Paula Ferguson, Counsellor, FE sector

Phase 1 story (Spring / Summer 2020)

How have you been able to keep a focus on what matters to people during COVID? 

We adapted very quickly, I think, to being deployed to working from home (WFH) after the college closed. As a team, we worked out how we could best share referral information safely, adhering to GDPR guidelines, so we could contact students and offer options to receive counselling whilst the college was closed. The options included email, phone and video counselling (such as Zoom and WhatsApp), to make this accessible to those who preferred to see their counsellor’s face. Those who didn’t want any of these options were offered the chance to remain on the waiting list for college re-opening. 

I’ve frequently opened my first session with clients by asking them about their experience  of lockdown; looking at e.g. what they may be enjoying about it, what they may be finding  challenging about it, and how they are coping with any challenges they encounter. I’ve  been quite overwhelmed by how people have coped during this time. I’d say that the  majority of clients I’ve spoken to have adapted really well – I think technology is enabling  people to stay connected and to get through this.

What have you had to do differently and what made this possible? 

All meetings have been done differently, using video calls mostly. Again, I’m surprised at  how quickly I adapted to this. Only the most vain really want to look at themselves on a  video but within a wee while I actually felt fine about this. Maybe I’m more vain than I  thought! Doing video calls with clients is really good – it opens up a connection not as  possible via phone or email, because we can see each other and be a bit more natural in  the back and forth interaction. I find this trickier on the phone, as I’m sometimes unsure  when the person has stopped speaking and I’ve to reply! 

We’ve had to evaluate our work differently too. It’s not always realistic to expect clients  to print off forms, complete them then scan them back. To help with this we’ve tried to  create more accessible ways of gather evaluative information, including using comments  clients made throughout and at the end of the work.

What have you noticed that has been better?

I’ve really enjoyed WFH – it feels like it has slowed time down a bit and technology has  meant I’ve never felt lonely or isolated. If I needed support from a manager or colleague  I’ve just had to pick up the phone or arrange a Zoom call. I’ve been able to spend more time  doing things like CPD because I don’t have had travel time to factor into my day. 

From a client perspective, those who have chosen to engage through phone, video or email  have stuck with it; I regularly check in with them that their chosen medium is working.  Someone even said they were loving the work – something they thought they’d never say  about counselling! They found the method we were using very freeing – for some people,  not seeing a face must really help in the therapeutic process.

How did this make you feel?  

I feel really good about all aspects of WFH and providing counselling services in ways  other than face-to-face. This Covid lockdown has actually really boosted my confidence in  using different methods to counsel people. I never thought counselling on the phone, for  example, would be something I would want to do. Turns out it’s nowhere near as  daunting as I thought it would be! Being thrown in at the deep end, albeit with lots of  support, has been so good for me.  

Six months ago, if I’d heard the world was going to look so different, I’d have panicked  and hoped for the best. It turns out I was one of the lucky ones, working for an  organisation that could keep providing services whilst adapting very quickly to the  circumstances. It has alleviated many anxieties I may have had about possibly feeling a  lack of purpose and direction. I want my good fortune to benefit others.

What have you learned through this?  

I have learned that myself and the organisation I work for are pretty well equipped to  continue to offer counselling to those who are happy to use remote methods. I surprised  myself at how quickly I adapted, with minimal anxiety. It helps hugely to have had such  supportive colleagues, both in the organisation I work for an in the college. They are all  amazing, kind, professional people who are committed to the making the counselling  service continue to function well. 

I also feel more relaxed in this slower pace of working. It doesn’t feel like I am juggling too  many things, either personally or professionally. I have learned that many people,  including colleagues and clients, feel similar. Although maybe if the lockdown continues  too long or has to be put in place again, people may not feel the same. I think the great  weather and longer days have helped. I would maybe not want to be in this situation in  e.g mid-late November. However, if it happens, it happens and I’m sure I’ll manage.

Anything else you want to tell us?  

It’s been really nice to reflect on what this period has really been like for me. I have  thought about it a lot but this has felt like I have been given a platform to voice my  feelings. Thanks

Phase 2 story (Autumn 2020)

What has continued to help keep a focus on what matters for people during the  pandemic? 

As someone who has worked in the voluntary sector for a number of years, my  experience is that it remains committed to providing services based on need and on  responding to the needs of its client groups. I have remained in small voluntary sector  organisations for so long, despite frequent job insecurity, as I feel it offers great  opportunities to engage really closely with your service users, and to enable their needs  to shape the services provided. For example, the organisation I now work for has  succeeded in getting funding to ensure that young people in the area can still access  therapeutic input both virtually and face-to-face. We have workers who are doing socially  distanced meet-ups with young people outdoors and these are really popular in engaging  service users in the work they’re doing on their mental, emotional and physical wellbeing.  

I’d say a positive thing that has emerged from the pandemic is that finally, young people’s  early intervention mental health services are being taken very seriously. Two years ago the Scottish Government committed to putting counsellors in all schools and now it is  happening in several schools in the Lothians. I feel the pandemic has helped this  commitment come to fruition.  

I also feel the media has been very useful in giving a voice to those experiencing some  very desperate situations.

Are there changes that seem to be lasting longer term and are there things that have  slid back to old ways of doing things?  

Overall I feel we’re returning to a less hopeful situation (compared to the start of the  pandemic) where job insecurity, inequality and division between people are all on the  rise. I worry for the long-term implications of this.  

On the other hand, as I mentioned in the previous question, the continued focus upon  young people’s wellbeing seems to hopefully be a long-term commitment, which I find  very encouraging. Another thing I find a bit more hopeful is that much of the media is  shining a light on how our governments are getting so much wrong. I also notice the media really  highlighting the good work of eg Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling who are both  striving to do great things for their communities. These are the people I hope will  encourage and inspire hope within others.

What difference has this made to people?

I can’t help but think that many people working in the services for the elderly, and also  those providing acute care in the NHS, must be disillusioned coming into the colder  months. This is a real worry in terms of how services are kept running as winter illnesses  accelerate and Covid cases increase. 

I also worry for people who need other NHS services, although I do know of two people  who have received excellent cancer care (including operations and chemo) throughout  the pandemic. It’s reassuring to know that life is going on beyond Covid. 

From a personal perspective, I’m really happy to be working in a smaller organisation that  is well-run and where staff are highly motivated due to the great support we receive from  management. The in turn has led to everyone seeking creative solutions to ensuring  young people get the services they need just now.

How did this make you feel?  

I have very mixed feelings – day to day, I experience so many different feelings in relation  to what is happening in the world right now. I always come back to how grateful I feel  personally for the situation I’m currently in, whilst also worrying about what the world  will look like longer-term. I try to focus on the here and now and get through that way. I  have become quite energised in my anger.

Reflecting on your experiences what have you learned? 

I have definitely learnt how lucky I am to be able to work from home – this has helped me  to feel safe. I have been surprised at how I adapted to using technology as a means of  delivering counselling. Many counsellors don’t like this way of working but I’ve adapted a  ‘needs must’ mindset and ran with it. 

I have learnt that the more I watch the news, the less empowered and the more scared I  feel for the present and the future. My current strategy is to limit my news intake and  focus on the things I CAN do to keep myself and others safe.

What difference has it made to you to tell your story as part of this project? 

A key part of my personal and professional way of being is reflectiveness – this has  allowed me to stop and evaluate my own learnings throughout the pandemic.

Anything else you want to tell us?