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Stigma in Therapy

Stigma in therapy? Let's look at this from another angle.

When a patient comes to sit in the 'counselling chair' they are probably thinking 'That person has their stuff all ironed out, that person has got the perfect life.' Oh, and, 'that person has resolved their inner conflicts.' OK, here's the truth. The painful, gut - wrenching horrible truth is this; that person is a fellow human being. Just. Like.You. That's right, you heard me! The individual sitting in the chair opposite you, 'the therapist' has been to University and has been on, what is often described as a 'journey', but no.. they aren't this perfect human being with all their ducks in a neat row. They just have some training.

For what it's worth, I feel that lived mental health experience helps to deepen empathy. Whenever I read the term ‘lived’ in this context I take it to mean ‘been through’ as opposed to ‘going through.’ My personal view, and one that I don’t expect others to espouse to; is, that one can be an effective, ethical and competent therapist whilst battling their own demons, so to speak. This comes with some caveats. The therapist needs to be self aware and able to recognise when they are not fit enough to practice.

Personal and professional are not separate, they are intrinsically linked. Interestingly, I have noticed on Twitter that this is an issue being discussed more and more openly, and about time too. I just feel that if ‘we’ as mental health professionals are trying to reduce stigma and encourage others that it’s 'good to talk’ ‘we’ should be able to model this ourselves.

With the coming and going of mental health awareness week, I decided to try and battle the stigma, even if just a little bit. The thing is I'm a qualified therapist and yes, I have a long term physical health condition which it could be argued also contributes to my anxiety and depression.

Recently, I took a nose dive. I was scared to admit I needed help, and I thought, the counselling profession - my colleagues, would feel I was no longer fit to practice. I have so far found that not to be the case. Notice the ‘so far’ - that’s my anxiety talking. I am not practicing at the moment. I am taking a break to get back my equilibrium but I shall return to practice when ready, with the support of my supervisor.

I graduated, after repeating a year and then missing the 2015 graduation by a whisker, in the Summer of 2016. I was finding my feet as it were, my own style of doing ‘therapy’ having had my stabilisers removed (leaving the contained space of a training institution). I had bought my first house. During the process of moving house, I was feeling stressed but put this down to, trying to apply for a mortgage with no real idea what I was doing! I believe that these two things were contributory factors to my episode of burnout; along with other little niggles.

There is a support network for Doctors with mental health concerns, called the Doctor’s Support Network (DSN.) There is also a campaign by MIND for support for emergency workers called Mind Blue Light but what for therapists? Nothing. This has to change. I feel strongly, that we therapist’s cannot support others unless they feel they have somewhere to turn to if they have their own mental health worries. I stress, I am not saying that we should pour everything out in front of clients.’ Far from it. We must remain professional. It is key, for me, to be self aware enough to know when to take a step back from client work. Taking a complete break if required but to do so carefully, when working with vulnerable people, you can’t just stop. It is easier if you work in an organisation as they can step in and support clients whilst you take care of you. It’s a balance. This is not something I take lightly. Ethical practice is important and I worried a lot about saying I didn’t feel well enough to practice but it would be worse to carry on working.

Even just writing this piece is scary, if I’m honest. How will it be received? What will fellow practitioners think? This is an area which is largely unexplored. What are we afraid of? I contacted MIND and asked them for a response and they told me about a campaign called ‘Find the words.’ This comes very close to addressing the whole point of this article, that is, if mental health is a taboo subject within the profession then how can we ever hope to reduce stigma in the wider world?

I'm keen to get this conversation going and The Counsellors Café team have told me that one of their reasons for creating this magazine and community was to offer us a place to do just that. So if you'd like to, please join me. It is 'good to talk'.

Watch this video from 'Find The Words', Mind

Authors Bio


Sarah Felton qualified in the Summer of 2016 as a Counsellor and Psychotherapist. Sarah’s core theoretical background is in the relational approach, which she practises in an integrative way. Believing that one size does not fit all when it comes to therapy!

Sarah lives in West Yorkshire and has a cat called Whispa (he doesn’t!) Outside of the counselling world, Sarah enjoys walking and is learning to meditate. You can contact Sarah via Twitter or her Private Practice

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