The Gift of Working with Young People

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I noticed my feeling of nervousness, increased heartbeat and shallow breathing as I walked along the corridor towards the waiting room, client details in hand, to meet my first ever young person client on my placement, a local charity who worked with 13- to 21-year-olds. I wondered how different it was going to be working with a young person after the 40 or so adult hours I had under my belt. I anticipated what 15-year-old Gabby* might look like; a short blonde girl dressed in jeans and t-shirt, sitting waiting for me on her own, maybe distracted by her mobile phone. What had I learnt from her IA form? She had been in care for most of her life and now lived with her gran, she had been suspended from school for ‘disruptive behaviour’, she experienced anxiety which is why she was coming to counselling.

I stopped and took a breath to settle myself before I turned the corner, I walked into the waiting room, there she was, nothing at all like I had imagined her! Gabby was dressed in ripped jeans and a black skull emblazoned top. Her tied-back dyed black hair and heavy make-up made her look a bit intimidating. She looked up at me expressionless, chewing gum, her bright blue eyes piercing through that heavy black eye-liner. She was sat with an older lady (I found out later she was her gran). I was right about the mobile phone though. I wondered where on earth I had conjured up that initial image of Gabby from? I introduced myself and asked her to come along to the therapy room with me. She continued to stare at me, the older lady gave her a gentle shove and said, “Go on Gabby, don’t be causing trouble.” My heart started beating faster.

We silently walked to the small therapy room. She sat heavily in the chair, I sat down too and smiled at her. She stared back at me; arms folded. “Where would you like to start Gabby? This time is yours to talk about whatever you need to,” I said, wondering if I was doing or saying the right thing. Gabby paused, then responded, “I beat up my last counsellor.” That fast-beating heart of mine was now in my mouth…

This unusual introduction to counselling young people over 15 years ago was the start of an incredible journey for me. I knew from that first session I had with Gabby that was where I was meant to be, counselling young people. I went on to work with many more young people in that charity, moving into paid work and eventually running a counselling and mental health service for young people with the Children’s Society, as well as seeing young people in my private practice. My experiences working with young people led me to write, along with my husband who had a similar journey to mine working with young people, a successful diploma course for qualified counsellors wanting to work with young people

What was strikingly evident for me back then (and is even more to this day), is the lack of services available for young people and their families, and those services that do exist, run by teams of dedicated workers from all fields, are constantly battling against the rising mental health needs of young people and falling availability of funding. In 2020, NHS statistics show that one in six school age children have a mental health problem. This is a striking increase from 2004 where the figures sat at one in ten, and 2017 where it was one in nine.

Access for young people to the services that are available is even more gloomy. The most worrying statistic for me is that from the first emergence of symptoms of a mental health condition to getting help for that condition, there is an average 10-year delay (yes, you read that right, 10 YEARS) (Centre for Mental Health 2021). What does that mean for our young people?

Thankfully, there is a growing number of counsellors wanting to work with young people. The NCS have recently recognised the importance of this by launching their National Children and Young Peoples Therapist Accredited Register, setting the standards for working therapeutically with this vulnerable group.

You might be wondering what happened to Gabby; we worked together for about a year, she engaged so well in therapy (without beating me up!). She turned her life around, enrolling at a local college and finding a part-time job. She will always have a place in my heart as the first young person that I worked with, being alongside her on that journey of change and empowerment taught me so much that I carry forward into the work that I do to this day. I feel honoured when a young person lets me into their life as their counsellor. The work we do together, while sometimes painful, is a real gift for me. Saying goodbye to a young person at the end of therapy is a complex mixture of sadness and happiness that they no longer need me.

*Name changed to preserve anonymity.

Schindler-Ord, J. (2022). The Gift of Working with Young People. National Counselling Society Counselling Matters Magazine. August 2022, pp.14-16.