Chris, who now works as a High Intensity Practitioner in NHS North Cumbria Talking Therapies, shared how he came to a career as a CBT Therapist, and why he believes more and more people will want to live in places like Cumbria in the future….

Chris working at his laptop

Chris was raised by his father, an engineer who’d moved to Cumbria to escape the hustle and bustle of 1950’s London. By the time Chris was starting to look for work, the area’s traditional industries that men had found work in for generations, such as steelworks and factories, were closing, leaving him at a loss about what to do for a career during a recession.

After several years of struggling in and out of work, Chris returned to education to study business in a bid to find a new path. In 1996, while working as an insurance representative, he expressed an interest in nursing and was encouraged by his older clients to pursue this. While browsing some information about what nurses specialised in, Chris read about how nurses and other health professionals were using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to change people’s lives and empower them to make changes for the better. Chris’s interest was sparked, and it was the start of his journey towards a job he loves. “I only had average grades when I left school”, he says, “but my experiences of unemployment and redundancy had given me a strong work ethic, and once I found something I was passionate about pursuing I just carried on finding opportunities to learn and develop.”

Chris went on to complete three years of nursing training and spent several years working in older peoples’ care and assessment wards. After completing a degree in psychosocial interventions, he joined an older adult’s mental health team as a Community Psychiatric Nurse (CPN) in 2014.  This team recognised that CBT might have some useful applications in supporting the people they worked with, and Chris asked for a chance to train in this topic that had fascinated him. His manager supported him to gradually work through an Advanced Diploma in CBT at the University of Cumbria.

Joining North Cumbria Talking Therapies

Once Chris started learning more about CBT and realising its full potential, he found he wanted to try working in a setting where he could develop these skills even more. “CBT fascinates me because it’s a science and an art,” he explains. “You’re working with lots of evidence-based techniques, but with every person, you have to take a different approach and be creative to help them get the best out of it.”

In 2017, Chris joined First Step IAPT, which is now North Cumbria Talking Therapies, and Chris quickly took to working as a High Intensity Practitioner. “I was nervous at first,” he admits; “I enjoyed my job as a CPN, and it’s always hard to take the risk of leaving something you know you like. But I’ve been here for three years now, and I love it.”

“We are well supported through clinical supervisions, doing training courses, and are encouraged to take on other responsibilities in line with our interests. The managers are great at providing us with ongoing education and training, keeping us up-to-date on the latest treatments and approaches. Working in North Cumbria Talking Therapies has been a great opportunity to hone my skills in a well-developed service.”

Shortly after Chris joined the team, the service recognised that they were having trouble engaging with older people in the area – so Chris was asked to draw on his previous role in older adults mental health services and become an ‘Older Adults Champion’. He gladly accepted and enjoys the opportunity to use his experiences to help the service reach more people in need. “North Cumbria Talking Therapies is a very experienced, dedicated team, and is very responsive to emerging needs in our local population. Older adults tend to recover very well with CBT, so long as you can get them ‘through the door’ in the first place – but the service noticed very few older people were being referred, and that there are lots of barriers to them seeking help. Some people think ‘what’s the point of doing that at my age,’ and many GPs don’t refer older adults for therapy as readily,” Chris explains. “That’s where my role as Older Adults Champion comes in, working with organisations like Age UK, the Women’s Institute, and the University of the Third Age. I give talks to promote mental health awareness and break down stigma among older people and those who work with them, and show people how they can improve their lives using some of the therapeutic models we use.”

“Immensely rewarding”

For Chris, the feedback he gets from people he’s worked with is the best thing about his job. “It’s immensely rewarding, seeing people get back to their optimum health. It’s not a job really, it’s a vocation.

“I’ve supported people who were stuck in really manipulative, abusive relationships who, because of their mental health, just couldn’t see a way out, but I was able to help them realise the possibility of moving on. One person thanked me because they had got back to driving when they never thought that was something they could do, and I’ve helped others get their life back when it was being completely dominated by panic attacks that stopped them doing anything.”

“A lot of the time, my job is helping people see the bigger picture. It’s like a jigsaw; once you start putting it all together and making sense of it, you can see where the problems are and how to approach them.”

Support during COVID-19

The North Cumbria Talking Therapies team had to adapt quickly to restrictions put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but even at a distance Chris has felt supported by his team every step of the way. “I was on leave in March, and came back to work just as the pandemic was setting in!”

“I worked from home for about six weeks, but it was difficult at times due to all the distractions at home.” Chris has now started working from one of the rooms in his team’s base in Lilyhall – mainly as this gives him access to a large whiteboard behind him, which he can write and draw on when in online therapy sessions to help people understand the models and concepts that he is explaining to them.

“The Trust has been so supportive of us finding the best ways for each of us to deliver therapies; the whole team’s had their finger on the pulse, adapting quickly by using the latest research and looking at what other IAPT services are trying. We received training very early on about how to adapt our usual sessions to online consultations, using the different tools available to us.”

“We’ve also supported each other even though we can’t all be together physically. We have daily contact via Microsoft Teams to offload, catch up and discuss any queries people might have. Our team has so many dedicated and compassionate people, and the pandemic has brought out the best of that.”

“Cumbria is my playground”

Chris works at North Cumbria Talking Therapies base in Workington, and lives about 5 miles away – he sometimes takes the opportunity to run or cycle to the office and thinks more people are going to start recognising the appeal of living somewhere like Cumbria. “My dad moved here from London back in the 1950s because of the appeal of that laidback countryside lifestyle, and I think COVID-19 will probably make lots more people take stock of their surroundings and what sort of place they want to live in – especially now that remote working is an option more businesses are open to. When people live in flats and built-up areas with no access to green spaces, especially with all the restrictions during the pandemic, it has a huge impact on their emotional wellbeing and opportunities for socialising.”

Chris takes full advantage of everything his surroundings have to offer. “Cumbria is like my playground! Working as a High Intensity Practitioner can be a stressful and demanding job at times, so you need to be able to look after yourself – ‘practising what you preach’ to the people you support. For me, that means getting outdoors and getting active to let off steam.” Chris is a member of triathlon and running clubs, swims in the area’s famous lakes during summer, and goes walking and orienteering on the fells. He is also a passionate advocate and volunteer for Park Run UK (which organises free, weekly 5k runs for all abilities).

The beautiful landscapes on his doorstep have also helped Chris to take up the increasingly-popular and effective practice of mindfulness, in the form of photography. “Mindfulness is all about grounding yourself in the here and now, and the natural beauty around us here is a great tool for that, taking photos and spending some time focussing on the beautiful vistas you come across.”