An interesting report in The Guardian Society section today by Mary O’Hara on the burgeoning therapy industry in Northern Ireland. It’s a balanced article which, while avoiding drawing direct conclusions, does note the plethora of different organisations offering conselling services, some accredited and, by implication, some not accredited, also highlights concerns about counselling being seen as a cure-all.The article notes the increasing number and variety of those organisations as “with the eighth anniversary of the agreement approaching, and yet another year filling the space between the ‘bad old days’ and the future, thoughts are increasingly turning towards the reality of life in a ‘post-conflict’ society” –
One of the most visible manifestations of this has been the sprouting of voluntary and community-based therapy and counselling centres across Northern Ireland. A parliamentary question revealed that, as of March last year, there were around 150 such “victims'” groups in existence (not counting ones with multiple branches). Not long ago, there was a mere handful.
Official records show that victims’ groups received £32.3m in funding between April 1998 to March 2005 from various sources, including the British government and the European Union Programme for Peace and Reconciliation. The groups differ in scale and offer a wide variety of support and individual therapies – everything from musical therapy to simple befriending.
The authorities in Northern Ireland have also been jumping on the bandwagon. In 1998, after pressure from local politicians and community groups, the Northern Ireland Office launched a number of initiatives aimed in the first instance at acknowledging the trauma experienced by victims, and then providing programmes to address their needs. Cash was set aside for research, and funding was made available to support counselling services. The plight of victims was put on the map in April 1998 when the first official report, We Will Remember Them, acknowledging the extent of the harm inflicted, was published by Sir Kenneth Bloomfield at the request of the then Northern Ireland secretary, Mo Mowlam.
Just months after the Good Friday Agreement, a victims minister was appointed and four trauma advisory panels – one for each of the regional health authorities – were established. Two Department of Health trauma centres were also opened.
and also draws some interesting quotes urging caution on expectations –
Not everyone, however, is happy about the rise of therapy. Chris Gilligan, an academic at the University of Ulster who has been researching whether trauma counselling works, says he is worried that it is in danger of being being seen as a panacea for solving the problems of a whole society. He says: “Since the ceasefires, there have been more referrals for trauma therapy … and there has been a proliferation of different [therapy] groups.”
Northern Ireland, Gilligan argues, needs to critically assess whether therapy can possibly do what is expected of it. He accepts that community groups have been meeting local needs, but argues that such groups often generate need. “There is an assumption in the discussion of the provision of counselling that the best kind of life is one where people feel that they are happy and everything is nice,” he says. “But where is life like that?”
Mark Thomson, of the Falls Road-based victims group, Relatives for Justice (RFJ), is also sceptical. “We are acutely aware that there is a therapy trend developing,” he says. “You have all sorts of people parachuting in [to offer counselling]. There is almost the creation of a therapy industry.”
Thomson has concerns about counselling being seen as a “cure-all” and cautions that, left in the wrong hands, it can be dangerous. He is not suggesting, he says, that counselling cannot help some people some of the time – for example, RFJ offers a variety of types of counselling and is accredited by the British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists. But he argues that it risks becoming a distraction from tackling the “politically tough” issues of truth and justice.
Mary O’Hara also manages to obtain a quote from the Interim Victims Commissioner on the review of those counselling services –
The coming year could be critical for trauma counselling. An interim victims and survivors commissioner, Bertha MacDougal, will conduct a strategic review of the type and quality of support services available. Her report, which will include recommendations on how to improve, monitor and evaluate counselling services, is expected at the end of the year.
MacDougal does not want to pre-empt her conclusions, but she does hint at the direction policy might go in – and it is looking as if counselling could become more, not less, prevalent. “I think we have to recognise that there are very many people who have been severely traumatised and it wasn’t recognised at the time and it must be addressed now,” she says. “This is one area in which we have to look at a coordinated approach right across all services – voluntary and statutory.”