May 25, 2022 by Foresight

An Interview with Psychologist, Dr Alastair Barrowcliff

We sat down with Dr Alastair Barrowcliff, BA(Hons), PhD, DClinPsy, CPsychol, a Clinical Psychologist on our nationwide expert witness panel. Dr Barrowcliff works on criminal law and family law cases, and we interviewed him to find out more about his specialism, experience, and we got his opinions on some current issues relating to mental health and psychology.

How do you currently work with Foresight?

The majority of my work as an Independent Expert with Foresight involves completion of psychological assessments instructed through proceedings within the Family, Magistrate, or Crown Courts. 

Psychological assessment is a somewhat broad term, but at the heart of it entails exploration of an individual’s developmental history, life experiences, mental and emotional wellbeing, relationships, and underlying patterns of belief, understanding and motivations. These factors are considered within an idiosyncratic psychological formulation in addressing specific questions within the formal instruction, typically addressing questions such as risk (self/others), insight and understanding, support needs and motivation to engage in change processes where required. 

Areas of specific interest for me above this core assessment and formulation focus include working with individual’s who may present with aspects of intellectual impairment, experience social and communication difficulties and/or present with, or require, a formal assessment of autism spectrum disorder, and consideration of presentation (within the context of a clinical formulation) in respect to reported/alleged patterns of problematic or criminal behaviour. 

In respect to the practical aspects of how I work with Foresight, the support team who recommend and manage cases, liaise with solicitors and help coordinate appointments are fantastic and make things run smoothly.  This allows me to just focus on doing the work that I enjoy doing – the psychological assessment, provision of reports, and representation in Court – rather than chasing down Court bundles and medical records, trying to contact busy solicitors and coordinate meetings. 

Please can you tell me a little bit about your history and how you became a psychologist?

My journey into clinical psychology was slightly convoluted, taking a number of years for me to find what really excited me academically and practicably in respect to pursuing a professional career. 

I had explored a range of occupations before discovering the world of clinical psychology (including farm work, building restoration, working in a zoo, and catering) and spent time working through trades rather than pursuing academia for a number of years. 

I was then actually about to commence a degree in English and American Literature with Sociology in Kent before changing direction and embarking on my first degree in Applied Psychology at the School of Psychology in Cardiff. This opened a range of further opportunities for me, such as gaining experience with the local Community Alcohol and Drugs Service and work on an academic journal. Following this I completed a PhD in Cardiff with some fantastic supervisors from academic, clinical and forensic backgrounds and different professions. This provided exposure and training to engage in clinical work within secure services and trauma services, in addition to maintaining links with colleagues from addiction services.  

Following completion of the PhD studies I attained a place on the Manchester Doctorate in Clinical Psychology and so moved to the North West. This offered excellent clinical training and access to other areas of research expertise, with my thesis focusing on aspects of compliance with auditory command hallucinations. I have remained in the North West of England post-qualification and continue to work in the NHS, alongside my private practice through Foresight.

Do you find that mental health is more prevalent in family cases more than criminal cases?

I would posit that factors of mental health have equal bearing in both family and criminal cases and certainly has real-world implications for the lives of people we assess and the people with whom the Courts are engaged. 

Psychological and emotional wellbeing is core to how we function and interact with the world and the people around us in all walks of life, shaped by a range of factors including our sociocultural and life experiences, physical health, core beliefs, thinking styles and cognitive filters. Recommendations and clinical opinions following assessment are always provided with extremely careful consideration, with an understanding that Court proceedings impact on real lives and relationships beyond the people we assess directly.  

All behaviour is functional and needs to be understood in the context of the underlying mental health of the individual concerned. In this respect, a psychological assessment is instructed to help inform proceedings and support understanding of the individual people required to work within the Court system; this can be invaluable in ensuring they are appropriately engaged, supported and understood in the process. 

Have you seen a change in the mental health issues that are being raised currently?

That is very interesting question. Increased focus on the mental wellbeing of the general population and attention to psychological health has certainly increased in the past decade or two (some may suggest since the Layard Report in 2006) and therefore impacted on the more populist social narrative as access to psychological therapies has increased within the NHS.

This has been given further attention following the COVID-19 pandemic and the evident implications of this on the mental wellbeing of our own family members, friends, neighbours, and work colleagues: This has really brought the topic of psychological and emotional health to the front door of many who may have otherwise been unaware, or aware but not directly impacted upon previously. 

Recent events also appear to have supported recognition of a broader understanding across professional colleagues in health, social care and the legal arena of the trauma-informed needs of the people we work with. Additionally is an increased awareness of the prevalence of domestic violence and coercive and controlling behaviour; a changed and supportive social narrative supports people to talk about such events without shame or self-blame negatively experienced in the past, although such factors continue to prevent many from escaping negative and harrowing relationships. 

Unfortunately, with positive developments we often have a counterpoint position emerging, and we see an increase in allegations of gaslighting and false allegations also emerging; certainly within the Family Court cases I have been working with over the past 5 or 10 years there has been a noticeable shift in this regard.     

Do you find that there has been an increase in people ‘self-diagnosing’ in the current climate?

There has always been a tendency for individuals to seek an explanation for their own difficulties (we all seek meaning to our experiences), and access to the internet combined with restrictions in movements and activities over the COVID-19 period most likely hasn’t helped this propensity. 

However, the implications of COVID-19 for diminished psychological and emotional wellbeing is also indisputable and so perhaps we would anticipate the two to move in parallel. To be honest, in my clinical practice I haven’t discernibly noticed any significant increase in problematic ‘self-diagnoses’, but most definitely have in respect to psychological and emotional difficulties experienced by a broad cross-section of the population I am engaged with. 

In your opinion do you believe social media to be a ‘trigger’ or negatively impact those with Mental health conditions?

People operate with attentional biases and filters and are predisposed towards factors such as confirmation bias and detection of threat within their environment. The internet and social media are attended to in the same way as any other external stimulus in this regard on a basic level but has the added risk of encouraging ever-restricted patterns of attention and focus as people search for information, particularly with the application of computer driven algorithms that select information you demonstrate a preference for running in the background. 

We all have a propensity towards attending to information that supports our own beliefs and values and can very easily be drawn into selectively attending only to information that supports our own views and disregarding that which does not. The issue of data/information quality and proactive recognition and management of misinformation is a real concern where it can reinforce maligned or distorted beliefs.     

For people experiencing social and communication difficulties, social media can be a blessed gateway to interaction with people not otherwise potentially accessible in the ‘physical’ world. However, it is an unfortunate observation that greater accessibility to communication with others in a less restricted and managed arena can also result in problematic engagements for this cohort, in certain circumstances becoming highly inappropriate and resulting in contact with external agencies under a public protection response.

Access to proactive community support (social and health care) is often lacking in such cases and it is often the most vulnerable who experience the greatest restrictions to the necessary levels of support; that is perhaps a good place to end before I get on my soapbox about inequitable provision of support for vulnerable people!


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