Formulation Nausea Revisited

Six years ago I blogged about Formulation Nausea, which is induced by a bewildering array of arrows, resulting in disorientation. A just published paper by Owen (2023) in Psychological Medicine notes the demise of Formulation amongst Psychiatrists. But it is still a staple of CBT training courses, based around the 4P’s of predisposing, precipitating, persisting and protective factors. This despite any evidence of its’ systematic usage in routine practice or effect on outcome. Yet it was meant to explain the client’s functioning. It is surely time for a re-formulation. 

The problem is that the 4P’s are in suspended animation with no specification of what kind of thing they are trying to explain. As Owen (2023) points out there is a need for a diagnostic anchor when it comes to formulation. Diagnosis is descriptive, with reliable agreement only occurring in the context of ‘gold standard’ diagnostic interviews. Without such an anchor Formulation is adrift on the high seas, clinicians suffer nausea and clients doubt their survival. Shorn of its’ moorings, Formulation becomes an exaggeration of the idiosyncracy of a client’s difficulties. There are evidence-based CBT protocols for depression and the anxiety disorders but their usage is dependent on ‘case-formulation’ not formulation.

Re-formulation needs to be added to re-framing and re-imagination

Matters have been compounded by psychological imperialism, assuming that there is only one axis needed to explain a clients functioning and subsuming  the social and biological under the first of the  4P’s, Kuyken et al (2009). A 3-D representation of a clients functioning, should arguably be represented by 3 axes at right angles to each other, psychological, social and biological with no primacy attached to the psychological per se. Each person has a score along each axis and their functioning represented by x, y, z coordinates. With this multi-axial classification (akin to DSM IV and not its successor DSM-5-TR) it is perfectly possible to ‘score’ much more highly on a non-psychological axis, making that the more relevant ‘intervention’ dimension. For example a client I saw recently was clearly depressed, with no previous psychological problems, but found himself living in terrible housing conditions that was seriously effecting the health of his children and all attempts to remedy this problem to date had failed. The social axis was clearly more pertinent in his case, but the presenting problem, as far as the way the local mental health services operate would be depression, albeit that moving in an intrapsychic direction flies in the face of common sense. Kuyken et al (2009) smuggle in an extra ‘P’ presenting problem to make 5P’s, but presenting problem is not part of an explanation, each of the 3 axes  has a predisposing, precipitating, persistence and protective explanatory framework, inclusion of ‘presenting problem’ is a category error. To take another example a patient may be judged non-compliant with physio after an operation, but a previous unrelated and unrecognised neurological condition was actually operating, resulting in a demoralised patient and frustrated physio’s. The appropriate axis here is a biological one not ‘stress management’ for the patient or physio. The failure to have a multi-axial approach means that psychological therapists take on everything, and their core skills get crowded out. Kuyken et al (2009) and CBT trainers and supervisors have unwittingly abandoned a biopsychosocial model adding to the stressors of would be clinicians. The failure to use a multi-axial system can be seen in NHS Talking Therapies practitioner’s struggle to provide therapy for those with long term physical conditions, carrying a sign ‘don’t ask me how far along the biological axis is this person located, because it is a mirage’, they are consigned to wander around the desert. Sufferers from FN are often stressed in silence, to reveal it to course leaders, supervisors may be taken as a sign of ‘weakness’. What is needed is a re-formulation.

Dr Mike Scott