Bob Johnson is a psychiatrist who has spent much of his professional life working with disturbed and dangerous prisoners, and researching the impact of different approaches. He believes that they can all be reached, and that none of them is untreatable. He challenges much current practice on account of this.
For many years he acted as consultant to the James Nayler Foundation, a charity he set up to further research, education, training and treatment for all types of personality disorders, especially those involving violence to others or to self. A charismatic character with a strong magnetic personality, he is seen as a leading figure in the Foundation, which in turn is sometimes identified with him.
He trained at the University of Cambridge, the London Hospital, and at the Claybury Hospital, Essex, where he learned much about group work and therapeutic community techniques. In 1964 he was appointed as a Senior Psychiatrist in Middletown State Hospital, New York, working in the Drug Addiction Unit and the acute wards.
His renown largely stems from his time as consultant psychiatrist in the Special Unit for dangerous prisoners in Parkhurst, on the Isle of Wight, UK. While there he devised his talking cure techniques around which the James Nayler Foundation and his personal crusade against psychosurgery and psychiatric medication are formed. His work formed the basis of a documentary investigation by the BBC's flagship programme Panorama.
There was evidence, during Bob Johnson’s work with some of the most disturbed and dangerous men in our prisons, that through his ways of treating them there were marked changes in their behaviour and their approach to themselves and others. The close work with the early life experiences of damaged people, reaching to their ‘terror and rage’ and enabling them to speak about the unthinkable showed remarkable results both in the lives of individuals in the unit but also in the general ambience of Parkhurst’s C Wing, in which disturbed and dangerous prisoners were housed. The level of emergency alarms dropped dramatically, as did the use of medication and incidents of self-harm and of violence.
Much of the therapeutic interchange material was recorded on video, so there would be good opportunities for research to test out the long-term effectiveness of the work, though this has not yet been done. With the increased interest in anything which appears to work with severe personality disordered offenders after the failures of treatment methods in UK special hospitals and particularly Ashworth (where a scandal involving patients being out of control led to a major review of the special hospitals), there is an opportunity to learn from one of the few success stories in this troubled field.
In 1997, he was consultant psychiatrist to The Retreat. In1998 he was invited to become Head of Therapy in the Personality Disorder Unit at Ashworth Special Hospital, Maghull, Liverpool. The post of Head of Therapy there was especially created for him, to accommodate his experience and expertise.
He was one of 14 national experts invited to submit evidence, twice, and indeed to testify before the Fallon Inquiry into the Personality Disorder Unit at Ashworth Hospital, which reported in 1999 - a transcript of his evidence and testimony under cross examination by 4 barristers is available on the internet.
His latest project is organising Emotion Support Centres, where recoverers help others recover. He holds the controversial view that mental disorders are software based, not hardware, and all are 100% curable, provided the sufferer completes the course.
He has now provided medico-legal reports for a wide variety of cases, examining and preparing reports on diverse individuals who are appearing before the courts, or facing tribunals within the prison system. The majority of these cases have concerned individuals with mild to severe Personality Disorder. His psychiatric assessments provide a detailed view on their prognosis, their treatment and their causative factors.
He continues to challenge the evidence base on which some psychiatric diagnoses are made, and is especially concerned with the damage these labels inflict on sufferers.