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News > Alumnae Interviews > 10 Questions with...OR Sophia Williams

10 Questions with...OR Sophia Williams

For World Mental Health Day we chatted with child and adolescent psychiatrist Sophia Williams (Borthwick, No. 4, 1985-88) whose career was inspired by fellow OR Dame Cicely Saunders (No. 2, 1932-37).
27 Oct 2021
Written by Sophie Osborne
Alumnae Interviews

Sophia's route into medicine has been far from 'conventional'. After enjoying her time as a music scholar at Roedean, Sophia went on to graduate from the Royal Academy of Music. Later she gaiend a PGCE from Cambridge Univeristy and worked as a supply teacher in a number of inner-city primary schools in London. Following this, whilst studying for her PhD, Sophia gained a BSc hons psychology degree and worked for a year as an Assistant Psychologist for the NHS, later graduating as a junior doctor. Sophia has worked for Adolescent and Young Adolescents' Mental Heatlh Services at the Tavistock Centre, at an inpatient post at the Mildred Crak Unity at Great Ormond Street Hopsital and a post in the Medical Pyschological Department at University College London. She is currently working as a specialist registrar with Waltham Forest Community CAMHS and has been awareded membership to the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

What is your favourite memory of Roedean?

My favourite memory is a more ‘generalised’ embodiment, rather than a specific moment in time - and one that I revisit in my mind when I’m in my ‘safe place’ in a self-guided relaxation, escaping the ‘arrows of life’. I’m over by the terrace wall in front of school, looking outwards, feeling ‘contained’ and peaceful - aware of the steadfastness and beauty of the ‘Brick Mother’* standing behind me; having stood high on the cliff nurturing many generations of young women - and for those to come. I look out across the green expanse of the playing fields and beyond to the serene blue English Channel with the warmth and saltiness of the sea breeze on my face and the sound of the seagulls squawking above intermittently. I hear a chorus of young voices drifting out of open windows with laughter and chatter punctuated by the percussive bounce of tennis balls on rackets being hit back and forth down to my left.  I close my eyes - trying to capture the Roedean experience for ever . . .

* Psychiatrist & Psychoanalyst Dr Henri Rey (1912- 2000) had a special affection for the Maudsley Hospital and referred to it as ‘the brick mother’ due to its importance as a ‘place of safety’ offering patients continuity and stability.

What was the best piece of advice you were given whilst at School?

I remember with awe when international humanitarian Lady Sue Ryder came to take a mid-week assembly one morning in chapel. Upon her entrance up the aisle, I was struck by her humble appearance and unassuming countenance. A slender older woman in her mid-sixties with a head scarf wandered in carrying a couple of old carrier bags. She walked quietly to the front of chapel, stepped up onto the brass lectern then talked about her life dedicated to the relief of suffering in others, and the importance of showing compassion and ‘to do what you can for the person in front of you’.

When you were at Roedean, what did you want to be when you ‘grew-up’?

I was quite torn. Part of me wanted to be a dentist to follow my father’s footsteps (who still works in PPE in his surgery in Newcastle at nearly 80 years of age). The other part (as a music scholar) wanted to go to music college in London and train as a professional violinist or violist once I’d tasted life in the National Youth Orchestra.

What are you now you've grown up?

I’m now a child and adolescent psychiatrist!  My late-stage training was inspired by Old Roedeanian and hospice founder Dame Cicely Saunders who went into medicine at 33 years after she studied nursing and medical social work. Similarly, after studying violin & viola at the Royal Academy of Music, Primary education at Cambridge University, a Masters in Jewish music and completing a PhD in music psychology whilst being a university pastoral tutor, I went to Barts medical school at 33 years of age to become a doctor. Then I did a series of House Officer posts in London before specialising in 2016. I went into medicine with the intention of going into psychiatry eventually, reinforced by my own experience of depression, along with a family history of bipolar disorder. I’m so thankful for this second career. It’s tough work and emotionally challenging, but at the same time fascinating, very rewarding and humbling when I can see change in young people’s lives.

What does your job involve?

I’m a Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Specialist Registrar on the Great Ormond Street Hospital Child Higher Training Scheme. My current ‘rotation’ involves working for Waltham Forest Community CAMHS; carrying out neurodevelopmental assessments to diagnose ASD and ADHD and provide ongoing support in clinic. I review young people with a wide variety of emotionally-based mental health conditions including anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal ideation, OCD, eating disorders and psychosis, phobias, sleep difficulties, addiction, tics and Tourette’s. I co-lead a young persons’ therapy group. For my regular 24 hour ‘On call’ shift, I go into Great Ormond Street Hospital and work from there across 5 hospital sites – responding to a range of calls from junior doctors, and reviewing children and young people who present as an ‘acute mental health emergency’ in need of urgent care. Most I see are suicidal and in need of a ‘tight safety plan’. Also I teach Barts and UCLH medical students and head up the UK Cross-Speciality Discussion Group for all medical trainees from any speciality with an interest in child mental health.

What have you done that you are most proud of?

I’ve had a stammer since the age of 3. I don’t think it was particularly noticeable at school because I hid it very well; speaking only when I thought I’d be ‘fluent’ to avoid embarrassment. However living with a ‘covert stammer’ is both stressful and exhausting and it has been a huge challenge over the years. When I began at medical school, even making a phone call seemed well beyond my comfort zone. So I feel thrilled that I had the determination to battle through my fears. More importantly, a shift has taken place; I have come to accept my speech for how it is. It can still be a challenge but I try to stammer openly rather than word switch or avoid speaking altogether. It’s often hard to show my vulnerability,  but I’ve found that in particular, young people see this as a great leveller between us, rather than it being a problem. I feel passionately that all people with stammers are able to have their voices heard and are included, so I also work as a regular helpline and webchat volunteer for the British Stammering Association (STAMMA), advising teachers, parents and carers about stammering and giving support to people with stammers about their speech related issues.

What are the three objects you would take with you to a desert island?

If I’m not allowed my phone, then a photo of my husband and daughter, a small box of water colours with a brush and access to an old fashioned camera would be great.

What books have had a significant influence on you and why?

The Bible – I have a faith and have read it from beginning to end, but rather than things being black and white, personally, I think that acceptance and respect of people’s diversity and kindness towards others is key. I’m very aware of people’s suffering and troubles but I want to bring hope if I can.

The Oxford Clinical Handbook of Medicine (or the ‘Cheese n onion’ as we used to call it due to its yellow & green coloured cover) – a great little pocket book stuffed with vital information and tips for getting through life on the wards at medical school and in ‘House jobs’ (now Foundation Years).

What is on your bucket list?

To walk the British Isles mainland coastal path – I’ve calculated this now and realise it’s totally unrealistic unless I gave up work altogether and walk 15 miles a day - so maybe a part of a costal path would do instead!

To adopt a refuge kitten and name it Daisy - but I’m not sure this is any more realistic bearing in mind my asthma but my daughter would love it!

The Great North Run – but I’ll be happy with a 10k first!

To visit more National Trust gardens that we haven’t yet seen when I get the time (which unfortunately is rarely).

To play with an orchestra or chamber group again – very sadly no more ensemble playing since the pandemic and I miss playing music with others.

If you had one year and unlimited funds, what would you do?

I would like to fund several 12-month CAMHS Liaison Consultant posts across Britain’s General and District Hospitals – these are needed so badly. Hopefully if these made a real difference in terms of mental health outcomes of young people then NHS funding may be given. In my current role as the Higher Trainee Representative for the Psychiatry/Paediatric Liaison Network (PLN) across the UK, I am aware of the severe lack of these key psychiatry posts outside London at the ‘interface’ between the two medical specialities; vitally important at a time when a growing proportion of children in acute paediatric beds also have mental health issues. Also, many young people present with ‘Medically Unexplained Symptoms’ which can be chronically disabling and widely misunderstood. The need for psychiatry input into these paediatric cases is key.

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