15 October 2014

A Very Warm Welcome - Counselling in Exeter

I am a professional, qualified, BACP registered and accredited counsellor practising in central Exeter, Devon. I work privately from premises on Gandy St, in the centre of town, with a wide spectrum of people with differing presenting issues. Warm and approachable, I have the utmost respect for my client's individuality and life circumstances. 




This site is where you can find out information about counselling, my personal approach and services offered, and some details about my background, by clicking on the information tabs above. This is also a blogsite which I use to make regular posts about my work and continuing professional development as a counsellor. Click here for my Articles.


I would be very happy to discuss your requirements should you be interested in coming along for counselling. Embarking on a course of counselling can be daunting and I aim to help you feel relaxed and confident that you make the choice that is right for you.

Please, whoever you decide to have counselling with,  whether individual or agency, ensure that they are a member of a professional body such as the BACP or UKCP. Without membership of a self-regulating professional body then clients have no recourse should they feel that they are being treated unethically. At the moment, there is nothing to stop people practising as counsellors without this protection for their clients. I researched and wrote about this topic on this post about the regulation of counselling and psychotherapy.

Check my BACP Registration entry here 





By Amanda Williamson, Counselling in Exeter

https://plus.google.com/+AmandaWilliamsonCounsellor 

My surprising response to being awarded BACP Accredited status

by Amanda Williamson

When I was in training and looking at different career paths it became clear that BACP accredited status was the goal in respect of being able to get paid work being employed as a counsellor or to receive referrals via Employee Assistance Programs.

I trained for an Advanced Diploma in Integrative Counselling at the Iron Mill Institute in Exeter, a BACP accredited course. Rather naively I believed that completing a BACP accredited course would result in my having BACP accredited status. It doesn't. What it means is that the Iron Mill's Advanced Diploma in Integrative Counselling meets the BACP high standards of training. So quite soon into the training I realised that in order to achieve accredited status I would first of all need to qualify which involved:


  • Attending the 2 yr course and completing all the written assessments
  • Attaining 150 counselling hours as a volunteer counsellor 
  • Attending monthly supervision whilst practising
  • Attending personal therapy of 40+ hours


and then to achieve accredited status I needed to have:


  • Been in practice for at least 3 years
  • Attained at least 450 counselling hours under supervision


The application for accreditation is a project in itself involving four written pieces and a whole lot of logging (client work, supervision). You also need a supervisor's report and to find a suitable sponsor who will submit their sponsorship form separately. It's a lot more complex and time consuming than I can possibly say in a short paragraph.


Setbacks

I was ready to apply in May 2013 having enough years experience and around 1000 client hours. However, I had to delay the whole process for around a year due to the professional difficulties I had encountered when I reported an agency for unethical practice. The agency, which subsequently had BACP membership removed twice (there were other complainants) went on the attack and sent threatening correspondence and lodged professional complaints against anybody who had raised grievances with them who also happened to be BACP member. This whole process involved a police investigation and took around 2 years. None of the complaints raised by the agency proceeded to a hearing as the BACP could not find any evidence of unethical practice in any of those who were complained about.

Finally, this year, with the hearing against the agency and that whole traumatic business out of the way I decided to work on my accreditation application. I found it very time consuming and tedious. The written pieces were actually more tricky than I thought to write - harder than the essays during training. We have to demonstrate within a word limit exactly how we are working and demonstrate our awareness throughout of the BACP Ethical Framework for Good Practice in Counselling and Psychotherapy. We have to describe professional development we have engaged in and demonstrate how this has informed our practice. A lot of it is about reflective practice, our use of supervision and our self-awareness. This is quite difficult to convey in an essay! I found myself tweaking each piece in turn, spending many hours honing them, so that they, as a collective, provide a coherent and authentic representation of myself as practitioner.

The largest written piece is the case study where we demonstrate our use of theory, self-awareness, the Ethical Framework and supervision. These days the BACP ask that your supervisor reads the case study too and recognises it as being a reflection of the work done. So no making stuff up, exaggerating or bending the truth.


Doubts

I had second thoughts about applying. What it necessary? Was it worth the expense? With the new Accredited Voluntary Registers won't accreditation become superfluous? Do clients know the difference between members and accredited members? Was I doing it because I was on some sort of subconscious conveyor belt and it was an automatic step rather than a well thought out, considered manoeuvre?


Authenticity

I decided to be very honest in my written work about the challenges I had faced and how I had carefully negotiated any impact of the dreadful business involving the agency on my practice. I capped my client load, had extra supervision and saw a therapist weekly during the height of the process. I also explored the learning that I had gained from the experience and how the adversity opened up the pathway to revisiting old wounds and being able to process them more effectively than ever before. I was advised by a colleague to keep that stuff out of my accreditation application but it seemed incongruent not to include it.

I submitted it in May 2014. The waiting time for processing is around 4 months so I sent it all off and…

Failing at the first hurdle...

Due to how long it had been since downloading the original application and actually submitting it the fee had gone up so first of all I had to pay the short fall. Then in August I was told that I had not labelled my essay clearly enough in terms of referencing the Ethical Framework and had managed to miss out a few lines on the client log. After remedying those I was told it would be submitted to a moderator at the next available opportunity.

A difficult week

On 23rd September I had a difficult day because somebody had requested a meeting to describe my experiences at the Palace Gate Counselling Service. I am unable to disclose who but I agreed as a matter of ethical duty/public protection. However, it was incredibly difficult having to describe exactly what happened to somebody I had never met before. I had been in a good place of putting the whole thing behind me but this seemed like a set back. I felt emotionally battered afterwards.

And then on 24th September a firm envelope plopped through my letterbox. I was a bit nervous at first; unexpected large envelopes have often meant rather horrible communication via the aforementioned agency over the last couple of years. Picking it up, and seeing that is was sent from the BACP I quickly opened it and there it was.

Nothing could have prepared me for the emotional reaction. Here was a great big piece of validation from my professional body. They had read my warblings, seen my supervisors'reports (I have two supervisors) and my sponsor's report and decided that I was worthy of accreditation which they describe thus:

"Accreditation offers kite-mark status for individual practitioners, professional training courses and therapeutic service provision, who are able to demonstrate that they are meeting a wide range of criteria, set to recognise high standards of knowledge, experience and development."





I had told myself that achieving accredited status would not really mean anything to me.




But

That night………..I took a look at those written pieces that I had submitted four months before. I read my very honest descriptions of the professional struggles with the unethical agency, my authentic reflection on client work, the ongoing learning and self-reflective practice and…

...I cried.

Had I not been so honest in my written pieces then perhaps my reaction would not have been quite so huge. But it was that I had been so utterly genuine about my ups and downs since practising, and that the BACP moderator had accepted and understood how I worked.

After a baptism of fire into the industry and the horrendous 2 years that had blighted my career until very recently, this was a HUGE relief and an extremely positive step forwards for me.

It meant more to me than my original qualification.

Practicalities wise this does not really make much difference to me on a day to day basis

However, the BACP accreditation process is a very well thought out initiation into the higher echelons of counselling and psychotherapeutic practice.

I highly recommend it as a process to fellow practitioners for fundamental personal and professional self-development.




NB Individual BACP Accreditation should not be confused with the Accredited Voluntary Registers (AVRs). The AVR scheme means that the Professional Standards Authority has bestowed accredited status to the register, not the practitioners registered on it.

Likewise, The National Counselling Society offers accredited status but as far as I can see, this is equivalent to the BACP Registered Membership with a much less stringent criteria than the BACP Accredited Membership status. I am not being protectionist here. The criteria for the BACP Accreditation scheme can be seen here, and the NCS Accreditation application here.






24 September 2014

Transphobia - a cyber *hug*



I have wanted to blog about transphobia for a while but am aware that I most likely can't do the subject justice. But if I can at least make a handful of people think about their prejudices around gender then I will consider this to have been a worthwhile post. This is also my version of a cyber *hug* for somebody on Twitter that encounters a lot of hatred and abuse for being a trans woman.

What is transphobia?

It is the prejudice and negative attitudes and/or hatred towards people who are categorised as transitioning/considering transitioning/transitioned from the gender they have been assigned by the cultural definitions of male/female (binary gender), and those that don't identify with either culturally assigned gender (known as non-binary gender).

The issue has been highlighted to me since increasing my use of Twitter and encountering the extreme hatred towards some that are not cis (short for cisgender; when the sex/gender you know yourself to be correlates with the one you were originally assigned).

I have a long way to go before really understanding the experience of somebody who is not cisgender. I recall watching a couple of documentaries in the early 80's about men transitioning to women. It never occured to me that what they were doing was wrong or unnatural in any way. I was aged around 10 and I distinctly remember thinking how devastating it must be to realise that your outward appearance is the opposite of the gender which your actual self identifies with. I didn't know the word cisprivilege then but the fledgling concept developed within my psyche. I trusted that if somebody feels that way then they must have the wrong bits and bobs to fit with the societal expectation of the outward appearance of the gender they are. Surgical correction made perfect sense.

What is gender anyway? When in deep, authentic "I-Thou" relationship to another, gender falls away, along with age, race, class.

So I am absolutely perplexed at the hatred that I bear witness to on Twitter.

But I have become aware that I am unwittingly contributing to that hatred, which is a horrible thing to admit, but my own prejudices around gender, although not wrapped up in hate, or born of hate and fear,  might even contribute to the culturally backward thinking attitudes that we have. For example, I thought that I was pretty liberal for being cool with trans men and women, but it was only in the last couple of years that I appreciated the concept of being genderqueer or non-binary. I had assumed that people were either male or female (trans or cis) and it took some serious rethinking to realise that I had been effectively blanking out all those who identify as neither.

We seem to be attached to polarised thinking. Black or white, rich or poor, good or bad, male or female, gay or straight...

Remember the hatred towards homosexuals 20+ years ago? Of course hatred and intolerance still exists now, tragically, but we have come a long way from the days of being okay to call homosexuality unnatural and thinking that gay weddings are an abomination. It is becoming more accepted that sexuality is a spectrum that we don't have to plant ourselves firmly at either end of. Again, we have a L-O-N-G way to go but we are getting there. In this country and is my part of the UK at least I would not describe our society as homophobic. There remain some ignoramuses who remain homophobic but they are becoming more and more the minority.

BUT we have a transphobic society. Many people are unaware of the concept of a gender spectrum. Many, many people are not even aware of the issues faced by anybody affected by transphobia. And I, seeing through my cis eyes, filtered with my cis brain, have taken my cisprivilege for granted way more than I would prefer to admit.

Somebody pointed out to me recently that the 90's film Ace Ventura Pet Detective is transphobic. I vaguely remember watching it back in the day and nothing registered. But seeing the relevant scenes today, with my eyes open more than they were then, I was absolutely appalled. Not just at the film itself, but at how I hadn't appreciated in my 20's how blind I was to the hatred and abuse inflicted on those that are not cis.  I can appreciate now how distressing and abusive a trans woman might find the film's (non) handling of trans issues.

I'll call it a day for now. I would like to write more about the topic as I learn and understand more. I'd like to blog a full on rant about TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) women who dish out abuse and hate to trans women (very much "I-It" relating).

One more point. Please let me know if you are trans/non-binary and find anything that I written in any way disrespectful. I don't know what it is like to be you but I do know that there are many things I don't know and I am open to being educated.

Ignorance isn't bliss. It means hurting others without even knowing it.

* The picture above is from the album artwork for I am a Bird Now by Antony & The Johnsons. A beautiful, soulful album. The song You are My Sister never fails to make me cry.


20 September 2014

Spreading the word on the Accredited Voluntary Registers - The PSA responds



Recently I wrote about the issue of the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) Accredited Voluntary Registers. (AVRs). Specifically, the registers that are in place for the voluntary regulation of counsellors and psychotherapists. I highlighted the problem with the fact that although they are there as a measure of public protection, the onus is on the public to ensure that their therapist is on an AVR and certainly most of the members of the public I ask are not aware of this scheme. 

Through a mutual contact, I have been liaising with a PR guy for the PSA. He kindly introduced himself, in a virtual manner, said that he'd been following my blog and offered assistance if I had any questions. Not one to refuse a kind offer I immediately put the following for him to ask the PSA:

"Most people looking for a counsellor don't know about the AVR scheme. So my first question is, I'd love to know who can change this and how."

I sent this late on Thursday night and by the close of day Friday I had a response (which impresses me greatly having been hugely frustrated with the bureaucracy that some organisations seem to have to wade through before responding…if they respond at all…)


Thank you for your efforts to raise awareness of Accredited Voluntary Registers in counselling and psychotherapy. The Professional Standards Authority respects your view with regard to statutory regulation, and we agree that public awareness is essential to the success of the accredited registers approach.
We note that on your blog, you raise a concern about public protection – if a practitioner was removed from a register but continued to practice, a member of the public would have no way of knowing. As you know, we require organisations holding voluntary registers to publish these decisions, but this only protects the public if people check the register and ask for practitioners on accredited registers.
The Authority believes that the most effective way to raise awareness of voluntary registers is to disseminate standard messages to the approximately 53,000 registrants of 13 AVRs to use in their interactions with members of the public as well as health and care professionals. These have been provided to registrants by the organisation holding their accredited register.
In addition to tapping into the awareness raising ability of registrants, the Authority has an active stakeholder education programme and has ensured that information about the scheme is available to the public through information sources like NHS Choices. News and updates on the scheme have appeared in NHS publications such as the NHS England’s CCG bulletin, or the Chief Nursing Officer’s bulletin. The Authority is working to improve the accessibility and visibility of information about the scheme and will continue to promote the scheme.  The Authority has a communications plan in place to raise awareness of the scheme and it would be content to discuss with you.

Although I am impressed with their clear vision for raising awareness of the AVRs I think there's a long way to go. 

A few weeks ago I noticed that NHS Choices don't mention PSA AVRs at all on their pages on counselling and psychotherapy. This is hardly a successful raising awareness of the scheme by NHS Choices. 

Closer to home,  I was told back in June by a fellow therapist that he had gone to his GP surgery in Exeter to discuss his concerns about the Palace Gate scandal with the practice manager who promised to alert the surgery staff and notify the new practice manager who was due to succeed him soon. About 10 days ago another therapist went to see the same surgery and asked the new practice manager about his awareness of the PGCS scandal. He had no idea of it and worst of all, the practice nurse pulled a leaflet out of her bag and said "We send people there all the time". Palace Gate also known as Phoenix Counselling is an agency that has no membership of any regulatory organisation let alone an AVR and that is run by therapists who have been struck off the BACP twice and claim that 59% of their clients are signposted by GPs. There seemed to be no awareness whatsoever of the need to advise patients that the onus is on them to check that there therapist is on an AVR. Worst of all, NHS patients are still actively being encouraged to go to an agency that has been exposed in the national press for unethical practice. 

I telephoned my own practice manager who I assumed would be well versed in the situation seeing as I had made several trips to see my GP around issues of stress that the bullying and intimidation I had encountered in raising the complaint against PGCS. My GP was well aware of the outcome and I showed him the statement prepared by 27+ local counsellors. However, the practice manager again knew nothing of the matter. She has been helpful since then and I am now in the process of disseminating information regarding the PSA AVR scheme for Devon GPs.

I will continue to liaise with the PSA regarding the education of all concerned about the existence of the AVRs and will do what I can. I am also dedicated to pushing for regulation (preferably via the existing PSA scheme) and will continue to work away on that.

I would like to be part of a profession that acknowledges it's shadow side and can take care of those that take advantage of and exploit their clients. The way I experience it, at the moment, there's nothing to stop that.

As for any therapists or referring agencies reading this - are you taking responsibility for helping protect clients by spreading the word regarding AVRs? 

16 September 2014

Counselling Sally - a mutually therapeutic relationship with a rescue dog

by Amanda Williamson

Is it possible to counsel a dog? People do use animal assisted therapy and I've heard really good things about it. Animals are intuitive and don't talk nonsense. 

Dogs strike me as being particularly mindful - they live in the here and now. They don't dread what's around the corner, unless horribly abused and even then they show steadfast loyalty towards their abuser. 
Flossie and Vicky

I grew up with dogs - two gorgeous rough collies; Vicky and her daughter Flossie. Even so I was petrified of strange dogs. I think somebody told me at a very young age that all dogs have rabies and I believed them. This was pre-zombie-obsession days. Fear of rabies, hydrophobophobia was all the rage for kids in the 70's. Vicky and Flossie had lovely lives and their distinct personalities will always be cherished.


Can you counsel doggies?

Would a dog ever need counselling? What about a dog with anxieties and fears? How would you even counsel a dog, when counselling is a talking therapy and dogs can't talk (not much…although I did have a neighbour who taught his rough collie how to say "Where's your mama")?




Stella the very cool dog
What got me thinking about this was when I was walking my dog this morning. Sally is the first dog I have owned as an adult. I fostered a good friend's dog for almost 2 years whilst he went abroad. My friend forked out for all the expenses and the lovely Stella was mature, well behaved, well loved and frankly one of the coolest dogs around. So this was a lovely favour to give my friend. How many dogs have their own leaving do when they go abroad? Saying goodbye to her was painful and when she passed away the pain was felt all over again. 

Rescuing a difficult dog


Stella left in 2011 and by 2013 the gap in life was apparent. The family made the decision over a period of months to take on another dog. I wanted to take on an older, rescue dog for many reasons. I wanted to give a difficult dog a good home and show him/her that life can be okay after all. And so after enquiring about a dog called Frazer, the rescue centre managed to persuade me that Sally would be much more suitable for our set up. Sally was apparently confident bordering on aggressive, but the confidence meant that she could be left on her own for half a day with no anxiety. We took her on in December 2013.

Sally came with a whole list of instructions. We had to agree to complete muzzle training, enroll her in dog training classes, organise for her to be spayed, ensure that she never, ever was allowed off lead, to ensure that she could never escape (road sense = zero), buy special raised bowls because dalmatians get a twisted gut if they stoop to eat and drink. She was sketchy, boisterous and really quite unruly.


First day at home, skinny and pensive
To give a brief history - she had been one of 14 dogs living on a large piece of land with little human attention and access only to an outhouse. She was 7 years old, underweight even after a few months at the kennels, very wary of other dogs, knew no commands whatsoever and was not used to leashed walks. She pulled horrendously (I ended up seeing an osteopath with very sore chest and shoulders), lunged for any dog within sight to get in there first and strutted around as if she thought she was the cock of the school.

For the first month or so I had serious regrets about taking Sally on. She arrived with a phantom pregancy and ended up with an infected nipple. Walking her was thoroughly unpleasant, physically and emotionally as it was very stressful. Any neighbourhood dogs that dared to come near her were greeted with aggressive barking. She would freak out and lunge, snapping and growling. Things weren't helped by the owner of a just-as-aggressive dog who allowed her dog to come bounding over and lay into Sally, undoing any good work we were doing in trying to reassure her that other dogs don't have to mean conflict.

Sally was an expert thief and could jump up and swipe things off the kitchen counter, then vomit everywhere afterwards. She could open the bin and tip it all over the floor, covering every square inch of tiles before peeing on it all.

She would growl at my partner and refuse to allow him anywhere near her. Apparently she had never bonded with a human before and she bonded fiercely with me, following me around from room to room, never letting me out of sight. Trying to hide under my bed at bedtime. Except for walk time when my presence was utterly disregarded as she tried to hunt things to tear apart, dragging my arm out of my socket (or so it felt) with her unfeasible strength.

I had anxiety dreams about her - I recall one where I was walking her and realised the leash was merely a strand of parcel ribbon and she could snap it and get run over in a trice. 

I cried in desperation. What have we (I) done? Is it cruel to send her back? 


Transformation

My well known tenacity and determination conquered all and I researched dog behaviour heavily, invested in a few hours with a dog trainer and enrolled her for the dog training classes, fearful that we wouldn't last more than 30 seconds before she tried to kill her classmates.

Over the last 9 months Sally has transformed from a fearful, aggressive girl. Everything that I learned and researched was used to help me understand her lived experience, what the deficits in her life were and how to meet her needs. Sally is now a dream dog. She is obedient, highly affectionate and has even started showing signs of wanting to play with other dogs. 

How did this happen? The neighbourhood dog owners marvel at her transformation. I am thrilled with how far she has come.


Commitment

This type of endeavour is a huge commitment of time and energy. I signed a contract to say that I would abide by certain criteria and requirements and I stuck to it. When things got tough I questioned my commitment but having the integrity to stick with things and not give up, just because the going gets tough, is an important quality I value. Where there's a will, there's a way.


Boundaries

The most important thing I learned is that without a shadow of a doubt, clear, firm boundaries were the key to Sally's turnaround. She did not know that she wasn't supposed to jump up, to walk "nicely" or to sit on her bed whilst we eat. We had to teach her all of these things and ensure that we all stuck to the same rules, consistently.


Empathy

I can't understate the importance of trying to connect with the others' experience, whoever the other might be. This is more difficult with another species but learning about dogs and their particular needs really helped me to see Sally's needs rather than my assumptions of what her needs would be.  For example the dog trainer reminded me that speaking to a dog like you would speak to a small child does not work. Dogs bark at each other so she showed me that barking "Off!" or "Leave it" is actually much clearer communication for a dog.  I also learned about pack mentality and could see how Sally was striving to be top dog, however I also noticed that at the times she seemed to relinquish that role she seemed a lot happier and less stressed. I realised that it was a role she seemed to feel obliged to fulfill but in knowing that it wasn't making her happy I taught her that she didn't have to do that anymore. She could trust me to do the worrying. After some months of boundary testing she doesn't feel the need to test them anymore. 

Dogs can also empathise with us. They know when we are feeling lonely, or impatient, or sad, or angry and will respond. 


Unconditional positive regard

I've had my moments of immaturely calling her names when the chips were down but underneath it all, what has helped our relationship is that I value and respect her sentience. Everything I do for her is with her best interests at heart. Her needs are met - she is comfortable, warm, has affection, good food, exercise, mental stimulation and love (the other name for UPR). 

Again, this can work both ways. In a healthy relationship dogs will demonstrate incomparable loyalty towards their companions. Dog owners know what it is like to be on the receiving end of a dog's UPR.


Congruence

Seeing as I'm checking off all the person-centred core conditions it wouldn't do to miss off congruence. How can one not be congruent with a dog? They know what's what. They are real, always and we can be ourselves in the presence of our beloved companion.



Doggies counselling us?

I started off this article pondering over the parallels between nurturing a rescue dog towards a place of security and contentedness and the counselling relationship. What I realise whilst I have written it is that the therapy works both ways :-)

I didn't counsel Sally, and she certainly didn't give me permission to counsel her, but the core conditions delivered within a context of commitment and clear boundaries seemed to have worked wonders.




Sally now feels safe and content - life is good










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