Addressing our racism

I am writing as an accredited member of BACP to join many of my psychotherapy and counselling colleagues in calling on BACP to use its influence with all BACP-accredited training institutions to make anti-racist practice a key component of training for new joiners to our profession.

I believe that it is no longer possible to practise ethically as a therapist without reflection and self-awareness around race and that therefore this is an essential part of an ethical training. I am pleased that BACP’s Ethical Framework already contains the value, ‘appreciating the variety of human experience and culture’ and the principle ‘justice: the fair and impartial treatment of all clients and the provision of adequate services’. These commitments should provide a starting point for embedding anti-racist practice in the heart of our training.

Briony Martin MA (Cantab), MBACP (Accred)

The slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’ is emblazoned across mainstream news and the internet. So why does a person need a slogan explaining that their human life matters? As the September cover of Therapy Today asks, why is this topic so difficult to discuss openly in everyday conversation in the street or, indeed, in the counselling room?

When a BAME client walks into a counselling room, she will in all probability be experiencing a doubling of discriminatory attitudes, first from within the dominant white culture, and second from the dominant male culture. Faced with a white female counsellor, this disparity may be felt even more acutely, as women are identified as having a gendered sisterhood affinity. Yet the BAME female client may experience ‘othering’ if the counsellor has reduced awareness to cultural sensitivities or makes assumptions about the individual’s identity.

Discrimination can take place in the counselling room if the counsellor is unaware of the potential for unconsciously perpetuating socio-cultural oppressive models and their harmful effects upon a client. It is the counsellor’s work to illuminate this hidden structure of belief and to extend to the client the opportunity of a different belief. The dominant group has scant awareness of their privileged position in society. Lack of awareness is to be worked on in reflective practice, which includes research of diverse cultural backgrounds and values and an awareness of the political climate. We all need to identify our own potential for prejudice or denial by addressing this in supervision. One starting point may be asking if you ever imagine needing a slogan to explain to the world that your life matters.

Michelle Paine MBACP, DipC

I would like to challenge the coverline of the September issue of Therapy Today, ‘We need to talk about race’, with one simple question – why? Why do we need to focus on ethnic differences? Surely the very act of that focusing on differences increases them? Do we need to be made more aware of the difference between us and those we meet, whether student counsellors, colleagues or clients? Does this not increase our liability to fall into the ‘us and them’ vein of thinking and feeling, the very essence of human conflict on our troubled planet? Surely our focus should be on points of similarity as human beings underneath the whole colour, creed, culture, background issue?

All human beings, regardless of race, who are presenting in counselling have one thing in common – they are troubled. Beyond that, they all have their own experiences, their own understandings and their own interpretations of the life that led them to that point of trouble, which we, as counsellors and therapists with all our training and efforts to understand the said differences that race presents, cannot possibly know, except by following expertly and carefully everything the client tells us, by entering as best we can, into the clients’ truth, putting one of our feet into their muddy puddle, regardless of all else. As my tutor once said to my class in training, ‘You learn everything you can, then when the client is in front of you, the book goes out the window and you listen and feel.’

Who am I to speak this way? Some white middle-class person, safe in her ivory tower of white middle-class supremacy, with no experience of racial difference or prejudice? White? Yes! A mere accident of birth! I make no apology! Middle class? Yes, I suppose so – isn’t that the classification as professionals we all fall into? I trained in London’s multi-racial, multi-ethnic East End in the late 1980s, qualifying in 1990. By the time I left London, having lived there for 20 years, I could walk down my local high street, Green Street in East Ham, in and out of shops, without seeing another white face or hearing my own language spoken until I spoke it.

I am now a successful inner child therapist in private practice, working with clients all over the world, regardless of race or background. My only criteria is that they have an adequate command of the English language to enable us to communicate. Anything I don’t know about their ethnicity and background, they will teach me as we go along. I didn’t need to specifically consider race as part of my training to get to this point and I don’t see the need to focus on it now.

I started with a question and I will finish the same way. The ‘power of positive thought’ philosophy teaches us that what we focus on grows, so if we don’t want racial difference and discrimination to grow, do we really need to ‘talk about race’ at all, let alone with the freneticism that is currently fashionable?

Joy Christopher MBACP

I have been following the Black Lives Matter Therapy Today articles with full support, and the Black History Month issue in recent years, but also, in the background, with some growing unease and disquiet that I wanted to share. My diversity area of expertise is disability, so I am sharing my thoughts from this perspective. I have been working with disabled clients for the past 11 years, as well as personally through disability in my family and friendships. Where those in the BAME community experience internalised racism, disabled people experience internalised disablism. Internalised oppression is there for all minority groups in a society.

Like all humans, many therapists are uncomfortable with issues of difference. In my field I have seen this over the years through the negative therapy experiences clients share, but also from the experiences many disabled therapy students have shared with me. Stories of ableist comments made towards them by those in their cohort or tutors, or struggling to be seen or heard, or they felt they did not feature or were not represented in the theories taught, struggling with placements and struggling to find work when qualified.

Without wanting to shout ‘me too’ for the minority group I work with (and 20% of our population has a disability, so it is a large group), I would just like to encourage BACP to look at all diversity and difference issues as, in my humble opinion, these are all inadequately explored in training and thereafter. For there to be equality, shouldn’t other minority groups also get a Therapy Today month designated to them? There is plenty of evidence that other diversity groups also have poor therapeutic experiences because therapists have not done enough self-reflecting. Through my experiences of trying to train therapists in diversity issues, one of the main difficulties is in actually getting them to attend. Somehow, we need to enable therapists to look past their guilt, shame and uncomfortability to take the next step and actually engage in minority training and reflection. Perhaps BACP needs to make it mandatory that therapists have additional training in each diversity issue before they work with minority clients or advertise their services to these groups? And encourage clients to seek out affirmative therapists?

Mel Halacre MBACP (Accred), therapist at Spokz People

Diet debate

I was disappointed to see a weight loss consultancy advert in the September issue of Therapy Today. I was surprised to see an advert in such a highly respected publication that encourages counsellors to become weight loss consultants and ‘help’ people by selling a diet based on heavy restriction and liquid meal replacements. As a trainee counsellor, it’s clearer to me each day that there is a lack of knowledge around eating disorders, obesity and weight stigma in the industry.

Trainee and qualified counsellors need to do the ‘work’ around body image and weight stigma, as we do with our other biases and assumptions. In a similar way to how we might explore and understand our own privilege when it comes to race, we need to explore our own relationships with food and our bodies. We need to delve into the unconscious biases we all hold (even medical professionals) towards fat people and the harm that causes to people’s mental health. There’s a sad irony in advertising weight loss consultancy to the very people who are key in helping others with their mental health.

Weight stigma and fatphobia are prevalent in our society and have a major impact on self-worth. If counsellors champion weight loss, they’re complicit in a cycle of harm that keeps the client in the diet culture mentality, instead of helping them find their true self-worth beyond how they look.

Mel Ciavucco, trainee counsellor and body image activist 

Free therapy for care workers?

We were interested to read in ‘Learnings from lockdown’ (Therapy Today, July 2020) that Nicola Banning suggests ‘we’d be wise to avoid a rush to offer care workers free therapy’ and ‘we need to build on foundations in place and make the case for the provision of professional, paid counselling’. Sharon McCormick is also quoted as saying ‘where counsellors are offering their services for free, it’s sabotaging our own profession’.

While we agree that there is still a way to go for the counselling profession to be better recognised by the Government in service provision, we believe that the offering of pro bono services temporarily during a national crisis is vastly different to offering indefinite free counselling for its own sake. We do not see our offer as being any form of threat to paid counsellors or paid-for counselling services. Uptake has been appreciated by those who have used us because, at times, their own organisations have been slow or poor in making them aware of availability during the pandemic.

A compassionate offering does not automatically dilute the message about counselling; it can actually enhance and highlight its value. Our intent was a gesture of thanks to give something of value back to those who continued to work during the pandemic. We intend to disband once the pandemic resolves. But we also believe that we are contributing to counselling and psychotherapy becoming more valued in state and private service provision.

Sonia Richards UKCP, psychoanalytic psychotherapist, on behalf of the Key Link Counsellors team

CPD support

I wanted to thank you for the article ‘Getting the best from CPD’ (Therapy Today, July). Having just recently qualified, following five years of training towards my diploma in person-centred counselling, your article is a timely reminder. I’ve just subscribed to the BACP CPD hub and I’ll begin to use the BACP CPD template and record my developmental hours and reflections.

I have volunteered for two years at HMP Styal Cheshire, eventually becoming the student counsellor co-ordinator. When this role was suspended due to lockdown, I had more time to go online and watch and read about this amazing profession. I’m sure I’m not the only final year counselling student to have experienced a drop off in guidance as a result of college closures this spring. Your article will help keep many graduates on the right path when it comes to our understanding of CPD as we qualify.

Thanks again for your timely, helpful and informative article on the importance of engaging with and recording CPD.

Robert Buttery MBACP, person-centred counsellor

Too old to understand?

The headline ‘Too young to understand?’ on the cover of June’s Therapy Today resonated with a personal question that I’d asked myself recently, ‘Too old to understand?’ As I prepared to begin a virtual counselling session with a new client, a good 40 years between us, I had a momentary glimpse of a lockdown-stressed and old-looking self on the monitor, and wondered if I still had relevance to today’s clients. At our second session, I asked my client how she had found the first one. It had been ‘good’, and she was pleasantly surprised because, seeing I was ‘older’, she had expected I would be giving her advice and opinion based on my ‘greater experience and knowledge’, but I didn’t. I felt hugely affirmed.

Age usually is ‘a measure of life experience’, but it is not necessarily an indicator of good therapist qualities. When I managed a bereavement service, one of the best telephone support volunteers I recruited was a young woman in her early 20s, not greatly experienced in loss but with mature listening skills that gave her a particular knack for facilitating her clients’ processes. Perhaps it helped that they couldn’t see her youthfulness, but if clients equate age with counsellor expertise, it may be because they have come to counselling expecting to receive advice and imparted wisdom; alternatively, aversion to a younger therapist may have something to do with spilling the beans to someone who looks the same age as your child.

Developing a working relationship and facilitating a client’s process are skills that do take some work to hone, but are not necessarily more easily learned at 47 – my age when I qualified – than 20-something. Moreover, maintaining the ‘beginner’s mind’ as the years pass by can be a challenge for us all, and perhaps particularly for the elders among us who may now feel at odds with the novice role. Generally, our intellectual curiosity reduces with age, we become more conservative in our views, less likely to be ‘in touch’, and more wedded to ‘this is the way we do things’. Our accumulated experience can get in the way of seeing the uniqueness of our client and increase the danger of thinking we’ve been here before. We might unconsciously regard ourselves as experts on all the ages and stages we’ve passed through.

I remember being very pleased when BACP introduced ‘key personal qualities’ to the Ethical Framework. I suggest that it is these 13, which include humility, identity and empathy (and useful descriptors), that all potential trainee counsellors of any age could well check in with before applying for their course and all of us can use to help monitor how good a therapist we are continuing to be.

Penny Merrett MBACP (Snr Accred)