#MindYourself: Generation therapy - The number of people accessing counselling and psychotherapy 'is on the rise'
Once upon a time, the only people reclining on therapists' couches were in Woody Allen movies. But today, counselling has become almost routine for those bent on happiness. Tanya Sweeney reports
No one forgets their first time in a therapist's office. For a start, it's as far from the Woody Allen-inspired stereotype as you can imagine; there's no chaise longue to lie on, while a shrink peers forlornly at you over glasses, furiously scribbling notes.
The waiting room is another surprise; people who look exactly like you. I went over the threshold of my first psychotherapy session feeling ashamed, embarrassed that I couldn't fix myself; not 'normal', I guess.
Turns out that knowing you need to be fixed and seeking help for it makes you as normal as can be. And that's when it becomes blindingly obvious. These days, therapy isn't for the deranged, the indulgent or the weak.
It's for everyone and anyone who finds that the mists of misery and difficulty won't clear on their own. Perhaps the role of the therapist has superseded that of the priest in days of yore, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of people accessing counselling and psychotherapy is on the rise.
A new generation of Irish people appear more willing to access help, according to new research from the Irish Association of University and College Counsellors: they've noted a 300pc increase in students attending on-campus counselling in the last eight years.
According to Shane Kelly, professional services manager at the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherap (www.iacp.ie), it's hard to determine just how many Irish people are getting counselling because of confidentiality issues, and because the industry is largely unregulated (more of which later). "We have anecdotal information which would indicate that during the recession in particular, waiting lists for private counsellors and psychotherapists doubled overnight," he reveals.
Dublin-based writer/designer Anne Sexton went to counselling after her mother's death last summer and the death of one of her closest friends left her feeling hopeless.
"I wasn't suicidal as such but I found myself wishing I could dissipate, like a dandelion being blown away by the wind," she recalls. "I didn't want to kill myself, but I didn't want to exist. I realised that this was not a healthy state of mind, so I decided to see a counsellor.
"The first session is tricky," she adds. "It can feel a bit self-indulgent to spend so much time talking about yourself. My counsellor was great because he had a very practical no-nonsense approach, which I liked."
Film-maker Orla Russell-Conway has seen various practitioners over the years; first as a teenager when she struggled with an eating disorder, and at 27 when a stroke left her paralysed. "I knew I really needed to talk to someone to help me deal with the grief I felt for the life and future that I had lost," she says.
"And more than anything, I find it very empowering to examine and take control of my own thoughts and behaviour, and to take help/advice when offered."
Orla then went to a HSE-appointed psychologist after relentless daily migraines left her feeling depressed. "During the course of attending this psychologist we came to identify some of the major psychological triggers for flares in my medical conditions, and developed strategies for dealing with these," she explains.
While many people have mental health issues to work through, others use counselling simply to get back to a happier place.
"I wasn't happy with things in my personal life, and I had a very negative way of thinking about myself (and others) that I wanted to challenge," recalls writer Declan Cashin. "I'm still speaking to that same counsellor today - he's a very smart, kind man who doesn't let me away with anything. My first session was very hard, I won't lie. I sat in stubborn, panicked silence for the majority of my first session - and many more after it - until my counsellor's words sunk in that I need to talk about anything. From my experience, it's about making yourself aware - really aware - of how you think and behave in certain situations, just so you can catch yourself thinking or acting that way, and maybe challenging yourself on it."
So far, so positive, but not everyone has a happy experience initially. "I began seeing a psychotherapist when I was 19," says singer Siobhan Lynch. "(The therapist) was cold and meticulous when what I really needed was to feel some kind of warmth and for somebody to tell me that the despair I was feeling would eventually ease.
"We weren't the right fit and I think that's why I have such mixed feelings about therapy," she adds. "I used to lie to her because I did not trust her, I'd fabricate this amazing time I was having in the outside world."
Kelly points out that sometimes there isn't an immediate 'click' with a therapist, and it may take trying a couple on for size before one finds a safe space and a non-judgmental ear. "There are 400 different modalities of psychotherapy and a therapist will work with a client and figure out what is the best one for them," he explains.
"There may be a personality clash, or you might not get anything out of it, but find the right person with whom you make a connection. A good therapist will check in with you after four to five sessions to see how the two of you are working anyway."
Alas, herein lies the rub. The industry at present is unregulated to such an extent that anyone can advertise their services as a counsellor or psychotherapist with little or no formal training.
"We've heard serious horror stories from those who went to therapists who had done weekend courses," observes Kelly.
"It is a worry. People just assume that the industry is regulated just like a doctor or a dentist."
The IACP provide accreditation to therapists who have trained up sufficiently (with at least two years' post-grad study) and undertaken 450 hours of supervised work.
They also provide lists of accredited therapists across Ireland.
"We've been told that regulation for the sector is coming and we're very optimistic," says Kelly. "CORU (the body who regulate healthcare professionals) have sent a report to the government for consideration, so in the future not everyone will be allowed to call themselves a psychotherapist or counsellor.
"In the meantime, we would tell people who check accreditation."
Because the majority of counselling and psychotherapy happens in the private sector, the cost - anything from €50-€80 an hour - can often be prohibitive. Mercifully, there are a number of low-cost and no-cost counselling options available. A private therapist ensures continuity of care, but the HSE does provide free counselling: Counselling in Primary Care (CIPC) is available to medical card holders, while Primary Care Psychology is also available.
The National Counselling Service, offers free therapy for survivors of sexual abuse. In most cases, the best place to start is with your GP, who will provide a suitable referral.
"Just because a therapist is offering low-cost counselling doesn't mean that they're less qualified or accredited," says Kelly.
Still, when people pay by the hour, it's tempting to want a quick fix. It may take some people mere weeks to access the tools for self-coping; others may need to excavate through several issues.
"It's OK to want immediate results, but it's not like going to the doctor," surmises Kelly. "You don't just talk about an issue and it goes away. Therapy's a process that ultimately makes you engage with yourself. Look at it as in investment in yourself. You're worth it."