From punk rock to academic heavyweight

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Ella Rhodes is Staff Journalist for the British Psychological Society’s monthly magazine The Psychologist.

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Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry (JCPP) and Professor of Developmental Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience at Kings College London, Edmund Sonuga-Barke, described his career path as a series of unlikely, chance occurrences.

Having lived with dyslexia and ADHD Edmund left school with an E-grade A level in chemistry and had a short break from academic pursuits as the founding member of punk rock trio Anti-Pasti.

edmund sonuga-barke

Thanks to Professor Tim Miles, who asked the University College of North Wales in Bangor to open two of its places to students without qualifications, Edmund eventually went on to study psychology there.

While at university Edmund said he became fascinated by behaviourist approaches to psychology which bring together philosophy, methodology and psychological theory.

He said: “This has all been providence. People ask why I chose psychology but I didn’t – it chose me. It was the only course in the whole UK under any discipline that would’ve taken me. It was a total providential chance occurrence, quite extraordinary.”

After completing a PhD at the University of Exeter in the development of economic behaviour in children Edmund happened upon an interesting job advert into a condition now known as ADHD.

“I saw an advert in the British Psychological Society Bulletin and it said ‘come and do research on hyperkinetic disorder’ and I said ‘what’s that?’ It turned out it was something I knew an awful lot about, not academically but personally,” he said.

Edmund’s interest in ADHD grew during his post-doctoral position at King’s College London and his research has explored it from numerous angles, encompassing clinical trials, neuroscience and developmental psychopathology. He has also researched  neurodevelopmental and mental health conditions more broadly.

Within the field of ADHD, Edmund said, he hoped to see a move beyond describing its outcomes to understanding how ADHD emerges throughout development and the ways genetic and environmental factors work together in shaping how the brain develops.

“At King’s I’m trying to establish some collaborations to look at very early brain development and try to identify risk pathways into ADHD and neurodevelopmental disorders to see if we can identify some markers that we can target for prevention approaches.

“This wouldn’t be to remove the life and soul of ADHD, it has its benefits, I think there’s lots to be said for having a lot of energy and a mind that flits about. The problem is all the downsides and the baggage that comes with it including emotional problems and conduct problems.”

Edmund has also worked as a lecturer in Developmental Psychology at the University of Southampton and holds Visiting Chairs at Ghent University, Aarhus University and the University of Sussex.

Last year he moved back to King’s College London and now works within the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Institute of Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience.

Edmund recently gave his inaugural address at King’s where he spoke publicly for the first time about his experiences with dyslexia and ADHD.

“I was always so ashamed of having learning problems until about five years ago. It changed because I was successful and I didn’t have to feel the stigma any more, I became much more open about it.

“When you have learning problems it really does leave a big fracture in your self-esteem in a pretty fundamental way. You never really forget being in the remedial class at school, or all the things teachers used to say, you don’t really forget those horrible things.”

But, Edmund added, these experiences had informed and motivated his work: “I thought it was a bit embarrassing not having been a success at school but now I think it’s quite important, it tells people why I do some of the things the way I do and how I think.”

Edmund is also Editor in Chief for the ACAMH journal JCPP (Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry) overseeing an editorial board of nine general editors, three review editors and five editors who review papers in more specialist areas such as eating disorders.

He said a move to incorporate both more specialist editors within the journal and more editors from America had been revolutionary for its success.

“Since I joined the journal I’ve been able to attract really good editors and they drive the success of the journal. In every area we’ve attracted the very best people, including our team in the office, not just in terms of their standing but committed, honest and hard-working people and those who genuinely love the science.”

Edmund said ACAMH played an important role in disseminating information but needed to consider whether it could have any role in informing policy.

“What we’re doing already is great but the question is whether we can have a more direct impact on the mental health of kids through trying to influence policy –  that’s a big choice.”



This is wonderful! A series of unlikely chance occurances and passion for change, that is so punk rock. Thanks for sharing this.

Thank you so much for sharing !

That is a great story! In my own work (which is a tapestry art installation that Edmund has kindly participated in too) several researchers in ADHD have revealed to me that they too have ADHD which was why they were interested in studying it in the first place. Such stories should be more widely shared as they bridge the artificial ‘us’ v ‘them’ divide that people may think about when it comes to psychiatrists and researchers with patients and service users.

Fantastic journey. Thanks for writing this. We hope to have the privilege of Prof Sonuga-Barke talk to our final year students on our ‘Autism, Asperger’s & ADHD’ Psychology module at University of Derby in the new year.

As a trained Counsellor, having just stepped out of the NHS as a Nurse for 35 years , I am interested in the areas of neuro diversity and neuroplasticity, the effects of disability on self esteem and development. How good to know that you have your own experience and insight gained from your journey with dyslexia ; a hugely misunderstood area in itself and not always easy to work with it as an adult. Fascinating areas to explore and a chance of giving hope to families and children you help .

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