A question I am often asked is how I reached this point in my career. I worked in the NHS as a Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner (PWP) for two years before becoming a trainee Clinical Associate Psychologist in 2020. Achieving a place on the PWP training course is getting more and more difficult each year, with services shortlisting hundreds of applications to eventually offer 4-6 places. You may have ended up here via my LinkedIn profile where I suggested that I write this post to answer the most frequently asked questions about my own personal experiences in working in mental health as a Psychology graduate and how I eventually became a PWP. Please remember that this article is written solely from my own perspective and I know, from having worked in two different IAPT services with 9 other PWPs in both and training in a cohort of 24, that everybody’s journey is different and there is no right or wrong formula. This is just how I did it.
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What is a Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner?
I may write a whole article on this itself for those who are interested, but to keep it brief a PWP is someone who works in Primary Care mental health in the NHS in England and Wales. The role was initially designed to help manage the impact mental illness was having on employee sickness, absence, retention, and ultimately the economy as a whole. A PWP is usually (but not always) a Psychology graduate who is trained in assessing mental health needs of adults in the community. We also provide psychological interventions to these individuals to help them manage depression and anxiety at the milder end of the scale. PWPs cannot diagnose mental health conditions and cannot treat more severe problems such as OCD, PTSD, Personality Disorders or Psychosis. Their ability to assess allows them to refer individuals onwards for more appropriate treatment where necessary. PWPs are not certified therapists and the qualification is not accredited by the British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP) so they cannot practise privately or independently, but there are opportunities to use this experience to train up.
How do you become a PWP?
To become a PWP you will need to complete the training programme which involves working in an NHS IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) service and attending university. Many universities in England offer this course, from Birmingham to Exeter to East Anglia, the North and across London. The training lasts a year and is paid at AfC band 4, once qualified you are then promoted to band 5. Dependent on where you train, the application and program itself will vary on delivery. Regardless, you will come out with the same qualification that is transferable to any IAPT service. If you wish to work with children, there is a separate role called Children and Young People’s Practitioner. I am not sure myself whether this role is still being carried out as this is not my area.
PWP cohorts are run in Spring and Autumn each year. Not every service will have a set of trainees for every cohort but the universities will offer them to those that are funded. Keep an eye on NHS jobs and look into Assistant PWP roles as a way of becoming acquainted with a service prior to applying. I think the upcoming September 2021 cohort has already been shortlisted/interviewed so adverts for Spring 2022 will likely be the next ones.
How did I become a PWP?
I will break this question down into sections as this is a relatively detailed story. As I said above, please do not take this as the ‘right’ answer or the ‘only way’.
My experience pre-application
I achieved a 2:1 BSc (Hons) Psychology degree from the University of Leicester, graduating July 2017.
During university, I volunteered as a peer supporter and publicity officer for Student Minds. This charity operates across the country and Leicester offered the Eating Disorder support group programme. I was supervised weekly over the phone after facilitating sessions.
I also volunteered as a Mentor for children in primary schools with poor mental health. I gave 1:1 and group sessions on wellbeing and coping techniques. I then liaised with pastoral care and teachers about their progress and any safeguarding or risk concerns.
After graduation, I worked as a Healthcare Assistant (HCA, otherwise known as a Support Worker) in a Children and Adolescent Mental Health (CAMHS) hospital. I worked 12 hour shifts 3-4 times a week on the Eating Disorder unit, General Assessment Unit, and Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit. I did this for 5 months before I was offered a Trainee PWP interview, I worked there for 9 months in total before beginning my training.
My application process
As a Psychology undergraduate, I was pointed in the direction of the PWP role and decided that it would be a good way of getting my foot in the door should I wish to pursue the Doctorate of Clinical Psychology, or alternatively become a therapist.
I applied for the first time in the early Spring of 2017, still in my third year of undergraduate study. Unsurprisingly, I got three rejections from my local NHS services. This is when I turned to apply for the HCA role and was fortunately successful.
I applied again in September 2017 to two other NHS services. No interviews. So I wrote and rewrote my personal statement, reflected and consulted with my close friend who had been a PWP and Senior PWP in the past before becoming a Doctor of Educational and Child Psychology.
It was November 2017 when I applied to three more NHS services; two of which had rejected me 6 months earlier. Those same two rejected me again, without interview. I got one interview for December 2017. After my interview, I was told they were interviewing again in the New Year, so I would have to wait until the 2nd January to hear if I was successful, Merry Christmas to me! Luckily I spent Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve at work on the Eating Disorder Unit so I was kept busy.
I was told on 2nd January that I was successful, they wanted me as a Trainee PWP! Now, because the university had received funding seemingly unexpectedly everything was to be rushed through. I was told to write an application to the University of Birmingham for a Trainee PWP place. They would then decide if I would be shortlisted for the assessment day, and my NHS placement would nominate me for this after offering me the job. That was the thing, the job wasn’t necessarily guaranteed.
I was shortlisted for the assessment day and attended at the beginning of February. This day comprised a timed essay exam task and a group interview where we were observed discussing a proposed topic. We were invited to ask questions at the end of the day. Somebody asked how many of us would be selected, we were told 50%. There was only a 50% chance I would get through to the training, regardless of being offered a post. Anxious wasn’t the word.
A couple of weeks later I was offered a place at Birmingham and handed in my notice. I have since learned that University College London, University of Exeter and University of Reading do not operate in this manner and have one NHS interview panel where a lecturer is present. I cannot speak for other courses but I know which process I would have preferred!
What advice do you have for aspiring applicants?
I know this may fall on deaf ears, but please do not pursue this role solely as way to become a Clinical Psychologist. I am a strong believer that people who do things just as a step on the ladder or to get their foot in the door will never truly get the most out of an experience, and it will show when you later apply or interview for what you really want to be doing. That is not to say it isn’t a bona fide starting point and I don’t know any PWP who aspires to do it for the rest of their career, but if you want to earn a place and make the most of it then it needs to be more than just a means to an end. That’s my view anyway.
If you are an undergrad and think the PWP route is the way for you, get experience in mental health whenever you feel ready. I could never juggle a part time job and university but if you feel up to it, there are plenty of bank or part time NHS support work roles in mental health that would give you a lot of experience.
If you aren’t a psychology graduate or you are considering a career change, I know plenty of people that came from education, substance misuse, and forensic settings and they became PWPs. Do your research, this isn’t a role for any specific demographic.
The key areas you will need to be confident and knowledgeable in are risk management, reflection and supervision, IAPT services and the Stepped Care Model, and evidence-based practice. The list isn’t exhaustive and some services will want more, but if you can show that your experience in mental health has given you insight into such areas it will be valuable.
When applying (particularly in the Midlands), apply to multiple services where possible. This is a hugely competitive role and putting your eggs in one basket is a dangerous game if you can afford to travel or branch out.
If you already have a core proffession i.e. social worker or nurse, you may be able to directly apply to the High Intensity CBT training. CBT therapists work at Step 3 in IAPT services and are trained at band 6. They are also accredited therapists and can operate privately. If you do not have a core profession, the BPS stipulates that at least 2 years post-qualification PWP experience is required to complete this training. It is the most common career move after working as a PWP.
Updated 16.4.2021: I am reaching the end of my training as a Clinical Associate Psychologist within Dorset NHS CAMHS and the University of Exeter. I will qualify to band 6 in July (fingers crossed!) and do not know what the future holds from there! With regards to how I became a CAP, it is all of the above plus 2 years post-qualification in Adult IAPT as a PWP, one in the NHS and one in a charity.
If you would like to know more about my role as a CAP, such as a day in the life, let me know in the comments! I hope this helps and good luck to any applicants!