Running a Support Group – Are You Qualified?

Updates (26th May 2015): I initially mentioned the Citizens Advice Bureau when it was actually the food bank. Murray also gave further corrections; see his comment below.

A member of the group recently helped hand out A4 posters to advertise the group (Thanks Murray!). He handed out one to the local food bank. The lady asked ‘Are you qualified?’. Murray explained that he didn’t run the group, and that I did. He said that I did have counselling qualifications.

Being naturally analytical, I contemplated her question. What did she mean by ‘Are you qualified?’. Is she blindly asking in a society obsessed with qualifications (and not necessarily wisdom or experience) whether I had passed the exams required to run a support group? I’m hoping she was wise enough to be asking whether or not I had the right skills, although I doubt it.

Imagine she was asking  whether I had the right skills. What would these right skills be? Maybe:

  • Compassion
  • Empathy (hopefully via personal experience, and generally by having an empathic nature)
  • Listening to people
  • Intelligent enough to understand the subtleties of someone’s description of their situation
  • Assertive when required (to stop a potentially controlling person damaging the dynamic)

Wow! Look at that! No formal qualifications in that list! To me a support group is a group of people who meet up and compassionately try their best, within their limitations, to support each other. Isn’t that more a human trait, and not a set of qualifications?

When did we get to the stage where to compassionately converse with other people we need a set of qualifications? It seems the capitalist nature of society has made certain natural human phenomenon into an exam that people have to pay for. You can even have lessons to learn how to walk properly now.

Do people really believe that before counselling, psychology and psychotherapy existed people didn’t emotionally support each other? Do you seriously believe that? To me this is a ridiculous conclusion. We have always supported each other emotionally. When people died in the past, surely people in the society comforted each other and supported each other? Surely people shared their troubles and other stories with each other. It seems that me have made empathy a skill that only fully trained professionals can administer.

Training Versus No Training

Some research once showed that professionals with absolutely no counselling training. and another group of highly trained counselling professionals (with lots of experience) were equally skilled at helping groups of clients. The results from this research were astonishing. The highly trained counsellors and therapists fared no better than the completely untrained people.

Counsellors and other helping professions will baulk at this, and say how dangerous it is for ordinary people to help people in distress, however we help people all the time. If someone’s partner dies we naturally support them. They probably don’t need to see a grief therapist. What happened to genuine human connection? Of course there might be times when people who have complex mental health issues need a professional, however we have got to the stage where basic human experiences and emotions have been pathologised. Once pathologised, we have persuaded people that only professionals can help them, friends apparently can’t. I have been on counselling courses where the tutor says friends can’t help you, only us therapists can! It sounds like a religious cult and not a balanced profession when someone makes comments like that. It sounds like a leader of a cult when they say ‘Only we can save your soul’… for £100 an hour.

I became disenfranchised with my counselling training when I saw some dreadful students and, the occasional terrible tutor, teaching and learning empathy. Some people went through the motions of learning empathy but just didn’t have the skill. I believe people either naturally have high levels of empathy or they don’t. You can’t learn it. You can learn a clunky bad version of it. Maybe a little investigation of what empathy is and some practise is useful, however to think that people can be trained to be empathic is ridiculous. Some people are naturally good at sports, art, maths or sport. I also believe that applies to natural skills like empathy or public speaking. Some people will just naturally have the skill and won’t need training, indeed training them could diminish their natural skill. I would even say that only people with natural empathy should become counsellors. If you don’t have it, then you shouldn’t become a counsellor. You haven’t got what it takes. I would surmise this is why the untrained versus the trained gave similar results, i.e. because the same percentage of natural empaths were in both groups. Training doesn’t change that, so made no difference to the measures of efficacy. Durlak (1979) states:

“In terms of measurable outcome, professionals may not possess demonstrably superior clinical skills when compared with paraprofessionals”

(Paraprofessionals here meaning untrained in counselling, psychology or psychotherapy)

It might sound like I’m anti-therapy, I’m really not. But I do think there are a lot of concerns surrounding the profession.

References

Durlak, Joseph A. (1979). Comparative effectiveness of paraprofessional and professional helpers. Psychological Bulletin. 86 (1), 80-92. [Available online: http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=buy.optionToBuy&id=1979-31736-001]

13 thoughts on “Running a Support Group – Are You Qualified?

  • May 26, 2015 at 12:16 pm
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    Just to correct you slightly, it was The Food Bank not the Citizens advice bureau. She didn’t ask me if i ran the group. I said “my friend runs this support group for men with mental health problems and i wonder if you would put this flier up on his behalf please?” . She then said “Is this Mike qualified?”. the conversation about your qualifications then followed.

    I agree that experience and wisdom are important traits in running a group and would say that you don’t have to have gone through college, university or evening classes to be able to help or support people. That is like saying these people have all the answers when of course they do not. You do not have to have studied in a classroom to be intelligent in these matters when you can relate to a person via personal experiences that you have gone through yourself and have possibly found ways to get better, change, or simply cope with in a different way.

    We have all mucked in with different ideas.

    Menheal founder Mike has been vehement in breaking the stigma surrounding mental health and came up with the idea of one day selling anti-stigma t-shirts. He came up with the current venue of the cafe and the fliers he personally designed can been seen at various places in the town. Mike would also like us all to have days out from time to time to place such as the beach which is all great for mental health and general male bonding.

    Last year when i suggested we get a room at the leisure centre to run the group so that when the group has ended it’s hourly session we could do activities there to lighten the mood. One member once suggested we went swimming there and another member has since suggested we play softball there too. Another member has asked us to go to local groups such as Philosophy group.
    I also suggested last year we get some local bands to do a local gig to raise funds for the group so we can spend the money on room hire and do further activities. At the time and at present however, we are not a charity until the constitution has gone through so this event is not possible but we hope it will be in the future.

    Reply
    • May 26, 2015 at 12:20 pm
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      Her question was valid, it just made me reflect on the necessity of qualifications when running a group where we all support each other. I’ll update the article.

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      • May 26, 2015 at 12:25 pm
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        Well she was the first one to ask that question but i’m sure she was just being thorough or interested. If it was a mixed group she could have come and overseen us.

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        • May 26, 2015 at 12:29 pm
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          Yes, I think it was great she cared enough to ask. I think she was just asking if I was capable or knowledgeable enough to help run the group. Although really the group runs itself these days, which was my initial intention. I think a peer led group is more powerful. I get just as much wisdom and support off you guys. So it definitely works, although I’m biased of course! 😉

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    • May 26, 2015 at 12:22 pm
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      Thanks for all your ideas and support Murray. You’ve helped us a lot 🙂 Really appreciated. You’ve made it a lot of fun. Thanks, Mike

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      • May 26, 2015 at 12:26 pm
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        My personality found last weeks badminton lots of fun and uplifting… but my back didn’t when i awoke in the morning!

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        • May 26, 2015 at 12:31 pm
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          Yes, sorry I missed it. Hope your back improves soon. Badminton can be a bit lively.

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  • May 26, 2015 at 12:22 pm
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    Personally it is great for me to try and help the younger members of the group which i know Mike has too.
    Sometimes i wish i had someone when i was their age to say things to me like what we have had to say to them but then again, would i have found them without the support of a group group like this?.

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    • May 26, 2015 at 12:27 pm
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      I totally agree. I also wish I had had someone who understood anxiety, depression and other issues when I was younger. Where’s that time machine? 😉

      Reply
  • May 26, 2015 at 12:29 pm
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    All the professionals have evaporated all the time machines so we can keep them in a job!

    Reply

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