Just wanted to talk to you about some of your experiences in the mental health sector. So, first off: how long have you been working in mental health?
I’ve been counselling for around 5 and a half years, after qualifying as a counsellor in 2013; I was counselling before then as part of my placement. I did a lot of volunteering to begin with and I eventually set up my own private practice in August 2016, after achieving my Master’s in Psychotherapeutic Counselling.
Excellent. And what was it that drew you to it?
Well, quite a few things really, the main one really being a bit of a trigger, I suppose. My mum passed away and it sort of made me re-evaluate my life and what I was doing and where I was going. I sort of stumbled into it, to be honest. I knew I wanted to do something to help people – which I suppose you’ve heard many a time before – but it’s also having family members with mental health issues, which sort of made me think “that would be really interesting to learn about that, the psychology behind what’s going on for members of my own family.”
So there’s that familial experience in there, do you have any personal experience aside from family members?
Not really, apart from grief, this was a big thing for me. Grief impacts many people, however it’s a natural process, which you usually go through when you’ve lost someone dear to you. I did grieve for my mum and I grieved for my dad when he passed away a few years after my mum. So that was a difficult time but I wouldn’t say I was depressed, I would say I was grieving, which is quite a natural process.
So you said you’ve been counselling for six years, do you find it’s difficult when you’re getting involved in some of the cases to keep that distinction between personal and professional, as I can imagine it would be quite easy to get involved in some of these cases.
Yeah, I think during your training you sort of learn to cope with that because when you are a caring human being, you care deeply about your clients and the sort of things they bring to you are quite distressing sometimes. Having the ability to be engaged fully with that client in an empathic and really deep way helps them to work through what’s going on with them. For me, it’s very important for self-care to look after me, as I can’t help somebody if I’m not OK. Part of the way counsellors learn to look after themselves is to have to supervision, which is a requirement for all counsellors. So when a counsellor has supervision, it allows the counsellor to talk about what’s going on, it’s private and confidential with your supervisor. Also, as part of self-care, is about having counselling as well. So once a month I have counselling, it allows me to offload and one of the extremely person-centred theorists – Carl Rogers – advocated having personal therapy throughout his career, so I always feel as if I’m doing the right thing looking after me because then I can look after my clients.
I’m quite glad you brought that up, actually, as before the series I mentioned that I’ve been doing a series of podcasts. With PBTS, it’s geared at encouraging people who are going through mental health issues but it’s also about providing support to the friends and family members around them. One of the things I’d mentioned was that it’s important to take some “you” time, some personal time as well. Otherwise you can burn yourself out, you can get too into it and end up spending too much time doing all of this. That’s something you’d quite encourage?
Oh absolutely! I think when you’re part of a family and you’ve got somebody with a mental health issue, whatever that may be, it will impact on the family inevitably. So it’s important that the family are supported, support each other and make sure they have got support, whether that’s another organisation or just taking time out to do things they want to do, like hobbies. But coming together, talking, I can’t stress enough how important the talking is, communication is really helpful. Families need to communicate, really, to help each other.
Talking is definitely an integral part. I also find that listening is quite important as well. It’s one of the struggles that I’ve come up against in my own struggle with it, people don’t do quite enough listening.
Yes, that’s the thing: families and friends want to support the person with mental health issues or psychological issues but more often than not they end up giving advice: “Why don’t you do this,” “try that”, “try this” and they don’t tend to listen. I see a lot of people who say “I have great support from mum, dad, my husband or my wife but they tell me what to do, tell me what I should be doing” whereas when they have counselling or psychotherapy with myself, then they can just literally be in that moment and talk and I will sit and listen and reflect and sort of interject when necessary. But it’s a really powerful tool to listen to what someone’s saying, for them to tell their story.
It’s something that I’ve found when I’m opening up to somebody, nine times out of ten, that I’m not going to them for any kind of advice or suggestions, it’s more I need to express how I’m feeling.
Yeah, so you’re not looking for a solution, you just want to express yourself, to offload, to explore, to make sense.
Yes, and to try and make people understand as well because I find when I’m talking, I find people get caught up in parts of what I’m saying. One example I gave fairly recently on the website is I was caught in a spiral and I needed, for want of a better word, a quick fix, something that would yank me out of that spiral. This one person turned round and gave me encouragement, saying “Well you stayed in that place for 20 minutes” but my brain turned it right round “yes but you weren’t in there for 40 minutes” and it became quite counterproductive. That person and a number of others haven’t quite been able to grasp that, while encouragement is important, sometimes it’s the quick fixes that are needed. Do you find that, when you’re seeing clients, that they’re just wanting to talk about things or do they come looking for that advice, is there something that stands out?
Yes, I would say that there are always people that come and want me to tell them what to do but as a counsellor we cannot tell people what to do because there are already a lot of people telling them what to do. A counsellor’s not there to do that. So yes, there are people who do come and do say “I don’t know what to do” but it’s through the process of therapy that they come to their own decisions, they come to their own realisations. The answers are there, they are there, but sometimes it takes real courage and real hard work to work through everything to actually get to that point. It is wonderful when you see those lightbulb moments, it’s very rewarding and it’s a wonderful feeling to see that person, that individual, progressing and just building up that awareness and understanding of why they are how they are and why they behave the way they do.
Would you say that’s what the therapy and counselling is in its purest form, then, bringing that understanding in the person of how it works?
Yes, that’s my understanding, that’s my belief, that’s my experience. I don’t go for the quick fix of telling somebody what to do. There are some therapists who, maybe, give some recommendations, trying to find a solution- try this, try that – but no, it’s a case of working through because a lot of the time, Alex, some clients don’t know why they feel the way they feel, they cannot put their finger on it. You can’t provide a solution to that, so it’s about working with the client through their narrative to understand – so they get to understand what’s going on with them. I can use my experience and my knowledge to not guide but hold their hand and be on that journey with them.
Just off the back of that, then, one thing that I find I say quite a bit – and I’m interested to know your take on it – is that when people are looking at the mental health itself, I do say that it’s a very individual thing, a very personal thing. So just as you and I sat here are two different people, both of our experiences with the same label, for want of a better word – imagine we both have depression – it could be very different. So how much truth is there in the statement that, really, if you want to know how somebody is, whether they’re making progress or not, how much of that will come from that person, they are the ones in the best position to know whether they’re making progress.
Absolutely. The client is the expert of themselves. As the counsellors, we are the professionals but we are not the experts over that person’s life. That person has got expert knowledge of who they are. I don’t know what’s best for you – there’s an example. I don’t know what’s best for you. What I might think is best for you, you might think “No, that’s not best for me.” So you are the expert of yourself. With support and encouragement and help, you will hopefully get to that point where you feel “that makes sense”. I had a client last week and it was a real lightbulb moment and he quickly made notes while he was in therapy because he didn’t want that moment to go, he didn’t want to forget it when he walked out this room so he wrote it down. So it’s about knowing yourself and, when you come to therapy, most people don’t know themselves but they can monitor their progress and see the changes and, to be fair, I’ve had many a client say “I’m 80% better now than when I started” or “I’m 70% better.” So it’s not about me telling them they’re doing really well – I wouldn’t do that – it’s about the client realising themselves that they’re doing well.
And does that ring true for friends and family members looking in, because for some it’ll be easy to see the progress.
Oh yes, I do have some clients who say “Oh my mum has said she’s seen a change in me” or “my husband has noticed that I’m a lot better now, I feel like I can go out, I’m a lot more confident, I’m not so anxious” or “my work colleagues have noticed I’m not so anxious anymore.” I believe loved ones can be a good indicator of how that person is progressing. However, I feel inclined to mention, this is not always the case, especially if the client is supressing their emotions, keeping things in, as people can often wear ‘a mask’, so they somehow manage to ‘fool’ their friends and families into believing they are coping better than they really are; so it’s a tricky one.
Just to wrap it up a little then, as I said Pushing Back the Shadows looks at supporting people with mental health issues. If there was something you could say to someone who is going through those struggles – I know you said you don’t give advice but something like a piece of advice – what would that be?
I would say don’t struggle on your own. If you don’t feel like you can talk to a family member or a friend, you can go to your GP who will help you or refer you to see a counsellor or psychotherapist. Or alternatively you can go on the BACP website ‘Find a Therapist’ or the ‘Counselling Directory’, to have a look for a counsellor in your area to have that support. But it’s about if you want to be helped, if you want to get better, there is the support there if you seek it out. Definitely. Don’t suffer in silence.
Absolutely, better to have people around who can encourage. As I also mentioned, we look at supporting friends and family around them, whether that’s by explaining things – as that’s what I do, I explain a lot of what I’m feeling and what I’m going through so people can have a glimpse in and have a bit of understanding. What kind of message would you want to give a friend or a family member of someone who’s going through mental health.
It can be quite stressful and quite hard for a family member or a friend, even when there’s a lot of love and respect there. It can be draining on the family, it can be quite draining on the friendship. So that friend or family member just needs to make sure they are – as we mentioned earlier on, I believe – just make sure that they are getting their own needs met and relief by doing something that they like to do, socialising, doing some physical exercise, engaging with other family members and friends. Talking and being honest about their own feelings, as well, saying “that’s been quite difficult today” and not shying away from the fact that being the supportive party may be taking a little bit out of them; they might need to be getting a little bit of support from somewhere else. There’s lots of organisation and lots of online help and support and forums that you can access for information that can offer a lifeline.
Definitely. We’ve got our own forum set up for people to join in but we’ve also got a list of useful contacts like Mind and Samaritans that you can get in touch with.
Yes, and I went to a workshop a few weeks back about PAPYRUS and that’s helpful for people who are feeling suicidal, or for the people supporting those who feel suicidal. They are really really helpful. There’s lots, isn’t there? That’s really encouraging, though, that there is so much support there for other people. You’ve just got to find that support and grab it when you can.