Wednesday 21 March 2018

Opinion: 'Just to be clear, here's what a fully qualified and accredited therapist will not do'

OUT OF TOUCH: The ‘counselling session from hell’ on Fair City
OUT OF TOUCH: The ‘counselling session from hell’ on Fair City

Gayle Wiliamson

When you last saw your therapist, did he or she demand you hand over your phone, show obvious irritation with you and then aggressively push her own personal biases?

Yes? Then you need to find another therapist.

Hopefully that's what Fair City's Decco and wife Kerri-Ann will be doing after they endured what was aptly described in last Tuesday's episode blurb as "the counselling session from hell".

The scene starts with Decco answering a call on the way into the session. Counsellor Ursula is obviously annoyed and says to Kerri-Ann: "We can't spend our lives waiting for men; we left that bondage behind. If you haven't, it's time you did."

Decco ends his call and Ursula barks "Turn that phone off!" But then demands: "Actually, I'll take it" and puts it in a drawer.

It's farcical and I would have thought beneath the scriptwriters of our most popular soap opera - which has, I would suggest, a moral and social responsibility to its 500,000 or so viewers who tune in on each of the four days it airs every week.

I wonder if many people wouldn't have come away from the episode thinking, "well, if that's what a therapy session looks like, I'm never attending one".

I have to say I was quite shocked by the show's frankly ignorant and insulting depiction of a counsellor at work.

The soap opera has in the past been praised for dealing with a number of difficult issues, including rape and murder as well as LGBT themes. But its scriptwriters clearly don't have much experience of psychotherapy or counselling.

Decco and his wife Kerri-Ann are going through a difficult time trying to start a family, so they've decided to take the big step of entering couples counselling. But unfortunately their counsellor is sneering, superior and irritated from the start, and reveals her apparent contempt of men: "They want to break you down and put you into a corner," she tells Kerri-Ann.

Poor Decco was swiftly labelled as "defensively aggressive'' and accused of "ruling the household with an iron fist". And when Kerri-Ann comes to her husband's defence - "No, that's not Decco at all; he's kind, considerate. He just doesn't talk," - Ursula even turns on her: "I thought you at least would be open."

Thankfully for all concerned, Kerri-Ann gets a call and leaves the room, ending the session. Decco reluctantly hands over what looks like a large fee saying 'I can't believe you have the nerve to charge for this', calling Ursula "the worst counsellor ever" and asking "is she even qualified?"

Good question. Unfortunately, counselling and psychotherapy in Ireland is still self-regulated, so that anyone who's done a six-week course can call themselves a counsellor. (However, statutory regulation is set to kick in finally from the end of next year, under the Health and Social Care Professionals Council.)

Fully accredited counsellors will typically have studied and trained over several years, seven years in my case; and in order to maintain accreditation with our professional bodies we have yearly continuing professional development requirements to fulfil - so that the majority of therapists are continually updating and developing their skills.

So just to be clear, here's what a fully qualified and accredited therapist will not do: they won't take your phone from you. If you do happen to make a habit of not switching your phone off in sessions and taking calls, you might gently be challenged on why it seems so difficult to prioritise this time for yourself. But ultimately, how you spend the 50 minutes is up to you - it's your time. You can sit in silence if you like, I'll wait patiently until you feel ready to talk.

A good therapist will not tell you off like a naughty child, they won't let their own problems impact on you. They won't take sides, stand in judgment or berate you. They won't abuse their position of power. I don't mean to suggest therapists are passive in the process, that they might allow anything to happen or fail to take charge. We are active participants; but we just believe, unlike Ursula, that clients can find their own answers given the right conditions of compassion, acceptance and collaboration that we strive to offer.

Gayle Williamson is accredited with the Irish Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy.

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