It's taken me some time to process this exciting two day event at Roehampton University and I'm sure it will continue to work and settle in for me. Here are my immediate observations:
1. Everyone I spoke with said how very tired they were.
So many of us are in the maelstrom of heightened client distress. It used to be that people escaping domestic violence, child abuse, slavery, burnout, bereavement and other day to day unhappiness had services that would support and help them. The majority of those services have been closed. Those that remain have to divert the majority of their energy into non-counselling related activities to remain in existence. Many therapists are working incredible hours for no pay.
2. There was a real sense of muted outrage.
Counsellors in schools are under increasing pressure to inform on one section of their client base.
Many therapists are working 60+ hours a week for no pay.
The average annual income for BACP members is £12,000 - which means that many of us are paid much less.
Black and other minority counsellors remain just that - a tiny minority.
The body is being commodified as never before, from plastic surgery to FGM, worldwide.
Cuts and closures have affected everyone, vulnerable or not.
There was a sense of helplessness, knowing that people were suffering, knowing that organisations like the UN require a change in government policy and knowing that there will be no change.
3. 'Resilience' is still a focus for most of us.
Carmen Joanne Ablack opened the Conference with personal examples of suffering and resilience from within her own family, extending those stories to the wider experience of minority and other peoples. It was inspiring. But throughout the conference I heard very little about the people who suffer and continue to suffer; who don't experience some kind of growth or change; who kill themselves; who live on in a kind of fugue state whether they're in positions of privilege and power or living in abject poverty; who die because they've been forcibly relocated; who die because they're old or unwell and can't afford to turn the heating on. Or eat.
I wondered if these narratives are just too painful for us to consider. Once or twice in the sessions where we all met together a delegate would express despair and there were no answers to that despair.
4. Boundaries are being pushed further and further out in ways that might have been unimaginable 10 years ago.
We continue to work within systems that treat Muslim children as potential terrorists.
We continue to work with government departments that are responsible for starving, purposefully harming and, in not infrequent cases, killing very vulnerable people.
We accept that counselling training is limited to people who can afford to pay for training, pay to work, pay to service counselling agencies, and so on and so on.
We accept that £12k is a reasonable return for a highly trained and highly regulated professional.
For me, these levels of consent can be perceived as symptoms of cumulative abuse rather than cynical acceptance of the status quo (thought there is certainly a significant proportion of counsellors who believe that people are hermetically sealed against their environment.) We see people in terrible and escalating distress and want very much to do something to help even though we know the numbers are overwhelming, the pain unbearable. We don't dare to really look at how shocking things have become because they've become very, very bad indeed. The water is boiling. The frog died some time ago.
The Conference brought intelligent people of very good will together. I found a lot of solace simply in that. The fact that the Conference took place at all suggests that some change may be afoot, not least because it brought together academics, practitioners, researchers and the new, exciting Psychotherapy and Counselling Union which Susie Orbach suggested we join and support in order to address some of our concerns.
During the plenary session at the end of the conference key figures were asked to summarise what had been particularly important for them. Mick Cooper spoke about Lucy Goodison's workshop "The Red Therapy Experiment - compassionate embodied activism." Lucy co-founded self help, grassroots therapy groups in 70's East London and when asked, "What would you pass on?" she replied "Don't expect too much too quickly."*
We all have to find our place on various axes of what we can bear and not bear, of what we can offer and not offer. Because of my experiences - most recently becoming increasingly aware of elderly and vulnerable people dying just months after being forced to move during the 'regeneration' of our neighbourhood - I place myself in positions that many therapists may, because of their experiences, consider extreme. Death is about as extreme as it gets. Starvation, hypothermia, suicide attempts and successes, profound anxiety and total bodily State compulsion are extreme.
I've learned not to expect anything much in terms of political awareness from the profession so the Conference was refreshing and reinvigorating. I'm hopeful that the respectability of Mick Cooper and Susie Orbach, of Roehampton and Edinburgh Universities will encourage resilience in more counsellors who, like me, may feel very isolated in a sea of troubles. We may not be able to end them but together we can oppose them.
* I'm paraphrasing from memory: if you remember differently please let me know.