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Sunday 20 August 2017

New wave: why counsellors now prefer activities like kitesurfing and yoga for their clients

Prince Harry is just one of many getting counselling, says Nicola Anderson

Bláithín Sweeney who set up a charity to get people doing yoga, surfing and other activities to help people deal with their problems. Picture: Andrew Kilfeather
Bláithín Sweeney who set up a charity to get people doing yoga, surfing and other activities to help people deal with their problems. Picture: Andrew Kilfeather
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

Almost exactly 12 months ago, a man presented at the Rutland Centre seeking treatment for his addiction to alcohol.

By the time he left five weeks later, the difference in his personality and physical appearance was enough to make staff exhale "wow".

"He was walking taller, he looked like a weight had fallen off his shoulders, his skin had improved. He ticked all the boxes," recalled CEO of the Rutland Centre, Meabh Leahy.

A year later, "he is much happier, back at work in his successful job and his relationship is going well", she said.

The Dublin-based centre for addiction will shortly give him a 'medallion' to celebrate his year of sobriety.

The message is that counselling works - although not for necessarily for everybody.

This week, the British royals weighed in on the power of seeking help for emotional issues.

Prince Harry revealed that after two decades of not thinking about the death of his mother, Princess Diana, he came "very close to a complete nervous breakdown on numerous occasions".

He said he shut down his emotions after his mother's death in 1997, which had "a quite serious effect on not only my personal life but my work as well".

Urged on by his brother, Prince William, he sought counselling and his description of recovery sent out a powerful message of hope that rippled far beyond his own country.

"What's really important with Harry and William is that they're saying we need to allow people to talk and remove the stigma - because that is what prevents people getting help when they need it," said Shane Kelly, spokesperson for the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (IACP).

"If it stops you having a good time and enjoying your life, do something about it," he said.

The professional counselling sector is currently unregulated in Ireland - though plans are under way at the Department of Health to bring the almost 5,000 counsellors and psychotherapists operating in this country formally into the net.

The current situation means no statistics are available on the overall number of Irish people who are undergoing counselling.

But from grief and bereavement to addiction and relationship issues and far beyond, it can help people to move forward in their lives.

The Irish Hospice Foundation hosts a bereavement and education centre and can direct people to counselling services.

However not everybody bereaved needs it, stresses Orla Keegan, head of education research and bereavement at the Hospice Foundation.

"This is a myth we need to burst," she said.

Instead, most people need direction to orientate themselves in their grief and to do what they need to do.

"A friend shouldn't be saying 'go and talk to someone', they should be talking to you themselves," she said.

Nevertheless, some people do need extra supports to cope with bereavement if they are isolated socially or if they feel they do not want to burden their families.

Others may be dealing with hidden loss - like mourning an abortion or the death of an affair partner.

"That sort of grief might benefit from going off and talking to someone outside your social circle," she said.

But those who benefit from counselling are the 5pc to 6pc of the bereaved who find themselves unable to get through day-to-day life, have troubled thoughts or are at risk, said Ms Keegan.

The HSE's National Counselling Service was set up primarily as a first response for survivors of institutional abuse.

The service has evolved and now 90pc of clients are people who have experienced abuse in the family, community or sports club.

Director of the service Rachel Mooney said, after counselling, people will say things like "now I feel believed, I didn't think anyone would believe me".

"It's all about improving people's quality of life and helping them understand that what happened was not their fault - that they are not 'damaged goods'," she said.

The service has also had 40,000 referrals over the last three years for its service for medical card holders for counselling for issues like depression, anxiety or stress.

But sometimes, something unexpected and left of field can prove to be the catalyst for people to turn their lives around.

In Sligo, the Rennafix group funds vouchers for life-enhancing activities - from kitesurfing to yoga - which are given to counsellors who request it for their clients.

"Mental professionals tell us the biggest problem is with resilience and hobbies or life-enhancing activities help this," explained founder Bláithín Sweeney. It has 120 people on its books but sometimes it is just the act of receiving the voucher which makes people feel valued - "a little present," she revealed.

Rennafix also hosts an annual three-day 'Having a Laugh' festival in July which involves outdoor adventures and more tranquil pursuits like reiki. Ms Bláithín believes it is the festival that is truly valuable to the wider community "because a lot of people with mental health issues aren't in counselling."

Irish Independent

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