Behind the scenes of BBC Horizon's 'A Monster in My Mind'

Professor Uta Frith visited the Michael Rutter Centre for Young People as part of a BBC2 Horizon programme about OCD. Here she writes about her experience.

A few weeks ago I felt very nostalgic revisiting the Maudsley Hospital. Of course I had been back a few times since 1965-66 when I was a trainee in the course that was then called “Abnormal Psychology”. The occasion of the visit was very exciting. I was filming with a BBC2 Horizon team. I had agreed to be a presenter for a documentary on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), not without some trepidation. Clearly, I had a lot to learn to get my knowledge of OCD updated.

It was quite an emotional experience when I first entered the Michael Rutter Centre for Children and Young People at the Maudsley Hospital in Denmark Hill. This is where I had my first rotation as a trainee and this had provided me with some formative experiences. The outside was the familiar red brick building but of course, the inside had completely changed. How I wished I had some old photos. I suspected it had then been a simpler, plainer and possibly more austere place.

Child psychiatrist Bruce Clark and consultant clinical psychologist Chloe Volz spent time with me explaining their state of the art treatment approach. They are specialising in the treatment of adolescents with OCD. Their particular care package, which includes an individualised Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) programme, that is tailor made for this age group, has a phenomenal success rate of over 70%.

So I was extremely pleased to be able to see the programme in action with therapist Laura and her young patient, Sophie, who had agreed to take part in the documentary. Sophie had a severe case of OCD. She had been hospitalised for the greater part of two years prior to her entering the programme. Yet, after 14 sessions her severe anxiety had already subsided to ‘moderate’ and after 20 sessions Laura hoped she would be out of the clinical range.

Sophie and I were both being filmed walking along de Crespigny Park, and she was chatting with me very hopefully about her future. She recalled some incidents from the terrible state she had been in, which started just after she had almost completed her GCSE’s. Now, at last she had been able to take the exams and was expected to do well. She told me how Laura had helped her to see OCD as a bully, and that she was now happy to do everything in her power to resist the bully’s shocking suggestions that she had killed someone. To prove it, and with Laura’s encouragement, she had made a tape of these suggestions and now listened to it while bravely walking to Camberwell Green.

I very much hope that the documentary will raise awareness of OCD as a far more horrific disorder than is commonly assumed. At the same time I want to spread the word that there are treatments available. It made me particularly proud to learn of the high success rate with CBT. CBT is a further development of behaviour therapy, and this was the revolutionary new treatment approach that was introduced at the Maudsley Hospital when I trained there in the 1960s. The vindication of a method derived from basic psychological research and introduced so long ago is a special cause of celebration.

And here was another emotional experience in the course of making the documentary: I was fortunate enough to see Professor Isaac Marks whom I well remembered from my days at the Maudsley. He was one of the pioneers who introduced behaviour therapy for the treatment of phobias and OCD, and it was wonderful to reminisce about our time at the Maudsley five decades ago.

While it is amazing to acknowledge that Isaac Mark’s work has stood the test of time, it is still not the end of the story.  Not every patient responds to CBT and OCD has not given up its mystery. The search for its basis in the brain and for new treatments continues.

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