Counselling Supermarket (1)
I have been busy as a bee and not paying too much attention to my blog.
I decided to re-educate myself and take a course in Counselling. Since nobody will want to hire a highly educated foreign biologist female over 50 to work in animal welfare post-Brexit, I decided that I would have to create my own job opportunity. What could I do so I could use all my knowledge from behaviour studies? Counselling sounded like a good idea. So I plunged into taking two levels at the same time. One course supposedly provides me with the right skills to listen to people, the other to fix the lives of couples in distress. I thought that my background in evolutionary psychology would be a great add-on to help people to understand themselves better. But I was treading in unknown territory. Unbeknown to me, I entered a jungle of competing theories, all claiming to “cure” people from their mental issues, and most of them based on unfounded beliefs and plagued by a total disregard of the scientific method and critical analysis.
After 3 months of study I feel deeply frustrated by the lack of psychological, evolutionary and neurobiological insight presented in most of these theories which seem to me more like normative dogmas than appeals to reason. However I am decided to conclude my studies and achieve the so called Professional Qualification which will enable me to get a paid job and at the same time work to educate those working in psychotherapy and counselling about issues that do not enter their education.
I started writing a small guide to inform people and doctors how to navigate through the over 500 types of counselling on offer and sort out the wheat from the chaff. Since I am a scientist, I will be qualifying the different types of counselling based on reliability and evidence for its promised outcomes.
During my studies I was surprised to read that psychotherapy can actually do more harm than good. But to be fair, most of the criticism I read so far, refer to psychotherapy methods rooted in psychoanalysis and New Age gibberish.
However, despite most of the negative press about psychotherapy, it is important not to throw the baby with the bath water. In a society where people become more isolated, alone in the crowd and immerse in a digital world, the counsellor may be the only human being which is available to provide the client with paid 50 minutes of undivided attention. Some critics compare this with a form of “prostitution” where a client can “buy” a listening friend for an allocated amount of time. But the problem with this approach is that it forgets that human relationships are all based on the principle of tit-for-tat. I give you something in exchange for what you give me. Even love is about tit-for-tat. Without retribution love will eventually wither like a forgotten flower.
People sell their work to others that take advantage of it. There are many ways a human being can produce work and often intellectual and artistic production is one of the areas that is forgotten to be included in that classification. In physics, work is defined as the amount of energy necessary to move an object in space. In life, this object is everything we do. If we produce work to move the “object” of others, then our energy expenditure is compensated by a payoff. In tribal societies, the pay-off would be food or any other item that would the needs of the helper. In our society, that pay-off is translated into currency.
What are counsellors for?
The counsellor is thus a person who invested a considerable amount of energy and currency into learning how to help others. Such as a lawyer or a doctor, the counsellor provides to support the client in specific needs that are inside the counsellor’s competences and learned know-how.
So I do not agree with the view of counselling as a kind of “prostitution” that offers clocked friendship. Following this logic everything we do is prostitution. I paid carer or a child minder would be a “prostitute” of maternal love. A teacher would be a prostitute of knowledge.
The problem with comparing counselling to a form of “friendly prostitution” is that the critic missed the point. The counsellor is NOT supposed to be a friend. He or she are simply professionals that were trained to listen to clients and help them by asking questions that may bring some light to the origins of their problem and eventually point out to possible courses of action. Since the counsellor is not emotionally involved with the problem, it will be expected from him/her to analyse the issue with objectivity.
The issue is that our brains are hard-wired to get attached to those people, things and ideas that satisfy our needs. Does, it is only natural that the client, after confiding the most intimate issues, cannot avoid seeing the counsellor as a close friend. This makes the client vulnerable and the counsellor very powerful. This is when the counsellor’s training is important. Counsellors are also humans with hearts and emotions, they are told to show empathy and very often, many professionals would like to hold the hand or give a warm hug to the client in distress, but they don’t. Not because they are cold, distant or inhumane, but because they are bound to a code of ethics that imposes boundaries to protect the client from abuse and the counsellor from frivolous claims.
Counselling or Psychotherapy?
You might have heard that somebody you know is seeing a psychotherapist and the other is seeing a counsellor and you might have wondered about the difference between these two.
The terms “counselling” and “psychotherapy” have often been used as interchangeable and some authors even claim that there is no difference, but this is not correct.
According to the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) there is no difference, but many professionals would disagree. Basically the difference is in the process rather than in the quality of the qualification. Whereas the aim of psychotherapy is to resolve the underlying issues which fuel ongoing complaints, counselling usually focuses on a specific problem and taking the steps to address or solve it.
Psychotherapy and counselling have in common the fact that both are based on what is normally referred to as “talking therapies” which assumes a relationship between a health care provider and a client. It takes place over a series of meetings, though psychotherapy often it has a longer duration than counselling.
The main difference is that counsellors rarely offer advice. Instead, counsellors guide clients to discover their own answers and support them through the actions they choose to take. But of course this also depends on which theoretical approach is embraced by the provider of care.
Counselling is usually perceived as a process to help the clients solve issues such as relationship difficulties with the partner, the family, or others in the social group (work, neighbours, etc.). Counselling may help you to deal with your personal feelings and address overloading emotional issues. Counsellors work with people who have thinking, emotional difficulties, or ingrained behavioural problems due to past or recent wounds, trauma, or to a chemical imbalance.
While counselling profession is heavily regulated in some countries, it is more relaxed in others. For example in the UK the counselling profession is not regulated. Anyone can set themselves up as a counsellor without any training and acting under theories of their own making. However the great majority of professional counsellors, by their own initiative, prefer to become affiliated to professional bodies that regulate their profession and abide by a code of ethics that takes into consideration the well-being of the clients. If you are considering seeing a councillor make sure to assess his qualifications and membership of professional bodies that will make him accountable if anything goes wrong.
A counsellor guides you through the events in your life that are in the origin of the problem and help you to find solutions to it. But you are the one who has to come up with the solution. Counselling helps the client to help themselves.
Counsellors are bound by the code of ethics not you give advice to the client. So if you are going to counselling expecting he will come with a solution to your problem, forget it! Maybe you would be better off receiving coaching or mentoring.
Psychotherapy assumes that the client has a mental issue and needs to “fix” it. The very word therapy implies that it offers treatment to some dysfunction. By adding the prefix psycho one assumes that that dysfunction is of a mental nature.
Now we have an issue (which I will discuss in detail in future postings); who decides what a mental disorder is? Is depression a mental disorder or just temporary distress? Should bereavement be classified as a mental disorder eligible to take mind numbing drugs? Should a person in a personal crisis, lost in the search for her own identity labelled with one of those many “mental disorders” listed in the DSM-5 (1), the bible of psychiatrist?
DSM-5 (http://www.dsm5.org/psychiatrists/practice/dsm) stands for the fifth edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a book published by the American Psychiatric Association which lists all the so called mental disorders under the Sun. It aims to help the professionals to make a diagnosis. The problem with this book is that it describes as mental disorder aspects of personality that could be perfectly natural in different social and cultural settings. The advantage of listing behaviours under a manual that sounds like science is that it justifies the use the pharmacological drugs which is more than welcomed by the pharmaceutical industry.
However, psychotherapists and counsellors are not allowed to prescribe drugs. This is a competence that is reserved to psychiatrists only. A psychiatrist is different from a psychologist in the sense that the former have a degree in medicine and a specialisation on the mysteries of the mind. For some incomprehensible reason- that may only relate to professional protectionism rather than logic- it is believed that only those with a medical education hold the monopoly of knowledge about the workings of the brain. For example a person with a PhD in neurobiology or pharmacology which would be lecturing these doctors, would not be allowed to prescribe any psycho-pharmaceutic drugs if she was also acting as a counsellor or a psychotherapist.
Why am I writing this stuff?
As I progress in my education as a counsellor and considering myself as holding quite a wide background in the sciences of behaviour, evolutionary psychology and neurobiology I think that I can help those who might be undergoing some life crisis or mental health difficulties and have considered to seek help from a mental health professional. I guess these people may be as confused as I was when I went through the dark path of Post-PhD depression. I was sent to a health professional at the University Counselling Services, but at the time I didn’t have a clue what that nice lady was going about. Being alone in a new city and country starting a Post-Doc in an unknown environment just worsened my depressive state. In that dark period, talking to someone who would listen helped me to face the vicissitudes of life. At the time I didn’t know what method the counsellor was using, but had she explained it to me I would not have understood it anyway. However I felt at the time that I would like to know about what options were available to me and decide by myself what would be the best approach, rather than being referred by a doctor who knew as much as I did about the available psychotherapeutic methods.