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Reflections from the first meeting of IoMH Special Interest Group in Psychological Trauma

iomh6 July 2022

nurse on bed head in hands

This blog was written by UCL Division of Psychiatry PhD Student, Ava Mason.

The Institute of Mental Health (IoMH) Special Interest Group in Psychological Trauma is an interdisciplinary group of UCL researchers and clinicians from our partner NHS trusts. The meetings within this group aim to provide opportunities for collaboration between academics and clinicians, raise the visibility of trauma research at UCL and develop a UCL-wide ‘trauma strategy’. The first meeting included a range of hot topic talks, whereby each of the members discussed their research or clinical focus to the 150 attendees.

Dr Michael Bloomfield who chaired the event explained how one third of individuals who experience psychosis have also experienced previous childhood trauma. Reporting recent results from a large multi-site international study, he stated that 69.9% of participants who had experienced childhood trauma and had an at-risk mental state also had undiagnosed PTSD or complex PTSD. Relating to trauma experienced by children in care, Dr Rachel Hiller discussed key work currently being conducted investigating transdiagnostic predictors of mental health outcomes.  This work could help to develop feasible and effective interventions and inform future service decision making for those in care.

The next hot topic was presented by Shirley McNicholas, who discussed multiple ways in which trauma informed care could be implemented, specifically referring to the women-only Drayton Park crisis house.  She discussed how the environment can be used as a therapeutic tool to help people feel safe, while environment seen as punishing and criminalising negatively impacts women who require support. Trauma informed care also involves helping people connect the past to the present to intervene appropriately, reducing misdiagnosis, inappropriate care planning and compounding self-isolation and shame.  A trauma informed organisational approach within Camden and Islington was then emphasised by Dr Philippa Greenfield.

model for trauma informed organisational change

She discussed the need to increase trauma informed culture embedded within all services and wider communities.  This involves challenging inequality and addressing secondary trauma in the workforce and with patients and acknowledging the impact of adversity and inequality on physical and mental health. Currently, trauma informed collaborative and Hubs have been established to help manage change from within organisations and monthly trauma informed training is being run for staff, service users and carers.

Dr Jo Billings highlighted the considerable impact of occupational trauma within the workplace.  Within the peak of the pandemic, this phenomenon had increased research focus, with studies finding 58% of workers meeting criteria for anxiety, depression, or PTSD.  Within global research on police workers, 25.7% drank hazardously and 14.2% met criteria for PTSD. Focusing on UK research on 253 mental health professionals, high rates of burnout and secondary traumatic stress have been reported.  Strategies that could mitigate this include increased reflective supervision, minimising work exposure where ethically possible and identifying individuals who may be at most risk.

Relating to plasticity enhanced psychotherapy, Dr Ravi Das discussed the importance of research aiming to improve synergy between drug and psychological treatments. Current medication for PTSD does not target causal mechanisms of PTSD, which may explain why many individuals with PTSD do not find medication effective. Drugs like Ketamine block NMDA receptors critical to memory formation and restores lost synaptic plasticity, preventing trauma memories from stabilising. This allows the memory and cognitions of the event to be altered during therapy. Future research should focus on specific medication that target mechanism of change itself to increase the effectiveness of PTSD treatments.

Dr Talya Greene discussed the impact of mass trauma, whereby the same event or a series of traumas affect many people at the same time. The current health system is not built to provide support to many individuals at once following an event, especially when the health workers themselves may be affected by the incident. Additionally, those that are affected by the event vary in many ways, from their cultural, mental health and trauma backgrounds to the way in which they were mentally or physically affected by the event itself. Focus is needed on the effects of early trauma responses on future health outcomes, and how to target groups that don’t normally access support due to physical difficulties or cultural background. Additionally, the current evidence base needs to be increased to see what may be effective specifically in the context of mass trauma settings.

Dr Mary Robertson and Dr Sue Farrier discussed various specialist services within Camden and Islington. One of these was the traumatic stress clinic, working with patients who have a history of complex trauma, including trafficking victims, war and conflict refugees, and individuals with a history of child abuse. The service helps to stabilise the individual before considering which trauma focused individual or group intervention to provide. Additionally, Operation Courage is the term used to describe several Veterans specialist mental health services. They offer comprehensive holistic assessment, referral to local services and in house social support, pharmacological and psychological treatment. These veteran services aim to offer quick support, working alongside statutory and non-statutory agencies where care is shaped by the service users. Alcohol and substance misuse is not seen as a barrier for treatment access, and services also provide peer support and consultation for carers and family.

The audience raised some relevant questions for the panel to discuss, such as how best to strengthen clinical and academic collaborations. Feedback suggested the need to quickly produce trauma informed digestible research that can be rapidly synthesised and relayed back to clinicians. The main barrier to this being a fundamental need for more funding to create a working relationship between academic and clinical services. Within under resourced clinical services, a network approach is required so clinicians can codevelop research questions with other colleagues and trainees to reduce research workload. The need to listen to the voice of marginalised groups within research was also discussed. This involves building a trusting relationship between researchers and BAME groups, to collaborate with service users and consider the impact of historical racism, family dynamics and cultural impact within trauma research. The panel also suggested ways to reduce occupational trauma through having a cohesive team where people can build resilience and support through integrating coping mechanism individually and as a team.

Lastly, Ana Antunes-Martins discussed the Institute of Mental Health Small Grants, providing funding for interdisciplinary teams of all mental health areas, prioritising applications focusing on mechanistic understanding of mental health.

The next meeting will focus more on some of the relevant points raised within this meeting, as well as potential collaboration opportunities. To find out more about this group (and future meeting dates) please visit: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/mental-health/special-interest-group-psychological-trauma 

The academic conference: a Total Perspective Vortex with cappuccinos

tonydavid1 September 2020

In anticipation of the UCL Institute of Mental Health’s first international Conference on 9th September, I posed a few questions to our speakers about their attitudes and experiences of scientific conferences. In this Covid-19 world we are having to rethink many aspects of life we previously took for granted – from the most profound to the trivial (I am not sure where conferences sit on this dimension).

The first question was:  What do you most miss/not miss about ‘conventional’ (pre-Covid) scientific conferences?

For Argyris Stringaris it is the sheer randomness of the encounters that academic conferences engender. For Emily Holmes it’s about sharing cups of coffee and informal chats around the symposia. “Getting to know the people behind the research” as much as hearing about the research alone is the key. Meeting people behind the scientific papers that you have read is a truly eye-opening experience, but not always positive. Some say you should never meet your heroes. I find that I am increasing left feeling that the person whose work I have admired invariably turns out to be much younger than I had imagined. Perhaps this is evidence of a bias to equate longevity with wisdom – a self-serving bias of course. Tamsin Ford agrees – except it’s “a good-sized mug of tea” that she yearns for rather than coffee, but certainly not the jet lag, the delays in immigration and the inevitable traveller’s fatigue.

This is particularly salient for Ethel Mpungu who is based in Uganda. “At the moment, I do not miss ‘conventional’ (pre-COVID) scientific conferences outside my country” she says. “The fatigue from the long distance travel was just about to kill me!… For now I will enjoy the international conferences in the comfort of my office. Before Covid, in-country conferences were attended by very few individuals but with virtual conferences up to 300-500 may attend which I find absolutely amazing. I know that my work has reached so many more people in my country during the Covid pandemic than before.” And we anticipate reaching over 500 this time round.

But what of the actual ‘work’ of the conference format. Pasco Fearon laments the absence of live question and answer sessions from the floor. “I do rather miss formulating a polite answer to the inevitable left-field, really long and rambling question – posting questions online and having the chair choose them has killed that sport.” (We will try and keep this sport alive on September 9th). But who misses those other staples: “This isn’t so much a question as a comment…” and the embittered, entitled question that barely conceals the admonishment: why didn’t you cite my work?

Finally there is the longing for international travel and cultural exchange. For Rick Adams it’s the glorious Italian food at the Schizophrenia International Research Society in Florence every other spring, and American music at Society of Biological Psychiatry.

The second question put to our guests was:  What scientific conferences do you most enjoy?  eg., small focussed symposia? Large scale extravaganzas?

Here I can report that the data were fairly consistent and convincing. The small symposia were considerably more appreciated – “small all the way” according to Rick Adams – but even here it is hard to separate the academic aspects from those more social. Pasco Fearon again: “I much prefer the smaller conferences where there’s a tighter focus on an area of interest; old friends and new stars get to meet, talk in-depth and socialise. I find the big conferences a bit like the Total Perspective Vortex in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!”

Some like to have their cake and eat it. “I love small focussed symposia (which allow discussion and debate)”, says Emily Holmes, “…but within Large scale extravaganzas to catch up on the big picture.” The same story comes from Tamsin Ford, for whom it’s the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s ‘research institutes’, “… where a whole day is devoted to a project – some of these have been excellent” – a kind of small-within-large format.

Clearly if it’s about getting your message out to the largest number of people, the large-scale events deliver on their promise and that is what swings it for Ethel Mpungu.  For Jim Gold it’s all about catching up with old friends – more likely in the big international events – although for him the real purpose seems to be seeing who has or has not aged well. It reminds me of a class reunion I went to – often the scene of repressed competitiveness – where the most coveted prize was, not for the most successful or wealthy but for the person who looked most “well preserved”.

The final question was as follows:  What is the single most important scientific/clinical question in our field right now?

Perhaps surprisingly given the scope of the question, there was something approaching a consensus. For Jim Gold and Ethel Mpungu – it’s simple. “When will clinical neuroscience actually impact clinical care at a large scale?” says Jim, while Ethel wants to know, “How interventions work and for whom”.  Argyris Stringaris is equally succinct: “What is mood and how to influence it?”

Pasco Fearon circles the question before homing in: “How can we make programmatic mental health prevention really work? It’s one of the holy grails of the field, but it’s fraught with difficulties.” But like all good research, attempting to answer one question always leads to many more: “How do we sustain intervention effects over long periods of time? In child psychology and psychiatry there are a good number of prevention and intervention strategies that seem to be helpful in the short-term, but their benefits often fade over time. Good strategies for maintaining treatment gains might sometimes be quite different to the strategies that affected change in the first place, but we rarely think about this thoroughly or study it.”

Emily Holmes also wants to take a run-up before jumping on the major questions.  She says: “To dream big and really help people with mental health difficulties, we are going to have to transform our culture … For example, how can we move from studies about ‘description’ (merely counting, describing, knowing if something works or not) to learn to best change what is troubling someone and derive novel interventions to transform mental health?”

But we cannot escape the challenge of the moment. For Tamsin Ford the biggest question for us to address right now is “The impact of Covid and the recession on the mental health and development of children and young people” but perhaps she would say that. Rick Adams is also acutely in tune with the times. When preparing for a scientific lecture, the question at the forefront of his mind is:

“Has someone forgotten to mute themselves?”