What to expect from your first counselling session (and what to wear)

Hi gang! I thought I’d take a quick break from my busy schedule of watching terrible 80’s teen coming-of-age films and eating Chelsea buns to write you a quick post. (Today’s damage: Girls Just Want To Have Fun and Can’t Buy Me Love; 2 Chelsea buns. Home made though, that must count for something!) I wanted us to have a little chat today about what happens when you decide to get help with your mental health. I keep telling you all to talk to one another and to check out your University’s student counselling service but I realise that making that first appointment and actually showing up can be quite a daunting prospect.

This is not my first go-round of the counselling circuit. I have had NHS and uni counselling, traditional talking therapy, CBT, tapping therapy (as weird as it sounds) and a variety of pills and potions, but this is my first experience of this kind of counselling in this department, so I’ll give you my first impressions of it. Yours might be different.

First things first…choosing an outfit. This is a tricky one. Obviously you don’t want to look too put together or else they might think that you’re not mad enough, but on the other hand you don’t want to go too over the top. Maybe it’s just me who has this thought process when dressing for a counselling session. This is what I ended up wearing:

2013-11-04 20.19.41Apologies for the bitchy resting face. My husband is terrible at taking photos and I had to get re-dressed with my clothes on top of my yoga stuff to take this so the jeans plus yoga leggings combo was cutting off the circulation to my legs. It’s basically jeans, a jumper and some shoes. Ground-breaking. Note the juxtaposition of my smile-shaped necklace with my sad face. Fashion, yo. It was ludicrously warm in the counselling place so I ended up stripped down to my vest top anyway. My top (and only) tip for counselling appointment chic would be to wear waterproof mascara and no eye-liner on your lower lids, otherwise it will end up all down your face. Obviously this only applies if you decide to wear make up and are a massive cry baby like me!

You are not the only person who has ever needed someone to talk to. I am totally astounded at the number of PhD students who have used their student counselling service at some point for some reason or another. It’s very likely that a number of your peers have gone through this same experience, they just haven’t told you about it (because we don’t talk about these things). You might not want to announce to all and sundry that you’re off to see the shrink, but it might be nice to have a friend who is looking out for you coming back and who will ask you how you got on.

Getting there. Well I walked from my house. Jokes. My first appointment was an assessment to see what sort of counselling might suit me best. I had to fill out one of those horrible “how depressed are you?” questionnaires. I actually find these very upsetting to fill out. I wonder if anyone has ever done an analysis of the distress caused by filling in a multi-choice form about how often you have felt useless, worthless and miserable in the past week. The assessment itself consisted of me tellling my epically long sob story and having a big cry, then the nice lady told me about the options available to me and we decided together that person-centered therapy sounded like the best fit. Then I went for lunch with my Mum (Hi Fiona!).

The waiting room. In the end, I was on the waiting list for about 6 weeks. I think this is pretty much standard. While it can be frustrating when you are the one doing the waiting, I can understand that they want to give everybody the time they need. Luckily, my Uni also runs a drop-in service where you can just phone up on the day and get a half-hour appointment. I used this a couple of times when I just really needed to talk things through with someone who wasn’t my husband or a friend. While I was actually in the waiting room waiting for my first appointment, I was amused to see a poster for the Uni eating disorder support group, which is called Starfish. Amazing. Did they think about how Starfish eat when they came up with this name? Skip on to 2 mins in this video to learn how starfish throw up their own stomach and secrete digestive enzymes to break down the skin of this seal carcass. Nature, yo.

The appointment. Having never had person centered therapy before, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. This first session seemed to focus on my existing coping mechanisms for dealing with stress. Our conversation seemed to go mostly like this:

Counselor: Question?

Me: Answer answer answer (cry) answer

Counselor: So I’m hearing that “answer answer answer”.

My brain: Of course that’s what you heard! That’s what I just said.

Me: ………………………..yes.

I think that the purpose of this was to try and get me to reflect on my own words and answers but as someone who already spends quite a lot of time inside their own head and who writes about their mental health and coping strategies, it’s possible that I already reflect on my behaviour to a greater extent than other people might. Certainly I felt better for having talked to someone. This was just the first session of six so I would imagine that we might start to consider other possible strategies as we get further through the course.

The aftermath. I had lovely coffee with a PhD friend (who it turns out had also used the student counselling service!) and then went to yoga.

2013-05-29 13.54.59

So there you go, blog fans, not so scary after all. The counselors who work in these sorts of places are well trained, kind and lovely people who will not judge you. Chances are they will have seen the sorts of problems you are having before and will be well used to dealing with them. So go ahead. If you feel like you need to talk to someone, make that appointment. Go on, do it now! That’s all for this week, PhD pals. I’m off to Aberdeen for the weekend!

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One response to “What to expect from your first counselling session (and what to wear)

  1. I particularly liked this bit as I literally just had this experience this morning:

    ‘Counselor: So I’m hearing that “answer answer answer”.

    My brain: Of course that’s what you heard! That’s what I just said.’

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