Training to be a counsellor against a backdrop of a global pandemic obviously wasn’t the plan when Ellie Stokes embarked on her two and a half year part-time training course with Northampton University back in 2019.
Opening up about our mental health is not something us Brits find particularly easy, but it is hugely important; Covid 19 has attacked our minds as well as our bodies and the extent of the damage is yet to be calculated.
Counsellors like Ellie are there to help – and they practise what they preach, she told Sammy Jones.
I think it’s very difficult at this early stage to anticipate what the full impact of the pandemic will be on mental health, but I sense we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg, with regards to services,” Ellie admits, “Being in lockdown, everyone is confined to their own bubbles and it is hard to contextualise what is going on properly for people behind closed doors.”
Over the past year more than ever, we have been urged to talk about our feelings, to learn about how to look after our mental health, and to look out for others. But still so many of us struggle to ask for support.
Since studying for her Childhood Studies degree, 27-year-old Ellie has developed an acute interest in taboo subjects and how we manage them; particularly when it comes to discussing them with children and young people.
“What really interested me was how very poor we are in talking about issues that really need to be addressed; more often than not, because we don’t know how to start an open dialogue. Often this is simply through fear of ‘doing or saying the wrong thing,’” she said.
Ellie’s Final Year Dissertation was lauded and she returned to University College in Birmingham to educate trainee teachers on how to effectively manage bereavement in the classroom, which she says involves “breaking down some of the culturally embedded British stiff upper lip anxieties around discussing death openly.”
But Ellie wanted to do more to address the issue with youngsters affected by loss: “I wanted to go right into the eye of the storm and stand there, side by side with those most affected; reassuring them that the storm would pass, in time. It was at this point where my degree and the passion I had developed for this area perfectly amalgamated. I realised that I wanted to work directly with children and young people; to support them through something which is sadly a natural part of life but yet to this day is still highly stigmatised.”
And since starting her training, she has been able to stand in that eye of the storm, “…except that this has been a much bigger Covid 19 storm,” she admits, “But whilst my experience as a trainee has been challenging, the rewards that have come from it have been incredible.”
But how do counsellors shut down after a day ‘at the office’? As an emotional sponge, and privy to often difficult conversations, how does she look after herself?
“One of the most important skills I have learned in my training is balancing my own needs with the needs of my clients. When you first start out visiting clients, it can be so easy to bring their worries and problems back with you and to fall into the trap of over-thinking what you wish you’d done differently in your session. As my course has progressed though, I have learned how to set professional boundaries, which not only help me to look after myself but also helps me to establish a healthy professional relationship with my clients.”
And counsellors have counselling too, right?
“It’s a very good question, and yes, even counsellors have counselling. I also have a very supportive placement; I know they are only a phone call away if I am ever concerned about a client or if I just feel like I’m having a bad day. I receive a monthly counselling session with my placement to update them on the progress I am making with clients and to raise any questions or concerns.
“They are there to help me reflect on my ongoing practice and to make sure I receive support and guidance, should I feel a bit wobbly or unsure.
“Supervision often continues throughout a counsellors career and can be a fantastic source of ongoing professional development; to ensure that we are doing the very best for the clients that we work with.”
Self-care is a priority for Ellie, and she makes it fun too – earlier this year she made a Self-Care Bingo card, and gave herself a gold star for each activity completed – a great tool for keeping things in check.
“Activities included; enjoy a bubble bath, cook your favourite dinner, go on a nature walk, fresh sheets day, buy yourself a small treat, try a meditation session, no caffeine day,” Ellie said, “I will be the first to admit some of them were marked off much quicker than others – enjoy a bubble bath had a record six stars by the end of the week, whereas the activities that were left, highlighted areas I may have perhaps neglected.
“Something that started out as a bit of Half Term fun really helped me to see which areas of my well-being I was doing well in and which areas I wanted to be more attentive to.”
It’s fine to work hard in the day job, to maintain a tidy home, to keep on top of the bills and run around for our friends and family, but if we don’t pay attention to ourselves, an invisible time bomb could be ticking.
Ellie’s advice is to actively engage in that self-care, “…whatever that may mean personally for you. For some people, it is going for a daily jog, whilst for others, it could be making their favourite dinner and enjoying it with their family. Find what works personally for you and take care of yourself in the way that you would a small child. Lots of good food, rest and love.”
The pandemic has wreaked global devastation, but it has undoubtedly opened more discussions about mental health too. And that can only be a good thing.
“I hope it has also created a greater level of awareness around mental health and the need for us all to look after ourselves – mentally as well as physically,” Ellie said, “Once lockdown eases it will be interesting to see how the events of the past 12 months filter into the cases that we receive as counsellors, Sadly, I anticipate a rise in the number of anxiety and depression cases as well as cases where children, young people and families have experienced disenfranchised grief as a result of the pandemic.”
If you are struggling, the advice remains the same as ever; find the courage and strength to talk about it. Seek support; don’t bottle up your feelings. Help really is out there.
“These are very difficult and unprecedented times, but I remain hopeful of better days to come and confident that the training I have received can make an incredible difference to the lives of people who need our help the most.”
> Interested in training? Details of Ellie’s course can be found by visiting: northampton.ac.uk/courses/counselling-children-and-young-people-msc/
Child Bereavement UK: childbereavementuk.org Bereavement support for children,
young people and their families.
Winstons Wish: winstonswish.org Bereavement support for children, young people and their families.
Cruse Bereavement Care: cruse.org.uk Bereavement support for all ages
Mind: mind.org.uk Mental health support website