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Counselling's value often misconstrued

Last updated 05:00 22/01/2014
Amy Pollok
ENRICHING WORK: Dr Margaret Agee says working in the field of counselling is a privilege.

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Dr Margaret Agee has seen a lot of changes in the mental health profession in her long career. She tells reporter Karina Abadia about the impact counselling can have on both the patient and the practitioner.

Going to see a guidance counsellor when she was a university student was a revelation for Dr Margaret Agee. It not only helped her deal with stress and confidence issues, it also led to a rewarding career.

"It developed in me a kind of almost missionary zeal. If I'd had counselling in high school then I may not have struggled with the difficulties that I had with low self-esteem."

She completed a bachelor of arts at the University of Auckland and went on to study a masters in English before signing up for teacher's college.

In those days you needed to train as a teacher and work for about five years before you could move into guidance counselling.

Once qualified, she taught English and social education at Auckland Girls Grammar before being appointed to the junior counsellor's position and then head of the guidance department at Aorere College in South Auckland. Meanwhile she studied a postgraduate diploma in counselling part-time.

In 1990 she joined the University of Auckland as a lecturer and has been the programme leader of counsellor education at the Tamaki campus since 2006.

Being made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit this month for services to mental health education is the icing on the cake, she says.

"I see it as recognition of our profession. The incredible importance and value in people's lives of counselling often goes unacknowledged or is misconstrued."

Common myths include the idea that counselling creates dependency and that it breaks up families, the Parnell resident says.

Her working week is roughly made up of 40 per cent research and 60 per cent teaching and administration. One of the areas she lectures in is professional supervision. This is when a practitioner is mentored by a more experienced colleague.

It's designed to be a safe space where the counsellor can reflect on their work. It's required of all students and is common practice in the profession, the 64-year-old says.

"It's very important that we have appropriate boundaries with our clients but we cannot help but be deeply affected by the work we do.

"The stories we hear and encounters we have with people can leave us very moved or distressed. That's why supervision is so important," she says.

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Dr Agee is also a member of various mental health committees, is co-editor of the New Zealand Journal of Counselling and has co-edited three books.

She has done a lot of research into loss and grief, suicide and managing client safety. Attitudes to mental health have improved over the past 30 years but the pressure to ‘harden up' still persists, she says.

Instead of focusing too much on the high rate of suicide in New Zealand we should learn from people who are survivors.

"We need to listen to people who have been suicidal and have grown through that.

"We need to be open to a range of perspectives."

- East And Bays Courier

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