery Colleges for their own expertise, whether that’s in art history, drama, history, literature, philosophy or other disciplines.

One therapist I interviewed, Nick McNulty from Lambeth’s IAPT centre, said he’d just met a client who was interested in Stoic philosophy, and wanted more of a values-based approach to mental health recovery. IAPT’s job is not to tell people what the good life is, it’s to help them through crises and to get them to a position where they can begin to seek the good life for themselves, according to their own definition of it. I think at that stage, after IAPT, there is potentially a role for practical philosophy, if it offered a broader ethical context for some of the CBT skills that people have recently learned. However, it would obviously need to avoid being dogmatic or preachy, helping people explore various different models of the good life without imposing one onto them.

In general, IAPT strikes me as an educational project as much as it is a health programme. A lot of what it provides is ‘psycho-education’, or ‘guided self-help’, trying to teach people to learn how to take care of themselves, as Socrates tried to do, and become ‘doctors to themselves’ as Cicero put it. NICE clearly sees the benefits of self-help, which is a big validation for people like me who believe that self-help isn’t a load of junk, although clearly the relationship with a therapist is very important for some people too. By providing a ‘stepped care’ approach, IAPT tries to help both people like me, who are interested in learning how to take care of ourselves, and other people who are really seeking a relationship of care.

We, as users of the service, need to learn how to ask for what we want – how to self-refer for talking therapy even if our GP wants us to take Prozac, how to ask to step up to a higher level of care if guided self-help isn’t enough, how to ask for specific types of therapy, and also how to ask how to change therapist if we don’t have a rapport with the one allocated to us. We need to learn how to take care of ourselves and each other, not entirely relying on the NHS to do the work for us. And, finally, we need to learn how to support the young service politically, if it’s something we think is worth keeping.


In other news:

The Atlantic magazine considers the ‘touch-screen generation’ – what impact will their immersion in digital technology have on children’s development?

The New Yorker reports on a new text-analysis study of the history of hip-hop, charting such nuggets as the first appearance of the word ‘bling’ and the number of uses of ‘Nike’ versus ‘Adidas’.

Are the French ‘taught to be gloomy’?

In the US, President Obama has launched an ambitious new project to make pre-school childcare universal, at the cost of $10 billion a year. This blog post looks at James Heckman, the psychologist whose work on childcare and early interventions has been an inspiration for Obama’s policy.

Polly Toynbee penned this excellent crie de couer over a new round of benefit cuts set to be introduced on Easter Monday, including slashing the budget for financial advice from the Citizens Advice Bureau from £22 million to £3 million.

Also in the Guardian, a report on the Care Quality Commission, which has found a fifth of hospitals fail to treat the elderly with the dignity they deserve.

In the London Review of Books, John Lanchester gets excited about fantasy fiction, and the new series of Game of Thrones (spoiler alert – he gives away some of the plot).

The BBC has a new 30-part series on the History of Noise, presented by David Hendy of the University of Sussex. The TLS, meanwhile, reviews a new book on the history of silence in Christianity.

Finally, I recently finished Alex Ross’s excellent history of 20th century classical music, The Rest is Noise. There was also a BBC TV series to accompany it, called The Sound and the Fury, which is available on BBC Four’s wonderful archive of TV on modern classical music. Here is a clip from it, of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, which he composed when a POW in Stalag VIII concentration camp. He and three other prisoners performed it in the camp, in the rain, on January 15, 1941.

See you next week,