It all started in the locked psychiatric ward of a hospital.
I didn’t expect it to be an experience that would shape my future, but that’s often how life goes isn’t it?
I was in my early 20s and had taken on a job at a psychiatric ward, not really knowing what to expect. If you asked me at the time why I decided to work there I would probably have said the money, as I was a young dad with a family to support.
But looking back I can see that I was always fascinated with the human mind. From early on I had read everything I could on psychological pathology and human potential. I think this was why I was drawn to the caring professions.
And so I went to work inside that hospital on the hill, an old Victorian building that had been a workhouse for the desperate and starving a hundred years before.
But what I saw shocked me. There I saw suffering on a large scale, greater than I could have ever imagined.
First do no harm?
Some of the patients I looked after had been institutionalized for decades. Many of them had been ‘treated’ with lobotomies and electroshock therapy.
But this was the 1980s and then, as today, prescribing psychotropic drugs was in fashion. Patients were medicated daily with drugs which caused terrible side effects like tremors, agitation, nausea and blurred vision. And if the drugs weren’t working then dosages were increased.
I should point out now that I’m not against medication per se, just against medication that doesn’t work. And sadly, for most of the patients there, it didn’t. Gaining independence and going to live in the community was barely discussed as a therapy goal.
In fact I could see no therapy really. I don’t want to criticize because many of the staff had only the best of intentions, but I couldn’t help but feel the patients themselves were slipping away from health and wellbeing and we were doing very little to prevent that.
There must be a better way
Thinking that there had to be a better way of caring for our mentally ill, I trained as a hypnotherapist while working at the psychiatric hospital. And although I certainly wasn’t allowed to, I would sometimes use hypnosis to relax the patients who had shown an interest in my studies. Not only was I able to put them into a trance, but the effects of relaxing deeply for ten minutes or so made a real difference to their day.
My confidence increasing, I sought clients as a professional hypnotherapist. My dream goal back then, as a father of two young boys, was to treat three clients a week. I was not doing well financially. In fact, I couldn’t even afford to buy a chair for my clients to sit in. I wound up using a rather beat up second hand one from the basement of the local YMCA!
But things got better. To my delight, I found I was able to make a real difference to my clients. Some of them were nearly as ill as the institutionalized patients at the psychiatric hospital. But by using an approach based on solution focused therapy and making unconscious changes through hypnosis I was able to help my clients feel much better.
As time went on, my business continued to grow until I was working for myself full-time – with a waiting list!
When therapy is painful
But my success made me all the more concerned about the mainstream methodologies used to treat mental health problems. I was fortunate that my training was evidence-based, but I met many clients who had been in therapy for years without improvement, and sometimes that never-ending therapy made them feel worse about themselves.
Depressed clients who spent hours each week dredging up the past and talking about how sad they felt, instead of learning techniques to help them feel better. Traumatized clients who suffered panic attacks each session their therapists asked them to revisit the memories that terrified them.
And of course, the number of drug prescriptions for mental illnesses has exploded in the past two decades. Many of the clients I treat have been prescribed cocktails of powerful drugs, convinced that their problems coping with grief or suffering panic attacks are the result of a ‘chemical imbalance’.
The more I saw this, the more outraged I became.
Big pharma and harmful ideologies
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not blaming individual people here.
The vast majority of doctors and nurses at the psychiatric hospital were good people, driven by the desire to help patients. And most therapists are of course compassionate and dedicated.
But harmful treatment ideas, and of course the massive influence of Big Pharma, means that people often don’t get the help they so desperately need.
And that’s why I started working as a therapy trainer myself. I know that there’s nothing ‘magical’ about me, just about the (uncommon) knowledge I’ve been lucky enough to come into contact with up over the years.
A new focus
After starting our company Uncommon Knowledge in 1998, my business partner Roger Elliott and I spent ten years running a psychotherapy diploma course at Brighton University, and then in 2008 moved our courses online and started to teach therapists around the world through our online classroom Uncommon U.
We’ve now trained more than 5000 therapists, mainly from English-speaking countries but an increasing number from countries like Dubai, Sweden and Israel.
The best part of my job is hearing uplifting stories from therapists who have changed their client’s lives through the training we provide.
And welcome to Uncommon Practitioners!