Help make better counsellors

This is a plea to all readers of this post (counsellors, potential counsellors, clients and potential clients, everyone) to help make us trainees into better counsellors. How? By simply signing a petition. This post will explain why I think it’s important from my own point of view.

If you look to move on from this, ask yourself why. Why doesn’t it matter enough to take a couple of minutes to sign and do some good? I realise that’s confrontational, but I think it’s important to examine. Feel free to leave me a comment with your point of view ūüôā

Changes in acknowledging diversity

Diversity word cloud

This month is LGBT history month. A month where we (all) celebrate LGBTness in a variety of ways. There have been films, talks, discussions, debates, all kinds. Also this month, the winter Olympics are being held in Sochi, a place where it’s exceedingly difficult to be LGBT (those human rights issues are explored much better in other places). But even in the rest of the world, athletes who happen to identify as LGBT are the target for homophobia¬†on twitter. Also in the news this month is the Huffington Post’s article on homophobia in universities. I’ve seen some – ‘less than parliamentary’ responses to lgbt history month myself this month, from ‘just your average person’.

And so my preamble brings me closer to my point. I’m a trainee therapist. That’s what this blog is all about. And one of the things we haven’t had so far in our training is any specific training on diversity (and this seems to be repeated across many institutions – it’s certainly not just a problem where I am training). We have had a day on disability run by someone with a disability, which was excellent, and really served to uncover some of the thoughts, feelings and doubts we had about disability – many of my cohort not feeling we had had much contact with individuals with disabilities. It opened our eyes.

But for sexuality and race? Well, I exist within the class, as a queer (white) person, and there are also a couple of people of colour within the class. And this has so far been where our teaching happens. I have more than once been asked to answer in depth questions on gender and sexuality, and I see my POC classmates being asked to educate on race. I also see the microaggressions¬†that happen. For me personally, I’ve heard (not about me) ‘she was bisexual, but she’s chosen to be straight now’ (in fact, on checking, the person in question had felt no such change in their identity and was simply dating someone of the opposite sex’. I’ve heard (addressed to me) ‘why do you want to work with those [queer] people?’.

In my day to day life, I often hear from people ‘your friend’, when the person with me is clearly my partner. My partner is misgendered when with me, because I am more clearly ‘female’ on first glance (long hair) than she (short hair). I have been asked just last month by three people at the same company if I had a husband, and no note was made after the first time, that I had a female partner. The third time I was asked, I got cross and explained it wasn’t appropriate and was told that the man asking the question hadn’t done anything wrong and I had no right to be cross (needless to say, we didn’t buy from them).

THESE THINGS ARE EASY TO DO if you don’t know they’re a problem. And the thing is – it might be something that you only need to be told once in order not to do it. But how many times do you think I’ve heard similar things from people? Countless. There’s one of me, and a lot of people ‘not me’ who are just making ‘one mistake’. It gets wearing.

As far as class, I don’t mind being an educator, but I’m not an expert on sexuality. It interests me as a topic and so I study it, but still, my experience of being queer is very different to someone else’s, and I have no firsthand lived experience of trans* issues, but as the only person who has any experience (it feels), I am reduced to being The Educator. I’d feel a lot better about sharing my experiences and in pointing out where people were going wrong, if I wasn’t the only point of reference my classmates had.

The alternative is that my classmates (and potentially all classes with no queer people in) go out in to the therapy world with no understanding of what it’s like to be queer, and no understanding of the things that they are saying that might be harmful. The same very much goes for race and disability and other diversities.

And although I do take to heart that my classmates want to learn and ask questions, I worry that if it wasn’t for people who were willing to out themselves AND to educate (or just to educate if their diversity is ‘apparent’) then we as students risk going out in to the world of therapy and making those mistakes without even seeing that we are doing them.

For example. As a queer person, if someone says to me ‘my partner’ and doesn’t gender their partner, that’s immediately a small flag of ‘their partner may be the same sex, or the opposite, or not identify in the binary’. It’s very easy as a straight person (I’ve seen many people do it – often to me) to just assume that that’s another way of saying ‘my opposite sex partner’ and proceed on that basis, thus forcing someone in to the closet. This is *not* what we want to be doing to our clients. We don’t want to silence them, we don’t want to layer assumptions on to them. We don’t want to have created a secret within them, or made them feel in any way inferior – because if you assume heterosexuality is the norm, you ‘other’ your client. The feeling then becomes a feeling of ‘less’ness – otherwise wouldn’t queerness be on the same level?

I’ve spoken here mostly about sexuality because that is the identity I am most comfortable with exploring – the only one within the petition that I have personal experience of. I get some similar types of comments on disability. I have for example, said to my counsellor ‘I’m having a bad day’ and got the response ‘but you look well’. That counsellor is no longer my counsellor, for reasons that include having heard that comment said on a few occasions. I recently had to explain to my last counsellor what ‘gender binary’ was, which again ‘othered’ me.

It’s not enough to think that as person-centred trainees and counsellors that we embody Rogers’ 6 conditions and all will be well – if we are not educated on a topic and we don’t know it, we risk causing offence.

For example – how many people reading this know what ‘cisgender‘ means? Most people reading this WILL be cis (hi to all of you who aren’t! :)). It’s a term heard in LGBT circles and widely discussed within feminism, but it’s entirely possible you won’t heard of it if you’re not active in those circles. Doesn’t sound like a big thing? It’s not. But if your client says they’re cis (or not) and you KNOW that word, your client feels heard on a deeper level than if they have to stop and explain to you what it means.

For all the reasons above (and apologies for the length of the post – I’ve been thinking this over for a while), please sign this petition, which arose from the PCSR‘s ‘taboo conference‘¬†to help make a better change for generations of counsellors and most importantly, *clients*, to come.

For anyone who wants a good book on sexuality and gender, I recently starting reading Christina Richard’s and¬†Meg Barker’s¬†new book Sexuality and gender for health professionals¬†and it’s excellent. It gives a chapter by chapter look at each of the most common terms (and then a more detailed breakdown) across sexuality, gender, and relationship structures. It’s easy to read and provides useful information whether it’s your first time looking at some of this or whether you’ve done previous research.

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When a client is kinky: A response to an article in ‘therapy today’

Pink fluffy handcuffs

Recently, Therapy Today published an article: The researcher:¬†would you believe it?, which¬†is about the discovery by one man of a paper that discusses people who are ‘kinky’ (who like BDSM) and how they might have better mental health than people who are not kinky.

The article suggests that even if these results are true, you shouldn’t believe everything you read on the internet. Of course it’s wise to take everything with caution – some of the ‘best’ psychology studies have since been proven to be forged, but my issue is less with that and more with this:¬†the therapy today article conflates BDSM and abuse. It discusses how the author has read ’50 shades’ as a fetish book and then goes on to say that Ana could be defined as a victim of domestic violence. This is absolutely correct. But there is nothing consensual about domestic violence, and kink (BDSM) is about giving informed consent. Very few people whether in to BDSM or not ¬†who are reading the book would say that Ana was giving consent (let alone ‘informed’) a lot of the time.

Any ‘kink 101’ would soon show the difference between the two issues (as for 50 shades, the author has been explicit about the fact that she did very little research into her topic also). Just as one could be not kinky and abusive, one could be in to BDSM and be abusive. the BDSM is not the issue, ABUSE is the issue in the book.

The biggest problem with this article is that of course kinky people will be our clients. Some studies have shown that people who practice kink make up 15-20% of the population. They live and work and breathe, just like the vanilla people. they will have better or worse mental health. And as a trainee who has to have counselling as part of that training, and who has to deal with being different on many levels (including sexuality and disability) I want to know that the person I am choosing for a therapist knows what they’re talking about. This article seems to poke fun at kinky people (kinky people, having normal mental health? That can’t be!) and silences a minority further.

Since the publication of 50 shades, and the plethora of books on the topic that has followed, kinky sex has become more and more common (as anecdata – just yesterday I met someone who told me that 50 shades of grey had changed her life – that she had no idea she liked those things until she read the book, and finding them has made her happier), and certainly more accepted. This means that more and more of our clients will be a) reading this and b) exploring it.

It seems to me that we do our potential clients a massive disservice by discussing the topic in this manner (rather than genuinely trying to increase our understanding), and by viewing our clients in this way (people who like to dish out pain are abusive, and people who like to receive pain are clearly victims of domestic violence). If any of our clients wanted to talk to us about how they feel about discovering this side of themselves, or are people in these types of relationship who don’t want to have to filter their language (much as gay men used to have ‘wives’ with female names), they will certainly not be inclined to do so if they have any inclination that we hold these kinds of feelings towards them, and we are clearly not then doing the best that we can for our clients, whatever our modality may be. We are forcing our clients in to a closet and we are silencing them. Let’s not do that?

Original references:

1. BDSM users are better mentally adjusted. News. Therapy Today 2013; June: 5.
2. http://io9.com/kinky-people-have-better-mental-health-than-the-rest-of-510510381
3. http://www.livescience.com/34832-bdsm-healthy-psychology.html
4. http://psychcentral.com/news/2013/08/13/study-finds-its-more-like-fifty-shades-of-abuse/58393.html 
5. http://www.ted.com/talks/ben_goldacre_battling_bad_science.html 
6. http://weknowmemes.com/2012/07/dont-believe-everything-you-read-on-the-internet/