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Delivery of neuropsychological interventions for a communication disorder

Ellie Knight, assistant psychologist at Renovo Care Group, discusses the importance of collaborative working to deliver support

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After a brain injury it is not uncommon for individuals to find that their ability to communicate has been affected.

Whilst communication does include ‘spoken’ language, it is also more than just words. It can include understanding language and non-verbals such as gesture, body language, facial expressions and so on.

Depending on the severity and location of the brain injury and individual factors – e.g., level of education, access to rehabilitation – will determine the long-term effects of an individual’s ability to communicate. One of the most prevalent communication disorders is aphasia. This is a language impairment that affects an individual’s ability to understand what is being said and/ or expressing what they want to say including reading and writing skills.

It is also not uncommon for individuals with communication disorders to require cognitive, emotional, or behavioural support during their rehabilitation journey. For example, research has found that up to 70 per cent of individuals with stroke and aphasia have depression. This type of intervention is often provided by a Clinical Neuropsychologist, if there is access to one, to assess, formulate and implement strategies/ intervention to support this manifestation.

Cognitive work may include psychometric testing, emotional work may include psychological therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and mindfulness, and behaviourial work may include a functional assessment of the distress. 

Ellie Knight, assistant psychologist at Renovo Care Group

Historically, communication difficulties have posed a significant barrier in accessing such neuropsychological support. For example, many mental health studies will typically exclude individuals with aphasia because research procedures, outcome measures or treatments are determined to be inaccessible to them.

The presence of communication difficulties can also create difficulties for completing standardised neuropsychological assessments as many as not fully adapted to cater such impairments. Considering that many psychological therapies in mental health settings are akin to those used in neuropsychology, e.g., CBT, CFT, ACT, mindfulness, this finding may also be valid. The impact of this exclusion is not only ethically wrong because it does not promote equality within care, but also it creates a false premise that people with communication difficulties cannot engagement in any kind of psychological intervention in the basis of their impairment

A recent book (Psychotherapy and aphasia: intervention for emotional wellbeing and relationships’, 2020) highlighted that regardless of their communication, individuals can still engage and make good therapeutic outcomes. Many of the standardised psychological interventions that we would use in the absence of communication disorders were adapted with the support of specialist Speech and Language Therapists (SLT’s).

The move away from structured, manualised interventions towards co-designed, individualised ones, highlights the practice of person-centred care. This gold standard, holistic approach makes the individual the expertise of their own care and strives to deliver better outcomes and experiences.

As an assistant psychologist working in a neurorehabilitation hospital, I view the development of individualised interventions as a way to embody person-centred care.

Recently I was working with a gentleman who we will call “T”. He had a history of a severe traumatic brain injury from 18 months previous and significant mental health history which was being managed via medication. Upon admission, T also had moderate receptive and moderate-severe expressive aphasia. On top of this, T had what is known as a cognitive communication disorder (CCD). This is a difficulty with communication due to an underlying cognitive deficit rather than a primary language or speech problem. It can result in impaired functioning for one or more cognitive processes including attention, memory, processing speed, executive functions, perception, insight.

T’s CCD was assessed by the SLT who concluded that he had difficulties processing complex language including taking things literally and being unable to understand abstract information. He also had difficulties with his attention, particularly selective, which in turn hindered his ability to retain information. 

Whilst T had engaged in rehabilitation at a previous service since his injury, the primary focus had been indirect behaviour work. When T was admitted onto our rehabilitation pathway, it appeared that due to the environment and established routine this work was no longer required, and hence more focus could be placed on cognition.

It was decided alongside T that we would start a piece of work called the ‘Brain Injury Awareness’ intervention. The intervention consisted of 12, one-hour long sessions with the aim of building insight and knowledge into his brain injury and associated long-term effects, e.g., the impact on communication, emotions, cognition. 

As standard practice the Brain Injury Awareness intervention, which was created by the services’ Clinical Neuropsychologist, can be adapted to incorporate the individuals type of brain injury and examples of how this has affected them. However, T was an interesting case because most individuals that we have previously conducted this intervention with did not have moderate to severe aphasia and/or CCD.

Given that we felt T could benefit from the intervention, we decided to further adapt it to meet his communication and language needs. Much of this was conducted in conjunction with the SLT department and the intervention was co-delivered with T’s SLT. Together we adapted the “standard” intervention to include more pictures, fewer words, simple sentences, concrete examples of T’s rehabilitation etc to support his aphasia. We also provided T with his own folder, so he had visual handouts of the information (both for reference and also for memory aid), used errorless learning (provided him with an opportunity to avoid mistakes), worked in a quiet environment, and repeated/ summarised information for him, to support with his CCD.

At the end of the 12 sessions, we found that T had a better understanding of his brain injury and the impact of some longer-term effects. T was able to recognise his fatigue and acknowledge that he needed regular breaks and was also able to manipulate the environment to aid his attention.  

Upon reflection, without the support of a SLT, adapting this intervention for T would have been so much harder. Largely due to my own inexperience of providing a psychological intervention to someone who could cognitively understand the information but required adaptation to meet their communication needs.

Joint working with a profession who understands the communication and language needs of T, alongside the neuropsychology expertise, worked in his favour and it is definitely something that I will be doing more of. It also highlighted to me that providing a gold standard, manualised intervention within the neurorehabilitation domain is nearing impossible when you have other factors to consider and therefore it is imperative that psychological interventions, and all rehabilitation interventions for that matter are individualised.

Just because an individual has a cognitive communication and language disorder should not mean that they do not receive the support they require, and in my own opinion, it emphasises the importance of collaboratively working for the individual. 

References

Meredith, K., H., & Yeates, G. N. (2020). Psychotherapy and aphasia: interventions for emotional wellbeing and relationships. New York: Routledge.

Insight

How mental health impacts physical rehabilitation

Breakthrough Case Management discuss how a client’s physical rehabilitation is inextricably linked with their mental wellbeing

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Mental health issues are all too common, with the numbers of people impacted by mental ill health rising significantly, particularly as the effects of the pandemic continue to be realised. 

And while the true extent of such problems is probably yet to be fully understood, research is continually uncovering the power of the connection between the body and mind. 

For those of us working with individuals who have experienced a life changing injury, the impact of mental health on physical rehabilitation is clear to see – in both positive and negative ways. 

With around one in four people in the UK experiencing a mental health problem every year, it’s possible that someone living with life-changing injury faced mental health challenges before their accident – which only amplifies the situation they now face.  

But even if someone has no pre-existing mental health concerns, such injury will most probably adversely affect their wellbeing. 

This can manifest in feelings of overwhelming distress, confusion, anger, fear, hopelessness, anxiety and depression or the development of phobias, panic disorder, catastrophisation or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Awareness of mental health and its implications is vital knowledge for any case manager. Because of the close connection between the health of the body and mind, and the potential for mental struggles to impact on physical recovery, mental health support is an important element of nearly all our rehabilitation programmes.

From a Breakthrough Case Management perspective, our rehabilitation programmes will almost always bring in a qualified psychologist. We understand the impact mental turmoil can have on a client, and we work with a team of psychologists who we match with a client depending on their requirements and their injury or situation.

Mental health support should always be considered as part of a holistic approach to rehabilitation, so we work collaboratively with the entire multi-disciplinary team, to understand the challenges our clients are facing and deliver the support they need to move beyond them. 

There is so much going on for someone who has experienced a life changing injury, which might include anything from sleep problems and financial difficulties to relationship issues. We understand that when we ask someone to be motivated and push themselves physically, it’s going to be even harder if they aren’t feeling well mentally.

But while many people struggle badly with significant mental health issues, the situation can vary greatly from person to person. It doesn’t need to be a mental health crisis or severe depression to require attention and action, the symptoms can be less severe. 

Feeling overwhelmed and fearful is common after a traumatic injury, which can lead to lower motivation, reduced engagement or a wish to isolate. All of these factors can cause great distress to a person (and their family), which can also delay or impact the success of physical rehabilitation.

We see clients who sometimes feel the effort required may not be worth it. This might be because the gains don’t seem big enough, the status quo feels more comfortable, or they are frightened they will injure themselves further. 

They can withdraw, feel helpless and become anxious – but staying in that place limits potential. We’re here to help our clients take back control and look towards a more positive future.

So, what can we do when a client is struggling to cope with their mental health? The psychologist’s role in the multi-disciplinary team is vital, to identify the problem and develop a plan to address it. But every member of the team needs to be involved if a client is going to reach their goals, whether that’s getting themselves out of bed in the morning or walking a mile.

At Breakthrough, our case managers work with each client as an individual to find out exactly what they need to reach their goals and then bring together the best possible team to support them. 

This might involve a personal trainer, occupational therapist, neuro-physiotherapist, vocational therapist and psychologist for example. They will also identify any other issues that might be interacting to affect ongoing rehabilitation – such as sleep, appetite or medication – and organise professional, practical or financial help to address them.

Even before establishing a team, the starting point is to set realistic SMART goals broken down into achievable milestones, which a client can get behind and truly believe they are able to achieve. 

These goals must be backed up by trust – in the case manager, team and whole rehabilitation process. Developing this trust starts from the very first time we meet a client, where we start to build their confidence in our professional expertise and experience.

When someone has been traumatised, rehabilitation can take a long time and it is, of course, not always easy. But with a plan and the right support it is possible to overcome obstacles that might have previously felt insurmountable.

The more people push themselves forward and see the benefits of the work they put in, the more resilient they become.

A positive attitude is also important. At Breakthrough Case Management, we are naturally optimistic, and this positivity, alongside our tenacity, supports our clients. 

We won’t ever give people false hope – we never promise that everything is going to be all right when it isn’t. But what we will always do is work together to find out what is possible, set realistic goals and make the most of a client’s potential to reach those goals.

Through our own experience, we know the physical, mental and practical challenges our clients face are inextricably linked. 

We know we can support their mental health, and in turn physical rehabilitation, by taking some of the anxiety away. 

This might be something as simple as organising payment of bills or sorting out basic house maintenance, and while these practicalities are peripheral to the main problem, they are often the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

We are here to help and ensure our clients feel cared for physically and mentally, because effective physical rehabilitation isn’t possible without good mental health support.

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Insight

Are we neurological time travellers?

Lisa Beaumont looks at the similarities between young stroke survivors and people living with Young Onset Parkinson’s Disease

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Advocating for Neuro ProActive has provided many introductions to numerous neuro visionaries.

For example, my response to a recent LinkedIn message from the national charity Spotlight YOPD, representing those with Young Onset Parkinson’s, saw CEO Gaynor Edwards pop in for a socially distanced cuppa. She brought fellow YOPDer and former neuroscientist Dr Jon Stamford with her. 

Therefore, since I am always keen to talk to the best brains in the sector I was happy to host – they brought cake to make the meeting all the sweeter. Rapidly, I discovered that young ‘strokies’ and young ‘Parkies’ have a lot in common – the conversation was easy and animated.

In both cases we were living with conditions more commonly associated with the elderly than those in midlife – as the three of us are.

Sitting round the kitchen table we all had hope – and a belief that as advocates for our conditions we could and would make a difference. As the generation of personal computers and mobile phones, we will probably be using AI to make some of that difference. Three smartphones sat alongside the mugs of tea and cake plates on the table. 

Health technology apps like Neuro ProActive in the hands of the right people – those impacted neurologically – is a potential game changer. 

I was  fascinated to hear from them about how much they feel an affinity with young stroke survivors, like me.

Three reasons for affinity between stroke survivors and YOPD 

1. We defy expectations

Most importantly, both groups, ‘Strokies’ and ‘Parkies’ face a shared challenge in that our conditions are popularly associated with elderly patients not mid-life people, like us.

2. Digitally capable

Thanks to our relative youthfulness, we are a tech savvy patient community and have the confidence to ask questions and demand attention from medics and peers.

Both our charities, West Kent Different Strokes Peer Support Group and Spotlight YOPD are so excited about the roll-out of Neuro ProActive nationally and internationally.  We both support cohorts of  young patients who will welcome the opportunity to have some agency in their treatment programme by being empowered to self-manage their condition digitally.

3. Multi-disciplinary teams

Despite the clear difference between stroke rehab’s management of rehabilitation and YOPD’s need to manage its degenerative symptoms, both groups share the need of input from a range of AHPs.  

Access to neuroproactive.com will give us an easy platform to reach those practitioners with whom we will be able to communicate, record progress and set goals in one place.

The identification of these three similarities between stroke survivors and YOPD reminded me of this quotation from Shakespeare: “Misery acquaints a man with strange bed-fellows”.( Tempest Act 2, scene ii).

Neither group feels miserable. By contrast, we feel excited. We are happy to promote the possibilities for improved care for our conditions in future.

I have discovered a new empathy for those who are diagnosed with Young Onset Parkinson’s Disease, and those who remain undiagnosed. It is significant that reliable data is hard to find for this condition.

It is a game-changer for Neuro ProActive that Ian Pearce tweeted  news in December 2021:

Delighted to announce that, following a public tender, ⁦@NeuroProActive⁩ will be adopted by the South Wales Trauma Network. This will involve integration with EPRs and an independent research study on 500+ patients funded by The World Economic Forum. 

Value Based Healthcare Wales. Likewise the news of its adoption by Leeds Children’s Hospital. 

More patients and data will deliver better outcomes for all neurological conditions, which like Shakespeare’s themes can apply to any age. Strokies and Parkies feel old and young simultaneously.

Therefore, we feel like time-travellers.

You can get your own glimpse of the future by visiting www.NeuroProActive.com

And follow @neuroproactive on Twitter for the latest news.

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Insight

The desire for discharge home

Renovo Care Group share a case study of delivering the rehabilitation and goals to help achieve the return home

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One of the most common patient goals we work towards in acute neurorehabilitation is often the one to be discharged home or to an alternative placement.

We recently had a patient admitted for a six-week assessment period to determine whether an escalation of distress was psychologically driven, neurologically driven or a mixture of the two. To give a bit of context to this situation, this gentleman had cerebral metastasis in his right frontal lobe secondary to lung cancer and had been sectioned several times over the past year due to risky behaviours towards self and others. Whilst he had a few goals that he wanted to achieve during his time with us, the main one was to go home to his family after rehabilitation.

Given that we had a short assessment period, the first question we asked ourselves was how were we going to work with him to achieve his goal?

Upon his inpatient admission, the gentleman was seen twice a week by physiotherapy and two to three times a week by neuropsychology for assessment. Physiotherapists and neuropsychologists are guided by evidence-based practice in their professions and use their knowledge from practice to develop the evidence.

After understanding the cause of an injury, they work to ease physical and psychological symptoms using a variety of techniques. Assessments using outcome measures and formulations are conducted to gain a holistic view to help to determine the best course of treatment for a patient. 

The main goal of physiotherapy sessions for this individual was to improve his endurance, strength, and participation in activities that he enjoyed. He was measured for his upper/lower limb strength using the Oxford scale. ROM (Range of Motion) and MAS (Modified Ashworth Scale) were also used to identity that he had a normal passive and active range of motion over all joints, and no muscle spasms were evident.

Finally, we assessed using the Berg Balance Scale, which is an objective way of determining how well a patient can safely balance during a series of predetermined tasks. He scored 55/56 which indicated a low risk of falls.

Initially the main goal of neuropsychology was to assess the gentleman’s cognition, behaviour, and emotions to hypothesis whether the distress he displayed was neurologically driven.

Maja Kreninger, physiotherapy assistant

Whilst he was previously screened using a brief cognitive test several years earlier, there did not appear to be a reassessment since the cerebral metastasis diagnosis. Therefore a comprehensive baseline to measure any further changes was required.

During inpatient sessions, the gentleman completed a battery of psychometric assessments to measure his current level of cognition. This included a test of premorbid functioning to find out an estimate for intellectual level before diagnosis, a current level of cognitive functioning (after diagnosis), language, attention, memory, and executive functions (higher-level thinking skills such as planning, cognitive flexibility, decision-making etc).

His behaviour and emotions were tracked over time using a mood/ behaviour diary filled out by ward staff. Mood and quality of life measures were also completed.

Our second question then became, how ethical is it to just provide an assessment when an intervention may also prove effective?

The simple answer is that it is not ethical. What is the point of putting a person through intensive assessment that may evoke anxiety or frustration if you aren’t going to provide them with the tools or strategies to support the areas of difficulty? It was obvious that this individual wanted to go home after his assessment period, but it was likely that he would still benefit from having neuropsychology and physiotherapy input.

The model we jointly decided on with him was for him to come in as an outpatient one day per week. With input from his family, he concluded that Wednesdays were a good day for him to travel to the hospital, engage in his sessions and travel back home. That way his preference of living at home and receiving neurorehabilitation could be adhered to.

Initially he was scheduled in for two neuropsychology sessions and one physiotherapy session with rest breaks in between. However, it became apparent after the first outpatient appointment that he was unable to cope with the high cognitive and physical demands placed on him in his sessions and catching the bus all in one day.

In order to manage his fatigue levels neuropsychology sessions would reduce to once a week to and the number of weeks that he would be an outpatient would be extended to ensure that he received the intervention required. 

As part of the physiotherapy intervention, the gentleman commenced a personalised strength training program using multiple gym machines. He was given a booklet with details about the exercises, correct methods, resistance, and repetitions so that he could access the gym on his own.

Joint sessions with Occupational Therapy were completed to ensure he could access the community, and exercises helped increase aerobic tolerance. This proved to be successful as he was able to independently go into town to complete activities of daily living, e.g., buying presents, going to the hairdressers etc.

As fatigue was one of the challenges encountered during sessions, physiotherapy focused on gradually increasing the amount of activity completed in a graded, flexible way that was monitored continuously. 

Similarly, neuropsychology also created an individualised intervention to help build his awareness into his brain injury. The intervention consisted of six sessions to improve knowledge of the structure and function of the brain, neuroplasticity, fatigue, and cognitive and emotional changes after brain tumour.

The sessions highlighted strengths and weaknesses of his cognitive, behavioural and emotional profile providing feedback from the neuropsychological assessments. It also included strategies which could be implemented to support the gentleman at home. He was given his

Ellie Knight, assistant psychologist

own folder with all of the session information to use as a memory aid and to share with family. 

Over time, he began to recognise his limitations in relation to fatigue and understood that he could take breaks, complete tasks when he was less tired and show self-compassion.

He reported that his brain injury awareness improved, and he felt much steadier on his feet. He started to engage in community activities such as going to the cinema and regularly walking near his home. After seven weeks as an outpatient the gentleman was discharged from our neurorehabilitation service – his main goal achieved. 

Upon reflection, the first step of his rehabilitation was setting SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-related) goals that were tailored to his needs and wishes. This improved his motivation and confidence to participate in sessions knowing that we were all working with him to achieve discharge home.

Developing a sense of strength is a personal journey for every patient, whether it is physical, mental or in an everyday setting. As rehabilitation practitioners it should be our duty to assist them in this journey which will lead to improving their wellbeing and quality of life.

  • Written by Maja Kreninger (physiotherapy assistant) and Ellie Knight (assistant psychologist) of Renovo Care Group

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