No room for counselling in lockdown

The counselling room is a special place – for both therapist and client. Every trainee counsellor and psychotherapist knows this. Not the place itself perhaps, but what it represents. For some – depending on our experiences – it is a place of safety and refuge, a calm port in the storm, a neutral space without judgment or demands, or just a reliable weekly part our emotional routine. For others, a hermetically sealed space of confidentiality, the only place where we can cry. Or it is a sacred space for deep connection and ritual, a place of comfort and compassion, a sandpit for messy play or a laboratory for risky self-discovery. Even a womb for rebirth.

For many therapists, the counselling room carries great symbolic significance as a literal ‘container’ for the relationship between client and therapist. Step beyond the limits of the room and the nature of that relationship changes – a few scheduling texts or calls here and there, and a very brief but polite exchange in the corridor or – occasionally, accidentally (and somewhat awkwardly) – on a local train platform. “What happens in the room stays in the room”, and nothing of emotional meaning for the therapeutic relationship is usually permitted or intended outside of it.

For both counsellors and clients then the loss of this space is very unsettling. The irony of lockdown is that while most people are feeling separated from the world, therapy has been evicted from its safe spaces – into the often dysfunctional world of the domestic and the malfunctional world of the internet. Many, particularly those already resistant to the internet as a vehicle for therapy, have been thrown by the sudden upheaval and the necessity to transplant their fragile therapeutic relationships online. And their concern is real – can clients really experience the same sense of safety, experimentation and intimacy in cluttered kitchens and through (equally cluttered) laptop screens?

Already, I have heard of clients Skyping from their bathrooms because it is the only room with a lock (and perhaps because it was always their place to cry). Others attempt to squeeze a 50 minute phone session into their hour of exercise outdoors, perhaps thankful for the ‘social distance’ between them and passers by. And there are those that sit in their parked cars, avoiding eye contact with passing neighbours. In abstract, in anecdote, there is something humorous about these vignettes, but the setting of therapy is not trivial to someone in crisis.

Overnight, online counselling has moved from an albeit fast-growing fringe activity of the young and savvy – to a necessary rite of passage for us all. The counsellors that I know have been partially successful in adapting, in direct proportion to the strength of their existing therapeutic relationships. Having already built up trust, long-term clients have transitioned more smoothly than more recent ones. Meanwhile, new applicants have dropped radically – for some counsellors to zero.

This puts myself and many other counsellors in a curious position. We now very quickly need to find ways of reaching people that are prepared to take the risk of starting counselling online and ways of building therapeutic relationships that work for them and support their safety and best interests.

I am also fortunate not to be too distracted by mourning for the lost counselling room. Maybe there was something unhealthy about identifying the boundaries of the therapeutic relationship with the door of the room? In true psychosynthesis spirit, after the mourning comes the rebirth – so what potentials are emerging for counsellors in lockdown, for the clients that choose to join us at this time, and for the world of counselling?

Don’t worry, I won’t dare attempt to answer these questions in my first blog post. But they do lead me back to the point of this blog – to follow the threads that link us with the context of our lives, and with the wider world outside our immediate emotional, relational and even therapeutic bubbles. Perhaps then this lockdown offers a moment of opportunity for counsellors and psychotherapists to go beyond the metaphor of the therapy room – both to reevaluate our influence and role in the world, and to literally see our clients lives’ in context.