In the first part of our exclusive interview with Deidre Sanders, who was a BACP member for 30 years, we find out how she helps every one of the hundreds of people who contact her every week with a myriad of issues.
Deidre Sanders has been the nation’s agony aunt for nearly 40 years and has helped between six and seven million people with their problems.
Her Dear Deidre column is one of the most-popular pages in The Sun, the country’s biggest-selling newspaper.
And Deidre is now familiar to millions more for her phone-in section on ITV’s daytime magazine programme This Morning.
She receives around 1,000 emails, Facebook messages, tweets and, very occasionally still, letters, each week from people who are crying out for help.
And with the assistance of her dedicated team working out of offices in Bedfordshire, Deidre responds to every single one of them.
“Problems come in and we prioritise answering them individually,” says Deidre, as she explains how her smooth-running, advice-giving machine operates. “That’s the most important thing to us because I know if you have got a problem and you have taken the trouble to write about it you don’t want to sit there waiting for a month to see if we are going to say something back
“The situation may be developing very quickly and very acutely, so you want a speedy response, so we prioritise getting a response back to people.
“And we do try to keep it that you will hear back in 24 hours, assuming you have written online, which most have. Quite often people write again. On Facebook or email they can write several times in a day. They will go back to the same counsellor. One person is following through.
“Everybody here has worked with me a long time, they have all got counselling training, and they are very good.
“If people have got serious problems we do write of our own accord after a couple of weeks and ask ‘was that helpful? Have you got any support? How is it working out? What did you decide to do?’
“It’s only after all that has happened that I then do the selection of the ones I am going to use for the column. The column is the last thing.”
The Dear Deidre column is read by around four million people each day, and the online version is one of the most visited pages on The Sun’s website.
Deidre started out editing At Your Service in Woman’s Own, a practical and consumer rights column, and then becoming the Daily Star’s first agony aunt before moving to The Sun.
“At The Sun I had to set up my own answering service and it grew like topsy from there,” said Deidre, who regularly signposts people to BACP counsellors and psychotherapists via her column and This Morning.
“The column is totally vital. It has to be very readable otherwise it won’t last in the newspaper and it’s the signpost to the service we are providing.
“So, we do prioritise the service inside this office but what goes outside this office has to be of top-quality, really good readable journalism.”
One of the most popular aspects of her column is Deidre’s Photo Casebook, which is now more than 25 years old.
The casebook is a photo strip illustrating a problem, which is scripted and edited by Laura Collins, herself a trained counsellor.
And Deidre firmly believes it has opened up the idea of counselling and emotional support to an audience that otherwise wouldn’t have thought about it.
“It has been a great success,” says Deidre. “When it was first mooted I thought it might cheapen the whole concept and we were not going to have proper answers.
“Actually, it is so popular, and I think it reaches a lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t give thought to emotional problems.
“It opens up the idea that it is okay to have a problem, it’s okay to ask for help, it’s okay to go for counselling to a load more people who might not otherwise have related to that concept.”
If you need a counsellor or a psychotherapist, you can find one near you in our directory.
Photo credit: This Morning/Rex Features