Bev Foden can’t walk down a corridor at school without being stopped for a chat every 10 seconds and she wouldn’t have it any other way. As a trainee counsellor at St Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Hebburn, she sees around five young people a week to support their mental health and wellbeing, but having worked at the secondary school since 2009, she has built up strong, positive relationships with hundreds of pupils and staff alike.
She started as subject support at the school, which is part of Bishop Chadwick Catholic Education Trust, but was soon given a role in the classroom and, once she started working with young people, a spark was ignited. “I used to work as subject support in the art department and the opportunity to support pupils came up,” she says. “I think truthfully once I was working with the pupils, something changed for me. I’ve never been one to have lots of confidence in myself but being with the pupils, I thought that’s why I’m here. It started with one-to-one sessions with pupils and we soon discovered, there was a real need for it. Then I was offered the chance to train as a counsellor, and it’s been a journey for my growth too. It’s made me realise how important it is and how important my role is and that what I do makes a real difference to other people’s lives. I’m very lucky that I get to spend one-to-one time with pupils and give them the safe space to be who they truly are.”
Her first year was spent studying around her full-time job to gain Levels 2 and 3 in Introduction to Counselling and she has now almost completed her Level 5 qualification to become a fully trained counsellor, having completed a placement at St Wilfrid’s RC College in South Shields, which is also part of BCCET, as well as at St Joseph’s.
Bev supports students from Year 7 to Year 13 (Sixth Form) for a variety of reasons: anxiety, low confidence, low self-esteem, low body image, exam pressures, bereavement, anger issues. Like she says, no student is the same and no day is the same. She uses several strategies in her counselling sessions, but mainly CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) “changing those negative thoughts into positive” and using a humanistic approach. On average, pupils have eight to 10 sessions, depending on their needs. It’s not only the counselling sessions that are important, she adds, but the daily check-ins with numerous students.
“The most important thing to do is listen, listen, listen,” she adds. “And build relationships – that is mega. Relationships are the foundations. Having those relationships is key, and just be real and on their level. Having unconditional positive regard (UPR) is essential; this is a space where you will not be judged. I also try and encourage them to have autonomy, thinking about how they could problem solve and make their own decisions. We also look at who else is there for us to talk to when we need to. We never had anything like this when I was at school and I never had anyone to talk to. Now I’m that person in school and I can’t put into words how much it means to me to be able to give back and change people’s lives.”
Bev spends her days looking after others’ mental health, but how does she look after her own? “Supervision [from her mentor, BCCET’s mental health coordinator Louise Swailes] is so important,” she says. “In counselling, we talk about the feeling of ‘being held’ and that’s how supervision makes me feel. It is my safe space. I meet with Louise every fortnight and I know that she is there to support me and listen to me and give me the feeling clients have. I can talk through things, what is working, what I need advice on. She is very approachable. Sometimes I’ll feel stuck on what to try next and then I’ll verbalise it to Louise and then as soon as I’ve said it, I’ve got it. I have seen that lightbulb moment in clients’ faces. It reminds me of the poem ‘Footprints in the Sand’ – even though she’s not always with me, I feel like she is. Training has made me more self-aware and that self-awareness is crucial to supporting your own mental health. I think ‘What do I need now? How am I feeling?’ It’s having those conversations at home about your day and how you’re feeling and having family time. Going outdoors for walks, listening to music, watching Netflix, whatever it is you need at that time.”
Louise Swailes, mental health coordinator at Bishop Chadwick Catholic Education Trust (BCCET), says: “BCCET runs a trainee counsellor programme every year whereby trainee counsellors come in and work with our students in our secondary schools and some of our primaries. Having that in place supports the Trust’s comprehensive, tiered approach to supporting children and young people’s mental health. Early intervention is crucial – *50% of mental health problems are established by the age of 14. Tackling any issues as early as possible is key to ensuring the long-term good mental health of our pupils. We are also proactive in teaching our students and staff how to look after their mental health on a daily basis, improving resilience and encouraging self-care. We believe in creating a culture where everyone feels seen, heard and valued.”
For more information about BCCET, please visit www.bccet.org.uk.
*Statistic stating that 50% of mental health problems are established by age 14 [Kessler RC, Berglund P, Demler O, Jin R, Merikangas KR, Walters EE. (2005). Lifetime Prevalence and Age-of-Onset Distributions of DSM-IV Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62 (6) pp. 593-602. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.62.6.593.]