62. Displaying the pottery fish, with pride.

Image

My alarm clock rings to tell me it’s behavioural activation time, also known as Nike Therapy, which means just do something and think about it later, if ever.

My eventual aim is to re-write the classic publication ‘365 things to make and do’ in an updated style to suit these post-ironic times. Also, I’d like to add a 366th project before 2016, which is the next leap year.

Today’s project is to shred a few copies of the NICE guidelines for Depression, mix them with PVA and turn them into hats.

As I shred, I realise that these guidelines do mention the term ‘behavioural activation’ but don’t explain how to do it. They say nothing about arts, crafts, music or hats. Which is surprising, given that there is a long tradition of arts and music therapy in mental health.

My hypothesis is that people need to do something with their hands to feel properly human. Manual work, crafts and organised sport have declined, leaving the hands as mere vestiges of devices that once could dig or sew or fire an arrow. Most people still prefer a mouse to a touch screen, when there is a choice. Many people still prefer a manual gearbox, even though automatics are now superior in all respects.

I have another project coming along which is more complicated. This involves taking photos of bits of stained glass windows, printing them in different sizes, using all the different, clichéd image filters in Pixelmator (such as the ‘ennui’ tool), tearing them up and sticking them onto a collage, which in itself looks like a stained glass window.

For some reason I’m having trouble (as though it was the printer’s fault rather than incompetence on my part) getting them printed at the right size, so they are coming out like postage stamps instead of A4.

If I had to give this activity an hourly rating for mood improvement, I’d have to rank it slightly below checking the lawn for cat faeces, collecting it on a special trowel and flinging it over the garden fence onto the railway line. But it might improve.

Either the picture is going to be postcard size, saving a lot of PVA, or I’m going to have to ask a teenager how to resize the images. Or perhaps find an art therapist, just to check whether this whole activity is artistic or not.

There are no art or music therapists in my local area and come to think of it, none in the hospital where I work. This demise of arts and crafts based therapies has been insidious and largely unreported. This seems like a pity, and I wonder who’s to blame.

Somewhere or other, the mental health establishment has got the idea that ‘therapy’ has to involve a bus journey across town to speak to a person in an office for about an hour once a week for about 20 weeks. True, these activities are evidence-based to an extent. It’s just that the evidence has been collected along narrow strands of enquiry, being derived mainly from a ‘clinic’ context.

No-one has bothered to see whether listening to good music or watching football or making rhubarb crumble can treat Depression effectively. And imagine the practical difficulties in conducting such studies.

Therapies where numerical ratings are intrinsic, such as computerised CBT, have the advantage in terms of generating evidence of improvement. They have largely taken over from other modalities, leaving a long queue of psychoanalysts at Jobcentre Plus.

There’s perhaps a lesson to be learned from Interpersonal Psychotherapy, (IPT). This therapy was invented by Klerman, Weissman and colleagues in the eighties. It’s a standardised approach with a proper instruction manual, which makes it amenable to testing. In particular, it was tested against drug therapy – in those days mainly tricyclic antidepressants.

Its designers were highly scientific individuals with an excellent grasp of the various different ‘models’ of Depression: biological, family, cognitive, psychoanalytic, feminist etc. They knew how to fund and conduct controlled trials and publish the evidence properly. And thus IPT is one of the two types of therapy that NICE bother to endorse.

Compare that approach with a study by Mike Crawford in 2012, purporting to show that weekly attendance at a group arts project had no benefit for patients. I quote:

‘Members of activities groups were offered activities that did not involve the use of art or craft materials’.

My italics, meaning ‘why on earth not?’ It’s not the full Blue Peter, not without the sticky-back plastic.

This is what the new version of ‘365 Things’ should try and achieve – a standardised arts and crafts therapy manual. So we can finally show that meaningful activity is good for people. Each task should be spelled out clearly, like in Marguerite Patten’s 1000 favourite recipes.

And include proper materials like policy documents, shredders, glue and paint. For a long time the surest way to upset an occupational therapist was to mention basket weaving. Now, I say it’s about time for a raffia revival. And it’s time to display the pottery fish, if you’re lucky enough to have one.

Image

 

 Detail from Queen of Heaven, by M Healey, 1933, St Brendan’s Cathedral, Loughrea

Advertisements

61. Punching above your weight, with Britney.

Image

Robot Archie is a comic strip character waiting for a revival. He was amazingly strong and intelligent, but he had one career limiting weakness – he had a control panel that was clearly visible to others. This made him vulnerable to assailants creeping up behind him and pressing the clearly labelled off switch. Nevertheless, having labelled buttons, or even dials to control aspects of oneself would be a huge asset for humans.

Imagine setting your mood state or attitudes with a mode switch, like the ‘Dynamic’ button on Toshiba televisions, which gives an altered visual experience similar to hallucinogens.

One control we really need, besides air con, is a self-confidence dial. Most people set their level a bit too high, much like the heating on trains. The average person is over-optimistic about life in general. Psychologists have identified a cognitive bias towards overestimating things like how intelligent and attractive we are, whether our predictions will come true and how long it takes to get served at Costa. It has been argued that all trade works on this basis, where both parties in a deal overestimate the value of the item they are exchanging.

One peculiar exception to this rule seems to be life expectancy – people, including experts like actuaries, are underestimating how long they will live, which is a major nuisance for the pension funds. Another exception is people suffering from Depression, who tend towards pessimism, as well as a negative evaluation of past events.

Setting the confidence level a bit high is viewed as a defence mechanism against life’s upsets and affronts. But there are certain situations where it’s an issue, such as medical training. It is well recognised that the worst type of doctor is the overconfident one. The sort of person who thinks ‘see one, do one, teach one’ should read the other way round. The sort of person who says loudly, ‘bypass grafting – how hard can it really be?’ on his way into the operating theatre. Trainers recognise that the overconfident doctor is the most difficult one to put right. It looks as though overconfidence or even arrogance is relatively impermeable to feedback, which is perhaps why it’s such a good defence against self-loathing.

Another aspect of the overconfidence debate is whether doctors should give a completely accurate account of the likely benefits of treatment, or apply a little positive spin. Surveys have shown that service users appreciate an upbeat attitude, as well as honesty.

Modern life has removed some of the old certainties, such as how long we will live, or whether the older professions are the best careers. The employment market has too many graduates and not enough artisans. Large companies like Tesco and Microsoft, which we assumed would carry on for hundreds of years, like the Roman empire, seem to be on the decline. This has led to a situation where people change career more frequently.  Many candidates for jobs think of themselves as overqualified. And the orthodoxy within firms is not to hire the overqualified person on the basis that they will become disgruntled quickly.

That leaves a serious self-calibration problem, in the absence of a human dashboard. To an extent, CBT (Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy in particular) is an attempt to assign the correct emotional value to aspects of oneself. Otherwise it’s clear that people are just all over the place when it comes to self-evaluation.

Take a look at these small ads for instance, which illustrate some form of extreme cognitive bias – the disorder usually known as ‘Ron Hopeful syndrome’:

Elderly gentleman, heavy smoker, slightly racist, seeks supermodel for company, trips to garden centre, kinky sex and possibly more.

Nissan Micra, 1997, beige, some damage to interior due to poorly cat, looking to exchange for holiday villa in Cornwall or Devon. No time wasters.

Senior scientist wanted, PhD or post doc, nanotechnologist preferred, fluent Russian desirable, for general warehouse duties.

Wanted: chief executive officer for large healthcare organisation, should have English Language GCSE or equivalent, shovel and forklift training provided

General Medical Council seeks lay member. Performance artist preferred, e.g George Formby impersonator; street theatre, statue man, juggling etc desirable. Ukelele provided.

Crime fighting robot from 1960s available for general do-gooding and big society fieldwork, unpredictable at times. Good with dogs.

Historical footnote – contrary to my first impression, a little research shows that Robot Archie has already made a number of career comebacks. According to Wikipedia:

‘In Zenith, he was a burned out 1960’s acid casualty (renaming himself Acid Archie). Archie is apparently killed by Ruby Fox in Phase IV when she short circuits him whilst he is trying to rip off her head. Archie also appears in zzzenith.com in the special Prog 2001 edition of 2000AD. Zenith explains that rust in the brain-pan has caused Archie’s personality to change from anarchist Acid-House aficionado into a vigilante, hunting down sex offenders with a lethal vigour. He is last seen in the story escaping on a bus in a false beard after sexually assaulting pop star Britney Spears’.

It’s also possible that he gained weight with age so that he wasn’t able to reach his own controls any more, located as they are in the middle of his back. As a literal ‘locus of control’ problem, this was probably what gave Julian Rotter the idea in the first place.

To some extent, he never learned to push his own buttons properly. Like most fictional robots, his downfall was caused by getting too human to control himself.

60. Finding more cultured friends.

Image Bonnie and Clyde – eggs can be killers.

Pretty soon, the most coveted dinner party guests will be microbiologists. If you know any, you should cultivate them. Germs are coming back into fashion.

A lot of people have problems accepting that humans don’t contain any rare or precious elements, except metaphorically, like pearls of wisdom. No gold inside us, no platinum, no diamonds. No titanium, amber or crystals. Mostly water and cheap stuff, like carbon, nitrogen, sulphur and rust.

But there’s worse to come – a large part of us is not human at all – we are nine tenths made of bacteria – at least in terms of the number of cells. The gut ‘microbiotica’ is our largest organ, and possibly our most intelligent one. If the human body is run by a board of directors, the brain might be chairman, but the largest stakeholder is the colon. Definitely not a silent partner. Scientists have shown that the communication network between the gut and brain is a superhighway, the vagus nerve being the M1-near-Luton of all nerve pathways. Many neurotransmitters exist in the gut as well as the brain, and many of them were found in the gut first, such as cholecystokinin, a peptide hormone.

For decades, people were brought up to believe germs were the bad guys. After all, millions of people used to die of infectious diseases like cholera and tuberculosis, and these diseases are still prevalent in much of the world. Although such diseases are controlled mainly by public health measures rather than antibiotics, there is an awareness that resistant organisms are threatening to launch another era of infectious diseases. Already, there have been massive problems controlling outrageous punk – rocker organisms like clostridium difficile (the clue’s in the name).

I’m going to just introduce the phrase ‘faecal transplant’ and get it over with. But that’s how clostridium difficile can be treated. And that’s why there’s a website called ‘the power of poop’. The cure for bad bacteria is good bacteria. I don’t want to upset any readers who are germ phobic, though I expect they are already spraying dettol over the touchscreen and putting on a new pair of Marigolds. A small number of germs have got the others a bad name, just like badgers. We are going to have to stop killing them and start hugging them more. We will see a revolution in the yogurt industry similar to the real ale phenomenon of the seventies. Instead of Ski type products that have been sterilised and given an absurdly-soon sell by date, we will have yogurt with a bit of fizz to it with a ‘best after 2016’ label.

It’s been a while since I treated someone with a germ phobia, but I have a lasting memory of standing next to someone in their home, both of us with our hands pressed against the slimy surface of a kitchen sink, keeping them there for 20 minutes, time for anxiety levels to die down, doing some hands-on behavioural therapy. On this occasion I realised why Cognitive Behaviour Therapy was taking over – because it could provide a massive short cut. Rather than change the actual behaviour, why not look at the thinking behind the behaviour instead? This lady thought that even one germ could kill you. So, hands still pressed into the slime, we talked a bit about the germ theory of disease. People tend to assume that germs cause diseases by infecting people. This is only partly true, in that we have a powerful immune system, so that even the most aggressive organisms will not cause illness in everyone, or even a majority of people. There has to be a chink in the immunological armour, plus a sizable number of germs in the infective boarding party. This concept is called the minimum infective dose, which is usually millions of bacteria. One germ is hardly ever enough to cause an infection. In fact, landing on a human body is one of the worst things that can happen to a germ. It’s equivalent to being the first person up the ladder in an attempt to storm a castle. There are many kinds of immune response, equivalent to boiling oil. So that’s what I told her. It’s true that people can still catch cholera or tetanus, but statistically the chances of catching anything lethal from a sink in Edgbaston is national-lottery-level low (south of Hagley Road, anyway).

The problem for today though, is how to take a rational position on personal hygiene. Last week, at the seaside, I saw a child drop the ice cream out of a cornet onto the beach, only to be retrieved and replaced on the cornet and given back to the child without even a wipe. The child appeared to accept this without reaction or comment. Was the parent doing the child a favour in terms of building up immunity, or recklessly courting a nasty infection? Luckily, most germs will not get through the multiple defences of the upper GI tract, like the concentrated hydrochloric acid in the stomach. That seems to be a problem for so called macrobiotic remedies, which often fail to reach the minimal infective dose. Food outlets are stringently controlled for hygiene. In our cafe shop for instance, the volunteers had to put on plastic gloves between touching the food and the money, which slowed them down enormously, particularly if they had impaired fine movement.

This week however there has been renewed interest in raw milk, even suggesting that it may have health benefits long term. Yet, googling ‘raw milk’ suggests that it’s one of the most dangerous groceries, up there with eggs, peanuts and cantaloupes, in the food-borne infection league. All this makes it difficult to know what to tell germ phobics, in terms of psycho-education.  Recently a microbiologist told me not to eat potatoes that have gone a little bit soft or started sprouting. Apparently, they can contain very dangerous toxins. I confess, I never suspected the humble potato could be a mass murderer, though I was not surprised about cantaloupes, whatever they are.

People’s attitudes and behaviours around food hygiene seem to vary tremendously. Some of it comes down to ‘locus of control’ issues, and general perceptions of environmental threat. In the absence of a testable consensus on hygiene, we might just have to go back to old school marigolds-off behavioural therapy. If it turns out, as seems likely*, that ‘good bacteria’ can treat a range of diseases, possibly including Depression, some very careful marketing is going to be needed. For instance, the corporate colour scheme should definitely not be brown. It’s just a gut instinct.

* Dinan TG and Cryan JF, 2013, Melancholic Microbes: a link between gut bacteria and depression.  Neurogastroenterol Motil, 25, 713-719

59. Cutting costs to the bone and a few corners.

Image

Behind the scenes at Boots.

While we’re on the subject of newspapers (see 58) I’m wondering if the Sunday Times shouldn’t go on the top shelf at the newsagents, along with Total Carp and Darts Illustrated (Swimwear Edition). I’m seriously wondering if its worth queuing up behind the lottery victims, paying £2.50, just to have your world view tarnished and warped.
What is happening at the Sunday Times? Has the influence of Jeremy Clarkson begun to infect the other journalists, who have failed to realise that Clarkson’s work is ironic?
World war three will probably be a fight between thin people and the obese. I wouldn’t put money on the thin people – yes they can run faster, but they can be squashed more easily and might not survive a nuclear winter. In a bid to kickstart the war, Rod Liddle wrote a vicious attack on obese people, entitled: ‘Chew on this insult, lardbucket. It’s for your own good’.
Elsewhere in the paper we learn from Prince Andrew that failure is good for you. I wonder if he’s fully understood what his therapist told him.
And, if that’s not gratuitous enough for you, Camilla Cavendish writes an article this week entitled: ‘Dr Useless says he’s busy. Fine, I’ll be off to the pharmacist then’.That’s a bit more serious, in that Camilla Cavendish is on the board of the Care Quality Commission, and usually wears a serious writing hat to comment on health services, such as contributing an influential report advocating standard training for health care assistants.
The gist of the article is that doctors are very hard to get to see, ‘just to get antibiotics’. It takes weeks to get an appointment. Whereas you can just walk into the pharmacy shop and see a very nice man in a labcoat who will give you whatever you want straight away.
Does this article suggest there is a significant lobby in favour of reducing the role of GPs in favour of pharmacy shops? Private companies have been rather slow to muscle in on the general practice market. Tesco and Morrisons often have pharmacies, but never seem to offer medical specialists, not even dermatologists.
But more recently, Tesco and Morrisons have been struggling even to run the grocery section properly. Instead of supermarkets taking over health care, it’s more likely that the GP will start selling fruit and vegetables.
If one takes the view that a slimmed down health service will confine itself to drug therapies and leave the chat to the private sector, supermarket pharmacies might become the first port of call for the health shopper.
Like Trad Jazz and CBT, pharmacists have no natural predator – no-one has a bad word to say for them. That view could change, if they take on a more central role in primary care. Pharmacy shops are businesses that make their money from selling tablets and potions. Are they likely to offer a free consultation with a professional person and advise you just to wait and see? Or will they sell you some tablets? Will they give you Paracetamol for 16p or Panadol for 89p? I think you know the answer.
While some commentators are predicting that pharmacy shops will take over from GPs, I say: why not cut out the middleman altogether? And that is where Poundland comes in.
Luckily, mental health is a field where the very cheapest tablets are as good as the luxury products. The NHS doesn’t want to spend money on mental health, and isn’t going to. Luckily, it needn’t cost you a fortune either.
Don’t tell the Royal College I said this, but a reasonably sensible person with access to google and the Poundland Pharmacy, should it ever exist, could get a months supply of an effective antidepressant or antipsychotic for 99p. You could get some free counselling from a local religious organisation or the Samaritans and have enough left over for your bus fare and a flat white. I also wonder why Poundland can’t start a Sunday newspaper that’s a bit nicer to fat people and doctors.