Interview With Mary Lavelle

Image of Mary Lavelle

The following is an interview conducted with Mary Lavelle, Senior Counselling Psychologist at the Insight Counselling Centre from  the time it opened in 2002, until 2014.

What made you want to be a counsellor?

I became involved with Fighting Blindness 30-odd years ago. We were a very small group initially, and we were a group of patients. The organisation was called RP Ireland Fighting Blindness at that time, and as ophthalmologists became more informed about retinitis pigmentosa (RP), it was diagnosed a bit more often, and so more and more members were getting involved and looking for information and support. I found myself speaking to a lot of people who had received new diagnosis. It was something I felt comfortable and uncomfortable with: I felt comfortable talking to the people, but I felt uncomfortable because I didn’t have any training and wasn’t really quite sure that I was doing the right thing.

At the same time, technology had moved on and computers were becoming the way to move ahead, so I decided I would try and get myself some training. I did a basic course in counselling skills and that whetted my appetite. My curiosity kicked in and I just wanted to do more. I applied to do a psychology degree in Trinity; there was nobody more surprised than I was when I got a place, and I just loved it. I used to record all my lectures and my wonderful friend Ann and my sister Catherine used to type them out. It was just incredible. When I got my degree, they should probably have shared it with all the work they put in! Then I did a Masters in counselling psychology and, some years later, postgraduate training in supervision.

In the meantime, Michael Griffith and the team in Fighting Blindness had been trying to get funding for the Insight Counselling Centre. Founding members like Ann Byrne and Myles Keogh were doing peer counselling in Fighting Blindness, but we were trying to put it on a professional level, and eventually funding came through from the HSE. I was working elsewhere at the time and was offered the position in 2002. I’ve been here ever since and loving it. I’m very privileged really to have the opportunity to work with all the people that I’ve worked with over the years.

How would you describe counselling and explain what it involves?

On a personal level, counselling is a space to explore whatever concerns or worries that someone might have, where they can talk freely without any danger that they might hurt or say something that would upset the other person.

The counsellor can help someone to gain a different perspective or look at things in a different way, in a way that may help them to feel better, feel more in control, feel that they can cope better or that they have gained some kind of skills to help them live their life in a way that they want to live it. The therapist can’t give someone the ability to live a life better but can help give people the skills; whether they choose to use them or not is up to them.

How does someone know if they need counselling?

The general wisdom would be that we could all benefit from counselling, so it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be mentally unwell to come for counselling. Most of us could benefit from counselling, from having a safe space to talk.

How would you describe the type of therapy offered at the Insight Counselling Centre?

I work as a humanistic therapist; humanistic therapy is the discipline. It is what we call an integrative approach, in that it integrates a few different disciplines. I am a person-centred, non-directive therapist; I don’t direct people specifically to go and do something. It centres on a belief that the individual knows best for themselves what they need to do. My role involves giving a different perspective, encouraging the person to look at things in a different way, allowing people to come to their own insight into how they might best deal with whatever their situation happens to be.

I don’t know what’s best for somebody. I might have ideas about what I think would be best, but that’s just what I think, it’s not what the individual needs or wants. The individual needs to be able to come to that insight themselves, because then that is putting the onus back onto the individual to take responsibility. It’s about empowering the person to come to their own decisions.

How do you separate yourself from the counselling process?

That is part of the training. You are trained to set aside your own opinions and just be very present to the person. This comes back to the point that what I might think might be the right thing for you might not be the case. You know what’s best for you; ultimately, it’s exploring and talking things through that helps you come to that insight for yourself.

Can you describe the different types of counselling sessions that are offered at the Insight Counselling Centre?

We offer individual, couple and family counselling, as well as monthly support groups and weekly technical support groups.

Family Counselling Sessions:

Family sessions can vary, depending on whether the family are all adults, whether they are children and parents, or whether they are a child and an adult. The concept for it all is still very similar. If you have three or four people in a room, the main thing is to be very respectful of each person’s position and not take sides. This is the most important thing of all, not to take sides and to balance it as much as possible for each person, so that when the family group are leaving, they all feel that they have had the chance to say what they wanted to say. That is the responsibility of the therapist: to ensure that each person had a fair say and that each person felt heard and listened to.

Couples Counselling Sessions:

The same rule applies for couples counselling: It is important that each partner in the relationship feels like they have equal say, and that the session is equally balanced. Sometimes if I am seeing one person in a partnership, there might come a time where I suggest bringing their partner in for a session. This is very different form couples therapy. What would happen in this situation is that the individual is still the client, and the partner is coming in for a specific purpose. It might be some particular issue, but it would still be very clear that the individual is the client. If it became evident that ongoing partnership counselling was needed, then the couple would be referred to another therapist, because I would have built up a relationship with one partner on a oneto-one basis and the other partner may feel unbalanced. It would be very hard to get a clear view of what is going on in the relationship.

Support Groups:

The support groups are different, insofar as the counsellor acts as a facilitator in the support session. The individuals in the group will actually support each other, while the therapist facilitates the group and makes sure nobody is dominating the session, taking control or dictating to somebody else. The session is about peer support: people offering their own experience to someone else, as opposed to telling somebody else what to do. It’s about saying, “I did this and I found this very helpful”, as opposed to saying, “You should do this.” The facilitator’s role is to ensure that that happens, and that somebody is not dictating or instructing.

Another function of the support groups is that they help people to socially interact. Some people find that difficult, so it encourages people to speak up, speak out, be able to interact comfortably with their peers, to be able to take time when they need time.

The general rule of thumb is for each group to involve eight to 10 people. Anything more than that, and two facilitators would be needed as opposed to one. I don’t have a theme for each session or start with a question or anything like that, I leave it open. It works best that way; people can talk about whatever they want. If there is a lull, I will throw in a question, and that will start something rolling again, but generally I’ve found that it’s not a problem. Most people are interested in what somebody else has to say. People usually have things that they want to talk about or want to share with other people.

Exchange Club:

The Exchange Club is a group that meets every Monday morning to discuss different technologies and how to get the best out of them. Computers and technology change very quickly, and the group meet to help each other and share their experiences using equipment such as mobile phones with Talks, iPhones with voiceover and interface with laptops, etc. Accessible technology is incredibly useful and makes things like communication so much easier. The club is also another social support for people.

Do you find that a lot of people come following a diagnosis, as a first step?

Yes, quite a number of people would come in then. Parents of children who have been diagnosed would ring to find out what the setup is, but they wouldn’t necessarily come in. Generally, the people who come in are adults but not necessarily just following a diagnosis. It depends when they have received the diagnosis, as in at what age or stage of their lives. They might know about their condition from the time they are in their early teens, but because of the nature of some conditions, such as RP for example, it doesn’t impact really until maybe late 20s or early 30s. That’s when it becomes more noticeable, but also it just happens to be at a time in life when most adults are in relationships or looking at careers, and their sight loss has more of an impact at that point.

How many clients do you see or can you see per day/week?

We try to work to the HSE National Counselling Service Handbook rule, which is 16 clients a week in a five-day week. These are typically hour-long sessions, but sometimes they do go over. For example, if someone travels a long distance, I might do a longer session because I might not see them again for a while.

It’s not all client work and set counselling appointments. I’m in the Eye and Ear Hospital on Wednesday mornings, I have the support group on Wednesday night in Dublin or Cork, and the Exchange Club every Monday. There’s a lot of other work involved, too, such as talking to people on the phone. Sometimes people can ring and be quite distressed, and I would spend a lot of time talking to them.

How long do people usually attend counselling for?

We don’t put a limit on how many sessions people have; the person makes the decision if or when they want to stop. Generally, people who call looking for knowledge, information, understanding about their sight problem or about the services that are available might only come for two or three sessions, and they get what they want from that.

Other people may attend for a much longer period of time because what they bring in would be life issues that have been impacted because of a sight condition. They may not attend on a continuous basis; they may take breaks because of other things going on in their lives.

At the end of the day, people who are visually impaired have all the same issues as people who are fully sighted. These can be relationship issues, work and career issues, anxiety problems, or any other issues that people have, and sometimes, because they have a visual impairment, it can be complicated or exacerbated. For instance, somebody who has a sight issue might feel less than their fully sighted partner, and they might have issues around that, or they might have issues at work. These might have nothing to do with their visual impairment; it might have something to do with their anxiety issues, it could be totally unrelated.

The focus in the centre with regard to counselling is not totally concentrated on sight loss issues. We deal with the whole person and anything affecting the person; the sight issue is only a part of that. It’s about what’s going on in a person’s life, full stop, as opposed to what’s going on with their sight loss. That is one of the mainstays of my philosophy around sight loss: that it is only part of who we are, how we manage that is up to us.

How can people get involved with the counselling centre and make an appointment?

If someone is over 18 they need to phone and make the appointment themselves. We would quite often have family members or a friend calling on behalf of their loved one who they feel is very anxious or depressed and really needs counselling. The first question we have to ask is how old is the individual. If they are over 18, then the answer is; certainly they can come in, but they need to call and make the appointment themselves. That happens quite a lot. The same rule applies with a couple: If one of the partners says we’re going through a tough time or something and we’d like some counselling, we ask if the other partner is willing to come in. If the answer is yes, then I would accept that and the two of them can come in, but obviously in that case they come in willingly.

What advice would you have for anyone who might be worried or nervous about counselling and not sure if it is right for them?

It’s very common for people to be nervous. I would just talk to them, take the fear out of it. It’s just an opportunity to come in, meet with me and take it from there. So much does take place in that first meeting or that first telephone call, so it can be quite daunting. We all know this: anytime you have to ring somewhere and get some advice, that first impression from whoever answers the phone sets you up for how the rest of that conversation goes. It’s important that the person is made feel at ease, made to feel more comfortable.

The Insight Counselling Centre is located at 4 South Great George’s Street. Dublin 2. For more information please contact Insight at 01 674 6496 or insight@fightingblindness.ie.