The parts of student counselling that worked for me
Sarah shares the ups and downs they faced while attending three different student counselling services during their time in college.
Written by Sarah
Voices - Experiences
Young people share their personal experiences.
“My dad is an alcoholic, and- I’ve never talked about it before to anyone. And- I guess I thought it would be good to talk about it.”
Throwing myself at the mercy of the student counselling service wasn’t the best phone call I’ve ever made. Heart in mouth, sweat on hands, lump in throat, I got through the basic details with the woman on the other end of the line – yes I know where you’re based, yes that time slot suits me, thank you for not commenting on the fact that I’m audibly holding back tears – and hung up with an enormous sigh. After hearing the stories about how overwhelmed the counselling service was, and how long people were on waitlists, I was just buzzing with adrenaline that they agreed to see me for a consultation appointment.
Especially since I wasn’t in a crisis situation. I was just going about my business, attending college classes and student society events, paying excessive rent to live in crap housing on the fringe of the city centre. My mental health was about the same as it ever was. Opening up to friends about my early years on earth, and listening to their stories, in turn, got me thinking about counselling.
They encouraged me to lay it all out there and make it clear that I had had horrible experiences and deserved eight sessions of therapy. ‘Maybe it would be a good idea to talk to someone’, I thought, ‘see if a listening ear does some good for me’. Beyond this, I really had no expectations of counselling.
I was nervous rocking up to my first session. The receptionist was very smiley and pleasant. She spoke as if she had deliberately encased every word she said in bubble wrap. I smiled back at her, wondering how often she had to deal with people breaking down in tears after such a demonstration of tenderness.
I was directed to an old computer on one side of the reception area to officially register with the student counselling service. The registration form asked me why I wanted to attend counselling, and displayed an immense checklist which documented every possible trauma and hardship a body could ever experience.
Reading through this checklist, I very much felt like other people deserved this precious appointment slot more. I half-heartedly ticked boxes related to parental addiction, and hovered over ‘experience of emotional abuse’. I considered again how lucky I was to have gotten a consultation appointment, how little I deserved to be there compared to other students, and how I needed to convince the service I was screwed up enough to need their help. I ticked the box and submitted the form.
My counsellor appeared in the waiting room and called my name. I followed her blindly to a square little room with two armchairs and a coffee table. She began outlining how the session would run, but I was barely listening. I was far too busy taking in the weirdness of the experience, the very obvious box of tissues on the coffee table, and is that a Sacred Heart of Jesus on the wall? God help me.
Very up-and-down first counselling experience
My memory of that very first session is fuzzy. The counsellor talked a lot. I didn’t. I got something out about how living with an alcoholic for my entire life had been pretty crappy a lot of the time. That I had learnt enough about mental health to figure that repressing things was bad, so maybe it was worth airing this dirty laundry in the quiet comfort of a counsellor’s office. She asked if I’d like to meet with her once a week for eight weeks. My gut said “no”. The alternative she presented was joining a waitlist for another counsellor. My mouth said “yes”. I didn’t want to submit myself to an endless waitlist. Besides, for the life of me, I could not have told this woman to her face that I didn’t want her to counsel me. That would have been rude, I thought.
Over the next 8 weeks, I had an extremely up-and-down experience with counselling. Every week I went with fresh hope, and almost every week I left feeling frustrated, pent-up, and tightly wound, like a little spring being squeezed between a thumb and forefinger, just dying to leap out and release the tension. There were often tears, but when I reflected on it, they weren’t good tears. Crying during therapy usually gives me some relief. But crying because your counsellor won’t give you space to speak, crying because it feels like your counsellor is not trying to understand you and your pain, that wasn’t great.
Despite this, we both kept trying. She recommended support groups and mindfulness techniques. I went to that support group for three weeks and wrote about my most painful memories of dad for strictly 10 minutes every day. I kept revealing parts of my history which had never been spoken aloud to anyone before, thoughts that had been private for my whole life. Sometimes I wanted to scream at her, “LISTEN TO ME. Don’t you hear what I’m saying? I regularly fantasised about my dad dying so we wouldn’t have to live with him anymore, and you’re telling me to journal about it and move on?!”
It was a mismatch. We didn’t fit. It was nobody’s fault really, we just needed to see different people.
The one lasting piece of insight I gained from this stint of counselling was this: what I had described to the counsellor of my experiences sounded to her like “a case of classic trauma”. Trauma! I was traumatised! I was shocked. I was delighted. I was horrified. The idea that living with my father had traumatised me took a while to sink in, but it wasn’t long before the idea took root and became anchored right into my sense of being. Living with my dad had legitimately screwed me up. This helped me finally feel validated and that my experiences were legitimate.
Trying student counselling for a second time
“So, my dad is an alcoholic, and I want to try and figure out how that’s impacted me. Like, what parts of me are the way they are because of him… does that make sense?”
My second phone call to student counselling services was infinitely smoother than the first. I was cool, calm, and collected. The nervous jitters and reservations which plagued my first attempt at counselling were largely gone. The woman on the other end of the line sounded warm, kind, and receptive. She would be my therapist for the next 9 months.
After the fairly unsuccessful first run with counselling, several friends had expressed disgust and sorrow at my experience. One friend in particular encouraged me to try again, swearing that “you just need to find the right counsellor.” OK, I thought, I’ll try anything twice.
By this time, the COVID-19 pandemic was ongoing: in-person counselling sessions, my previous rental agreement, life as we knew it – all were off the table and replaced with the four walls of my cosy (excessively-priced) on-campus bedroom. I found I quite liked having therapy over Zoom. I appreciated being able to throw myself directly onto my bed to cry and recover after sessions ended instead of having to drag myself out into public and onto my next lecture.
My new therapist and I developed a connection almost instantly. She was young, and confident, and she didn’t display any religious symbols. I felt like I could tell her anything and everything, and I did. I detailed all my most painful thoughts, experiences, and behaviours, the things I regretted most in life, and things that make me the bad guy in other people’s stories. And she took it all in, absorbed it, and listened. I would talk myself out, and she would draw all the pieces together and present them back to me clearly, helping me understand myself with more compassion than I ever expected.
The sheer amount of learning (and unlearning) I got through in this therapy is unbelievable – it was ok to get angry, I didn’t need to feel ashamed and guilty all the time, I was allowed to take up space and let others support me unconditionally.
Understanding the intense importance I grant to academic achievements with the understanding that education had always served as a safe, validating space for me away from my dad had me floored for days. My therapist helped me build a narrative about my life that made sense, which included recognition of all the wonderful people that have always surrounded me and done their best to shield me from the worst of my dad. Aunts, uncles, cousins, old friends, grandparents, siblings, my legitimately heroic mother – I simply don’t have the words to handle all this love all at once.
I am so grateful that I got to have this experience. Thank you to the therapist who taught me to recognise my own resilience, how to sit with the uncertainty, and how to hold the complexity of my past experiences without collapsing under the weight.
My third experience with student counselling
“I want to be able to manage myself better.”
My third interaction with student counselling services was different again. Post-Covid, different university, different degree, and, shockingly, no phone call! I registered and arranged counselling via email. A whole new world.
Armed with a greater understanding of why college, conflict, and intimacy with others gave me such deep anxiety, I was ready to take the bull by the horns and challenge the thoughts and behaviours which made my life more difficult than it should be. I told my counsellor this much.
I was in for a few more surprises.
Although I was delighted with my new course and college, I was feeling disconnected, and intensely lonely. I was a student again, but not really – I had been living with extended family for over a year, saving up and earning money to pay for college. Immensely lucky as I was for this privilege, I felt I selfishly missed my independence and my friends. I missed my mother, and was homesick for the easy connection I felt with her. My counsellor later told me that she clocked me as a bit depressed around that time. Depressed! I was actually (briefly, mildly) depressed! I was shocked. I was delighted. I was terrified.
The next few weeks were a mix of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), minor breakdowns, and person-centred therapy. My counsellor listened actively to my problems, and really made it feel like my therapy was a collaborative effort: when she asked me to go away and think about certain things, I did.
When we discussed those things and tried to make sense of them, she called us both out when explanations didn’t resonate, and didn’t get to the heart of the issue. It was extremely validating. More than any other counsellor I’d interacted with, this one really got me to take ownership of my experiences. When I came to her, deeply stressed and miserable about the upcoming flood of assignments, she put my options to me:
- Disentangle your sense of self and self-worth from academia – not ideal in the midst of a relentless postgraduate degree.
- Accept the fact that a month of gruelling effort, isolation and burning the candle at both ends is the price you pay for the standards you set for yourself – sickening, but this had always served me in the past.
- Just see what happens if you don’t try quite so hard. Let the standards slacken just a bit, don’t take things so seriously.
What seems like an obvious set of choices felt like a blisteringly fresh and honest perspective, and it was high time I heard it in a therapeutic context. (I still went with Option 2 this time around, but the idea of Option 3 has certainly taken root…).
This therapist finally made it clear to me just how hard I was on myself all the time. I remember the session when she first brought this up, I could barely get through a sentence without her quietly interjecting, “there it is again – ‘I’m just being silly, I’m always doing that, I shouldn’t be this stressed about it…’” The way I talked about myself (and to myself) really was brutal, and it blindsided me to have it laid bare. It was a moment of such clarity. I feel that’s when something really significant started to shift for me. I can’t be sure, but it feels that since then, I’m much more able to say “screw it, no assignment is worth my mental health”, and actually mean it.
How student counselling helped my mental health recovery
Reflecting on these experiences, I feel that I’ve still got work to do. I’m still growing into a freshly-realised identity, I know that there’s still a lot of grief and anger wrapped up inside me that will need to be let loose at some point. But, looking back, it’s also much easier than I thought it would be to recognise where I’ve made progress, and how far I’ve come.
For me, learning to process all that ancient pain has allowed me to more fully appreciate the very great privileges in my life, past and present. I have family who will always love and support me; I have managed to make friends who care about me as much as I care about them; I have goals and dreams and (funds aside) the capacity to reach them if I work hard and take care of myself. I am lucky. I am much better off than I used to be. And, all told, I’m happy enough.