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Children, young people and families, Stress and anxiety

One on one...with Sam Cartwright-Hatton

Clinical Psychologist, University of Manchester. Includes web-only answers

13 May 2011

One moment that changed the course of your career
Standing outside the loos in Birmingham University's psychology department, waiting for a student who was showing me around on a postgrad open day. Idly looking at a noticeboard, I saw an advert for a DPhil studentship at Oxford, studying anxiety disorders in adults. It was funded (the main attraction at that point...) and although I hadn’t really been that drawn to clinical psychology, it sounded interesting. I applied, and that was that. I ended up loving it, and a career as a clinical psychologist followed.

One way to ease anxiety in young children
I really think the best way of reducing the global burden of anxiety would be to ensure that all children grow up in a fair world, without poverty, where their basic emotional needs are met by happy, well-supported parents. And now in the real world...

One publication all psychologists should read
New Scientist. I read it cover to cover every week (OK, not the stuff on black holes...) and I am constantly picking up leftfield ideas that influence my thinking, and that I would never come across otherwise.

One acronym for your next project, following PACMan and TOPCAT!
Our next project will be running at the CATTLab in Sussex, hot on the heels of our CATTS and TOPCAT grants, so it had to have a feline-related name. We’ve called it the ASPI project – Anxiety Symptoms Prevention Intervention. Aspi (short for Aspidistra) was the name of my dear departed moggie.

One nugget of advice for aspiring psychologists
For anyone really, no matter what career they are aspiring to: Be nice to people; deliver what you promise. Do those two things and you won’t go far wrong.

One thing that ‘organised psychology’ could do better
Convince the world that we really are scientists. My husband is an engineer and readily admits that researching the human mind is more difficult than the most complex of engineering problems that he has faced. Unfortunately, that’s still not how the public usually see it.

One cultural recommendation
Go and watch the Royal Ballet doing anything. Nothing takes me out of myself like watching dance and we are lucky to have one of the best companies in the world based in the UK.

One way parents may be impacting upon the anxiety of their children
First of all with their genes, but we can’t do much about that (yet). If your children have landed some anxious genes, the best thing that you can do, in my opinion, is make sure they receive calm, consistent, clear parenting, and regularly push them just out of their comfort zone.

One great thing that psychology has achieved
We’ve started to understand mental illness. That’s the first step towards de-stigmatising, and, thanks largely to psychologists, we are moving to a world that is sympathetic towards and accepting of mental health problems.

One more question
My favourite saying is ‘friends are people who know all about you, but like you anyway’. For me, it reinforces what I need to keep in mind as a clinical psychologist – we’ve all got a dark side in us somewhere, and this is OK.

Web-only questions

One way to tackle social anxiety in older children
I think this depends on the reasons for social anxiety. If the child has genuine social skill deficits, then they need help with these. However, research by my colleagues and I shows that many socially anxious young people have very good social skills, and our goal is to help them to recognise this. The whole area needs more research, but I think that we will find that the CBT techniques used to achieve this with adults will work very nicely with older children and adolescents.

One challenge you think psychology faces
In the past few decades, we have really increased our understanding of common mental health problems and are starting to be able to treat them. But at the moment, we only manage to reach a tiny minority with our skills. We really have to try to help more people. I think that Improving Access to Psychological Therapies is a step in the right direction but will probably still only scratch the surface. And, at the moment, it doesn’t focus on children.

One alternative career path you may have chosen
Ballet dancer (see above) but I would never have been very good. I would also have loved to have done medicine, but I go giddy at the sight of blood and have a hair-trigger disgust reflex, so that would never have worked either.

One hope for the future
That it becomes recognised for the complex, fascinating, vital science that it is, and becomes more attractive to the very best young minds.

One regret
I really don't have any. Honestly.

One person who inspired you
The late Professor Richard Harrington. I met him just after I qualified as a clinical psychologist, and for some reason (I had no grants, very few papers and knew pretty much nothing about anything) he took me under his wing. He really believed in me and encouraged me to do things that I would never have dared do without his support.

One proud moment
I think getting my MRC Clinician Scientist Fellowship was my proudest moment. Prof Harrington had egged me on to apply for it, against all my best instincts (I think they had only been awarded to medics before). I was awarded it just a few days before he died, and I know he was chuffed.

One thing that you would change about psychologists
We are such a disparate bunch that there isn’t one thing that defines us all, and certainly, I don’t think, any one thing that we all need to change.

Sam is running 'From Timid to Tiger: Parenting the anxious child' on 3rd October.

For details, see