I never thought that I would enjoy talking about my feelings and sharing my woes and concerns among strangers.
Attending a relationship-coaching workshop has actually been on my bucket list as something to just experience and write about. In all honesty I was a complete sceptic. My initial thought was how can I trust the advice of a complete stranger, which I’m sure is a common feeling among people accessing therapy for the first time.
But despite reservations, a 2014 Ipsos MORI poll for the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy revealed that more than a quarter of people in the UK had consulted a counsellor compared to 1 in 5 people back in 2010.
Women were found to opt for more talking therapies, while the biggest users were aged between 35 and 44.
The uptake of people seeking counselling and therapies may suggest that more of us are unhappy with our current situations. However, the rise in the number of people talking through their problems can be seen as a positive thing.
‘I don't think it's that more of us are unhappy. I just think it shows that the stigma attached to counselling has dramatically diminished,’ BACP governor, Dr Andrew Reeves told the Independent.
Though this would have been welcomed news back in 2014, the recent Brexit vote has had a surprising effect on people turning to counselling or currently having therapy. An effect many of us may not have foreseen.
‘I think in 2016, we’ve had a massive journey. I’m primarily thinking about Brexit and the powerful aftershocks of Brexit, which was a shock for many people,’ Helen Cordery, an attachment-based psychotherapist, counsellor and WPF seminar leader explained.
‘I think the majority of people found it a surprise and it certainly had massive impact on my work with my clients. That initial few days after the vote, whether people realised consciously or not, I certainly felt a lot of anxiety from them.’
Thoughts like ‘do you want me? Do you care for me? Did you vote out?’ were talking points among some of Helen’s clients.
‘A lot of my clients are non-white, non-British, not even European and they all had a deep fear that I as a white, British woman, voted out and that I didn’t want them, that I rejected them and judged them. A lot of these people might have a deep fear of not being wanted because it struck a chord from their early life, either as refugees or just growing up with being different and experiencing racist abuse and that kind of stuff.’
The outcome of Brexit ignited an increase of race hate crime with the British Transport Police reporting 119 incidents a fortnight after the vote in June. While many of us thought about what it would mean in terms of jobs and migration, very little attention was given to those who perhaps were suffering from mental health problems and the overwhelming effect the vote would have on them.
‘There’s something about Brexit that made everyone realise that we are different to each other – even white British people are different to each other and there’s that fear of the unknown, the fear of not being wanted and of being judged based on the colour of your skin, accent or where you’ve come from. As we move towards Brexit itself it’s going to get more and more accentuated. It was a big shock at the time and for now it’s in the background, but it will become more of a foreground noise.’
Counsellors are actually uniquely positioned to counter these concerns that people may have following the vote. Cordery explains that counselling and psychotherapy can offer a huge amount of insight when it comes to understanding what it feels like to be different and not wanted and how to counter those feelings. In fact, having the ability to help us channel our thought processes to those depths can effectively build bridges between people.
Up until this point in my talk with Helen, Brexit has been quite revealing especially for those who are struggling internally either with their place in society or as an individual, but could there be scope for change thanks to the controversial vote?
Diversity within counselling has been a constant talking point. Ethnic minorities are not receiving the help they so very much need because of cultural attitudes and perceptions, whilst on the other side of the spectrum you have ethnic minorities that feel as though the calibre of understanding of their issues isn’t enough to offer effective solutions and reflection.
I was curious about this and had to ask Cordery whether the current mindset of people feeling misrepresented would trigger a shift where they take it upon themselves to engage with their communities by opting for a career in this line of work.
‘I hope so. I think when we’re faced with a fearful situation, we are naturally designed to retreat and withdraw and self-preservation. It may seem strange to some people to think of Brexit being that kind of situation but I think that’s exactly how it is. I’m hoping things like this will help people think actually ‘okay maybe now is the right time to think about how to learn counselling skills and smooth the next few years over.’ I do hope it leads a significant number of people to come in and learn counselling or experience counselling,’ she explained.
This may be the situation where a new influx of counsellors can answer their calling the same way Cordery did years ago whilst working as a dietician.
She recalls vividly the moment she realised that counselling and psychotherapy was perhaps the career path she should follow. Working with an elderly man who had terminal cancer, she found that he was in need of speaking about how scared he was to die and what was happening to him. She instantly connected and realised how important it was to lend an ear and give him that space to express himself.
This experience alone tells us that sometimes what is typically prescribed to us is not always what we actually need. This is especially important when working with the younger generation. Though they're prone to being glued to their phones and smart devices, they are more in tune with themselves than we think. This is thanks to the normalisation of counselling with celebrities openly talking about their struggles with depression and anxiety and seeking appropriate help. Young people who feel a certain connection to these celebrities will naturally remain engaged and informed of these conditions, which allows them to discuss any struggles they’re experiencing too.
The ability to open up is half the battle and with the vocal nature of social media, the younger generation are at an advantage when it comes to expressing themselves and speaking out. According to a Fifetoday.co.uk article, Childline carried out ‘more than 900 suicide counselling sessions involving children from Scotland last year.’ This was a record number of calls on the issue alone according to the helpline.
It is for this very reason that we need the influx of counsellors to continue to grow and thrive within the industry. Workplace culture now includes access to counselling and therapies to aid workers mentally and emotionally. Even in politics, Scottish MP Nicola Sturgeon has said she will consider a proposal to grant Scottish schools access to counselling services to tackle the growing number of adolescents experiencing mental health issues. Put simply – the demand is definitely there.
So, let’s start at the beginning.
You’ve made the decision to become a counsellor. All too often people confuse counsellors with psychologists, so what exactly is the difference?
Katrina Moore, an integrative Counsellor Psychotherapist was on hand to explain to us.
‘In many ways we overlap because a psychologist will listen to what is going on in your life and try and take action with you to improve it. A psychologist is going to look at your behaviour. Psychology is more of an outside-in approach, whereas counselling is more inside-out. I want to know what it is to be you, not what would typically happen in this situation. That’s not to take away from what a psychologist does because it’s very complex and tricky and a completely different approach. Counselling is softer. It’s more personal and inside the skin. Both counsellors and psychologists are adjusting thought processes, but we’re doing it with a philosophical, spiritual, really personal and very tailored approach. It overlaps with friendship in the sense that you’re getting to know someone in that same way. A counsellor would very rarely offer you advice – I never have. By raising your awareness, it makes you look at what you’re doing more and maybe gives you more understanding for yourself.
‘With a psychologist it’s more of an approach with a course of action to follow, whereas counselling, not so much. It’s about you working it out once you understand why you’re doing something. It can be hard to define because there are counselling psychologists too. There are so many strands.’
Moore’s entry into counselling began after she was told during her job as a hairdresser that she would make a great counsellor. She took an introductory course – a six-week taster – to give her an idea of what a full time course would actually entail. She loved it and almost immediately enrolled on to a one-year introductory foundation course in Counselling. Following this, she decided that a Diploma in Counselling would be the next best step. After growing her own business, she was in a position to enrol and study NVQ levels 3, 4 and 5, which she completed in four years instead of five.
The route into counselling is one that grants a bit of flexibility and is usually a second or third career people find themselves venturing in to. Working towards membership of a professional body like the BACP is recommended and they themselves recommend you taking training with an awarding body that consists of an introductory course, a certificate in counselling skills and an advanced diploma in counselling.
Cordery found her calling to counselling from her career as a dietician. She underwent her first training experience with a week-long residential course run by a colleague which was with a group of nuns.
Experience working with people is key here. Though a lot of learning is moving to the online sphere it is still advisable that you undertake face to face experience of counselling, perhaps working on a voluntary basis.
Do you have what it takes?
When asking both Moore and Cordery about the qualities that make a good counsellor, there were two constants. Being a good listener and having experienced adversity.
I questioned whether people who hadn't experienced hardship were suited to the job. Cordery's answer? Not necessarily. In some cases, they may not even be aware that they’ve witnessed or experienced trauma in the first place.
The effect that counsellors can have on people is widespread. It’s apparent that there is a huge demand for these professionals as current numbers are put under pressure with an increase of people accessing these services. Unfortunately, funding within this sector has been cut and jobs within the NHS aren't as free-flowing as many would like, which can be off putting for people looking to enter the industry.
Speaking to both Moore and Cordery, they themselves have had to work hard to get to the point they’re at. It’s not the type of career that you easily walk in to; it takes time and dedication and when you find yourself in the thick of it all, you realise how crucial this role is in helping vulnerable people. Despite our age, race and background, none of us are immune from experiencing mental health issues and for people in certain ethnic groups, they go through their entire life without even acknowledging this. Being unable to express themselves and their plight has the ability to manifest into other struggles like alcoholism and suicidal thoughts – some of which never get treated or spoken about.
Whatever differences events like Brexit highlighted, counselling has the ability to smooth over by focusing on what connects us. In addition to this though, further dialogue is needed in order to continue breaking stigmas surrounding counselling so that individuals don’t slip through the net and future generations have no qualms about seeking the help that they need.