The Importance of Socio-Political Context in Counselling and Psychotherapy

by Karen Minikin

Tuesday 10th October is mental health day. Our mental health is becoming an increasingly important feature of our wellbeing and functioning personally and socially. It has been hard for the world as a whole to process and understand the impact of the pandemic on our health. This alongside the downturn in economics, the threat of climate change as well as situations such as conflict and war mean we are all in need of taking care of our vulnerability. For those that have legacies of poverty, neglect or trauma, the challenge is even greater. What follows is an illustration of a client I worked with many years ago.Karen Minikin

Case Example: Alan

Alan was a builder. He had just had his first child and he came to see me because he couldn’t stop crying. Both his parents had been dependent on alcohol, and he had suffered personal, social and educational neglect. During his teenage years he was diagnosed with severe dyslexia which had explained his earlier struggle with reading and writing. However, by then he had given up on school. He had survived the humiliation of a number of teachers by becoming a classroom joker. This won him a few friends and saved him from fights with the bigger and stronger boys. At school, he told me he made friends with the black kids and the “weird” kids, so he reported. When he went home, he and sister made jam sandwiches. He took a friend home from school one day and as he turned into his house, his mother was lying collapsed on the doorstep - door open. He said he simply “stepped over her”…I could see and feel the deep contempt on his face as he recalled that memory. He and his sister had been two of those children who fall in between the gaps of the social care system and survive in families that are poor by UK standards and suffering themselves no doubt from generations of neglect. In January 2021, 1% of the UK population owned 25% of the wealth1and people like Alan are common. Despite this depressing backdrop, there was some attachment in the family and some camaraderie between him and his sister - enough to get by and he had managed to get work in the hospital and to have a steady partner.

Now Alan was a father, he was unravelling and finding life difficult to cope with. We could understand this as a recycling of his early childhood and the possible overwhelm his under resourced parents may have felt. This would have ill -equipped him for his own experiences of fatherhood. However, it was not the whole story and the socio-economic situation he was in as an infant, a child and now as a new parent has also be accounted for. Having previously worked as a porter in a mental hospital, he had known that there were counsellors and psychotherapists and so he came to me - a white working-class man, looking for someone to help him. He was available because he was broken, desperate and full of feelings of failure as a man. So, what is the therapeutic task when someone like Alan appears at our doorstep? In what ways is oppression at work around and within him?

My approach marries up socio-political context with insight and experience learnt from the counselling and psychotherapy professions. Accounting for the people we see and the life experience they have had is critical in formulating a sound working alliance. This above all else is the most important thing for people that seek help from counselling and psychotherapy. Can the practitioner relate to me, understand me? Can it help to talk things through and understand therefore, why I am so distressed?

These might sound like a simple thing, but the experience is profound, especially when people and the contexts they live in has left them feeling alienated.

1 https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2021/jan/03/richest-1-have-almost-a-quarter-of-uk-wealth-study-claims



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