Behind The Scenes – SLRA counsellor Sarah talks about her work

Blog entry written by Sarah and Lisa

At SLRA, we are extremely proud to have Sarah, our resident counsellor, who offers private, free counselling session for internal referrals. Counselling and mental health support in general are important especially for the people we work with, who have to live in an extremely hostile environment, have to deal with many uncertainties, and have been through many adverse situations.

How does counselling at SLRA look like?

As Sarah is our resident counsellor, she can only take on internal referrals. This means that caseworkers and other team members of SLRA can refer people – 18 years old or older – they work with to Sarah. Our counselling service is private and often has a shorter waiting list than other private or NHS services. Due to funding and capacity, the counselling is limited between 7 and 10 sessions. The duration of the sessions is 50 minutes to an hour and is provided on a weekly or fortnightly basis.

Sarah says that the clients either ask for counselling themselves or that a caseworker, team member or volunteer suggest this kind of support to a person. However, in the end it is up to the person if they want to receive counselling or not. In the first session, Sarah explains to the client what she does, the main premises like confidentiality, counselling as a judgment free space, and invites them to ask any questions they may have. They are also encouraged to either tell her about themselves or about the distress which led them to seek counselling.

Sarah has psycho-dynamic training which means her approach is bio-psycho-social. Which means hereditary, environmental, and developmental factors are all taken into consideration. Early dynamics are also thought to play a major role in how we navigate our current relationships and how we cope with stressors. The overall aim of Sarah’s counselling sessions is therefore to increase her client’s quality of life.

Why counselling?

She says it is often a time for the clients to be able to catch their breath, to take a step back, and to sit with their thoughts and feelings without the constant pressure to act. Of course, counselling doesn’t change the past, the environment and the challenges that the people continue to face. Still, getting counselling sessions often help the clients to reflect on their journey, the strength it took to get where they are, and to gain hope to see the end of these challenges.

Sarah stressed that counselling is not an advice service or a place where the counsellor is in the position to tell their client what they should do. It can better be understood as a safe containing space where a person can express their feelings and thoughts. In the session, it is often not Sarah who decides how the session will look like but the person who comes to receive counselling. So, if they want to be quiet for an hour then Sarah and they will be quiet, if they want to talk about a certain challenges or events then they will do this. In other words, for this one hour the client can get back their power and decided about how the session will look like and what they want to talk about. This is often cathartic in a hostile disempowering environment that limits their decisions.

Often refugees and migrants have to face people that think they are broken or scattered due to their experiences, but this is not true. Of course, there is grief and sadness in the sessions, tells Sarah, but there is as well an extreme power and strength. Which is why it is important to encounter the client with empathy and not sympathy. The important difference is that sympathy blocks us from trying to understand the person’s situation as they are experiencing it and we find ourselves projecting what we might feel if we were in a similar situation. Empathy allows us to see the person as a whole and to understand together and help give meaning to the individual’s experience of life.

A quote Sarah finds inspiring is By Austrian Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Outside the session

Another big part of Sarah’s work at SLRA besides of the actual counselling sessions, is to write letters to for example local authorities, social service and the Home Office. These letters are there to value the client’s experience and to offer Sarah’s professional opinion about the case and their mental health status. In these letters, Sarah needs to explain her work and give her professional opinion about the client’s mental health. Before she sends the letter to a caseworker or a service, she shows it to the clients and ask whether they want something to be changed, left out and just go through the message of the letter. The reason for these letters varies. During the first lockdown, Sarah wrote many letters due to housing issues that often have a huge impact on someone’s quality of life, but she also writes them to support fresh asylum claims.

Sarah says on a final note that it always feels like a victory if people are engaging and feel safe during her counselling sessions. She described how wonderful it is to get calls months or years after her sessions end of previous clients saying how well they are doing.

This part of our work at SLRA, is extremely important for our organisation and as well for the people we work with!

The paintings are created during the trip to the Dulwich Picture Gallery in December with the women’s group.