Risk Management Begins at Home

Keir provides therapy, training and consultancy via www.beamconsultancy.co.uk

For a while now I’ve been writing about the impact of overly defensive and restrictive practices on the people that I work with (like here and here).  The usual story that I tell is of people being at risk in the community but that risk increasing massively when in hospital.  Unable to see that the ‘help’ seems to putting the service user in greater danger, the answer is seen to be more restriction, greater security and eventually a few years locked rehab unit.  

While many people can recognise the pattern described above, it’s not something that gets promoted a great deal in services where the message of ‘doing whatever it takes’ to keep people safe is often repeated.  It was interesting then to read the Independent Review of the Mental Health Act and to see  Sir Simon Wessely expanding on these very themes right at the beginning of the document.  

My MSc dissertation (which I will publish at some point) concluded that it was fear of what clinicians might be blamed for that led to some of the most restrictive practices in the organisation.  The MHA review begins by talking about Fear – 

“Professionals are fearful that unless they adopt a cautious, risk averse approach to their patients, they will find themselves being publicly shamed for those occasions when those same people cause serious harm to themselves or others”

While it is rarely said out loud, this means that people who are in services to receive care and support, can instead be viewed as people who are dangerous to those who should care for them.  The danger is not so much about what service users might do to a clinician (although this fear is not uncommon) but what clinicians might be blamed for.  The service user moves from being a focus of support, to a threat that can damage or destroy a clinician.  It is unsurprising then that the way service users experience ‘care’ is often not perceived as kindness. 

One way that clinicians can rid themselves of any blame for the actions of those in their care is to pass the responsibility for their care onto others.  I have observed and been part of too many unenthusiastic interactions where someone has been referred for an assessment just so that someone else can make a decision (Sometimes with the full knowledge that it’s a waste of time, but at least it’s the other team that has said No rather than us).  It is dispiriting for all concerned and can too often lead to an inappropriate level of restriction because anything less restrictive ‘isn’t worth losing my badge over’.  Bethany’s dad (@jeremyH09406697) is an avid campaigner against restrictive practice and his experiences seem to echo Wessley’s sentiments that –

”some people with a learning disability, autism or schizophrenia are being “warehoused” as we now call it in locked rehab wards, or unsuitable long stay wards which exacerbate and not ease their problems”

I wish that the chair of the review saying that what we do to people in the name of safety is making things worse had excited the media and society a bit more.  Sadly at the time it was released we were too focused on whether to throw rocks or olive branches towards Europe.  

“So whilst fear of the mentally ill has decreased in the public, parliament and media, a different kind of fear has increased – the fear of making a faulty risk assessment that influences many professionals.”  

The consequence of this is that for many professionals, risk management has “slipped into ‘managing risk to themselves”.  This makes sense as the consequences for a wrong decision can be catastrophic, but to look after ourselves before the person we are being paid to care for is a perversion of our duty of care.  

Wessely suggests that this practice can explain some of the rise in detentions under the mental health act, the sterile nature of many inpatient units and some of the more baffling “just in case” interventions that can take place (No shoe laces for someone with no history of ligaturing?).  I agree with him.  He goes on to suggest that clinicians and services need help from the government and the law to ensure that ‘positive risk’ (which can often mean anything other that the most restrictive practice) is supported.  I hope this can happen, but at the moment, its only @normanlamb I ever see talking about this issue.  

Much of my work over the past few years has been around helping organisations question and avoid some of the more restrictive options available when caring for people who cope in ways that can be dangerous to them.  There’s a range of things that can be done to relieve some of the anxiety in the system and to ensure that the needs of the service user are kept at the forefront of the minds of the people involved in their care.  I may expand on these in future posts but briefly…

  • Too often decisions about how to manage someones risk are made without them.  When they are made an equal partner in decision making, most people can describe their wishes and aims in ways that can reassure people.  We don’t need to agree with people’s decisions, but if we give people all the information at our disposal then we should respect what they want and think about how to support them with their goals.  Where the service user isn’t able to articulate a view, it’s useful to have the input of an Expert by Experience who can help staff teams make sense of why people do what they do.  

 

  • We are often quite poor at giving people information.  I’ve never had anyone respond to the rationale “it’s for your own good”, but I have had people respond to genuine dilemmas where we weigh up pro’s and cons together.  

 

  • We can often have a fantasy about what ‘the next level up’ will be like.  In my experience the extra level of restriction either exacerbates the current difficulties or needs to use increasingly potent cocktails of medication to achieve the desired response.  The intensive therapy supposedly on offer is rarely available and when it is, there’s little benefit from being forced to do therapy.

 

  • Clinicians should never feel that they’re alone in making decisions.  The backing of senior managers and most importantly the service user themselves can take away a lot of anxiety.

 

  • We need to learn from the past.  If someone presents for the 20th time we need to use the knowledge that we have rather than act as if it’s the first time it has happened.  Thinking about crisis when not in crisis is essential and being able to communicate the plans we have made so that people aren’t ‘thinking on the spot’ is really useful too.

 

  • A good risk formulation can again take away a lot of anxiety.  This can help us move from “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” To “What is likely to happen given our past experience?”.  The service users I work with and I have used this to help teams see that for some, admission is likely to result in more lethal methods of coping.  Equally it has helped others recognise that after self harm is a time when the urge to harm has been reset, rather than the time to restrict.  There is little substitute for a coproduced formulation in helping everyone understand the risks and thus agree how to move forward.

There was a post on twitter recently that likened positive risk taking to clinicians neglectfully gambling with peoples lives.  I hope that people can see that this isn’t what I’m advocating.  Trying to eliminate risk can paradoxically put people in danger and we need to keep an awareness of this as we balance the need to support people with the need to keep them safe when they have lost the ability to do it for themselves.  If we can recognise when the focus of our work is protecting ourselves then we can step back and refocus on the person we are supposed to be helping.  If we can do this, the chances of our input being perceived as kindness is substantially increased.  

If you or your organisation would like to talk about how we can help with any of the above please get in touch via the website.  Keir provides therapy, training and consultancy via www.beamconsultancy.co.uk

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