An Alternative Framework for Mental Health

For many years I wanted a better framework for best practice than the current bio-medical model which pathologizes symptoms of complex trauma as a “disease” and “biological” state-without evidence! Apart from the disrespect inherent in putting labels on people who have already suffered multiple adverse experiences, it doesn’t make sense that this reductionist way of supposedly helping people is often causing more harm, leading to ongoing Royal Commissions that never seem to address the underlying structural problems in mental health care.

In Australia, the structural problems – including professional “language” and treatment approach for mental health- are driven by the DSM- the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, revised and produced every few years by the American Psychiatric Association.  Within DSM criteria, people with complex trauma are often misdiagnosed or given labels like borderline personality disorder, Bipolar disorder, depression, generalised anxiety disorder, causing many kinds of mistreatment and mismanagement (Benjamin, 2019)

DSM started as a valiant way to understand mental health issues, developed by  Americans who didn’t like the flowery language of the existing International Classification of Diseases (ICD). However since then it has been largely taken over by white, middle-class US psychiatrists closely aligned with big Pharma. Since the eighties, Big Pharma has been gradually expanding the range of conditions classified as “disorders” in order to sell more drugs (Moynihan, 2018)

Hospital/service funding and practice now follows from these un-validated and unreliable labels, implying that one just needs to tip the right chemical into a brain to “sweeten” it. Those that can’t be “sweetened” chemically are called “outliers” by the system, or stigmatised for being “treatment resistant”, treated harshly in EDs or discharged prematurely even though very unwell or at risk. Psychotherapy is considered only as a last resort. Some of these people become the homeless that wander our street, mistrustful of the very services they have earlier turned to for help.

International trauma experts like Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk struggle to be heard over the vested interests who find profit and convenience in the current DSM system. Multiple inquiries into mental health over decades show this system is not working. Marginalised groups such as mental health consumers seem invisible to DSM oriented practitioners. It is faster, easier and more profitable to offer drugs like “Quietipine” (to quieten the patient), than to sit beside those who are suffering or try to understand trauma systemically.

A huge shortcoming of the DSM model is that it locates the problem solely in the person, and ignores the systems and environment that created the problem in the first place. As identified by the Division of Clinical Psychology (DCP) of the British Psychological Society:

“The DCP is of the view that it is timely and appropriate to affirm publicly that the current classification system as outlined in DSM and ICD, in respect of the functional psychiatric diagnoses, has significant conceptual and empirical limitations. Consequently, there is a need for a paradigm shift in relation to the experiences that these diagnoses refer to, towards a conceptual system not based on a “disease” model.” (DCP, 2013, p. 1)

Indeed, the DSM system is so low in research validity and reliability that two of the largest international research funding bodies have stopped allowing DSM criteria as the basis for medical research. However organisations that promote DSM are very powerful and influential, with deep pockets and ongoing political lobbying.

The Power Threat Meaning Framework developed by members of the British Psychological Society offers a new and compelling alternative to the DSM, that appears to have a more valid and ethical way of making sense of trauma symptoms without “labelling” of symptoms including mental distress, unusual experiences and problematic behaviour. It was developed over a five year period in the UK, by researchers who looked for an evidence base for best practice in working with trauma – supported by what we know from decades of research about the causes of trauma, which are often transgenerational and systemic.

Trauma is exacerbated by disrupted early attachments and imbalances of power and the inherent inequalities that lead to abuses of power and privilege. They assert that the many symptoms of trauma are simply a survival-based adaptation to the original situation, for example hypervigilance or dissociation originating from having to survive an unpredictable or unsafe environment. This view is shared by many international trauma experts including Bessel Van Der Kolk, Janina Fisher, Pat Ogden, Lou Cozolino and Judith Hermann.

Recently the Australian Childhood Foundation sponsored the author of the new framework to speak to professionals and consumers about this model. More information about this model can be found here in power threat meaning framework intro 2018, written by the authors of the study.

The authors

Working Effectively with Trauma- Guidelines for Clinicians

As stated in the previous blog, a purely talk-based approach is not sufficient for most complex trauma patients, and indeed may further traumatize them(Van Der Kolk, 2015).

So if we cant do “treatment as usual”, what options do we have? To begin, we need to widen our skill base to include other types of therapy(Blue Knot Foundation 2019).

Remember, there is no magic treatment approach that will help everyone. For example there is growing evidence for EMDR for complex trauma and C-PTSD, but Bessel Van Der Kolk suggests this may be best used with people who have single incident trauma- not complex trauma. I have found it useful to include practices such as trauma sensitive yoga, especially where there is significant dissociation, however where clients are body- phobic this may be inadvertently re-traumatising . Nonetheless it is useful for clinicians to have a wide skill set to complement existing skills, for example Sensorimotor psychotherapy or somatic experiencing training, art therapy training, equine therapy training, EMDR, the Conversational Model, Trauma Sensitive yoga training, child and adolescent trauma therapy, family therapy, neuroscience etc. I would suggest adding to your skills gradually so you aren’t putting too much pressure on yourself to be the ” perfect” therapist.

How we “show up” in therapy is also important. The Blue Knot guidelines (2012) suggest following 5 threads from Shapiro, which I compare with similar ideas and practices from Gestalt Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment therapy(ACT) Mindfulness practices.

  1. Presence (defined as `getting into the here-and-now experience of body, affect, and thought’) In Gestalt this is described as the phenomenological attitude, for others this is known as a state of Mindfulness.
  2. Dual awareness (`holding the trauma in mind, while maintaining focus in the current time and place’) In Gestalt this is known as “bracketing”. In ACT this is known as “holding lightly” “being present” and “observing self”
  3. Affect (emotion) while in relationship (`It’s not that the affect is discharged, though it might be. It’s that it’s felt and not avoided [ie within the `window of tolerance’] then witnessed and survived, then transformed into a memory, and no longer a developmental catastrophe’) In Gestalt this is known as “entering the experiential world of the client”, done with patience, reverence and respect. In Mindfulness, this is called “rolling out the welcome mat” for emotions.
  4. Relationship with self and other Patients gain tolerance and acceptance of their own affect and history and the capacity for relating to others through having a relational experience of tolerance and acceptance in the room. In  ACT, this is about acceptance of what is, and commitment to taking action to build a life enriched by values. However, where the patient has disorganised attachment, it is important to seek supervision regarding how to proceed, as attachment also creates terror or anger and may sabotage therapy. Handling disorganized attachment is much more complex, and the Janina Fisher website has many resources on this subject. Also, the principles of Richard Schwartz on Inner Family Systems are useful to bring into relational work with people suffering complex trauma.
  5. Making meaning of the traumatic events (`often accompanied by anger, then grief, then great relief’)227       In Gestalt we make meaning together. We believe that grief and shame need to be witnessed for healing to occur. In ACT Mindfulness we try to profoundly accept that suffering is part of the process of living. Rather than avoid, we make contact with suffering, grief or shame, with support from the therapist We are not trying to get rid of suffering, but rather to change our relationship with it.

Locating these 5 `threads’ helps to orient to what is now a rich, expanding but also contrasting landscape of therapy modalities for working with complex trauma. Again, the strengths, resources and preferences of the patient need to be included, including their age and cultural requirements. Children who have limited words for what they are experiencing can be supported via the generosity of the free resources on the Australian Childhood Foundation website. I have found some of their resources useful when working with adults.

  1. I would add 8 further dimensions to those above when working with people with complex trauma, starting with awareness of the role of culture, gender and other forms of diversity, presence or absence of external supports, and inclusion or exclusion of family in the work, including acknowledgement of intergenerational trauma.
  2.  The work should be phased- with stability and safety as phase one, as per the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD) guidelines. However, if sessions are limited in number by funding or other issues, focus on safety and stabilization, and liaise with other experts eg community psych support services. Don’t try and do too much or do the work on your own.
  3. Management of risk should be done carefully, sensitively and thoroughly, and decisions about how to reduce risk be made with the patient where possible. I will write more on this later this year, as it is a painful truth that many patients presenting to health services with risk have reported they are shamed or treated badly by those services (Benjamin 2019).  As much as possible, patients need to be empowered to make choices that best support them when they feel unsafe or have high risk behaviours.
  4. It is important that the power base of the work is not “one-up one-down”. Clinician should never consider that they are “expert”, instead a collaborative, respective and co-equal approach is best (Benjamin, 2019). Therapists should be committed to lifelong learning including from consumer forums online as the field is rapidly and significantly changing in multiple fields eg the neuroscience of attachment.
  5.  Unlike other types of psychotherapy, clinicians in this field should be careful not to foster attachment to them too soon by the patient (Fisher 2017). Work is enhanced by adopting a curious, respectful and collaborative stance with the patient about their parts, and by teaching the patient to distinguish between triggers which reprise past trauma or trauma happening now. This is best done gradually and by working with all parts of the fragmented self of the patient with equal care and consideration. Psychoeducation and Mindfulness training should be foundational, and teaching the patient how to manage strong or uncomfortable emotions is essential.
  6. Clinician should learn to be grounded, centred, and calm, no matter what is happening with the patient in the room (Schore, 2012). Our state helps to model, anchor, settle and soothe patients, to give them a beginning experience of secure attachment (if or as much as they can tolerate.) Eventually the work will lead patients to secure attachment with themselves, built on a foundation of awareness, compassion and trust. This in turn will change the way they relate to others and the world.
  7. This implies that all therapists who work with traumatized patients have undertaken their own psychotherapy previously, so that they can be the solid ground from which to do the work. Personal therapy offers many advantages to the clinician including awareness of their own character strategies and defences, and how this affects their way of working, e.g. what things are avoided in the room.
  8. Clinicians should be reliable and consistent, and with good written terms and conditions including boundaries, and explaining the limitations of therapy. Annual leave and the like should be advised beforehand, and time allocated to process the effects of the clinician’s absence on all parts of the patient’s inner family system.
  9. Clinicians who work with complex trauma must have regular supervision, by someone with recent experience and additional training in this field. This is to help prevent burnout or vicarious traumatization, and also to ensure that practices are up to date.

I am hoping these guidelines are helpful and welcome your feedback and comments on this series of blogs offering guidelines for clinicians working with complex trauma.