The University of East Anglia (UEA) has decided to axe its renowned counselling courses, including the flagship intensive Post-Graduate Diploma in Person-Centred Therapy, from which I graduated in the late 90s.
It is twenty years since I applied for a place on this course, two decades since I first held the role of ‘counsellor’ in a conversation, and I’ve worked in and written about counselling and psychotherapy ever since, with many formative experiences along the way. Yet UEA, the course, the staff and students, the Centre for Counselling Studies and the University Counselling Service are all tattooed onto my psyche as a practitioner.
The psycho-geography hums with resonance – the flattening lands around the A11 up to Norwich, the walk into campus from the Unthank Road, the iconic ziggurat buildings, high up from which the counselling rooms once gazed. I sat with my first clients in those stacked glass and concrete boxes, held and encouraged and distracted and moved by the big-skied view across the lake and the acres of shifting weather, which would nonetheless dissolve into irrelevance most sessions.
I attended personal development groups in these rooms too, grappling with the entwined attitudes of acceptance, empathy and authenticity. Seeing the value of the form, I once plumped for a private weekend encounter group in the same space – hours with a bunch of strangers from beyond the course, the first day running open-endedly into the evening as the room’s squared windows blackened to an array of mirrors. Given the intensive, full-time nature of the training programme either side of that weekend, I realise now I must have spent 12 days straight completely immersed in varying forms of experiential work, plus supervision, counselling practice and skills and theory sessions, with only two days break at each end (when assignments would’ve been emerging from my primitive word processor).
Later, after the diploma ended, I would return to co-facilitate a similar group experience and occasionally visited Norwich semi-socially, but always via my connection with the training and the therapy community around it. Although I no longer have contact with most of my fellow students, I gained one deep and ongoing friendship and still speak here and there with people connected to UEA.
But so what? Perhaps my disquiet at UEA’s decision to scrap the courses might be construed as nostalgic. Things change, don’t they? Tattoos bleed into the surrounding skin, lose their vibrancy, and whatever meaning they hold for the subject – and sometimes it is a sense of a long since departed self – they are at best curious adornments to everyone else.
Perhaps. But I think the loss at UEA has a significance beyond my own idiosyncratic history.
‘Say the right things, when electioneering…’
In the same year that I applied to UEA, Tony Blair’s New Labour swept to power on the back of a desire for change. It was 1997 and pop culture fizzed with champagne bubbles and cocaine-dashed nostrils. A rampant patriotism – initially art-school-ironic and then stadium-flag-literal – was busy ignoring or shouting down the prophetic gloom of Radiohead’s latest album, OK Computer, released that same year. In spite – or perhaps because – of its incongruence with the times, the album was nonetheless lauded critically and was wildly successful commercially – it’s anguished cry from Britpop’s shadow cutting through the din of the party.
I heard OK Computer to death in my job at what we optimistically still called a record shop (actually a video and CD chain store) but just recently, in advance of the album being re-issued next month, I’ve been giving it another spin, which is where – unexpectedly – our nostalgia thesis begins to unravel. Because there is little rose-tinted comfort in revisiting these songs. As they hit their twentieth anniversary, we – the citizens of 2017 – find ourselves not in Blur’s chirpy Parklife or in a big-hearted mass sing-along at an Oasis concert, but in the very atomised, alienated, divided and tech-engulfed times that Radiohead’s stunning, if overplayed, work of art-rock predicted, and about which it voiced a bleak but very human form of protest.
‘One day, I am gonna grow wings…’
The Person-Centred Approach (PCA) was – and arguably still is – another protest against the state of things, albeit one rooted in a model of potentiality and growth, rather than alienated despair. It emerged in the US as a critique of – and embodied alternative to – the psychoanalytic and behaviourist strangleholds on individual subjectivity, and spoke of a ‘quiet revolution’. It certainly challenged the power of the highly medicalised psychiatric and psychotherapeutic establishments, both theoretically and in practice.
As counselling gradually grew in legitimacy here in the UK, establishing its own organisations, literature and courses, the development of UEA’s person-centred training in the early 90s had a similar sense of creative protest. While the PCA had become a mainstream approach in the British therapy field – with one of its core texts (co-authored by the UEA course director) on the way to being one of the best-selling counselling books of all time in the UK – it still stood in counter-cultural contrast to some of the evolving norms of the emerging profession, which in any case remained relatively – by today’s standards – on the margins of our culture.
It was (and still is) rare for the PCA to be taught in a university setting, yet the UEA programme offered post-graduate training that remained defiantly values congruent: it had a deeply experiential approach; it was highly focused on the personal development of the practitioner; the spiritual and political dimensions of therapy were core themes; and completion of the course was through self- and peer-assessment. And this congruence between theory, principle and practice was also expressed socially through its embeddedness within the campus and city communities: trainees had placements within the university student counselling service and were encouraged to take up linked placements within the city. In my time there, students offered counselling in a diverse range of settings, from an insurance company, to voluntary sector services, to my own placement working with inmates at Norwich prison.
Following the 2003 retirement of the founding director, a prominent figure in the professions, the Centre for Counselling Studies maintained a high profile internationally within both the PCA and the counselling field generally. It staged a number of conferences and developed a successful Masters and PhD programme and towards the end of the noughties was undertaking qualitative and quantitative research into ‘outcomes’ at the University Counselling Service.
But sources at UEA suggest that this research was effectively ‘buried’. Then, around 2011-12, the university withdrew the team’s ‘Centre’ status and some of the associated funding, reducing it to little more than a teaching operation for the courses. The ‘Centre’ title, I’m told, was reinstated around 2014 as a branding exercise for the trainings but the staff budget allowed for no research or enterprise remit to expand its international profile. Then, in a typically Kafka-esque turn, the diminished Centre’s lack of research and enterprise was taken by the university as a sign of its ‘failings’, which brings us to the recent decision to axe it completely.
Many people, not least the students themselves and the local MP, have rightly challenged the wisdom of this decision on the grounds that it is unfair to existing trainees who were hoping to progress onto the higher level courses and – crucially – that it will drastically cut the availability of the real, in-depth counselling provided by diploma students, both in the wider Norwich community and at the university itself, where short-term CBT-based mental health support and group work is little compensation, as this moving post from a person who used the service makes crystal clear.
‘It’s just business…’
This is exactly what’s been happening in other sectors, of course, particularly the NHS, where instrumental, short-term models (therapy-lite, if you will) have become dominant. These are ideally adapted to the current, highly medicalised regime around mental health, with its diagnose-treat-cure approach to human distress. In its atomised conception of people and quick-fix mentality, this is in turn ideally suited to our current political and socio-economic conditions – often referred to as ‘neo-liberalism’ – in which therapy’s role is perceived by the State and its agencies to be simply to return ‘ill’ workers (or students) to their jobs (or studies) after a short course of ‘evidence-based treatment’.
In all levels of education, one impact of this neo-liberal order has been to prioritise the needs of business over both critical thinking and holistic personal development. In higher education (HE) especially, organisations are run as businesses themselves, with students considered consumers and staff expected to be compliant employees. The institution’s branding must not be tarnished because it needs to compete with rivals in the marketplace and generate as much income as possible. This can create a climate of fear, particularly when the organisational agenda begins to turn against a specific department or area, as appears to have happened at UEA.
These aren’t the kind of conditions in which in-depth counselling trainings are likely to thrive. While the courses might be in demand and over-subscribed, they can also be costlier than some other programmes, due to the intensive, experiential element, which requires plenty of contact time between staff and students. In discussing the events at UEA with colleagues, I learned that a number of other long-established counselling courses in HE have closed or been threatened with closure in recent years.
How does this fit with our culture’s contemporary interest in addressing ‘mental health’? Well, in one sense, it’s obviously completely at odds with it; but it also highlights how not all ways of responding to psychological distress are valued within the cultural and economic conditions I sketch above. While we are talking about mental health more than ever – which part of me welcomes because a decrease in shame, embarrassment or toxic silence is a good thing – unfortunately most of the talk is funnelled through a very narrow channel of acceptability: our distress must be seen as ‘just like any other illness’ and therefore the treatments must be medicalised and efficient. This is therapy as a drug-like healthcare intervention (with the reductionist ‘evidence’ to match) rather than it being a relational, exploratory dialogue – a meaning-making human encounter.
So courses such as UEA’s person-centred training are not only a bit expensive to run, in a highly competitive and monetised system, but also they represent a direct challenge to the prevailing ideology in education, mental health and the culture at large. I’m sure many of us would hope that this kind of critical, creative and counter-cultural thinking and practice would be encouraged by our universities – even when it’s not much of an earner – but clearly this is no longer the case.
‘Fitter, happier, more productive…’
Tellingly, UEA is maintaining its training programmes in a highly manualised form of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which feed directly into the NHS Improving Access to the Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme. The training resides in the Clinical Psychology department of the university’s Medical School. If you look at the web page, there’s a link for ‘IAPT and Other Modalities’ (meaning non-CBT approaches), which leads to an otherwise blank page saying, Coming soon. Let’s not hold our breath on that one.
IAPT has come in for heavy criticism on many fronts: using an overly manualised and bureaucratised (i.e. de-humanised) healthcare approach; discriminating against other therapies (and the clients who want them) due to a narrow and inappropriately medicalised understanding of evidence; massaging data to claim greater success; having absurdly long waiting lists and a dysfunctional triage system; not taking care of its staff, who burn out quickly; unethically colluding with the efforts of the Department for Work & Pensions to reduce the welfare bill; and more.
In my own work, I fairly regularly hear from people with unhelpful experiences of IAPT, not least that a person’s history – their childhood experiences particularly – are barely considered. Huge losses, abuses or other deeply significant events that clients begin to explore in counselling within the first session or two, might never even have come up with their IAPT practitioner. Yet across all therapy sectors outside of the private sphere, the pressure is to follow the NHS model, as if its legitimacy is unquestionable, as if its version of what distress means, and how we should respond to it, is reality itself.
This then delegitimises all other responses to distress, however valued they are by the people who use them. In my own sector, counselling in further and higher education, I have seen this creep occurring first-hand. The professional division for the field (BACP UC) recently followed its parent organisation’s desires by creating a ‘competency framework’ based on the same CBT-derived Roth & Pilling/UCL methodology that we see in UEA’s IAPT training. This despite the fact that relational work – humanistic, person-centred, psychodynamic, integrative – is far more widely practised in the sector. While the framework apparently welcomes all models of therapy, it is nonetheless skewed to a technocratic and instrumental healthcare approach, and has alienated a number of highly experienced practitioners in the sector who do not recognise their work in the final document.
‘We are standing on the edge…’
Where, then, do we go from here? On the brink of a general election, with a very different Labour opposition to that of 1997 but a very familiar Conservative government, which is apparently emboldened by the country’s divisions, how do we shift the language and practices around ‘mental health’ away from the thin comforts of ‘illness’ and ‘treatment’? How do we take back human distress from its enclosure by neoliberalism, healthcare and the State, and re-integrate it into our everyday lives and relationships so that we can respond with ordinary compassion, rather than professionalised diagnosis and treatment, even (or perhaps especially) when we seek out a therapist to discuss our concerns?
What still excites me about the spirit of the Person-Centred Approach, is its deeply respectful commitment to the right to self-determination; to the inherent value and potential in subjectivity; to honouring the connectedness between us as persons in a social world; to witnessing, exploring and embracing all of this with a principled and creative not-knowing, rather than dogmatic expertise. It is these precious things – despite all the mental health policies, initiatives and media campaigns – that we see being lost at UEA and beyond.
Recently, a small controversy bubbled up at UEA about the appearance of Anthony Gormley’s life-size human statues on the roofs of its concrete structures. One looks out from a building behind the ziggurats, gazing across the same land and skies as the view from the counselling rooms. It is mesmerising, unsettling, challenging. Some have complained they are reminiscent of suicide.
In a BBC interview, Gormley said,
‘These works are nothing to do with suicide, they’re actually to do with life… Universities are places where people spend a lot of time thinking about the thoughts of others… I think it’s a wonderful place to balance that intellectual life with an object that is silent. It doesn’t need to be read. It has to be felt, it has to be lived with.’
Let’s hope the statues are a defiant symbol of the persistence of these values and aspirations, rather than a memorial to their passing.
(Song lyrics from Radiohead’s OK Computer.)
Andy Rogers is a counsellor and service coordinator in a large FE and HE college and works in private practice in Basingstoke, Hampshire. He is a registered member of BACP and has written about the politics of therapy and the person-centred approach for the best part of twenty years.