A new peer counselling initiative for North London

My GP practice in North London is pretty switched on, by my estimation (which is, of course, not to say that it necessarily is). So I was intrigued to discover a new initiative starting up in which patients registered at the practice can join a group called ‘Talk for Health’, billed as ‘a programme for emotional wellbeing’.

The idea is that those who wish to be involved are invited to participate in four training days, which will then lead into what is described as ‘ongoing support in a peer counselling group’. The group will cover:

‘…thinking about yourself, understanding and talking about your feelings and listening in a helpful way. It offers an opportunity to explore and resolve current dilemmas and struggles in your life.’

Clearly the practice is seeing a lot of people with mental health issues, and good for them for taking the bull by the horns and looking at creative ways of helping them process their difficulties. Group counselling, in my experience, is a powerful tool, but I do find myself wondering how this might play out among participants who are not necessarily in one-to-one counselling and will have only the benefit of four days of preparatory ‘training’.

What kind of training might that be? Presumably a crash course in the principles of humanistic counselling, maybe some education around what constitutes a boundary – who can tell? What concerns me somewhat is the implication that anyone can be a counsellor after a few days of instruction – the democratisation of a vocational skill which takes years to develop and hone.

We see this happening in all walks of life now – in my own field of writing I note that people with very little experience and a one-day workshop under their belts are purporting to be professional writers. All of this is a consequence of the commoditisation and consequent mushrooming of vocational qualifications. That is to say, if you can pay for one of the vast number of qualifications now on parade, then you can have it, rather than there being a limited number of qualifications, delivered by bona fide institutions, which are earned by merit.

This effect is unlikely to go away any time soon, and so we will likely see more and more ‘professionals’ who are less and less qualified and a dumbing down of the quality of any particular service. In the case of counselling and psychotherapy, we are likely to see more individuals earning their (poor quality) qualifications simply by paying for them and, as we all know, it takes life experience, deep self-examination and many years’ experience to become a truly helpful instrument in this field.

Don’t get me wrong; I do believe there’s a balance to be struck here – is it better to have some kind of forum to help people struggling with emotional difficulties than not? A resounding yes from where I stand. But let’s not get the idea that after four days of training that these individuals can acquire the skills needed to  do very much more than provide a sounding board and fellowship for each other.

That said, the value of being among others who share similar kinds of difficulties cannot be underestimated, as is clearly shown by the 12-Step movement (the system upon which Alcoholics Anonymous is based). The simple act of coming together to form a community carries the potential for  considerable therapeutic benefit, which may indeed be the case with the peer counselling group due to start at my local practice.

Perhaps if we understood the value of communication within community, GPs would have no need for such limited solutions.

Written by Jacqui Hogan