COUNSELLING AS ASSISTED SELF-STUDY FOR MENTAL
HEALTH CARE WORKERS: STAYING HUMAN AT WORK

Bringing and sustaining one’s own humanity to working in the mental health field is an ongoing challenge and opportunity. There are many moments in mental health field of work which demand honest and sensitive authenticity which may go beyond our empathy and maturation. We are likely to be exposed to unexpected and unique situations of emotional encounter with our clients which trigger old fallback habits of personality protection. Habitual responses tend to result in some negative side effects for the therapeutic relationship – we sometimes get caught in judgement, shame, dismissal, misreading the moment. We can choose to rework the old learning and stay fresh to the work through engaging in reflection with an experienced counsellor with whom we have built a respectful, attentive relationship. This sure beats professional burn-out and compassion fatigue.

Personal and work crises present particular invitations to growth and maturation for mental health workers. While we are comfortable we do not feel the urgency for learning a new way. Learning to manage our own reactivity is liberating. It is possible to see the system of interaction we have become stuck in and our contribution to it. Choice can then open up as to how we choose to respond. Confidence grows.

Sometimes it is our authority relations with colleagues and managers that is most troubling at work; where the call to empathy is not at the forefront as it is with clients. And yet creating a climate of healthy, respectful and robust relationships with other workers enables the best conditions for our clients to heal, recover and develop resilience. Or rework a different future. Ultimately clients learn through who we are and how we are with each other. They access our organising maps for living.

Counselling is a safer place in which to explore the less than certain experiences, the mistakes, the embarrassments, the long held convictions which no longer fit. Our education system has become so glued to the goal of excellence it has often become formulaic as a safe option. The ‘expert’ stance implied is fraught with potential for triggering fear, shame or anger in our clients. There is a one-liner in that gem of a movie Dean Spanley (Peter O’Toole in his prime) which has remained with me: “Only the closed mind can be certain”.

The one-to-one session with a mature, experienced counsellor offers a learning space for workers which is determined by the workers’ own curriculum. This contrasts with the curriculum designed by workshop presenters, supervisors or training programmes. Learning is at the pace and depth that the person seeking assistance is ready for and is suited to their own learning style. Where the counsellor is present in the moment, emotionally attuned and has some access to their wisdom mind.

ASSISTED self study involves the development of the reflective capacity and mindfulness in moment to moment awareness whilst exploring the current concern in life. This happens more easily when assisted by the present moment attentiveness of a skilled person. Such practice was developed by monks over eons, and can be accessed in the counselling hour with the active assistance of the counsellor. Becoming conscious involves a stance of curiosity and human kindness. Such a stance brings about a perception of choice and renewed freedom to act confidently. Reflective awareness is not to be confused with analysing, narcissism or addictive obsessing. However, these may well be beginning places alerting us to expand beyond our known edges.

Mental health facilities usually offer employees access to a counselling service through their Employee Assistance Programme. Make use of it early, before the trouble signals become loud: irritability, depletion, cynicism, clock watching, fault finding and low key depression can so easily slip in as the norm. Counselling offers a resource for renewal of your passion for and love of mental health work.

Susanna Howlett