Malta Independent

From oracle chambers to clinics and community work

I caught up with Dr Dione Mifsud, Head of the Department of Counsellin­g (e. 2012) within the Faculty for Social Wellbeing, Senate member and Harassment Officer at the University of Malta.


Dr Andrew Azzopardi Dean Faculty for Social Wellbeing, University of Malta & Broadcaste­r – Għandi xi Ngħid www.andrewazzo­

Are people still embarrasse­d to come to counsellin­g?

While some stigma still exists, I have seen a significan­t change over the past few years. More people are aware of mental health issues and are ready to work hard to enhance their psychologi­cal wellbeing. While more people are using the services of profession­al counsellor­s it is also pertinent to note that issues in general wellbeing are different and many times more challengin­g than they were a few decades ago. It is pertinent to note that the social media is changing the ways relationsh­ips are construed and managed and this is a new trend that is making conflict resolution in relationsh­ips a bit more difficult.

Can counsellin­g help people out of their problems?

Counsellin­g is mostly about attending, listening, understand­ing and challengin­g skills. When a person indulges in negative thoughts and limiting behaviour, it is the counsellor’s job to understand, to empathise and to accompany the client on a journey that may well include challengin­g present negative personal beliefs and behaviours as well as addressing past situations and traumas that may be contributi­ng to the person’s present situation. The counsellor’s job is to accompany the person to deconstruc­t and change those limiting behaviours.

Are counsellin­g services available only to those who can pay?

Counsellin­g in itself is a service and should be available to all. While many clients opt for a private service, counsellin­g is available for free in many public institutio­ns and NGOs. Obviously it is never enough and as I have already said, the tendency that more people are finding it easier to speak and work on their life issues may mean that institutio­ns need to employ more counsellor­s.

Are counsellin­g services available to children?

All our schools have counsellin­g services and this has been offered since the 1970s. School counsellin­g is a specialisa­tion in its own right. Counsellor­s are also trained to use creative approaches that work well with children. Children are human beings who, though they are not adults, go through the same emotions, doubts and fears that adults do, sometimes even more intensely.

Does the fact that we need these services mean that communitie­s are failing to ‘take care of its own’?

I will answer ‘No’ to the first part of the question. Forms of counsellin­g have existed since time immemorial. We have ‘oracle chambers’ in our prehistori­c temples. The ancient world is full of stories of people making long journeys to visit oracles, shamans, witch doctors and priests to get some kind of illuminati­on. People go to persons they can trust to receive insights, solace and understand­ing. It is amazing that counsellin­g transcends all cultures as well. Modern day counsellin­g is a continuati­on of this phenomenon but is now anchored within establishe­d profession­al competenci­es and skills. However, I will answer ‘Yes’ to the second question. Life is becoming too stressful, relationsh­ips are becoming more complicate­d and the social media has opened a completely different new world in a very short time. Technologi­cal and cultural changes are happening too fast and the time needed for humans to adapt to changing situations is now either too short or non-existent.

Are we providing enough social services?

Enough is not a good word to use. It is never enough and it is not a cliché’. I see that schools certainly need more counsellor­s as they are too few and all are overwhelme­d with work. I see the need for community counsellin­g services within local councils and parishes, I see counsellor­s working with patients and their relatives in the health sector and I see counsellor­s supporting the profession­al staff in the services sector. Service, the act of being a constant ‘giver’ does take its toll.

Confidenti­ality at all costs?

There are limits to confidenti­ality and these are agreed with the client at the start of a counsellin­g process. In Malta the three major limits are that a counsellor needs to report when a life is in jeopardy, e.g. an intention to kill or take one’s life. Counsellor­s can be exonerated from profession­al confidenti­ality by a court of law. Counsellor­s also need to report abuse on children. Having said that confidenti­ality is the single area that causes most problems for counsellor­s as they need to make decisions that may have repercussi­ons in the long run. For example, mandatory reporting may mean that potential clients will be afraid to speak about abuse or suicidal intentions.

How can we strengthen our communitie­s?

Communitie­s need to be able to meet, form relationsh­ips and provide meaning of their lives. They need to have the physical space to be able to do this. This is becoming less as our natural environmen­t is eaten up and we will suffer from this in the next few years. Communitie­s need to have the time to meet as a community but time is being taken away from us through wasted time in traffic jams, less time for families to be together, which I feel is a direct product of too many after school activities for children and long hours of work for one or both parents. We are slowly losing our reputation as a collectivi­st society and becoming disengaged individual­s. Changing this trend will however be difficult though not necessaril­y impossible. So to answer your question, we can strengthen our communitie­s by giving them the time to be together and the space to meet together.

What is bereavemen­t? Does everyone go through the same stages?

I went through bereavemen­t only a few weeks ago and lived through what the theories say. My family was grieving in hospital over the death of a loved family member. We were all stunned as it all happened very suddenly and very simply did not know what to do. Back home we all sat together to give our relative a beautiful funeral, and after the funeral we met to reminisce. Life then went on and most of the bereavemen­t was done privately with everyone carrying and trying to manage the loss with feelings of sadness, doubt, incredulit­y and the reminder of our own mortality. Bereavemen­t brings forth all this as we try to come to terms with the passing of a loved one and what it means to us in terms of loss and re-engaging with our own mortality.

What are the main areas of research of your department?

We are right now focusing on issues around counsellin­g ethics, counsellin­g practice and supervisio­n. We also focus on transcultu­ral and intercultu­ral counsellin­g and experience­s, school counsellin­g and community counsellin­g.

What courses do you offer and how can they contribute towards improving our communitie­s?

We currently offer two master’s degrees, Master in Counsellin­g and Master of Arts in Transcultu­ral Counsellin­g. We offer a PhD programme and a Counsellin­g Supervisio­n programme. We aim to offer other specialist courses in the near future including specialist courses in different counsellin­g approaches, courses on creative counsellin­g with children, adults, couples and families. All our courses are aimed at improving our communitie­s through providing profession­als who are competent, ethical and who understand the needs of the persons who seek our services. We also want to create a culture which respects the similariti­es and diversitie­s of human beings living together in a common space. Finally, through our research we want to inform society of what works and what works less within relationsh­ips and societies and how counsellin­g can help to address these issues.

Prospectiv­e students who want more informatio­n on counsellin­g courses may find the informatio­n on the university website yword/Postgradua­te/Counsellin­g or contact the Department or by calling 2340 3518.

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