A Pluralistic Approach in the Diverse Counselling Classroom – A Students Perspective
Adeola Russell is a Director of Black Therapy Matters CIC, a community interest group currently focused on increasing the number of qualified BAME counsellors and psychotherapists practising in the UK. One of the ways in which their current project seeks to achieve this is by actively recruiting BAME students to their peer support networks. You can find more information here: www.blacktherapymatters.com
I attended a Pluralistic Approach to Therapy event a few weeks ago, with the idea that I might find something in this approach that would inform my own fledgling integrative (possibly assimilative, maybe eclectic) practices. I left with the view that pluralism as a philosophical approach offered the sort of inclusive flexibility that might provide a foundation to increase access to and opportunities for positive counselling student outcomes across all communities.
It has been my experience and the experience of a number of black counselling and psychotherapy students that I train with, that a significant issue with race and identity repeats itself in our therapy rooms. Most recently the impacts of George Floyd’s death – the manner and fact of it presented a picture to the world of the harsh reality black people face in society. From the implied institutional disposability of our black bodies to the sheer magnitude and scale of how the collective psyche of all races have been impacted from an inter-generational perspective. My body tells me these impacts are real and they are significant.
The Black Lives Matter movement has done a lot to highlight the everyday experience that people of colour have with racism. People of all races are encouraged to engage in anti-racist practices and I am personally hopeful that the momentum for change does not waiver, as the time for denial of the experiences of ‘other’ coloured bodies has passed. This is the body that is brought into the therapeutic environment as client, therapist, trainee, tutor, supervisor, institute director, institute trustee and beyond.
As a counselling trainee, I feel caught between different parts of these bodies: the client that is being brought to awareness, the therapist that is learning how to do that, and the student that needs to understand the link to the theory she is learning.
I had this mix of roles in mind last week when I met up with other BAME counselling and psychotherapy students who are part of a peer support network that I host. Our intention was to review the year we had had in training and I noticed, as we unwound our experiences, how we shifted roles as part of our natural but informed listening support process.
Maybe, thinking about these roles allowed me to put some emotional distance between myself and the experiences of the other BAME students in my network. Because it hurt to hear the pain of the student who felt isolated in their teaching group. Invisible within their group process, unable at times to find the words to speak of the impact of the experience of race and power in their training room. They felt (as did I) that the silence and the silences that met their reflections meant discussions about race and power were not welcome in the room. They said that when they did find their voice they felt they were always ’shouting’ and it seemed they became unpopular in their group. They felt irrelevant and invalidated. Yes – I have been there.
It hurt to hear from the student that found that their teaching group of mainly students of colour could not talk about race at all; leading to a rupture between the students of colour at differing stages in their race awareness journey. This student explained how she read additional texts on race theory to understand the dynamics in the room and her own devastating reaction to it. She leant heavily on additional supervision to help her process the impact of this rupture on her placement work. She said ‘it almost felt too much to get to the end’ of her training. Yes – I heard her.
It hurt to hear from the student who studied in a group where they did not feel comfortable bringing up race to their mainly white peers. Silenced, but now questioning and second guessing themselves – worried they were over-thinking the relevance of their experience of race. Worried about whether the tutor could have done more to encourage these important conversations. Worried about whether they were right to back down when their tutor refused to allow any focus on race in their written work because it was deemed too ‘political’? Yes – this actually happened.
It hurt to hear from the student that felt burdened to educate their group about race when the topic was covered inadequately by their tutor. They were left to explain their experiences of race and racism, only to be re-traumatised while members in their teaching group mined their trauma experiences in a way that made them feel alienated and ‘hurt their soul’. Yes – this is what it feels like.
And finally – it hurt to hear from the student whose therapist was unable to hold her racial trauma adequately. This student received no guidance beyond a superficial suggestion from their tutor to look for someone else who ‘looks nice’ when she asked about the merits of choosing someone more identity appropriate. Sadly, this student left their therapist ‘silently’ as many other BAME clients do when their cultural needs cannot be met in the therapy room. Yes – this is what we do.
I left the peer support meeting feeling drained but empowered that we were talking together and utilising each other as an emotional resource – building our resilience.
Yet I couldn’t help reflecting on how powerless it feels to enter training rooms at the mercy of our instructors and our peers; Unsure which microaggression will land; Ever aware of the possibility that the feeling we take into the world of not belonging, will be used as a weapon against us – if not today, then maybe next time in our classes.
The peer support groups feel like something we can do when there is nothing we could do – directly.
I was pleased to note that none of the students in my support networks this year allowed the emotional difficulty of their training to fatally disrupt their training journey. Working together, we have been empowered to seek changes directly with our institutions. We have been writing to our instructors, attempting to engage them in some effective dialogue about the impact of our training on our emotional safety.
We are learning together how to articulate and communicate our distress. This is something that we can do. We share resources, exchange information on signposts and coping strategies: effectively providing each other with the safe haven we need to complete our training at the various institutions we attend, under any counselling approach or modality.
We are adapting our approach to focus on our outcomes. However, racism in our society impacts all the bodies brought into the therapeutic learning environment and I hope each of our bodies can find a way to actively adopt an approach to anti-racism in our training in much the same way. You may judge for yourself if our response might meet the requirements for a pluralistic approach in the counselling classroom.