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.

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

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 https://www.um.edu.mt/cour­ses/ke yword/Post­grad­u­ate/Coun­selling or con­tact the Depart­ment or by call­ing 2340 3518.

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