Comfort of strangers

Seek solace from peer counselling instead of pricey shrinks

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The psychic prep is over – you’ve finally decided something is going to change. Now what? Making shifts in your thought process, habits and priorities can be a tall order if you do it on your lonesome. But don’t assume you need an expensive therapist or coach to see you through. Many have found success through the thriving personal change culture built on self-help.

This peer counselling comes in two forms: one-on-one mutual support and that done in groups. In the first case, you need a little training before you try it. Whether it’s depression, a relationship breakup, family problems, coping with illness, getting in shape or forming better friendships, you can find your mutual therapist by contacting Co-counselling International at 905-853-2743.

The org offers an initial course ($480 or sliding scale) teaching you how to give and receive psychological support one-to-one. Then you’re free to make arrangements to counsel with anyone else worldwide who’s also received the training. It might seem pricey, but compared to paying for therapists or personal coaches (or waiting on a list for OHIP-financed therapy), it might turn out to be the better option. After you’ve paid for the initial course, no money is exchanged. Instead, participants take turns in the “client” and “counsellor” roles and can participate for as long as they wish.

Or check out the literally thousands of support groups for everyone from alcoholics or grandparents raising grandchildren to new immigrants or rare disease patients. A good place to start is the Self-Help Resource Centre of Greater Toronto (www.selfhelp. You can talk to the staff or consult their online database to begin compiling a list of groups to check out. You’ll also find documents at the site about how to know if a group is right for you. Referrals and data are free.

Research confirms that people helping people works, even when there are no professionals in the room. It’s just a matter of finding the situation that’s right for you.

What you’re looking for in any self-help situation is the knowledge that confidentiality will be respected, and clear communication from the people already involved as to the boundaries guiding discussion and interaction. In a group situation, also look for shared rather than exclusive leadership.

What the experts say

“In North America, about 30 million people have been to a self-help group. The groups for rare diseases often have more information than the average really smart primary care doctor. There is a huge [body of] literature supporting peer-to-peer counselling. In one famous study of depressed students, half were sent to professionals, half to ‘nice’ professors. The professors’ outcomes were as good as those of trained professionals. If someone is well adjusted and interested in helping people, and you give them basic training in active listening, empathizing and dealing with strong emotions, they can do a world of good.”

KEITH HUMPHREYS , associate professor of psychiatry, Stanford University school of medicine, Stanford, California, author, Circles Of Recovery

“Everybody in co-counselling has taken a course. In a session, the ‘client’ tells the ‘counsellor’ what he or she wants from them, and the ‘counselor’ does that and nothing more. Then they exchange roles. Co-counselling is appropriate for everybody, because the people involved decide what they need. The course is 40 hours and gives lots of practice. If someone isn’t capable of maintaining the contracts involved in a session, they would be selected out. If anyone breaks confidentiality, that person’s name is sent to all contact people. He or she is no longer acceptable as a co-counsellor.”

WAFIK RAOUF , psychotherapist, Newmarket

“Self-help is emotional or practical support amongst people sharing a similar experience. Some groups do advocacy as well. Groups can’t deal with someone in crisis. They’re volunteer-based. Someone in crisis needs more intensive support than a weekly or monthly check-in. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that self-help groups have generated insights about group dynamics and strategy that have been adopted by the professional sector. A really supportive self-help group is such a powerful space.”

GILLIAN KRANIAS , coordinator, Ontario self-help network program at the Self-Help Resource Centre, Toronto

“Self-help groups are extremely important to people’s wellness. Clients tell me, ‘It felt good because it wasn’t people telling me what to do but was people listening to what I was going through.’ They also tell me, ‘I don’t feel so alone any more.’ But some find the groups overwhelming, because a room full of people dealing with the issue confronting them is too emotional. They hear the downsides, not only the success stories. Groups can foster independence, but some people become dependent on them.”

CHRISTINA MORINO , program leader for education and training, Canadian Mental Health Association, Durham Resource Centre for Wellness and Learning, Oshawa

“What people get out of our group is mostly education and knowledge. When a male is diagnosed with prostate cancer, the doctors don’t tell him what to do. It’s up to the patient to investigate the procedures available and figure out which of the side effects he’ll be able to live with. We help people by telling them of our experiences. We have two types of meetings. One is a peer support group meeting where we talk with newly diagnosed people. The other is called an awareness meeting: we bring in professionals (urologists, oncologists, dietitians etc). That gives people a chance to get more deeply informed.”

MORRIS (MOE) WAGMAN , past chair, Man to Man Prostate Cancer Support Group, Inc., Toronto

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