I’ve never had any therapy or counseling before, so as I walked through London’s leafy Chiswick to The Westover medical center I was a bit apprehensive as to what I was letting myself in for.
My friend Stephen has suggested that I give counseling a try – trust and intimacy in relationships are things that I have been trying to work on for a while without much success, despite slogging my way through a couple of self-help books. According to Stephen, counseling is the answer.
The Westover Clinic is a professional and calm environment, all comfortable blue sofas and glossy magazines.
I was soon met by Nicholas Rose – my counselor for this session.
Perhaps I’ve watched too many American sitcoms (I can pretty much re-enact most episodes of Will & Grace), but I was expecting the counselor to be aloof and stand-offish – not saying much, occasionally making some notes, maybe raising an eyebrow.
Thankfully Nicholas was friendly and engaging. We sat opposite each other in comfortable lounge chairs.
‘So... what would you like to talk about?’ he began softly.
I won’t bore you with the details, but I found the process fascinating (if at times excruciatingly uncomfortable). I would make bland third-person statements about challenges in engaging and communicating, and Nicholas would gently probe and push me to try and articulate my feelings, emotions and motivations in a more honest and authentic way.
I left the session feeling a little bit raw, a little bit exposed and little bit vulnerable. In my first 50 minute session with Nicholas I had shared things that I haven’t ever shared with anyone else and got to know myself a little better as a person.
It got me thinking… could we all do with a little counseling in our lives?
One of my lasting impressions from watching nine seasons of Seinfeld and a lot of Woody Allen movies is that everyone in New York has a therapist. In London however it’s not really something that we talk much about. Relationships go through rough patches, friends grapple with redundancy, or addiction problems, loved ones are coping with loss or grief, and we’re not equipped to offer much more than a shoulder to cry on.
I spoke with Monty Moncrieff, head of services at London Friend which specializes in counseling for the LGBT community.
According to Monty: ‘Counseling is an opportunity to explore feelings or ideas about a range of issues – it may be a useful option for people feeling uncertain about things going on in their life, or for people wanting to change the way they react in certain situations, or as a way of dealing with unexpected or difficult situations.’
There are of course a range of different counseling or therapy options available, often from different theoretical backgrounds, and these may be delivered in one-to-one or group settings.
Private counseling sessions can be quite expensive (around £80 per hour in the UK). But in Britain you can get referrals to NHS counseling services via your GP. PACE, GMFA and Terrence Higgins Trust are among the others to offer counseling services for gay and trans people in the UK.
However, according to London Friend’s Moncrieff: ‘Sometimes LGBT people may not feel comfortable disclosing the need for counseling to their doctor if it is related to their sexual orientation or gender identity.’
But although London Friend is a self-referral service, a thorough assessment is undertaken before starting counseling to make sure that the team are appropriately experienced enough to provide the level of counseling required.
Moncrieff explains that for many people having an LGBT specialist service is important because: ‘They may have experienced negative reactions in other services or have experienced homophobic or transphobic behaviour and attitudes in other areas of their lives and want to come to a service where they know this won’t happen. Or they may simply feel that they want their counselor to be LGBT themselves.’
This hadn’t really occurred to me before. I reflected on my first session with Nicholas Rose, I don’t know whether he is gay, I didn’t think to ask. But I felt quite comfortable talking openly about my relationships and didn’t feel any sense of judgment or disapproval which I guess is the key thing.
Cost or access to an LGBT specialist counseling service may not be the only barriers to people getting help as, according to Moncrieff, there is still considerable social stigma attached to seeking help through counseling, particularly in relation to mental health issues: ‘Research has consistently shown that LGBT people experience higher levels of common mental health issues [such as depression, anxiety and low self-esteem] than the general population, and there are still many incidents of LGBT people having negative experiences of health care.’
I’m starting to see counseling as the emotional equivalent of taking your car in for a tune-up. Just a good chance to check that I’m keeping things in perspective, that I’ve got some balance in my life and that I’m equipped with the tools and self-awareness required for whatever life throws at me in the years ahead.