‘Therapy can help us to draw on our own spontaneity’
Hannah Sherbersky has had a long, varied and illustrious career in mental health. She trained as a mental health nurse originally, a profession that informs her work now as a systemic psychotherapist and university lecturer specialising in work with young people and families. She played a pivotal role in the BBC Three short documentary broadcast in 2019, I Blame My Parents, holding an emotional and frank therapy session in which Dammy, a 23-year-old woman suffering anxiety, finally confronted her mother about their difficult communication. Sherbersky is currently involved in discussions with Channel 4 about a possible documentary idea.
I learned so much being involved in the short TV documentary. Obviously, the first areas I thought about were the ethical considerations and the notion of informed consent. I talked through the issues with my supervisor and professional body, the Association for Family Therapy and Systemic Practice (AFT). The BBC Three team was also very thoughtful and respectful, not only when it came to the ideas and considerations I had for the programme, but also towards the contributors.
The most interesting aspect of that process was the challenge of distilling an idea and making it intelligible and understandable for the general public. The programme featured an edited extract of 18 minutes from a three- hour session of family therapy. I found myself becoming interested in how we crystallise the salient points in a therapy session and uncover the very essence of someone’s story.
I am keen to demystify therapy and promote systemic ways of thinking, so it has been very helpful for me in thinking about my work generally – what is at the very heart of the work I am trying to do?
Therapy is by its very nature a creative process. We can all be creative and bring forth new stories and possibilities. Therapy can help us to draw on our own spontaneity. I strongly believe that we often learn more in our embodied experience of one another and there is something about working creatively that taps into that embodied experience.
Therapy is in the family and in many ways I started my training very young. I have vivid memories as a child of waiting in the staff room of a psychiatric hospital for my dad to finish his shift. He was then a psychiatric social worker before later training and working with Robin Skynner as a group analyst. This was the late 1970s, when all psychiatric nurses smoked and wore corduroy! I would sit quietly in the corner of the room, listening to the staff talking about their patients and I think my interest in people’s stories really ignited at this point.
I qualified as a mental health nurse 23 years ago and my mental health nursing identity is still very important and grounding for me. In particular, it helps me with the practical application of therapeutic ideas and gives me credibility with trainee colleagues. The fact that I can draw on my own experience of being on the front line as a mental health nurse gives me the authority to be challenging. Understanding the wider system also enables me to come alongside trainees who might be working in incredibly difficult and challenging situations.
As a family therapist, I work one day a week in an NHS adolescent inpatient unit. I have a small private practice with my husband, who is also a psychotherapist. We see families for therapy, provide supervision and do extra teaching and training. The rest of my week, I work as programme and academic lead within the clinical education development and research department (CEDAR) of the psychology unit at the University of Exeter. The courses include a qualifying course in family therapy, clinical psychology, systemic practice and family interventions for psychosis input. In my spare moments, I am finishing my doctorate on notions of home within adolescent inpatient units.
Working with high levels of complexity sometimes requires simplicity as a response. In a family context, within services that are themselves complex, I believe we need to be really clear, to prioritise and remain tenacious. I started working in an inpatient unit 20 years ago and thought about how much needed to change therapeutically, but it has taken me all these years to get to a position where I have the authority and expertise to now organise training for inpatient staff. We need to be tenacious!
Adult mental services sometimes struggle to be very compatible with a systemic way of thinking. Ten years ago, I co-developed the Exeter Model with Professor Janet Reibstein, which uses behavioural and systemic ideas within couple therapy to treat depression. We ran a couples clinic, have trained many people in the model and it was delivered as one of the adult IAPT programmes. It’s still ongoing – we recently developed an adaptation to the training for perinatal services and mother and baby units in the South West.
I feel proud of the teaching and training that I do, particularly the recent inpatient training programme. It’s a very complex and politically sensitive area to work in – the stakes are so high for young people and there is so much to do to improve services. I believe using a systemic framework can help us tackle some of the difficulties we face generally. Almost all the young people I work with are responding appropriately and understandably to incredibly difficult life circumstances. We need to contextualise mental health, within both the family and wider society. Psychotherapists as compassionate people can come alongside others and tolerate their distress. I continue to learn so much about families from students and my own children. Ultimately, we are all relational beings in families and live in a relational world.
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