Coun­selling’s value of­ten mis­con­strued

DAILY GRIND Dr Mar­garet Agee has seen a lot of changes in the men­tal health pro­fes­sion in her long ca­reer. She tells reporter Karina Abadia about the im­pact coun­selling can have on both the pa­tient and the prac­ti­tioner.

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Go­ing to see a guid­ance coun­sel­lor when she was a univer­sity stu­dent was a rev­e­la­tion for Dr Mar­garet Agee. It not only helped her deal with stress and con­fi­dence is­sues, it also led to a re­ward­ing ca­reer.

‘‘It de­vel­oped in me a kind of al­most mis­sion­ary zeal. If I’d had coun­selling in high school then I may not have strug­gled with the dif­fi­cul­ties that I had with low self­es­teem.’’

She com­pleted a bach­e­lor of arts at the Univer­sity of Auck­land and went on to study a mas­ters in English be­fore sign­ing up for teacher’s col­lege.

In those days you needed to train as a teacher and work for about five years be­fore you could move into guid­ance coun­selling.

Once qual­i­fied, she taught English and so­cial ed­u­ca­tion at Auck­land Girls Gram­mar be­fore be­ing ap­pointed to the ju­nior coun­sel­lor’s po­si­tion and then head of the guid­ance depart­ment at Aorere Col­lege in South Auck­land. Mean­while she stud­ied a post­grad­u­ate diploma in coun­selling part-time.

In 1990 she joined the Univer­sity of Auck­land as a lec­turer and has been the pro­gramme leader of coun­sel­lor ed­u­ca­tion at the Ta­maki cam­pus since 2006.

Be­ing made an Of­fi­cer of the New Zealand Or­der of Merit this month for ser­vices to men­tal health ed­u­ca­tion is the ic­ing on the cake, she says.

‘‘I see it as recog­ni­tion of our pro­fes­sion. The in­cred­i­ble im­por­tance and value in peo­ple’s lives of coun­selling of­ten goes un­ac­knowl­edged or is mis­con­strued.’’

Com­mon myths in­clude the idea that coun­selling cre­ates de­pen­dency and that it breaks up famil- ies, the Par­nell res­i­dent says.

Her work­ing week is roughly made up of 40 per cent re­search and 60 per cent teach­ing and ad­min­is­tra­tion. One of the ar­eas she lec­tures in is pro­fes­sional su­per­vi­sion. This is when a prac­ti­tioner is men­tored by a more ex­pe­ri­enced col­league.

It’s de­signed to be a safe space where the coun­sel­lor can re­flect on their work. It’s re­quired of all stu­dents and is com­mon prac­tice in the pro­fes­sion, the 64-year-old says.

‘‘It’s very im­por­tant that we have ap­pro­pri­ate bound­aries with our clients but we can­not help but be deeply af­fected by the work we do.

‘‘The sto­ries we hear and en­coun­ters we have with peo­ple can leave us very moved or dis­tressed. That’s why su­per­vi­sion is so im­por­tant,’’ she says.

Dr Agee is also a mem­ber of var­i­ous men­tal health com­mit­tees, is coed­i­tor of the New Zealand Jour­nal of Coun­selling and has co-edited three books.

She has done a lot of re­search into loss and grief, sui­cide and man­ag­ing client safety. At­ti­tudes to men­tal health have im­proved over the past 30 years but the pres­sure to ‘harden up’ still per­sists, she says.

In­stead of fo­cus­ing too much on the high rate of sui­cide in New Zealand we should learn from peo­ple who are sur­vivors.

‘‘We need to lis­ten to peo­ple who have been sui­ci­dal and have grown through that.

‘‘We need to be open to a range of per­spec­tives.’’

Photo: KARINA ABADIA

En­rich­ing work: Dr Mar­garet Agee says work­ing in the field of coun­selling is a priv­i­lege.

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