28 January 2013

Counselling and Psychotherapy - Unregulated Professions

I have come to realise that many members of the general public are not aware that counsellors and psychotherapists are in an unregulated profession. I think that may partially be because we supposedly live in an age of litigation and accountability, and it is taken for granted that those with whom we entrust our deepest, darkest secrets would have somebody to answer to if they acted in an unethical way towards their clients.

Look at this typical response from somebody when I tell them that therapists aren't accountable:

"Lack of regulation seems like a recipe for a lot of abuse and misconduct. Who couldn't recognize all the potential hazards considering how vulnerable people are when they seek treatment?"

I CHOOSE TO BE ACCOUNTABLE. I am a member of the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy - the UK's largest professional body for counsellors. I attended a BACP accredited course because it made sense to me to start off my career as I meant to go on. The Iron Mill Institute's counselling courses are accredited by the BACP which means, according to the BACP website:

"...that (the course) has been assessed by BACP against the criteria for course accreditation as detailed by the BACP public Accreditation of Training Courses (BACP 2002) and awarded accreditation...that they can offer quality training to a high standard, which is recognised by employers, colleagues and prospective clients."

So it was part of the training from Certificate level (the preliminary training) that we were made aware of the BACP Ethical Framework for Good Practice in Counselling. This is actually a very well written document and far from constraining the profession, I think that it gives a lot of leeway for creativity. Note that it is framework, not a list of rules and regulations. It is very sensible and really, I would be worried if anybody counselling out there had a problem with adhering to the principles set therein as they correlate with the qualities and ethics of any decent person.

I could see from the start the clear advantages to being a member of a professional body, for the therapist and for the client. I have struggled to understand the opposing view - that regulation would restrict the profession such that the service we supply would be impaired. This struggle has increased as a result of my falling victim to unethical practice. I am unable to divulge much about the actual situation and have been threatened with being "put in a cardboard box" (yes by another counsellor, who has recently resigned from the BACP...) if I publish details of who this person is.

I'm happy with that, not the cardboard box bit, but I do understand that official procedures are needed at times like this. It's all very well when counselling and psychotherapy goes well, and everybody behaves and acts professionally, but like doctors, policemen, teachers, priests...every single profession in fact, there are a few rotten apples. So we have the inconvenient issue of, how do we deal with those rotten apples? Well, if they have acted in an illegal way then it is a matter for the police. We all know that this is not foolproof and without overwhelming evidence, and because of the stress of going through the legal system, many people don't bother or give up part of the way through.

Now, unfortunately, the therapist whom I fell victim to chooses not to be a member of a regulatory organisation so, apart from complaining against the organisation which he owns and works for, he is personally unaccountable. He can hide behind the organisation and carry on his private, unethical practice. I assume it will continue to be unethical because he refuses to see that anything he has done is wrong. I think he knows it must be wrong because he is completely denying the truth and is attacking from as many angles as possible anybody who is trying to raise awareness of his behaviour.

If this therapist were a member of a professional body then a formal complaints process could be had and he and the victims would have the opportunity to provide evidence and cross-examine and the body could make a decision on whether it was unethical or not. I know in theory that at least 18 paragraphs of the BACP Ethical Framework for Good Practice in Counselling have been contravened, in my case. It would just be a case of proving it, and given that there are several women who are prepared to write statements of their experiences it should be fairly cut and dry. Except that he isn't accountable. So he can carry on, and the public need not know anything.

I want potential clients to know that this is what can happen if you choose to see a therapist who chooses NOT to be accountable.

Of course no system is faultless and there is the risk of therapists slipping through and of being falsely accused. This is part of parcel of the medical profession so why not the therapy industry? Do we throw the baby out with the bathwater because there might be an unfair sanction? Shall we abolish the whole justice system so that we don't make the mistake of incarcerating an innocent? Of course not. Surely it's possible to have a system that protects clients from unethical practice, and no it won't stop it completely (Harold Shipman keeps getting mentioned in these arguments), but it will provide a process, a safety net, for those that would like to raise awareness of potential unethical practice because they have been on the receiving end of it. And maybe, just maybe, they will receive the validation they need in the face of having had their trust abused.

I would not like to have to go through the complaints process myself, but in doing so, I would be confident that I do run my counselling by the guidelines suggested, I do check out my own motives and my own blindspots regularly, and if it was ever found that I had acted unethically I would want to do the right thing, alter my practice if needs be, and apologise to the person who was on the receiving end of it. This is the very opposite of what I am getting. I do not want anybody else to be in this position.

Here's what the BACP say on this matter: http://www.bacp.co.uk/media/index.php?newsId=1769

22 January 2013

When ethical practice is hard work, and some mini book reviews

The stresses and strains of acting ethically...

I had a week away and decided to lose myself in fiction to really get away from it all. I love my job, I love where I live, but life has thrown me a huge challenge of late. I have a professional and ethical responsibility to report unethical practice (especially when aware that several people have been affected) but whistleblowing carries a huge burden. I know I am doing the right thing, but it has been an ongoing challenge (some 7 months now) with being attacked by way of defence whilst waiting for the wheels of justice to turn and slowly do their thing. This is the way it has to be. If I were to be on the receiving end of a complaint I would hope and expect that both sides would be deliberated at length. Everybody has a different reality and, challenging though it is at times, I appreciate that even people who have abused, or who, for their own subconscious motives were not there but are nevertheless denying the abuse and invalidating the victims' experiences, have their own, unique reality. It can be quite a task for those in positions of power to make decisions about abuse to pick out the "truth" from wildly conflicting versions, or maybe it isn't. They just have to stick to protocol. I am impressed with the integrity and compassion shown by the powers that be thus far, which gives me confidence that good shall prevail.

The week away was a real break from it all. I had no access to phone or email. I did not take any counselling or philosophy books with me....or did I? My choice of novels was perhaps not too far away from either...

The Reader by Bernhard Shlink

"There's no need to talk about it, because the truth of what one says lies in what one does."

I bought this book 3 years ago at a train station. I liked the look of it, then didn't read it. So I decided it was about time so packed it in my suitcase. It is fairly short; 213 pages formatted with quite wide spacing. The Independent on Sunday describes it thus:

"...is a compelling meditation on the connections between Germany's past and it's present, dramatised with extreme emotional intelligence as the story of a relationship between the narrator and an older woman."

The Observer offers:

"...a German novel I have been waiting for: it objectifies the Holocaust and legitimately makes all mankind responsible."

So looking at these comments that were written on the back of the book I was obviously aware that this was not going to be some great escape from the harsher facts of life...although in a way it was...because other people's anguish can sometimes deflect from one's own problems. I was absorbed by this book from the very start and the relationship that develops between a 15yr old boy and a woman 21 years his senior was intriguingly written. I appreciated the lack of cheap thrills - yes it had it's erotic moments but they were described in a visceral and raw way rather than an embellished and titillating manner.

There were many philosophical issues that leapt out at me; such as the concept of love versus attachment, whether we should do something against someone's will for their benefit, whether we all have the capacity to numb ourselves to unethical practice inflicted upon others - by others or indeed by ourselves. The story itself is neat and beautifully told. I had no idea how it was going to end and it ended in a very satisfying way. Note that my idea of a satisfactory ending is not in line with the average person's idea - this is a fairly grim story, peppered with tragedy and exquisite poignancy. It left me with a lot of "what ifs" but in a good way - I still have life to lead and I can learn from albeit fictional accounts of other people's lives, and ask myself questions. I love a novel which is a great story and really has me soulsearching. I hope that this is enough to whet your appetite. I don't want to bang on about the story as I knew very little before reading it and am glad of that.

Next on my list was an old copy of Aldous Huxley's Island

"I do muscular work, because I have muscles, and if I don't use my muscles I shall become a bad-tempered sitting-addict"

"History is the record of what human beings have been impelled to do by their ignorance and the enormous bumptiousness that makes them canonize their ignorance as a political or religious dogma."

Bumptiousness - what a marvellous word.

I read Huxley's Brave New World in my twenties. I immediately loved it and found it interesting philosophically, with some great concepts. Unfortunately I was quite bored with the last third and disappointed with the ending. I had considered reading it again but I think I outgrew it at some stage.  So although I had heard that Island was a great novel, I wasn't expecting to be blown away. I was reminded of it's existence last year when I was reading the Forward for "What We May Be" - a book on psychosynthesis by Piero Ferrucci. So when it came time to grab some books for the week, Island got thrown in. I was delighted to find a dramatically more mature work which enthralled me throughout.

The story is essentially a manifesto for a Utopian paradise mixing the best of Eastern and Western cultures. I loved it right away. Okay, so having birds specially trained to say "Attention" to remind people to be mindful is slightly silly, but on the whole, the way of living on the island of Pala is pretty darned close to perfection. They have most things covered (except perhaps the breasts of the teenage girls, but, like The Reader, I appreciated the lack of smut and wonderfully innocent and natural way this fact was portrayed...). Parents can't mess their kids up because everybody becomes members of a Mutual Adoption Club; teenagers take a hallucinogen when they come of age and visit heaven and hell, thus finding them"selves", in an environment that is safe and supportive; people are encouraged to talk about and express their bad experiences which helps them to purge themselves and move on (I particularly liked this one, given my profession!). The only thing that isn't quite perfect is a little nugget of human nature which we refer to as capitalism and thanks to a fancy Sears brochure, the soon to be Raja of Pala, decides to sell the island's soul for the sake of oil. Well, it's not quite that simplistic but the menace of capitalism is hot on the collar of the Utopian ideals described throughout the book.

Meanwhile some thoughts crept in...

So, while I was doing a very good job of really getting away from it all I did have some thoughts about the nature of abuse, the nature of denial and how some people cling steadfastly onto beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I think that this was sparked by The Reader and by the Lance Armstrong interview with Oprah Winfrey, as well as a certain amount of fuelling by the current "ethical dilemma" situation back home. The Jimmy Savile thing still casts a shadow too I believe.

Rambling as those thoughts are, this is what I wrote (in my food journal - yes, I kept a food journal and apart from this one page, it really was all about the food consumed over the course of the week):

1. Some abusers believe that what they are doing is for the good of the person they are abusing. Research suggests that professionals who breach sexual boundaries often believe that their actions are salvific. My question is - which is scarier - somebody abusing with the belief that they are salvific, or somebody consciously abusing?

2. Why do some people cling onto a belief in order to protect themselves from a horrible truth (for example a mother denying that her husband is abusing his step-daughter)? In some cases, the person  worsens when faced with overwhelming evidence, and may launch an extensive attack on the person who uncovers the truth. I recall Lance Armstrong's behaviour - calling his former friend Betsy Andreu "a crazy bitch" when she told the truth about his doping, and suing the Sunday Times for essentially telling the truth. Amazing what lengths people can go to to defend what they know is a lie. For me, pity overtakes hate, even if the person continually strikes out, because they are clinging onto a flimsy raft of self-deceit made of the pathetic fibres of loyalty, risking everything in order to maintain a fragile construct of self-worth, perhaps even being dependent upon the abuser for a sense of being.

Is it bad of me to feel empathy for those that do wrong to others?

I had to get these thoughts out.

Then finally onto The Time Travellers Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

"Don't you think it's better to be extremely happy for a short while, even if you lose it, then to be just okay for your whole life?"

I can't really review this yet because I am only a third of the way through. It was recommended to me about 4 years ago by the sister of a good friend. Last year a friend was chucking out some books and gave me first dibs. I yanked out The TTW and threw it in the suitcase. As many close to me are aware, my favourite story since childhood is H G Wells' The Time Machine. I wrote my first counselling college essay on it (a kind of cod-philosphical 3000 words on how it intrigued me). I'm a bit geeky when it comes to time travel. It is my favourite genre of sci-fi, along with the sub-genre "Dying Earth" which was actually "invented" by H G Wells in The Time Machine (when the protagonist whizzes far enough into the future to see the dying days of our planet - a chapter deemed too horrific for the audience of the time and not permitted publishing until later).

So far so good.  I am rather apprehensive because I get the impression that this story (about a man with a chromosomal disorder that gets chucked about in time who falls in love with a girl, who is 6 when they first meet) is going to be full of heartache. It is an impressive feat of storytelling and I am gripped.

So, that is some of what has been going on for me with regards to personal development.

So, I return rested and ready. Work is going well and I have some exciting prospects on the horizon. More on those in good time. Onwards and, erm, onwards.

Amanda Williamson is a professional counsellor with a thriving private practice in central Exeter, Devon

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