By Alex Balimwikungu
During times of emotional turmoil, we desperately turn to counsellors to put our lives back on track. However, have you ever stopped to think for a minute that that person listening to your every whim and trying to provide plausible life changing solutions could be worse off and in dire need of help than you?
The psychological counsellors are an ever-increasing group in Uganda. In executing their demanding job of counselling people, especially in these times of HIV/AIDS, many end up not caring about that person that matters most â€” themselves.
As a result, they carry insurmountable levels of stress. It wears them down and affects them emotionally, spiritually and mentally with reaching the brink of running mad.
According to Dr. Violet Tamu Nthiga, an accredited counselling supervisor from Kenya, over 70% of professional counsellors in Uganda carry emotional and physical stress and risk suffering from depression.
She says under chronic stress, these counsellors often suffer a burnout, which comes with feelings of exhaustion, detachment and dehumanisation while dealing with clients, in addition to feelings of depression and inadequacy.
Symptoms of a burnout
Nthiga warns that a burnout is a progressive process and affects any counsellor over a course of time. Once a person is deep into a burnout, it is very hard to recover. These symptoms manifest in physical, emotional, mental and spiritual ways.
â€œA counsellor suffering a burnout often is irritable, suffers anxiety and mood swings and lacks empathy towards clients. There is also a tendency to have a change in appetite, increase intake of drugs or alcohol and incessantly grind their teeth,â€ she says.
â€œCounsellors feel exhausted and empty, are isolated and unforgiving, and have a general lack of intimacy, triggered by a low sex drive. Even well-meaning counsellors who allow their own wellness to fall prey to the demands of the job have a limited shelf life,â€ she cautions.
Stress and frustration abound
For the donkey years Phillip has helped different people learn about themselves, their environment and ways to handle their roles and relationships, he was not aware of the compassion fatigue that slowly crept in his life, slowly but steadily destroying it.
An expert at handling relationship issues, he was the unsung infidelity and adultery counsellor among his predominantly female clients. They found him intelligent and opened up to him. He was the perfect shoulder to cry on.
â€œIn my efforts to be compassionate with the individuals suffering from the initial trauma, I never knew I would end up being messed up. I care immensely about these people, but there are moments of frustration that I canâ€™t fight through,â€ he reveals.
A happily married man brought up in a strict religious environment, the trained counsellor commits adultery on a regular basis (some of the women are his own clients) and cannot stop. His marriage is on the rocks; he seems reluctant to salvage it.
What is worse, he confesses to getting no thrill from secrets because he is devoid of emotion. He is sadly considering quitting the profession.
Justine Abenaitwe, an adherence counsellor at Joint Clinical Research Centre Kabwohe, admits to suffering anxiety and depression especially when dealing with HIV cases.
She has encountered clients who have told her off, and threatened violence claiming health workers are the ones spreading HIV using the â€˜pricksâ€™, but her biggest challenge has been dealing with the discordant couples.
â€œWhen I wake up to a series of HIV-positive results at the start of the day, I often feel tired and worked up. But nothing is as stressful as dealing with a discordant couple. It is a challenge to a counsellor... You need more time with the couple to have them understand the result. Many threaten violence even on us the counsellors,â€ she confesses.
Joseph Musalo, a relationship counsellor at Uganda Christian University Mukono, says they are human beings like anyone and are liable to suffer breakdowns as a result of carrying clientsâ€™ problems.
â€œWe often meet clients with issues that mirror our own lives and trigger certain reactions within us. If you took on a client who is a victim of child abuse or rape and yet you are one too, any attempts to counsel them could hurt you more; you end up sympathising rather than empathising. It is better to refer such a client to another counsellor,â€ he says.
Clemence Byomuhangi, a professional counsellorsâ€™ counsellor, admits that the nature of their job creates emotional distress and sometimes physical illness.
This is made worse by the fact that most psychological counsellors from Ugandaâ€™s higher institutions of learning graduate young (often below the internationally accepted age of 25); they are susceptible to carrying clientsâ€™ own traumatic experiences with them.
â€œSome are irritable, suffer broken relationships and marriages and in some cases, others have resorted to alcoholism to thwart some frustrations.â€ She says.
She reveals that counsellors with problems at home are prone to high stress levels. â€œWhatever the age of the counsellor, it is advisable for them to do things that renew them in other areas of their lives. Meditation, exercise, vacation and dedicating time to oneâ€™s own family are good for a start,â€ she says.
Byomuhangi adds: â€œWe expect the counsellors to benefit from practising what they preach and seek counselling themselves.
Many are hesitant about seeing fellow counsellors, but having someone else hear your story can help you gain new perspectives. It improves your interpersonal skills and insulates clients from the influence your own unresolved issues,â€ Byomuhangi concludes.
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