Personal counselling- either you know it well, or you’ve likely never had any experience with it. But, as mental health issues become more and more prominent in daily rhetoric, the need for support services becomes an every day reality. Tucked away in the basement of Vallee residence are a two offices that see several students a day, every week of the year. Should you blink, you’d miss it. If you’ve experienced an appointment, you’ll likely never forget what you learned from it. If you don’t even know what I’m talking about, read on.
Personal Counselling is one of the many free wellness programs offered by Student Health Services and the Student Development centre. Enter Gail Paterson, one of five personal counsellors at Brock University, who has been working in the Vallee Residence basement for just over a year and has been in a personal counsellor for over 15 years. She received her B.A. in social development from Renison College University at University of Waterloo and has received her masters in social work from Wilfred Laurier University. She sees up to six students a day, five days a week. Because Paterson works under a private practice, she also sees various clients-families, couples, kids- on top of her work at Brock.
All of that is enough to say that Paterson works hard in a field that demands hard work. Yet, she was beyond willing to do an interview and talk about her work. On a Spring afternoon at the tail end of a semester — and subsequently one of the busiest times of the year — she had nothing but encouraging, honest and humble words to describe her experience of being a personal counsellor within the Brock University community.
A day of in the life of a personal counsellor is broken down into sessions with students. A typical session takes places within a clinical hour, which by definition is 50 minutes and particularly at a first appointment it may run longer if the student has to fill out paper work. The system at Brock University aims to ensure that a student doesn’t have to wait longer than 5-10 days for an appointment and offers crisis counselling in the Student Development Centre.
Paterson explained there is no immediate prep work for a case, perhaps a scan of a file if she needs to be more familiar with the client. Otherwise, what separates one client from the next is a deep breath, a preparation for a clean slate and welcoming them into the session with open arms and open ears.
During the appointment, Paterson explained how much she invests in her clients and how the kind of listening that happens is a different kind of hearing. “You’re so focused on what someone is saying, you’re not half listening. You become interested. You will pull back a fact from session 3 or 4; and when you listen a certain way, you do make someone feel heard, and that is such a gift to someone.”
I asked Paterson the first question that came into my head when she confirmed this interview- how can one person listen and help so many different people in so many different walks of life and still find reason enough to work? Paterson explained her profession deals with finding the patterns between clients: “So often in this job in general, what I often hear different version of the same story. It’s human nature: anger feels like anger, hurt feels like hurt and a broken heart feels like a broken heart. What’s different about it are maybe the specific circumstances but there is also a certain variance within those as well and how people express it or act it out.”
Paterson continued to talk about her work and explained why she as a person; finds reason enough to come into the office day after day. “For me what’s fascinating is that human behaviour is extremely patterned, so hearing six students a day talk about their depression and anxiety is fascinating from the standpoint that these things are evident in us all and manifest in the same way; we may act it out in different ways or find different ideas to work with it. The bottom line is that no matter who you are or where you’re from or where your family is, what faculty your in, what you look like, a broken heart is a broken heart: anxiety feels awful and support is so valuable. That’s what keeps me invested in the job, is finding ways to help these students just manage this stuff.”
Two of the most common issues that Paterson sees in her office are students dealing with various degrees of depression and anxiety. Each time a student brings forth their story, Paterson has found a that the way to solve problem is to work with it, rather than against it.
“For a long time in therapy there was a push to just get rid of what’s going on- anxiety, but if you have an anxious personality, you have an anxious personality. So, isn’t it better to help somebody manage it rather than give them the expectation that they’re going to get rid of it.”
The ways of management that Paterson is referring to do can take various forms of self care. Of course, seeing a personal counsellor is a first step to do so, and could be coupled with more medical treatment, goal setting, journalling or physical activity. However, what personal counselling aims to do is help a person think differently; to approach a situation with a new perspective. After all, no one ever succeeded in finding different results from doing the same course of action over and over again. Personal counselling is a way to reproach, to reboot and to reassess a situation so that the person dealing with it can find some reasoning or freedom behind a situation that is rooted in grief or stress.
An example that Paterson sees in her office often enough is a person not able to detach from someone they were romantically involved with. This attachment, even after a break up, can leave a person feeling worthless, anxious, depressed or apathetic.
What Paterson can help a person do in this situation is realize that they are holding on a person, rather than on to the standard of relationship that a client would want. This standard is the idealized relationship, where love manifests, happiness resides and support is both given and reciprocated.
“The hard part is coming to realize that the desire to love is not the same as a desire to love that specific person. Further, if that person doesn’t make a helpful addition to your life and hinders your own grown, the relationship does not have your best interest at heart. So, you can start to see why you might want to let go of that human, because they doesn’t fit into the big picture of what you want or what will make you your best self” explained Paterson.
Becoming your best self, or even finding a happy and healthy normal, may seem like just another thing to add to an already exhausting to-do list of a typical university student. However, Paterson believes that this quest is not outrageous and is a necessary part of life, especially for students.
“People might brush off the idea of mental health issue and argue that young adults are young, bright and just starting their life, so how could they possible be anxious or depressed about anything? But when we look at the amount of students dealing with anxiety, depression and thoughts or attempts of suicide, on top of the number of students who just find themselves struggling, that’s clearly not always the case. I think finally we’re starting to de-stigmatize mental health issues and the situation has improved, but there is much work to do.”
To put it simply, Paterson believes in the notion of “nobody said it was easy, but it’s worth it”. “It” being the attempt to live a fruitful, healthy and positive life in the face of all kinds of struggle, stigma and circumstances.
“We don’t live in an easy world; it’s expensive, smelly, violent, all sorts of things can reek havoc and we’ve got to help people. We’re not teaching people how to negotiate this stuff- we’re teaching them specific stuff, like how to do calculus or how to do a certain job and you can’t handle your own emotions. Often, we find ourselves faced with more obstacles than we can see coming, and then get hit with others from out of nowhere.”
This is where personal counselling comes in. Talking to someone for some perspective- that is where the healing happens.
“When we start to think about situations differently, we start to get answers. When we discuss scenarios and the clients see things in a new light, I can see the recognition of this change on their faces. That look makes all the difference,” said Paterson.
Paterson believes that one of the main reasons why students face the onset of anxiety or depression-ridden issues is simply because of the society they have been raised in. “Pretending these issues are not happening is not going to stop them from happening. We need to be able to talk about depression and anxiety without shame, because that’s what happens and this happening is simply reality. But, this reality can be changed.”
I asked Paterson, what would be the one thing she would want students to know about personal counselling? She answered, “Clients will often ask ‘What’s wrong with me?’ and I just respond to say there’s nothing wrong with you, you are good enough the way you are, and you have some things you have to manage. You have some things to do differently, some ways to work through your anxiety or depression and there are ways to manage it. And you are not broken.”
This is a sentiment Paterson uses frequently in her sessions, and she can see the positive and productive effect of this sentence on her clients every day. “Sometimes just telling someone that they are not broken, is revelatory for them and it’s such a gift to be able to watch that; they sit taller, they relax, their shoulders roll back, just by being told that this is normal- it’s not great, but it’s normal. With this job, you get good at body language and you can start to see what attitudes, opinions and perspectives people have just by seeing the way they present themselves.”
So how does someone who has made a career out of teaching people take care of themselves find the time to take care of herself?
“In the same way a job that exposes a professional to violence can then react negatively to violence, like military personal or police officers who have to experience post traumatic stress disorder, there’s a danger of that here too. What we have to remember is the importance of self care for ourselves as much as we prescribe it to our clients. There are moments that I suck at it, but at least I can be aware. I see six students on Wednesdays and several others clients at night through my practice, and none of them are here because they are happy. You have to get really good at loving detachment, but you’re detached enough to not take it home. Yet, sometimes it does. Sometimes a story is so profound and you’re not ready for it and so it comes at you in surprise and you have to process it. You have to process your own emotions and put them inside, it’s not about denying our emotions, we just have to be really skilled at managing them.”
But of course, it takes a certain type of person to be in this type of work, but at the end of the day it’s just humans interacting with other humans.
“There are times when a client will cry and I won’t pretend to tear up. What then, what is the point of compassion? Sometimes clients feel validated in human contact. The fundamental thing is if a client can leave your office feeling seen and heard, then you’ve done a lot. And that’s all you want to do. We do that for each other as colleagues. We take the time to recognize others. Lots of people come into this setting and they don’t feel seen and heard. Sometimes that’s enough for them to see hope. And if a university student can’t see hope for the future, then we’re in trouble.”
Even with this attitude, not every session is revolutionary. Change takes time to happen and the sessions are not mean to be digested right away. The percolation between appointments is where the real differences occur and the time spent with a counsellor is the acting planning part of the overall lifestyle.
“Sometimes with students, there isn’t a motivation or the insight to change; it doesn’t happen fast enough to turn a persons life around, but I am so heartened at how students are willing to take advice, belief in themselves or even take a leap of faith. They are so they are willing to try to do something different- doctor, medication, there’s enough doubt to think that it might make a difference; giving it a chance. That is worth everything.”
What I found in my conversation with Paterson is the amount of empathy that comes with her job description. She may not have been through every experience a client will tell her, but she can make them feel heard, acknowledged and not alone. Paterson said it best, in an expression that left me moved and signalled a perfect way to wrap up my time with her, before it was another’s students turn to listen and converse with this empathic, remarkably intelligent and overall supportive person who definitely found a career they can be passionate about.
“I’ll go in through any door I have to get a student to hear what they need to hear. You have to get them to at least consider a different way. They can’t imagine another way out; they think that this is the end. And if we can get them to think different, they can feel differently. And then changes happen.”
At the end of each session, day or even week, Paterson, along with the rest of the counsellors are all working together to make the people of Brock feel okay again.
“We just want them to not feel like they are broken because they are struggling. Healthy, wonderful amazing people struggle, we’re good enough just the way we are, doesn’t mean that we won’t learn, but we are good enough on our own. I want everybody on this campus to look in the mirror and say, although they are things I want to change, I am good enough the way I am. Not only is this statement true, but it’s the first step to feeling better.”