Last year there was a lot of talk about unpaid internships, and how they unfairly disadvantaged certain sectors of society. It was clear that people felt a system that only those of a certain class and with financial support could access would lead to perpetuating the current unequal structures of society. In all the debate I never heard anyone mention counselling, despite the fact that this is a huge issue both in who can qualify and the client groups we currently fail to reach.
Take me for example, to practice what I preach and try to center this on the person I know best, myself. I am a final year student, so I have to pay my college fees. Like many mature students I am not eligible for the current loans system as I have a first degree. My choice, you might say, and it is. However on top of the expense of being a student I also have placements, to all intents and purposes I have a job. I have to pay the travel, childcare, supervision, insurance, lunches, which go with working, whilst not being paid. Even something as simple as what to wear becomes an unexpected expense as you return to work.
This isn’t about me though, I am using myself as an example even while I am very aware that I am able to do all this, and exceptionally grateful that I can. I am though very aware of all the things I have allowing this, children who aren’t used to the latest gizmos or foreign holidays, a partner who can work the extra hours, and family willing to provide childcare for free (and complete with offers from friends to step in if I ever need them). I am a well supported middle class woman with all that entails.
By making qualification reliant on having a certain income level, certain support structures, we are ensuring that the more you look like me, the more likely you are to qualify, and when I look around almost everyone in counselling looks like me. I have seen a few discussions of how to attract more Black and Ethnic minority people to counselling, but these never seem to center on the most obvious barrier, income. The same will be true for LGBTAI people, migrants, and people with disabilities. All groups who are likely to be on lower incomes and benefits.
How can this be changed then? Right now it is clear that with so many placements being in the third sector that there is not the money to pay students, many organisations do not pay their qualified counsellors. Often it is those organisations working with the most disadvantaged groups who cannot even afford to pay travel expenses. For many counsellors they see what they do from the perspective of a vocation, something they do not with to be paid for, however this very attitude is one of privilege, of not needing to be paid. Volunteering has a wonderful history, but at the same time many associations such as “ladies who lunch” or out of touch “do gooders”
Next time you are with a group of other counselors look around the room. Does it reflect the diversity of modern, twenty-first century Britain? All too often the answer will be no, and whilst counselling is dependent on volunteers, underfunded and underappreciated this will not change. Last week was Mental Health Awareness week and there were a lot of fine words about fighting stigma. Fine words cost nothing though, resourcing counselling so it can pay its interns, and provide the kind of support to that reflects all of our communities may cost, but is it a cost we can continue to avoid given the levels of suicide, self harm, depression and anxiety in Britain today?