Talking Mats and Trauma Work

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We are delighted to share this latest guest blog from Debbie Mole, Clinical Nurse Consultant in Mental Health and Intellectual Disability for DHM Mental Health Care in Melbourne, Australia.  This is a great example of the positive impact Talking Mats can have for people who have experienced trauma.

Throughout my 35 year career I have always had a big interest in finding ways to help clients express themselves. My passion is around trauma and working in creative ways to help bring some closure and recovery for the person.

This desire grew when I met a woman who had multiple disabilities. She was blind, deaf, and non-verbal. She was sensitive to touch and had very few ways to express herself. She needed to be admitted to hospital as she was unwell, we had no way to explain to her what was happening. At the time I was working in a new specialised mental health and disability team. This humbling experience of working with her pathed a way for me to find ways to help people communicate and understand.

Working in mental health I am acutely aware of risks and that so many people who struggle to verbalise thoughts, feelings, and past issues. I was always concerned that because a person could not verbalise their thoughts, feelings, and intentions that so much information and potential risks were being missed.

I heard about Talking Mats training in Australia and booked myself on the course. This inspired me and has helped me support clients to find a voice and solutions to issues.

My client was a 30-year man with Down Syndrome, he also has ASD and over the last five years had lost his ability to speak. When I met him, he had poor eye contact and appeared to be locked into his world. It was evident he was also suffering from psychosis as he was responding to auditory and possibly visual hallucinations. He could use some sign language to communicate. He had chronic OCD and anxiety and sleep was a major issue.

I did a Talking Mat exercise and checked his understanding of “like”, “don’t like” and “not sure”. I did a simple exercise to start using the images for his family and carers. There was no real form and the cards appeared to become a collection of images that did not hold any clues.

I decided to use to the personal care cards, this was very different. Showering, bathing, and going to the toilet were placed in the negative area. There was also a change of behaviour and some vocalisation of words that made no sense. Talking to his team and mother, there was a restive quality to his behaviour – he wanted to avoid this area.

I did further assessments and his mom believed that in the past when he was young, he may have experienced some bullying, she also feared that he had suffered some form of abuse. Through the assessment it also transpired that my client was one of five children, all had a significant mental health issue. I organised a specialist to see him and he was diagnosed with Schizophrenia. He was treated with antipsychotic medication.

As the psychosis was being treated his team became aware that my client was starting to talk, it was not clear, but the content had a theme. Tragically themes, names and places started to be spoken about. When he spoke about these events his OCD behaviours of arranging his items on the floor became more chaotic. He spoke of trauma from other boys that took place in bathrooms.

I worked with the client and introduced some basic trauma work, simply allowing him to say what he wanted to and then helping him to realise that he was safe and that was the past. His team did the same. We offered choice about showering, bathing and looked at ways it could be fun or a nice activity to follow. The idea was to change his thinking around baths and showers and for him to realise he was safe and free from threat. We used the talking mats to build upon the things he liked.

I repeated the Talking Mats exercises three, six, nine and twelve months after treatment.

After the psychosis was treated, we became aware that the client looked sad and flat. There was a loss of interest in social activities and there was a lot of talk about the past. We assessed that he was depressed and that it was possible that his recall about the past was becoming clearer. He was commenced on an antidepressant and monitored intensely. We also needed to address the sleep issues. His OCD had led to his bed to being covered in items. We later realised that this helped reduce his anxiety when he was heightened.

My client has regained some speech, I believe he was locked in a world of trauma and psychosis. Now he mentions the names of some of the people who have hurt him. His team reassure him that he is safe, that was the past, and he is ok. He seeks physical attention when he distressed, and he is acknowledged and reassured. We cannot offer typical trauma therapy to him, but just helping him unlock his thoughts, knowing that what was happened was wrong and being heard is healing.

I have since developed my own set of cards, based on the Mental State Examination. I use these to expand on issues and focus on problem areas. These cards talk about perceptual issues, thought problems, beliefs and risks, all areas that are typically private and too often unexplored. The cards have images on them, so clients who struggle to verbalise can use the same system as the talking mats.

Talking Mats allowed me and his team to see things from a different angle. There were many hypotheses used to gain an understanding of his behaviour. This led to effective treatment and partial recovery.

Picture 1 at the assessment stage, images of the clients family were made into an orderly collection with no clear indication of how he felt towards the images:

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Picture 2 was also at assessment, showing a clear ability to like, not like and feel unsure about aspects of self care.

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Picture 3 was during treatment for Psychosis and therapy – some changes were being noted with his self care and allowing his team to help him:

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Picture 4 was towards the end of treatment and intensive therapy. Some aspects of bathing remained unsure, but his behaviour indicated that he was more comfortable with activities around bathing.

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Picture 5 was a repeat of the family cards after treatment:

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Picture 6 are the cards I have created based on the Mental State Examination – this was six months into therapy and medication. He expressed issues around his mood, thoughts and sleep – these needed more explaining. With the mood pictures, I offered my client different images for mood and he picked the ones that reflected what he was feeling. My mood collection has happy, angry, scared and sad in them as I tend to quote these 4 basic raw emotions daily in my work:

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Picture 7 was at the end of treatment the same cards were used with a very different result. As for the previous mat, for the mood pictures, I offered my client different images for mood and he picked the ones that reflected what he was feeling:

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Many thanks to Debbie Mole for sharing this powerful example.  If you would like to read more about Talking Mats use in Mental Health, take a look at top 8 blogs here:   https://www.talkingmats.com/top_8_mental_health/

If you are feeling inspired and have not yet accessed our Talking Mats Foundation Training Course, find out more here:  

https://www.talkingmats.com/training/foundation-training/

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