Family therapists find blue sky and sunshine in Aberdeen

I’ve just been to the International Family Therapy Association conference in Aberdeen. I met family and systemic therapists from all round the world and Aberdeen gleamed for us in the sunshine against a clear blue sky for most of the time we were there.

It was really hard to decide what to attend – sometimes there were up to 11 parallel sessions to choose from. So, I will just give a flavour of the rich options available to us.

I went to a session on therapist self-care (and I think this is something other professionals could learn from especially medics and nurses – how are they taught about looking after themselves?) The presenter highlighted 5 dimensions of self-care: mental/ emotional, social, spiritual, physical and occupational, a useful framework to remember. This workshop encouraged me to feel ok about missing some of Saturday morning to run the Aberdeen parkrun, which takes place on the esplanade beside the sea with the waves crashing on the shore and boats lined up in the bay. Fantastic!

I contributed to a panel presentation on AFT, the Association for Family Therapy and Systemic Practice that covers the UK. Colleagues explained how AFT operates and where it fits in as a professional body, how family therapists are trained in the UK, what burning issues there are for us at the moment, and what theories influence us. We were asked whether family therapy is a core mental health profession: what a question! It invites a range of answers, and a definite no in relation to families in later life. And how logical is that, when families (if we are lucky enough to have a family) are so important to us throughout life? We need family support even more when we accumulate the disadvantages (physical, social and psychological) that often accompany advancing age.

As a practising systemic supervisor, I thought it would be useful to go to a couple of sessions dedicated to supervision, including one on evidence-based supervision. It left me with lots of questions. I don’t think we’re always clear what we mean by supervision, what the aims/ goals are for supervision, and how we evaluate it (maybe in terms of process and impact both for supervisee and supervisor). I strongly believe that it supports lifelong learning and professional development for qualified therapists at all stages of their careers. I also think that all health and social care practitioners in the UK could learn from models of systemic supervision and, for me, it also links with therapist self-care. Practical ideas I took away for my supervisory role include asking about the cases that aren’t brought to supervision, and identifying themes (though supervisees often do this).

A session on risk was also thought-provoking, and this topic often comes up in discussions amongst independent therapists. I think independent therapists can’t really avoid finding a way to respond collaboratively to risk, but I was struck by the question of how come risk has become so big? And how has risk come to distort service practices? The presenter made the point that originally risk was about both loss and gain, but has come to be negative and to focus on danger. Organisational responses to risk tend to be bureaucratic and defensive, and that may distract from more creative collaborative responses. How do we move towards a prospective relational model of managing risk? I hope I’m quoting the presenter here: “risk changes moment by moment in relationships between people“. He referred to a Department of Health document from 2007 (now archived – don’t you love the short life of useful documents on the internet, find it here) called Best practice in managing risk, which states:

Positive risk management means being aware that risk can never be completely eliminated, and aware that management plans inevitably have to include decisions that carry some risk. This should be explicit in the decision-making process and should be discussed openly with the service user.”

I’ve certainly learned that, with older adults, trying to eliminate risks may introduce new ones. This document is definitely still useful today.

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