At best, “So … what is it that you do … exactly?” or something along those lines is what people ask when they stop at my table in MBS events. All have heard of counselling; many have tried it; few have anything good to say about their experience of it; fewer still have seen it associated with the word “holistic”. At worst, I receive messages telling me that there is no such thing as holistic counselling, that I am either a qualified counsellor or practising unregulated therapy.
Defining holistic counselling is not an easy task, for every holistic counsellor brings his own individual spin to it. The general consensus is that, where traditional counselling concentrates on the psychological aspect of issues and behaviours, holistic counselling takes into account the physical, emotional and spiritual contexts, as well as the psychological ones. Its aim is to treat all individuals as whole human beings, made of a mind, heart, body and soul, to help them break free from behaviours that limit them at all levels, so that they can find within themselves the strength and resources to make the changes necessary to overcome their difficulties and move their life forward.
Although more and more counsellors nowadays claim to use integrative approaches, what this generally means is that they no longer keep to one approach, as was traditionally the case, for example humanist, psychodynamic or behaviourist, but combine several approaches to better suit the needs of their clients. Some are also starting to add complementary therapies to their services, such as reflexology, aromatherapy or mindfulness, to name only a few. Although integrative methods are unsurprisingly proving more successful, this form of counselling still concentrates mainly on the mental, emotional and physical aspects of difficulties.
Holistic counselling differs in as much as it considers that all aspects, mental, emotional, physical and spiritual, are connected and must be considered, therefore treated, as a whole. Unfortunately, and although transpersonal psychology is gaining momentum, spirituality is more often than not misunderstood, feared and ignored as a result. Yet, spirituality, not to be confused with religion, although this could be the topic of an article of its own, should be acknowledged for the immense and invaluable source of strength, comfort and hope that it is for individuals facing difficult times.
Whatever spirituality is in the eyes of its beholder, it has become obvious that it can no longer be overlooked when dealing with an individual’s general wellbeing. Many societies around the world, African, Asian, Indian, American Indian, Polynesian etc., following the teachings of their ancestors, have long understood that the body and the soul are not to be separated. Yet, this dualism, instilled in our cultures by philosophers such as Descartes, has unfortunately become ingrained in the Western world, reinforced by the shortcomings of both religion and science.
Slowly, scientists are starting to prove that body and spirit are connected. The works of neurobiologists Eleanor Maguire from University College London and Mario Beauregard from the University of Montreal, to only name a couple, have shown that having a system of beliefs and activating it affect the functioning of the brain and modifies the cerebral anatomy, demonstrating that the part of the brain where intense emotions are triggered when one experiences very distressing events, and which uses a lot of energy firing these intense emotions, literally switches off as soon as the patient starts praying. As spirituality differs from religion, so the definition of praying is unique to the individual who practises it, whether it be prayers in the religious sense as we commonly understand it, thoughts, wishes, meditations, or whatever else one prefers to call it.
According to the renowned neuropsychiatrist Boris Cyrulnik, and the two decades I have spent working with teenagers lead me to agree with him, the anxiety experienced in the Western world is increasing to such an extent that young people are displaying and expressing a greater desire to believe. When one considers that in the UK alone, in 2016/2017 Childline delivered 22,456 counselling sessions about suicide, with children as young as 10 calling; children needing mental health care have to endure waits of up to 18 months for treatment, putting them at risk of becoming even more ill, according to NHS bosses; suicide is at record level among students in UK universities; 94% of universities have experienced an increase in demand for counselling services in the past five years, with as many as 26% of students using or waiting to use counselling services in some universities; suicide among women in their early twenties is at its highest level in two decades; this desire cannot be overlooked or the need for holistic counselling denied.
Once they have finally managed to access the provision, it seems that a high majority of the people I meet have experienced traditional counselling negatively, either as a short-term relief, a waste of time, or a money-making exercise for those opting for private care. They repeatedly describe feeling restricted in what they could talk about, finding it too rigid, impersonal, textbook like, and generally not suited to their individual needs. It is their view, and I share it, that for the process to be successful, the counsellor has to be able and willing to adapt to the needs and strengths of his clients, not the other way round, as seems to be commonly the case. When asked in an interview published in the newspaper Sud-Ouest on Sunday 19 November 2017, Ce Dieu Psychothérapeute (This Psychotherapist God), whether his patients ever talked to him about God, the neuropsychiatrist Boris Cyrulnik courageously acknowledged:
“Of course they did. Many used to confide: “During difficult times, God helps me.” Yet there were no works done on the subject. During my training, my journey, nothing had prepared me to answer them. So, I guided them on the paths I was familiar with: family, culture, emotions.
[…] I realised that I had only memorised what I was sensitive to, when these patients were talking to me about their encounter with God. And I thought to myself: it is not normal that six or seven billion human beings relate with their God, everyday, with rituals that make our cultures, and that there is no serious psychological thinking on the matter.”
Again, it is worth emphasising that the definition and understanding of God varies from individual to individual, and that many who describe themselves as having a strong system of beliefs do not share the definition and image imposed over centuries by the main religions. These differences need to be catered for when dealing with a person’s wellbeing. Fortunately, this notion, together with the benefit of looking at each individual as a whole entity, made of a mind, body and soul, as ancient civilisations used to and many cultures still do, is starting to impregnate the Western world of mental health. Indeed, respected professionals like Dr Angela Cotter, Jungian analyst (IAAP, UKCP, GAP), are starting to raise awareness by holding conferences on a variety of topics, such as Shamanic Approaches in Modern Psychotherapy organised by Confer last year.
As this awareness develops and the field of psychology broadens its horizon, it is paramount that training adapts and evolves to encompass the expanding knowledge and understanding of the connection between mind, body and soul. Unfortunately, although a few universities are starting to offer qualifications in transpersonal psychology, courses are still in my view too specialised, and do not allow to explore the full spectrum of humanity. This is particularly true of counselling courses that remain highly traditional and focused on the main schools of thought. Although some consistency is necessary to protect vulnerable individuals against amateurish interventions, the current shortcomings actually endanger them by not allowing for adequate comprehensive training, imposing rigid criteria, and refusing to take into account alternative qualifications.
So that holistic counsellors are granted the status that they deserve as fully rounded professionals, it is also essential that proficiency tests and, consequently, registration with main associations such as the BACP, are opened to those who, like myself, refuse to limit themselves by following the conventional training paths. If not, training bodies and other associations acting as regulating ones paradoxically fail to safeguard the most vulnerable by restricting the provision of mental health services when it is one of the government’s top priorities, endangering the lives of thousands who are forced to remain on waiting lists for months. For, if I may take an example from a context I am very familiar with as an illustration, many Local Educational Authorities remain reluctant to employ counsellors who are not BACP registered, despite it not being an official requirement, leaving thousands of young people to suffer instead, or worse in too many cases, when high quality alternative professional care, that would be as well if not better suited, is readily available.
Holistic counselling may sadly be in its infancy in our so-called modern societies, but I believe that it is our future and hope that, as science proves what ancient civilisations have always known, it will be expected and required of everyone involved in the provision of wellbeing services to be much better rounded professionals, with a comprehensive knowledge and understanding of the connection between the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual for, to quote the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne:
“Rather a well-made than a well-filled head.”
Thankfully, the dawn of the Aquarian Age, together with its necessity, is bringing a strong desire for unity. For only when professionals from all fields, who share the same goal, to help people feel and live better, learn from and work with each other, can all individuals in need hope to readily access true healing and grow from the challenges they encounter to become the best version of who they truly are.