Everyone needs counselling at one time or another in his life. From the dawn of human history, people benefited from guidance and advice in one form or another in meeting with and solving problems in their lives.
In Hong Kong, most counsellors work in non-governmental organisations, or NGOs, or are in private practice. Despite the long history of development of counselling and the vast demand for counselling services, the number of professional counsellors in Hong Kong is still rather small.
This is in part due to the fact that counselling in Hong Kong has traditionally been taken up by other professionals such as clinical psychologists, educational psychologists and social workers.
Many counsellors are employed as guidance personnel in schools or as social workers in NGOs. Therefore, the number of people providing counselling is actually greater than the number of people with the word "counsellor" in their post titles.
Nature vs nurture
Historically, there is one unresolved controversy in the field of counselling or psychotherapy and that is the nature versus nurture controversy. Some say helping professionals such as counsellors, psychologists and psychotherapists cannot be trained.
They mean some are born to be more suited for the work and their potential can be developed and actualised through training. Opponents to this view, however, contend that with proper training, everyone can be a counsellor.
I think probably there is truth in both positions. This perhaps explains the stringent criteria for intake into proper counselling training programmes. Hence, the small number of counsellors trained or "produced" locally.
The demands and standards for professional counselling practices are high and they should be when you think of the profound impact that you can have on your clients' lives.
Given the high demands, there are easier jobs that are paid much more. This perhaps is another reason why we do not see many counsellors in Hong Kong.
However, the need for counselling permeates almost all aspects of our lives. It is inconceivable such an immense need can be satisfied by professional counsellors alone. This is where I think para-counsellors or lay counsellors come in.
In a healthy society - and I mean mentally healthy society - we would like to see people with problems are helped to get the problems solved, and people without problems can be helped to attain higher level of functioning.
Counselling can serve both ends but we will need more than the professional counsellors to do the job.
Para-counsellors or lay counsellors are not professionally trained counsellors. They are people who do not have formal counselling qualifications but who, by virtue of their work, would need to provide some forms of counselling to people they serve.
The most common example of a para-counsellor is the school teacher. Today, we have school counsellors, school social workers and school guidance officers. However, everybody understands other teachers often take up the counselling role when they have to advise and guide their students in matters other than the subjects that they are teaching.
A policeman can take the role of a para-counsellor when he helps young offenders to stay out of trouble or when he gives support to victims of family violence. Priests in various religions are also para-counsellors as they help people to deal with problems in their everyday life in addition to leading them spiritually.
A personnel manager in a business firm can be a para-counsellor when he helps candidates to make the right career choice. Family doctors have taken up increasingly more counselling roles in their consultations and they can be para-counsellors too.
Even hotline workers and radio phone-in programme hosts often play the role of para-counsellors.
So, if we look closer, there are para-counsellors all around us, except they may not know it themselves. They supplement the work of counsellors and significantly extend the "safety net". They play vital preventive roles. In an affluent society, we may need to promote the idea of para-counselling more.
Para-counsellors will never replace professional counsellors. Promoting para-counselling does not mean corresponding cut in the resources put in developing professional counsellors. On the contrary, promoting para-counselling is merely to supplement what professional counsellors do or to help the latter by providing them with a better working environment when their professional expertise can be focused on the quote-and-unquote "tougher" cases. There are a number of advantages in developing and promoting para-counsellors.
The first and most obvious advantage is of course availability. No matter how much resource we put in, we cannot provide counsellors for everybody. However, it would be much easier to have para-counsellors in each different sub-group in the community.
Availability would mean a lot when crisis intervention is needed because the para-counsellors are there in their respective communities all the time and they can be readily accessible in times of crisis.
The second advantage is the lack of stigmatisation. Even though the receptiveness or acceptance of many towards receiving counselling help have been much improved in the past 10 or 15 years, for many, there is still some discomfort when they have to talk to a professional counsellor.
Even though they acknowledge there is the need to see a counsellor, they will prefer not to tell their friends or families that they are seeing one. This is actually the reason why some would turn to their teachers or priests for advice or guidance instead of seeking help from professional counsellors.
These people will be greatly helped when the teachers and priests they see are trained para-counsellors instead of merely teachers and priests. At the end of the day, if the para-counsellors are doing their job, they can reassure and encourage the client to seek professional help apart from giving support when the problems are really complicated and thereby helping to reduce the stigmatisation problem.
The third advantage of using para-counsellors is their knowledge about the people they serve. This is particularly so when the para-counsellors are the peers of people needing help. You all understand the importance of speaking the same language and knowing the culture when you provide counselling. As para-counsellors are from the community itself, they do not have problems with understanding the language and the culture of the community in order for them to function well.
The fourth and last advantage is the healing effect for the para-counsellors themselves. In the follow-up evaluative study of the lay community counselor programme set up after the 2004 tsunami, the findings were very positive.
Besides finding that the victims were helped, they found the para-counsellors grew personally from the experiences of helping others. They became more confident in themselves; cope better with the problems brought by the tsunami; and healed better. The helpers help themselves, too, in the course of helping others.
Imagine many individuals are trained as para-counsellors in a community, they are expected to be able to better handle their own problems or at least they will be more resilient or will recover faster. It is not difficult to think of the community resources that can be saved to attend to the needs of those with more serious problems.
The use of para-counsellors is certainly not new or limited to the developing countries after disasters. People who have been there have been trained up to provide support for others all over the world.
Examples are ex-convicts, ex-drug addicts, victims of family or sexual violence, cancer patients and all kinds of other volunteer groups who make use of their own experience in facing a certain problem to help others facing the same predicaments.
Notwithstanding the vast potential and advantages para-counsellors may offer, we must all be wary of the need to do no harm when promoting or developing para-counselling. This includes doing harm to the para-counsellors themselves. You are all aware of the damage that can be done by someone venturing into helping others when they are not ready.
Para-counsellors are not professional counsellors and should not replace them. Naturally, they will not need the kind of intensive training professional counsellors are subjected to. Yet, they need to master good communication skills and learn to understand and accept others. They need to know their limits and when to refer cases for regular professional assistance.
They need to understand the basic counselling concepts. They need to understand the specifics of any critical incidents their potential clients have gone through so they can analyse the problem, and make recommendations or give advice. They need to be experienced and mature enough to be mentally stable and capable of handling stress.
Above all, they need to have good common sense. Last but not least, all para-counsellors should have a fair understanding and commitment to upkeep the basic ethics in counselling such as keeping confidentiality.
Brief training of some sort is a must for anyone who wants to be an effective para-counsellor. Fortunately, unlike formal professional counselling, learning opportunities for the areas are quite abundant in the community.
Professional counsellors become more and more scientific and specialised in their work. When they develop themselves, it is also important for professional counsellors to be mindful of the need to help to develop lay or para-counsellors who can do a lot to supplement their work.
One of the most cherished goals in counselling is to help people to help themselves. Instead of providing all the help, the professional counsellors can spare some of their efforts to train more helpers.
Counsellors are human beings too. It is unrealistic to expect they do not have problems. However, if they believe in what they are trained to do, they stand better chances to effectively solve the problems and attain higher levels of functioning.
Thinking along this line, it is heart-warming just to imagine a community with more counsellors than clients, or, rather with more helpers than people needing help. Will we not then achieve the goal of having a society in harmony? Imagine a community with more auxiliary police officers or para-military force than regulars and you can tell the benefits.
Secretary for Labour & Welfare Matthew Cheung gave this speech at the Inaugural Pan Pacific Rim International Counselling Conference.