Everything you ever wanted to know about Psychologically Informed Environments, but were afraid to ask.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016 - 11:52am

What exactly is a PIE?

That’s easy: any service or project that takes into account the thoughts and feelings of the people in it, is psychological. 

illuminated image of the human brain

And all human environments do that, to some extent. So nowadays we use the phrase for somewhere that does so quite consciously, and aims to get good at it. We have a few handy descriptions of some of the key things that might help, especially in homelessness work.  We usually describe it in term of five or six main areas to consider. I won’t go into that now, but take a look at Claire Ritchie’s guide, or the “Handy Guide” video that I made back in 2013. You’ll find links to them, and a lot of useful material via the link at the end of this piece

Why is it called a PIE?

It’s really just a name – an attempt to describe what we saw as happening, at least in some of the more imaginative services. But we had really wanted to stress that the best of services were developing a whole integrated package, creating a whole 'environment' - hence, the use of that key word.

In a way, you could say that we were trying to identify and bottle the best bits from the old ‘Supporting People’ era, before it got buried in bureaucracy and cuts – a time when services were encouraged to be needs-led and inventive. We are trying to keep that spirit alive.

Where’s the ‘psychology’ then?

Well, we all use psychology, all the time, in our dealings with other people. So we weren’t really thinking here necessarily of clinical or academic psychology, theories and techniques. It’s more about trying to get a real understanding of people, and why someone might react the way they do

That said, there is actually a lot of ‘proper’ psychology that can help that understanding. However, in the end it is still about using emotional intelligence, more than any other technique.

Do you still need a psychologist though?

Not really. Some places do have a psychologist or psychotherapist who runs sessions at a hostel, say. In fact, some argue that one of the real strengths of a PIE is that a supportive environment can enable access to psychotherapy - it varies. But many services will be working with people in what they call the pre-contemplative stage. 

Psychologists can help with things like staff training, but do make sure you get one that is really excited about working with people with complex needs, and challenging their own training, which tends to be in more limited, more clinical approaches.

Anyway, what matters is how psychology in the broadest sense informs the whole thing – like a red sock in a white wash. How thinking more ‘psychologically’ gets to be part of the whole way you work.

Is it complicated?

Well, it’s not rocket science: it’s actually FAR more complicated than that. And yet you will find that you are doing this kind of thing every day.

The PIE idea, and the framework of five or six main themes, just helps you to see it more clearly. It also helps to explain to others that there’s a lot more to what you do than just food and shelter and ‘signposting’ towards other help.

Should every service be a PIE, then?

You’ll find everywhere probably is already, at least to some extent. But how far it is important or worthwhile to do so explicitly, may depend on how far your client group have complex and entrenched needs; or have had recent acute trauma.

Is it all set in stone?

Actually, no. The world moves on, and we constantly discover new things, new angles.  At the moment, for example, it’s the connections with Trauma Informed Care, and Housing First, that I am exploring. That, and making more international links with the US, Canada and France. I’ve sometimes described the PIE as being more like a meme - an idea that belongs to a community, and that evolves with it.

Is that really everything?

No – of course not! But if you want to explore some more, there is a website that I set up some years ago, with a very extensive library of papers, presentations, conversations – some written, some podcasts, some video and even some cartoons! (There’s a cartoon, for example, devoted to that question of “Do you need a psychologist to make a PIE?”.)

We call it the PIElink, and you’ll find it here: www.pielink.net

The ultimate aim is to have webinars, live discussions, a monthly newsletter, guest editors, that kind of thing. But at least, for the moment, it’s a library you can dip into, for ideas and inspiration – it’s free to frontline staff and users.

Talk To Us

Robin Johnson

Editor/Curator of The PIElink

The PIElink is an on-line community of practice for all those interested in developing the practice and theory of 'psychologically informed environments' - PIEs - through dialogue.