Psychology Career Journeys: James Byrne


James Byrne, Assistant Psychologist at Wandsworth Drug and Alcohol Service shares with Visionary Minds some valuable insights into being an Assistant Psychologist.

Working as an Assistant Psychologist with Wandsworth Drug and Alcohol Service
I’m currently working as an Assistant Psychologist with Wandsworth Drug and Alcohol Service, where my main responsibilities include facilitating the therapeutic group programme, conducting assessments and supporting service evaluation for the psychology team. This is my first assistant post and my first post working within Addictions, so there is lots to learn having previously worked primarily within mental health services in Leeds. Nevertheless, I feel my experience mapped easily into my current role as I had accrued significant experience in facilitating groups and had sought voluntary experience that would give me a foothold in work relevant to service evaluation, assisting a drama therapist in managing her waiting list.

Working for a third sector organisation and within the NHS, I facilitated a range of groups with people at various stages of recovery; this included peer support groups and a hearing voices group, as well as vocational groups such as creative writing and art and I volunteered to take a lead role in supporting the weekly service user involvement meetings. I only recently converted to a career in clinical psychology, having initially completed a degree in theatre and performance, and I have tried to ensure that the skills learned during this time haven’t gone to waste; I found that in many settings, I felt more confident working in groups than my colleagues and was familiar with managing group dynamics and attending to group processes. Being aware of these relative strengths and volunteering myself for these opportunities has allowed me to demonstrate a wider range of skills than would have been possible if I had only set out to do the one-to-one work initially assigned to me.

What does the role involve?
Working in a busy drug and alcohol service, some of the key attributes required for this role are patience and resilience in the face of clients whose lives are often highly chaotic and whose motivation wavers significantly. Service users often struggle to maintain appropriate boundaries and present with various crises often accompanied with challenging behaviour, so maintaining an empathic approach whilst acting assertively means strong interpersonal skills and reflective practice is paramount. In group settings, this also means balancing the needs of any one individual against the needs of the group and ensuring some sense of predictability and fairness is perceived by group members so that it remains therapeutic and safe. This is partly why I chose to work here; having had some experience working with people in receipt of a diagnosis of personality disorder I wanted to learn more about how to work effectively with people who rapidly become highly aroused and who seem hyper alert to their surroundings. This is in contrast to my previous role in psychosis where service users, at least in part due to their medication, often lacked motivation and energy to engage.

What is a typical work day like as an Assistant Psychologist at Wandsworth Drug and Alcohol Service?
On a typical work day, I might be involved with triage assessments, co-facilitating therapeutic groups supervised by a psychologist and visiting relevant services to broaden my understanding of addiction at various stages of recovery, for example shadowing a street outreach team member or visiting a detoxification service. Usually I will spend some time each day reading relevant literature to either addictions of clinical psychology more widely as a basis for discussion with my supervisor to deepen my understanding of the psychologist’s role and competencies, and I am also responsible for maintaining the psychology waiting list and collecting outcome data to evaluate the service’s effectiveness. This is particularly challenging for me as typically I would describe myself as ‘externally motivated’ and extravert and my passion for clinical psychology centres on working directly with clients, so often when working with data I need to remind myself why it is important and relevant to service users’ lives, and set myself piecemeal goals to feel a sense of reward.

What do you find most enjoyable about your role?
I particularly enjoy psychoeducational work, as while this at times may appear mechanistic at first, being able to communicate complex ideas in a way that resonates with client’s lives seems crucial to the psychologist’s role. Empowering services users to take ownership of their difficulties in a language which makes sense to them provides a solid foundation for the self-efficacy and personal responsibility required to combat addiction.

What have you learned so far?
The most important thing I have learnt so far is that flexibility is key as a psychologist. The team and service user base in Wandsworth are worlds apart from my previous role, and still greater than the one before. Psychologists seem well placed to understand and appreciate the challenges many other staff experience and how this translates to service user care, and clearly in a climate where the NHS and its staff are constantly under scrutiny, the need to train and supervise other staff on the front line seems more important than ever.

What advice would you give to those starting off?
If I were to give advice to others starting off, it would be to let your enthusiasm and passion for your role come through and to volunteer yourself for opportunities such as projects when they arise; a good supervisor will inform you when you’re taking on too much but if you establish a reputation for being keen early on you will probably benefit in the longer term.

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