Consultant Clinical Psychologist (current as at December 2013)
Clinical psychologists help people to address patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviour that are causing problems or concerns for them.
Public health initiatives are largely predicated on changing the behaviour of people at a population level. Initiatives aimed at getting the population at large to move more, to eat differently, to give up smoking, to curb drug and alcohol use and so on can be informed by the work undertaken with individuals with similar goals. Much of my clinical time is spent helping individuals to, at some level, behave differently. An understanding of individual psychology is vital when designing interventions aimed at a large population, and the ideas and experience of clinical psychologists can prove to be an extremely helpful resource.
I work as a clinical psychologist employed by the NHS in a clinical setting. In my case I work in an acute general hospital in Belfast city centre. My job is split 50:50 between clinical and non-clinical responsibilities. My clinical time is spent working with individuals, couples and families that have been referred to me by medical, nursing and allied healthcare colleagues. In particular I provide a dedicated service to the diabetes and general medical teams in the hospital. Other clinical psychologists in my team are attached to medical specialities such as cancer, renal, respiratory and the pain management team.
Clinical psychologists help people to address patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviour that are causing problems or concerns for them. For example, I try to help people who may be feeling very anxious or depressed after being diagnosed with a long term condition such as diabetes. I also work with people whose psychological distress causes ill health or whose patterns of behaviour (e.g. eating disorders) make it difficult for them to manage health conditions. Working in Northern Ireland is especially interesting and challenging. Many people perceive being diagnosed with a chronic or life threatening condition as a traumatic event in their lives. Such perceptions can frequently re-evoke previous traumatic life events, and as we know people here have been exposed to the trauma of the Troubles for a generation.
The other 50% of my time is divided between supervising other staff involved in providing psychological care (e.g. newly qualified psychologists, counsellors and specialist nurses), teaching other healthcare professionals about the emotional and behavioural challenges of chronic and life threatening illness, and research activities.
As well as working closely with medical, nursing and allied health professionals, I also have close links with academic departments at both Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Ulster where I hold the title of Honorary Lecturer.
I also work very closely with patients and much my research attempts to give patients a voice about the services they receive and their perceptions of what is done well and what is done badly in the NHS. As a result I have close relationships with a number of organisations and charities, such as Diabetes UK, who share my passion for patient empowerment.
To study a psychology degree at university most prospective students are expected to have done at least one science course, maths and psychology at A level. This isn’t absolute but seems to be more of the trend, especially as getting on a psychology course is increasingly competitive. Many universities are now asking for three ‘A’s at A-level.
I was very keen on sport as a youngster and played football, rugby and cricket at school, district and county levels. Unfortunately I damaged my knee when I was 16 curtailing my sporting ambitions whereupon I looked at doing sports psychology, which in turn led me towards a psychology degree. Also, while I was still at school in North Wales, I did voluntary work with Mencap working with young people with learning disabilities. In the end it was the Mencap work that has had the most influence on my career direction as I became more and more interested in working with people who have been socially excluded and with helping people who have been emotionally damaged by their life experiences. As I learned more about psychology I began to understand that the discipline offered much to such ambitions.
After completing a BSc Hons in Psychology, I gained three years of ‘hands on’ experience. I first worked as an assistant psychologist with the community drug service in North Wales studying the impact of the service on chaotic opiate users. After 6 months there I moved to London where I worked as an assistant psychologist for another 6 months providing support to a family with a very self-injurious child. This gave me substantial experience of trying out behavioural interventions, with a fairly successful outcome insofar that I wrote up and published this work. Thereafter I spent two years as a research psychologist at University of London, where I undertook a study examining the behavioural phenotype associated with William’s Syndrome.
Gaining clinical and research experience such as this is vital before being accepted onto a clinical training course as competition is still very high for training courses in Clinical Psychology. I completed my doctorate in Clinical Psychology in Belfast in 1998. This is a three year clinical doctorate, which includes a taught element, as well as 6 six month clinical rotations and a significant research component.
What I most enjoy about my job is working with people. Even though I often hear stories that are distressing, or work with people who are difficult to have relationships with, I also find that many of the people I work with are amongst the bravest and most interesting people I’ve ever met. I still enjoy hearing people’s stories and working with them on how they interpret their lives, and how they might be able to interpret events in a less self critical manner.
The most challenging aspect of my work is handling the ever growing NHS bureaucracy. Clinicians need autonomy to work well. It is increasingly difficult to function effectively in an environment where managerial, political and financial targets are given increasing priority over clinical need.
The most important skills I use in my work are communication skills and an ability to translate psychological empiricism into something that is meaningful and helpful to the people I serve. The most important clinical goal is to build a positive, trusting relationship so that people feel safe to talk freely and honestly.
The most important characteristics needed for this work are:
a) Quick wittedness: you have to able to ‘think on your feet’ as you never know what an individual patient or situation might throw at you. I find I invariably have to ‘fly by the seat of my pants’, and can only do so by trusting the knowledge and experience I have gained over the years.
b) Open minded and reflective: you have to have good insight into yourself and understand how you react to the people you are working with in order to understand better their perspective and their situation. You have to be aware of when your own emotional buttons are being pressed so as not react selfishly to what people are saying.
c) Personal warmth: the best psychologists (formally trained or otherwise) exude personal warmth that enables people to open up about their problems, anxieties and traumas.
For anyone interested in pursuing a career in Clinical Psychology you need to be willing to invest a good amount of time in your training and development. You need to get as much hands on experience as possible, and this often will have to be at low levels of pay. You also need to be prepared to be yourself; there are no blue prints to how to be a good psychologist - you need to be true to yourself, and also not let the job take over your life.
|BSc Hons in Psychology, Doctorate in Clinical
|Length in post
|Belfast City Hospital is located in Belfast City Centre and serves the population of Belfast (around 200,000 people). It is also home to a number of services e.g. cancer, renal and respiratory, that serve people throughout the region of Northern Ireland
|Agenda for Change Band 8c
|Sector / service(s)
|Health Psychologist | View details...