Extract taken from an interview by Mike Hughes with Jennie McNamara and printed in the Teesside Evening Gazette 11 July 2016
Jennie is the past president of the European Association for Counselling and carried out untiring work for the development of the Association through a team of dedicated Nation Association representatives from a variety of European countries with the common mission of raising the professional profile of counselling throughout Europe and beyond.
That work continues today.
If you are an individual counsellor or have a counselling association or training association and would like more information on how you can help develop counselling in Europe please contact Brenda at for more details
‘If you can’t get back on your feet and are depressed and anxious then come to us’
Environment can be a key influence in our lives. How we are brought up and what surroundings we work in can affect how our attitudes and opinions develop. Jennie McNamara is the perfect example of that theory – having been brought up to care for her neighbours and now running a team of psychotherapists helping put some broken pieces of Teesside back together after body blows like the closure of SSI.
What were your early influences?
I suppose my work started in my childhood, because I was brought up to go over the road and talk to the pensioners and from an early age I would be encouraged to spend every afternoon listening to elderly people and providing them with company. They would talk to me about their lives, so I grew up with a natural ability to listen and be interested in people’s lives.
On the Sutton estate, the families lived on one side and the pensioners on the other, so that philosophy was brilliant – although we might have been one of the only families to actually do it – so when I was about nine I had six pensioners to visit!
I carried that on until I left home and then after some challenges in my own life – I was married at 16 and had two children at 18 – and some indirect involvement in people’s mental health problems I learned about the kind of suffering from people I was close to. Trying to help my family led me to a deeper understanding of the work.
That set me off reading so that I could help them and I became fascinated with psychoanalysis and psychology.
What about your early career?
I found work in social services and in a welfare role with the civil service and my aptitude to talk to and listen to people was spotted by my boss when I was working in supplementary benefits in South Bank. He decided that I had particular skills to calm situations that might happen in the waiting rooms with some desperate people on a Friday afternoon.
This was back in the early Seventies, and they encouraged me to do the more people-oriented work. I was quite sure by then that this was what I wanted to do, so I found a job with a new pilot programme working with a social services mental health project in Middlesbrough which saw people being released into the community.
I loved that job, working with people who had been on long-stay wards – some women had been there since having an illegitimate child 50 years earlier. It was wonderful, an absolute privilege to be on the crest of that wave helping people back into the community.
But things began changing after a while with that innovative project and I thought it was time for more to happen in the community, so I left and went to Durham University and got a joint honours degree in psychology and sociology and went into training as a psychotherapist.
I then started to do some private work, in the days when things weren’t so clearly defined as now – you were either neurotic or psychotic with very little help for the people who fell inbetween. It was just something you lived with in those days and you either turned to alcohol, pills or just got on with it.
What was sorely needed was therapeutic services in the community, sitting between the GP and the hospital. By this time myself and Christine Lister-Ford were running a very small practice and were being asked by teachers and social workers if we could provide training in listening skills that they could take back and use.
How did the Cleveland abuse inquiry change things?
What changed that sort of cottage industry was the 1987 Cleveland abuse claims – people were knocking on our doors for help. Overnight the service we ran changed and we got our training accredited because my eyes were opened by what they were telling us. The recognition of trauma and the need to help people who had been traumatised or hurt in their childhood was beginning to be much more recognised.
In all the years I had spent working with people in dire circumstances, I had never come across anything like this, but it helped teach me why so many of the people I had talked to before were in such distress.
How do you cope?
In the very first meeting with a client, you have to find the hope. But there are times when you hear something that gets inside your head and you have to find a way to release it, but we are trained to hold and cope with what we deal with. It isn’t just about listening, but about helping get rid of their symptoms, radically improve their lives and change as a person.
Many of the people we helped have been empowered and have gone on to be trained so they can help people themselves. There are some amazing stories and, as someone once told me, every person’s life is worth a novel – and that is the right way to approach our work. If you are not fascinated then it is time to stop.
Why come back to Teesside?
When we were based only here on Teesside, we just had too many students and just not enough room and we had found that more than 50 per cent of our students came from outside the area. Also, we had flooded the area with the number of therapists we had and there wasn’t the need, so we brought a property in Jesmond, but have now outgrown that, so are using both sites, with about 45 of us working between them.
What sort of people come to be trained?
Students pay for themselves, and the majority are joining at 30-plus to enter a second profession, including quite a few men who have been engineers and had been streamed into a ‘male’ job but had always wanted to do this.
But one thing that is happening on Teesside, since the university fees came in, is that parents are realising that young people can come here and train with us and get a validated degree and a qualification rather than just get a degree and then think ‘now what’ – unemployment for a lot of them or working in a coffee shop.
But isn’t it just kids being kids?
It has been identified that one in four children had a mental health problem and more recently that one in ten have a serious problem.
One of the major issues is that the local child and adolescent mental health services are being decimated and so the threshold is so high now that a child has to be right on the edge to get help.
We would never label a child as having a mental health problem – they just have a problem and need to express that in whatever way they can, through arts therapy or words or whatever is appropriate for that particular child without it needing to be seen as a problem for teachers.
When I was younger we were brought up in a different sort of community, but parents now are isolated, with problems I didn’t have. We could turn to neighbours or the church or people we knew well. Children now are in a hothouse environment, trapped inside because of the increase in traffic, which is a major issue.
How did you deal with the Sahaviriya Steel Industries (SSI) collapse?
There is so much stress on these families. There is a concern about the amount of work to do, because I feel sad that children and families have to be in this position in the first place and then there are the cutbacks in local services that had been looking after them. But we are proud because we can make changes and it doesn’t matter whether that is in the long term or short term.
The first thing I would say is go to the people who love you and talk to them. It might be your best friend or your mother or someone you work with, but most people have that person in their lives. Pour your heart out about everything you are feeling and you will realise as you walk away that you feel a little bit lighter.
You will have practical problems to deal with – but at some stage you need to know what is going to happen next and how you are going to make meaning of your life and feel like you did before, with a role and meaning.
Then if you can’t get back on your feet and are depressed and anxious then come to us – don’t just take booze or pills.
This is an interview conducted with Jennie McNamara and featured in the Teesside Evening Gazette 11th July 2016 by Mike Hughes