Monthly Archives: June 2008

Psychosis from a psychological perspective

I recently sat in on a presentation about psychological interventions for serious mental illness at an international conference , where the audience was mostly made up of US health professionals working in psychiatric settings.

What was interesting (or to be more accurate, disconcerting) for me were the number of comments from the audience expressing surprise that the problems of a “brain disorder” like schizophrenia could be amenable to psychological therapy. It seemed surprising for some of the audience that engaging a person in discussing the meaning and impact of their psychotic experiences (such as hearing voices or persecutory beliefs) could be of benefit.

Now this wouldn’t have been surprising 15 years ago, but things have certainly moved on, at least in Australia and the United Kingdom (my two frames of reference). It made me think about how your view of the world is structured by assumptions, and how much influence the unhelpful assumptions of an illness model of schizophrenia may have on the care that people receive from mental health services. The worst aspects of the “schizophrenia as brain disorder” explanation lead to invalidating people because they have unusual experiences, encouraging a passive approach to living, and not considering the influence of social and psychological influences upon peoples lives.

Sadly, it appears that the work of British psychologists in developing psychosocial models of psychosis and more effective talking therapies has not yet permeated the healthcare culture in some parts of the US. What gives hope is that despite the diligent work of drug companies it appears that the general public at least remain less convinced by causal biological models of schizophrenia, preferring psychosocial accounts.

There certainly was interest from the audience in understanding psychosis from a psychological perspective, and the presenter spent most of the time discussing normalisation and the dimensional view of symptoms. This was of value, but also a shame, as these things are really the basic assumptions of a cognitive behavioural approach to psychosis and there was not much time to then discuss more detailed therapeutic methods. This information is also more broader than one particular therapeutic model and should be considered part of a working clinician’s understanding of psychosis.

Where can someone start if they want to understand a contemporary psychological view of psychosis? Below are several sources that are worth checking out:

Richard Bentall’s book, “Madness Explained”, is an excellent and comprehensive discussion of the limitations of the diagnostic approach and reductionism in understanding psychosis, and value of psychological models and research to address some of the problems with a strict biological account. There is a summary presentation of the arguments in the book available on the MIND website.

Several years ago the British Psychological Society’s Division of Clinical Psychology produced a useful summary of psychological research, “Recent advances in understanding mental illness and psychotic experiences”, hosted here.

The Schizophrenia Guidelines website, designed to help UK health services implement the NICE Guidance for Schizophrenia, is a good resource for seeing how these psychological perspectives can influence care.

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Acceptance…. like learning to ride a bike

I found a nice little video on youtube recently of Kevin Polk describing the contingency-shaped nature of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (or Acceptance & Commitment Training, as they call it in the program at the regional centre of the Veteran Affairs in Togus, Maine USA). A nice metaphor that ACT is like learning to ride a bike, no amount of instruction can replace actually being shaped by doing it. This rule-governed vs contigency-shaped distinction gets to the heart of what ACT is about (I have previously discussed this here, in relation to therapy supervision).

Dr Polk and his colleagues treat veterans for PTSD using ACT and have a program that makes the approach more accessible by describing the skills as “Let Go, Show Up and Get Moving” in valued directions. They presented their work at the recent ACT Summer Institute IV in Chicago, and I was impressed by how simple and elegant the approach was, while still being consistent to the model. It was also impressive how many groups they had run in just a couple of years. Here is a potted description of their program:

The Intensive Outpatient PTSD Program (IOP) – ACT is presented to a cohort of veterans in a “workshop” format across 14 classes (groups) in five days. All aspects of ACT (Let Go, Show Up, and Get Moving) are experienced in the 14 sessions. Veterans who have graduated from a week-long cohort are offered unlimited follow-ups in the form of additional groups or individual “coaching” via the phone or in person. The program conducts 26 cohorts per year.

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Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in Early Psychosis

Recently, with my colleague Joe Oliver, we presented our work (at the ACT Summer Institute IV) on developing acceptance and commitment therapy to help young people recovering from a first episode of psychosis. We titled our presentation “ACT Early”, and described the work we have been doing in developing groups and individual therapy for this population.

Conference Abstract:

The stance of acceptance and committed action may allow for flexibility in response to persisting psychotic experiences, as has been suggested in ACT studies with the seriously mentally ill (Bach & Hayes, 2002; Gaudiano & Herbert, 2006). There is also the exciting potential for researching the impact of ACT in the early phase of psychosis – helping first episode clients to recover from psychosis through the development of a more mindful approach toward unusual experiences and critical appraisals, and committing to values-based actions.

More specifically, the use of ACT may:

[1] foster the development of a psychologically flexible stance toward anomalous experiences,

[2] enable a “values-based” recovery,

[3] reduce the impact of “fear of recurrence” of psychosis through development of mindfulness and self as context,

[4] enable individuals to notice the process of self-stigmatisation, contexts where this operates as a barrier, and commit to valued directions in the face of these appraisals, and

[5] improve relapse prevention plans through the use of mindfulness and committed action.

We describe a group program we have developed, as well as individual work with young people who have experienced a first episode of psychosis. In addition there is discussion about a pilot ACT/mindfulness group for people experiencing at risk mental states, who may be in a prodromal phase of psychosis.

The .pdf of this workshop is here: act-early-morris-oliver-2008 and the audio recording of our presentation is here (.mp3 format, 30MB download)

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Filed under Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, CBT, Clinical Psychology, cognitive behavioural therapy, Mental Health, Psychology