We spoke to cognitive behavioural therapist Polly Haselton about the importance of mental health, and the ways in which CBT can help break negative patterns of behaviour 

Tell us a bit about yourself…

I was born in Bath and grew up in the Wiltshire Countryside. I went to University in Cardiff, and completed postgraduate qualifications and Exeter University and University of Oxford. I’ve always had to work hard to succeed; I’ll never forget spending an Easter holiday at a revision school as I was failing biology, it paid off though and I got one of highest marks in my class!

What was your first experience of working in mental health?

I completed a placement year at University and worked over at Southmead in an Eating Disorder unit. It was an eye-opening and challenging experience, especially as many of the girls were of a similar age to me, however I knew it was a profession I wanted to pursue.

Where did you go from there?

After graduating I got a job in the local primary care psychology service. I worked for the NHS for about 4 years, providing CBT to people with mild to moderate depression and anxiety problems. It was a challenging role due to the usual NHS pressures and studying at the same time, but it was very rewarding and I always had such lovely colleagues.

Tell us more about cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)…

The first myth I feel I must bust is that you don’t lie on a couch and we don’t just talk about your childhood! CBT is a treatment that places emphasis on the links between how we think, feel and behave; the theory being we may have entrenched patterns of thinking or behaving that are unhelpful and may be keeping the problem going, so learning how to break those links is key.

I remember being told once by a supervisor ‘as a CBT therapist you are making yourself redundant from day one; you are passing on the necessary knowledge and skills to your client so that in the end they no longer need you’.

Why do you think it is important for people to be aware of their mental health? 

I think mental health is central to our overall wellbeing, and poor mental health can have such an impact on life, whether that be our work, relationships, family or physical health. It’s hard as people will often say ‘it’s just crept up on me’, which is true, if it were to happen overnight you would no doubt notice and definitely do something about it, however for many it’s been a gradual decline which makes it harder to spot.

How might somebody recognise the need for CBT?

This is really hard to answer; some people will seek treatment because loved ones have encouraged them to do so, and it’s only through starting to talk about things that they start to recognise there is a problem. For others, they notice they haven’t been feeling like themselves for a while, perhaps not wanting to do the things they used to enjoy, or they’re not sleeping well. I think people find it hard to know what type of talking therapy is best for them, and that’s where doing a bit of reading, or talking things over with a qualified professional can help. CBT is good for individuals with clearly defined goals, who want to learn how to overcome their problems and move forward. 

What are some of the challenges you face as a CBT therapist?

I think being self-employed brings new challenges, for example, spreading the word about your business is hard, as people often don’t tell their friends or family they’re attending therapy. Therefore they’re less likely to pass on a recommendation, or leave a review on your Facebook business page, so I’ve got to be creative and persistent with my advertising. On a personal level, it’s ensuring I don’t take on too much; it’s very tempting to just open an extra slot if a new client can’t make the one you’ve got available, however it is important that I look after myself and recharge my batteries. I have to practice what I preach!

What might a typical session look like?

CBT is a collaborative therapy that is quite structured. I always ask my clients each session how they would like to spend the time, and together we agreed on a plan for the session. It’s usually a mixture of exploring a specific problem, and looking at ways of overcoming it; learning CBT skills and theory along the way.

What do you do outside of your private work?

I work up in Oxford 3 days a week, developing virtual reality CBT treatment! It’s an innovative, exciting project to be a part of, and our company values are to develop the best CBT treatments, grounded in science, with a proven effectiveness, which can be accessed by all.

The idea of virtual reality and CBT is really exciting – how would that work? Would it take away from the personal element of therapy sessions?

It is really exciting! The idea is the individual could buy or subscribe to a particular package, e.g. overcoming spider phobia, and through using a VR compatible mobile phone or headset, like the HTC Vive, they can complete it from their own home. There is less of a personal element, but for some people this can be a good thing, for example if they are uncomfortable talking to a therapist, or if they can’t make weekly therapy sessions. 

There is still a stigma around mental health – what advice could you give to people looking to overcome this?

I would definitely advise talking to those close to you. In my experience people often find as soon as they open up about their difficulties, others often empathise and will disclose some of their own struggles with mental health. To address the stigma we need to be more open about our difficulties and educate those who have inaccurate knowledge. 

To arrange a free initial phone conversation with Polly visit pollycbt.wordpress.com or send an email to polly.cbt@gmail.com