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‘I strongly believe in broadening one’s therapeutic toolkit’

Ian Florance interviews Paul Grantham, Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Founder/ Director of SDS Seminars.

04 November 2019

Paul begins: 'I suppose I'd call myself a bright working-class child. My Dad was in the navy and was away a lot on tour so, for most of the time, I was brought up by my Mum. Passing the 11+, I went to a grammar school and was preoccupied – like many adolescents – with "finding myself". In contrast with my childhood, adolescence was privately unhappy. I experienced a religious conversion experience when I was 14. Several of my peers – many of them the most academically bright – experienced something similar. However, at the same time, another influence had a much more positive impact on my life. I was at school during the Watergate scandal, and, although it wasn't a part of a curriculum, my history teacher, Keith Baker, started every lesson with a political analysis of the previous day's developments, pointing out that we were living through a historic time, not just learning about the past. It's no surprise that I chose Modern History to read at Corpus Christi, Oxford.'

During his first term at Oxford, Paul suddenly realised that he didn't believe in God anymore. 'That has left me with a feeling of potential and liberation that has stayed with me ever since. Not coincidentally, it also paralleled an interest in earlier rebellious 60s San Francisco counter culture – reading Kerouac and listening to the Grateful Dead dominated my non-work time. I think those changes had something to do with the fact that Oxford took me out of a working-class background but gave me no group to join.'

Paul thought he would become a history academic, but decided dusty documents weren't for him. 'I was interested in the present day and above all in people, their systems of beliefs, their ways of interacting with each other – on both a personal and global scale. The transition from a historian to a psychologist was quite a natural one. I decided to do a conversion Master's degree in experimental psychology at Sussex. I liked the idea of seeing if I could handle dealing with people with a scientific (rather than a humanities) methodology. The one-year course involved intensive working through vacations, weekends and late into the night. I clearly was a young man in a hurry.'

To clinical psychology

Paul considered a number of research jobs, but 'I wasn't particularly motivated at research relating to the visual perception of the flea, for instance! I quickly became interested in clinical psychology and applied for a number of technician jobs – what psychology assistants used to be called – which seemed to lead on to clinical training courses. I worked in one of the special hospitals before doing my Clinical Psychology training in Liverpool. It was a course that exposed students to behaviour therapy, radical behaviourism and exploratory psychotherapy. Many of the philosophical and clinical issues that were raised on the course still affect what I do now. Interestingly, I again became conscious of how a tutor's personality impacts training effectiveness, and that awareness later influenced SDS hugely.'

As a Clinical Psychologist Paul worked in primary and secondary care, developing a particular interest in substance misuse. He was part of a team that did pioneering research on benzodiazepine dependency; he led a community mental health team and started presenting research papers and then training courses for mental health professionals. 'These were really gratifying because you could control the content. I was doing something both my audience and I enjoyed.'

Training in the digital age

This is the point where Paul started his company. 'It was first called The Skills Development Service; it was incorporated in 1990 and now known as SDS Seminars Ltd' (see

I asked Paul to sketch in the changes training – and his company – have undergone. 'I was initially a one-man band… no-one else seemed to do psychological skills training and several of my friends were worried… they thought there was no demand for what I offered if no-one else wanted to do it. They were wrong. Anyone starting up their own business shouldn't necessarily be put off by the lack of competition. If you know your field and believe that you know what people want – go for it. Our first two courses were on anxiety management and skills for running groups. We still periodically run them… hugely modified and regularly updated, of course.'

Paul points to a massive expansion in CPD need and provision. 'The field of psychological skills training nowadays is crowded, and highly specialised. In order to meet needs, we had to hugely increase the variety of subjects we cover. We invite prominent figures in their fields to train for us on various specialist therapies, and we're just entering the child psychology field with a new Certificate in CBT for Children and Adolescents.'

At this point Paul became quite animated and I realised that he was approaching one of his favourite subjects. 'How training is delivered has taken up a lot of our recent work. Ten years ago we established a sister company,, which produces and distributes training DVDs. Apart from our own DVDs we hold exclusive licenses to distribute video materials for a number of US leaders in the field. Visiting one of our American partners I watched with growing excitement how he held an event with 300 people in a room and 200 people watching live online. I haven't stopped thinking about it since!'

Out of this experience, SDS grew their 'Interactive Webcasting System' (IWS). 'Some of webcasting's advantages are obvious – not least that it makes fewer financial and time demands on participants. We've already used it for broadcasting our training from the British Psychological Society's London offices, with webcast participants from California, OAE, Hong Kong, Malta, Germany and many other countries. Some advantages are less obvious and were surprising even for us – people interact online considerably more and ask more questions in live webcast training. Of course, to work with IWS, trainers must learn new skills, and structure their training in new ways. But that's a small price to pay if we can bring our training to people who would not be able to join us otherwise.'  

Towards a sharper professional identity

What issues do you see your audience grappling with? 'There are many things that fascinate our participants; they fascinate me as well. For example, CBT has squeezed out other evidence-based psychotherapy modalities – I'm interested in why. I don't know why Motivational Interviewing, for instance, hasn't grown as fast as CBT. I personally use different approaches depending on the client I am working with. I strongly believe in broadening one's therapeutic toolkit, not narrowing it. Evidence-based practice may now be a piece of jargon, but the idea is important, and outcome research must use evidence. Context is important too.'

There's also, according to Paul, 'a huge debate about the role of clinical psychologists today, especially since the introduction of IAPT. They need a sharper, more defined professional identity and a greater focus on leadership. They are being financially undercut – it started 20 years ago in the States and it's happening here. The reaction is often to run to the universities, choosing research and lecturing jobs over clinical practice. We've tried to run courses teaching the skills necessary for clinical psychologists and other mental health professionals to set up their own independent practices, but the response hasn't been what we hoped.'

And what are your future plans? 'Developing our webcasting system and bringing it to other people; filming more training videos; inviting more world-experts to train for us; offering more courses as online training; writing books. This last one has been on the backburner for ages! I've written two practical handbooks and have three longer books in a draft form, but I find it quite difficult to motivate myself to allocate enough time to them. I prefer to influence thousands of people through our training rather than a few hundred through a book. Maybe this reflects my still rebellious nature!'

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