Creating a new NHS England: Health Education England, NHS Digital and NHS England have merged. Learn more.
My mental health career
A high intensity therapist charts his path from school teacher to working in the Redbridge Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) service in Essex:
My journey into mental health and subsequently Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) started in 1997.
Having taught physics in higher education for around five years, I became aware of the effects of stress in the teaching profession, with some staff and students ‘burning out’ early into the new terms. I, too, could feel the effects of my demanding role.
At that time, it was clear to me there was not much awareness or provision to manage stress in schools for teachers, let alone the students. Thus, the journey into staff and student mental health began.
I started to learn to manage my own stress proactively by taking courses to give me the background knowledge to understand it, its effects and how to manage it. I studied part-time, alongside a full-time teaching timetable, starting with basic stress management and psychology courses that I completed over weekends, both face to face and through distance learning.
I moved on to take a master’s degree in Applied Positive Psychology, an evidence based field that considers the science behind helping people to flourish. I started applying the knowledge I gained about stress management to my students’ learning and supported them to manage the demands of their A-Levels.
As time went on, I saw the benefits of applying my learning to my work with students and I became more interested in evidence-based practices and the research into managing stress and emotional wellbeing. I decided to complete a master’s degree in Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
After completing my masters in CBT in 2014, I decided to leave my job as a teacher in January 2015 and started applying for mental health roles within the NHS. Thanks to the experience I had gained in mental health during my teaching career and other voluntary roles, I secured a role as a cognitive behavioural therapist via the Knowledge, Skills and Attitudes (KSA) route and started working towards becoming BABCP accredited. In 2018 I became a BABCP accredited high intensity cognitive behavioural therapist.
My undergraduate degree was in physics with astrophysics. A career in IAPT appealed to me as I found the thinking strategies I used to problem-solve in physics and the skills I used to disseminate complex theory to students were similar to making psychological theory accessible to IAPT service users.
Researching and collating materials from a variety of evidence-based sources was something I had done for my entire teaching career and these skills were directly transferrable to my role as a high intensity cognitive behavioural therapist. Using a variety of teaching styles and enabling students to overcome learning obstacles is not dissimilar to working with my current IAPT service users.
Being a clinician from a minority ethnic background adds an undeniable amount of value to the work I do with IAPT service users. Thanks to my own cultural perspective and background I can quickly gain an understanding of minority ethnic clients’ backgrounds, perceptions and any possible cultural obstacles they may face when addressing mental ill health or during therapy. I also understand Punjabi so when a client cannot speak English fluently, being able to understand them in their first language goes a long way in maintaining a supportive and constructive therapeutic alliance.
Working in IAPT can be challenging. Managing caseloads, maintaining contact with clients and sensitively ensuring they remain on track is not always easy, but knowing that therapy is being made available from trained professionals to those who need it is highly motivating. Having an understanding and supportive management team as well as supportive and collaborative colleagues makes the role enjoyable. I have an incredibly supportive supervisor who helps me to reflect on my practice and develop my skills as a therapist.
I enjoy working in IAPT and would recommend a career as an IAPT practitioner, even if you’re not currently working in mental health. Many of the skills I learned as a teacher and through extra studying and volunteering are transferrable to my current role, although I didn’t fully appreciate the extent to which this would be the case until I started my training.
If I were to offer advice to anyone starting out on this journey I would say be prepared to put in longer hours at the start to gain experience and to learn about your own limitations as a therapist. Work closely with people who can support your work and can help you develop as a therapist, read widely and reflect on your practice. In return, you will get to work with highly motivated and supportive colleagues and provide vital mental health support to people in your community.
It’s hugely rewarding knowing you are making a real difference to people’s lives.