Circles – Viscious and Virtuous. Managing Groups in a Therapeutic Community

By John Whitwell | Piblished in Association of Group Psychotherapists – AGP Newsletter, November 1995

I have worked at the Cotswold Community for 23 years and, for the last 10 years, I have been Principal.

The Cotswold Community is a therapeutic community, based on psychodynamic principles, that provides treatment, care and education for 40 severely emotionally deprived and abused boys. The boys live in four separate and fairly autonomous households (10 in each) which, together with a school, farm and extensive staff accommodation, forms a village type of community.

The boys are diagnosed as emotionally “unintegrated” (Winnicott, Dockar-Drysdale), i.e. lacking a coherent sense of self. This shows itself in a lack of basic trust, extreme disruption in groups, and being prone to panic rages.

One of the four households is for boys who have achieved fragile emotional integration and who are therefore able to take some responsibility for themselves and others. Group work is possible in this household, but in the other three “primary” households the emphasis is on one-to-one work, albeit in a group living context.

I trained as a Group Analytic Psychotherapist at the London Centre for Psychotherapy when they still had a group training. The L.C.P. at this time was still strongly influenced by Ilse Seglow. I finished this training in 1984. At the time I was Vice Principal of the Community and was preparing for the time when I would take over from Richard Balbernie, the founder of the Cotswold Community.

I was well aware that I wouldn’t practice as a psychotherapist within the Cotswold Community. My role would be a leader and manager, but through that I would have to deal with group processes, institutional dynamics, projections towards the leader, transference and counter-transference phenomena and, therefore, assumed that a group psychotherapy training would be an asset. In fact, the only time I work as a conductor of a group is outside the Community. For the past nine years I have conducted an experiential group of trainee counsellors for the Gloucestershire Counselling Service. Although it is hard work it is also a relief to work with a group of “strangers” rather than employees.

I wasn’t exactly uninformed about groups before the training. The Cotswold Community had had on-going consultancy from the Tavistock Institute. Initially, Ken Rice, then Isobel Menzies-Lyth for several years and since then Eric Miller. This ongoing consultancy was based on systems theory, Bion’s theory of groups and a Kleinian psycho-analytic perspective. I had attended one of the Leicester conferences and had also been involved in courses at the Grubb Institute and Tavistock which contained experiential groups as part of the course.

Through working with very disturbed children in a group living context, I had learned to pick up atmospheres and changes in atmospheres. A sense of when there was a secret in the group, e.g. a plan being hatched to run away or go on some delinquent escapade. The Cotswold’s history, being rooted in the Approved School system, meant we were tuned into the destructive power of subcultures. Although I myself didn’t work in an Approved School, they were before my time, coming to work at Cotswold in 1972, just 5 years since it changed from being an Approved School, the horrors of that system were still in the air. With almost religious fervour subculture was being looked for and rooted out.

At university I studied sociology and I had a more benevolent view of subculture. To me it was not automatically a bad thing. There was no room for this more academic perspective at Cotswold. Subculture was most definitely a bad thing. Perhaps understandable when in practice subculture was a gang system in the inmate group, vicious bullying coupled with sexual abuse and terrible initiation rites for newcomers. There was also a clear link between subculture in the staff group and the boy group. The corruption in the staff group clearly influenced the violent undercurrents in the boy group. Perhaps it is not surprising then that my initial impressions of groups were of their negative influence, rather than as agents for therapeutic change.

I have become aware how hard it is to create a genuine therapeutic culture and how quickly this can deteriorate. In a group living context this deterioration can start when a key member of staff leaves or a “culture carrier” in the client group moves on, or a new admission tests out to the point of destruction. Maybe we all know what it is like to be in a group, maybe a staff team, where there is a vicious circle in operation, with falling morale and decreasing effectiveness. Hopefully we all know what it is like to be in a group where there is a virtuous circle operating – a good sense of cohesiveness, high morale, collective confidence in ability to perform the group’s task etc. It is incredibly difficult to prescribe how to move a group from a vicious to a virtuous circle. In a residential context I have seen a rather destructive solution to this problem which involves changing a leader (in a rather bloody fashion) or expelling one of the clients, usually the “storm centre”, to try and reduce the amount of acting out and to give the staff a breathing space, during which they may “get it together”. Too often though this leads to the next problem client being put forward for expulsion.

At the Cotswold I have seen groups of relatively young inexperienced staff ‘get it together’ in a remarkable way and perform miracles with children that everyone else had given up on. These staff groups had a sense of cohesiveness that gave them a tremendous sense of collective strength. They exuded quiet confidence. Conversely I have seen staff groups which consisted of mature trained, experienced and gifted individuals unable to work cohesively and consequently provide poor containment for the children’s emotional disturbance.

Disturbed children have an uncanny sense of when a situation is “safe”. If they feel safe they can relax. If they don’t feel safe they are compelled to test to destruction, often bringing about the very destruction they most fear. A new staff member will be tested ruthlessly. A new staff group will quickly face an onslaught from the children which will flush out whether they can survive and then flourish.

In my role as Principal I am working mainly with adults. I have direct line management responsibility for a group of ten managers, which includes the four household leaders, the farm manager and five members of the senior management team. We have a daily morning management meeting, where we share the problems of different parts of the Community and problems which we face as a whole. This structure facilitates a sense of cohesion in the whole Community, although doesn’t guarantee it.

The issues I work with, with adults, are similar to the problems I faced when managing a group of disturbed boys. Issues of trust, respect, being listened to, envy, jealousy, aggression, fairness, inter-group rivalry etc. etc. This is not surprising when you think of the feelings the staff are having to cope with emanating from the boys. Neither is it surprising when we think of all the different “institutions-in-the-mind” that a staff group of over sixty bring together. Shapiro and Carr’s book “Lost in Familiar Places” explains this very well.

“The organisation is composed of the diverse fantasies and projections of its members. Everyone who is aware of an organisation, whether a member of it or not, has a mental image of how it works. Though these diverse ideas are not often consciously negotiated or agreed upon among the participants, they exist. In this sense all institutions exist in the mind, and it is in interaction with these in-the-mind entities that we live. Of course, all organisations also consist of certain real factors, such as people, profits, buildings, resources and products. But the meaning of these factors derives from the context established by the institution-in-the-mind. These mental images are not static; they are the products of dynamic interchanges, chiefly projections and transferences. Transference is not limited to the analytic situation; nor is it solely an interpersonal phenomenon of everyday life. Sara (from previous case study), for instance, found herself reacting to the hospital’s restrictions on her friends as if the institution were her family failing to recognise her needs. This was an institutional transference.”

As the person in charge of the institution, the transference/counter-transference dynamic is a part of my work all the time. My training as a group psychotherapist has undoubtedly helped me to cope and make sense of what is happening and to be able to tolerate being utterly confused without panicking.

David Wills said of a community, based on Planned Environment Therapy, that “the whole life of the place is one large exercise in group therapy.” Insofar that this is true, my training in group psychotherapy is extremely helpful.

However, a conductor of a group does not at the same time have to be a leader and manager and if I carried out my role as Principal as if I was a group conductor, the Cotswold Community would very quickly get into a mess.