Meet our Dean: Elisa Reyes-Simpson

Elisa Reyes-Simpson (she/her) took up the post of Interim Chief Education and Training Officer and Dean of Postgraduate Studies in July this year. Elisa brings a wealth of institutional knowledge and experience to the role having been Associate Dean since 2015 and connected to the Tavistock and Portman, first as a student, for over 25 years. She is also Chair of the Tavistock Society of Psychotherapists. She shared with us her professional background, her plans for the Directorate of Education (DET), as well as some personal insights.

Elisa’s professional journey started with a degree in psychology from the University of Leicester, having had an interest in psychoanalysis from early in her career. From here she decided not to pursue clinical psychology and instead undertook a social work qualification. Elisa has looked throughout her career to carry together both her interest in the psychological as well as the social. She attributes this in part to her unconventional start in life, having moved abruptly to the UK from Chile aged 11.

Elisa has a mixed heritage. She grew up in Chile until age 11 when she moved to the UK suddenly following the coup of 1973. “I found myself arriving in the UK not speaking any English, at a time when there wasn’t much provision for children who didn’t speak English, no additional classes or anything like that. I was very fortunate because the school was welcoming and the people nice to me. It wasn’t a picnic, but there was something quite hopeful about it at the time, I made London my home. The Britain I encountered then actually felt a lot more welcoming than the Britain I would probably encounter now.

“There is something traumatic about having to leave a place suddenly, having to sever friendships, having to leave the life that you might’ve led. The personal curiosity about it, in terms of having to understand feelings, helped inspire my interest in psychology. I do understand about cultural dislocation and the difficulties in feeling that you have to fit in; having to combine your background and who you are, with the things you have to do in a new place. This is partly why it is so important to me that we promote a learning environment that is inclusive, welcoming, and where everybody feels able to be themselves. So people can go to a place and not feel they have to fit in by being the same, but able to be different, able to be comfortable being who they are.

Valuing diversity and difference are strong themes in Elisa’s life and career. Her interest in issues of race, culture, femininity and masculinity were shaped in a large part from work undertaken during her master’s degree at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural studies. After completing her master’s degree, Elisa worked for a number of years in adult mental health as a social worker, including in inpatient acute settings. She then decided to train as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist.

Elisa’s first involvement with the Tavistock and Portman happened shortly after qualifying as a social worker. She attended a course for newly qualified practitioners and found the thinking space particularly helpful for unpacking the anxieties of a new job and finding her feet. Thinking spaces are a Tavistock staple; groups come together to discuss and explore feelings, and participants are encouraged to reflect on their own and other people’s experiences to generate ideas about how to address difficulties. In Elisa’s words: “it helped me to think about my work, it supported my work, and it supported me doing my work”.

Elisa continued to work in adult mental health for a number of years, at the Royal Free Hospital, and then at Chase Farm hospital. During this time Elisa completed our D58 course, which at the time was an introductory course in adult psychotherapy. Following this, Elisa decided to pursue a formal psychoanalytic training with the Lincoln Centre for Psychotherapy (now the British Psychotherapy Foundation). During this time Elisa worked in the Trust in a psychotherapy service for people with learning disabilities and autism: “It was an all-age service that was really innovative; it sought to make psychotherapy accessible to patient populations that normally weren’t seen as people who could benefit from psychotherapy”. During her time the learning and complex disabilities team produced a book titled ‘Unexpected Gains’. The title is a reference and a challenge to the belief that this form of treatment would only be of benefit to those with a certain intellectual ability. “I view psychotherapy as being about allowing people to become freer in themselves. To be freed from the psychological or emotional shackles that constrain or inhibit them and enable a greater sense of personal agency.”

As part of the learning and complex disabilities team, Elisa was involved with teaching on D58, and then set up the course Inter-cultural psychodynamic psychotherapy (D59I) with Ann Simpson. Elisa said: “The main aim was to provide a course that would look at questions of inter-cultural issues in psychotherapy. A course that at its core would be relevant to diverse groups. The aim of the curriculum was in teaching theory to ensure that issues of race and racism and difference weren’t just marginalised to corners of a curriculum, but would be integral. We worked to get accredited by the British Psychoanalytic Council (BPC) to make a qualifying course in psychodynamic psychotherapy. With the accreditation of D58 and D59, the Tavistock paved a path for the BPC introducing a psychodynamic psychotherapy qualification. We were the first place to run it, we were trailblazers. I think it did mean quite a lot to people, and it was heartening to know that the stance the course took made minoritised students feel included.

“I continued working at the Tavistock and began to enjoy more and more my work in teaching and in developing students and generations of future clinicians. I became involved in teaching in several courses and had different roles in relation to some of those courses. In 2015 the education and training Directorate within the Trust was restructured; it was then that my previous role of Associate Dean for Academic Governance and Quality Assurance was created, and I decided to throw all of my lot in with education and gave up my clinical post. But I’ve always continued my private practice with adult patients, and continue to enjoy my work as a clinician, so that’s still part of me.”

Outside of clinical work and teaching posts, Elisa is experienced in governance, “I am really passionate about governance. It’s something that might seem boring to some, but I think through governance comes assurance in terms of equity and fairness. I’m quite passionate about equity and fairness, it’s at the core of me. I was asked by the BPC to take up being chair of professional standards and did this for five years. It was quite a substantial job, and I was involved at a time when the BPC were registering to become approved by the professional standards authority. This was a significant step in enabling us, through accreditation with the BPC, to offer assurance to the NHS and public sector of the rigour of our courses. So that’s also part of what’s got me here today having done that work.”

On future plans for the Directorate of Education and Training Elisa said: “I really want to prioritise finding more of a place for the student voice in the things we do, finding ways of being able to access that and engage with students. And to build on the developments we’ve made in recent years. We have attained registration with the Office for Students which is a big achievement, I feel very proud of being the only Trust to be registered with the OfS, and committed to building on this. One area that I hope we will develop further is in our connection with our alumni: many past students keep in touch, but we need to forge better links.

“The work of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) is imperative, it’s a real commitment. Paul Dugmore, Associate Dean for Learning and Teaching and our lead on EDI, is really passionate about this commitment, so we’re fortunate to have him. I think EDI is about intervening at every level, in different ways and seeing where we’re going wrong. In what ways are we not listening? It’s about really opening your eyes to things that aren’t right. Being able to disturb the universe by questioning what we do and how we do it, challenge our assumptions. It’s also about being able to really listen to students, listen to staff as to what we could do differently, but I think it’s also about deeply questioning yourself. It’s uncomfortable but we have to do it. When English isn’t your first language you spend a lot of time wondering if you’ve got the right accent. I think it’s about making people feel, metaphorically, that lots of different accents, ways of learning, count, are okay. Teaching can be enriched by that.”

When asked to reflect on any particularly fond memories at the Tavistock and Portman Elisa spoke of a time when shows and pantomimes would be put on by staff at the Trust: “There’s always been a lot of creativity. My favourite memories are people letting their hair down, coming together and being creative in a different type of way. They’re good at being creative in their work but also having fun, taking part in shows such as ‘The F Factor’ when we became a Foundation Trust.” Aside from work Elisa shared: “My family are very important to me. In terms of hobbies, I love reading, walking, gardening and sailing. But I have to confess, I’m a fair-weather sailor, I only like to sail in warm places! The last novel I read was in Spanish, on the Spanish civil war. The title is translated as Ines and the Joy, by Almudena Grandes.”

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