Counselling in Chichester &
West Sussex

A Counselling Inquiry at the time of Covid; Enlightenment or just another Critical Voice?

At the time of writing this note there is still much concern about the immediate impact of the coronavirus pandemic with a continuing focus on the progress of the virus.  When we gradually emerge into calmer waters there are likely to be an inevitable chorus of calls for some form of inquiry.

History tells us that this call is as foreseeable as the dawn chorus although perhaps not quite as tuneful. During the last three hundred years whenever there has been an event that has attracted much public consternation including anger or loss, the response has been to set up some form of Inquiry. Commencing with the  parliamentary inquiry into South Sea Bubble in 1720, public disruption brings forth calls for an investigation, an analysis and a critical examination of just what has occurred and why. Covid in 2020 will be no different. Indeed those calls have already begun in some quarters.

Whether the outcome is a public, statutory or parliamentary inquiry or even a Royal Commission, the establishment of some form of court of investigation has become a recurring feature of the British political scene.  But if the calls for an inquiry are constant the real purpose of the investigation can be rather more varied.

For some events there has been a clear and urgent imperative to learn lessons in order to ensure that there is not a repeat of the disaster.  The current Grenfell fire inquiry is perhaps one which it is hoped will have a swift and practical outcome which will rise above political divisions and narrow interests to prevent similar tragedies and loss of life.  The Shipman inquiry produced important recommendations which have probably enhanced public confidence in local GP services.  Even a review which proved as lengthy and contentious as the Bloody Sunday inquiry was able to provide for one group at least a sense of relief and vindication.

Yet sometimes the reason for establishing an inquiry may be seen as no more than political expediency. The announcement is an attempt to assuage public anger although the subsequent outcome can give rise to further misgivings about the overall process and conclusion. The potent accusations of whitewash levelled at both the Hutton inquiry into the death of David Kelly and the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war are recent examples. Both reports seemed to raise a multiplicity of questions with the fog of intrigue and suspicion becoming thicker rather than being dispelled.  For some those inquiries provided more of a cover up than an uncovering.

We may have our own view on these inquiries and the outcomes. Our reflections will of course be subjective and perhaps influenced by personal views about those whom the establishment called upon to conduct these inquiries. Our views on these inquiries may just reveal our own prejudices.

But ‘so what’ I hear you say.  Just why are you referring to these inquiries?  What is this really about?  Shouldn’t this article be related to the world of therapy and not the body politic? What do these references to inquiries have to do with counselling?  Where is the link?

The comments are well made. Yet I do see a very real link between therapy and many aspects of the inquiry process. In thinking about one we may gain insights into the other.

Clients come into the counselling room for a myriad of reasons.  Sometimes there will be a very precise focus for the work. There may be a need to develop some specific strategies to prevent a reoccurrence of a certain action. There is a wish to reduce anger, to minimise obsessive behaviour, or to rescue a relationship. That targeted work may favour a relatively didactic counselling approach such as CBT or Solution Focussed Therapy. The corresponding engagement with the counsellor is likely to be time limited.

There will also be other occasions when there are deeper concerns.  Something is not quite right. Perhaps there is a persistent unease about a way of being, of living life or something even more indefinable and just out of reach.  There is a lack of clarity but a persistent unsettling sense that all is not well. Things are not as they should be. There are underlying disturbing emotions which continue to sweep across the client’s emotional life causing at worst, wide spread disruption or best a disquieting malaise. These feelings impact on the enjoyment of life.  It is on those occasions when counselling work can take on more of the guise of that general open ended inquiry.

There can be great value in this longer term work for clients.  To stand back and take time to consider what has happened and why.  To muse on the role  past events play in the life of the client today and tomorrow, can be informative and liberating. Just as with some public inquiries an examination in some depth can help to develop an appreciation of just why life has taken the path that it has.

A Socratic approach to examining our lives can then begin to lighten that burden of guilt or anger we may have inadvertently carried over many years.  It can enable us to deepen our understanding of just why we behaved as we did. That self-enlightenment can assist in encouraging a move from self-punishment into a more benign form of self-reflection

Yet despite these benefits it is important for both client and therapist to be mindful of some of those criticisms that are often levied at national inquiries and which can also resonate within the therapy room.  Perhaps the most potent criticisms of both inquiries and therapy are on cost and timing.

Pubic inquiries in particular can be seen as invariably too expensive with a loss of focus. Time will drift by with a meandering discourse.  The whole thing takes far too long. These comments are well made and those criticisms can certainly be carried across to some therapeutic encounters.  Psychodynamic and psychoanalytic work can be subject to a similar reproach with regard to the time, cost and focus of the therapeutic process.

Another critical observation of those public inquiries is that the search for truth around causality can often slip into an aggressive and almost a vengeful pursuit for someone to blame. The inquiry becomes a witch hunt. Truth is distorted in the frenzied quest for a scapegoat. There is an imperative to find the guilty party who can then be loudly and publicly condemned. We may have abandoned the wooden stocks a few hundred years ago but public verbal floggings occurring on social media platforms or the news outlets from the Today programme through to national press are well practiced and painful alternatives.

That search for a scapegoat can also occur within the therapy room even if this manifests as an unintended consequence of the work. It can be comforting to be able to point a finger at a figure from the past and to take refuge in an acceptance that it (whatever it is) was the fault of someone else. That may be easier than to sit with an acknowledgement of one’s own role.  Responsibility is an uncomfortable material to hold on to. Sometimes client and counsellor may almost inadvertently collude in passing that responsibility for past events onto someone else in order to ease the anguish in the room.

But so be it. The setting up of an inquiry albeit societal or personal will always involve some element of risk. Perhaps what is important is to acknowledge those risks at the outset of the process and try to manage those challenges in a way that does not undermine the integrity or the effectiveness of the investigative process.

These comments are certainly not intended to suggest a curtailment of either national inquiries or individual therapy.  Both can facilitate important positive change whether for a society, a group or an individual.

Public inquiries can yield much benefit for wider society. Individual therapy can also provide comfort and insight for clients.  Resolution, healing and change can continue long after the inquiry is published or after client has walked out of the therapy room for the last time.  We do just need to be alert to those pitfalls which can emerge along the way. If we can at the outset be mindful of those concerns that may help us to gain the most from the forthcoming inquiry be that national or personal.