I was 25 when I finally got approved for talking therapy. 8 months after Zachary passing away my Mum was the first one to be seen out of us all, I followed shortly after and my Dad was almost one year behind in obtaining help. I was lucky enough to click with my counsellor straight away and stayed with her for 18 months until early 2019 when it came to a very harsh and devastating end.

Funny enough, even after everything we had been through as a family, nothing affected me more than January 2019 when I believed I needed more support than ever, I turned around and it wasn’t there.

This particular event, led me to a path which I am on today – The Zachary Geddis Break the Silence Trust now offers the community counselling when needed. It’s free, no waiting lists, no re-referrals, no time limits – just simple ‘help when you need it’ support. Support that should have been there already, but with constant tick boxing, lack of funding and non negotiable terms and conditions it wasn’t available. Our counsellors also volunteer their hours for ZGBTST, so the passion and drive for community help is installed in their mindset and each one of the 5 counsellors offer different expertise, opinions, theories and are all at different stages of their careers which makes for a very well rounded dynamic team.

Referrals are processed through me and are received from various sources like children’s centres, mental health centres and family support teams along with our own helpline clients or those who drop in to our Coleraine based Workshop. Since August we have offered this service to the community 5 days a week and through my experience with counselling and counsellors working for me I have developed a 10 point list of things you should know before attending counselling. To hopefully help others understand the process, what counselling is and to ease their mind of any myths or uncertainties they may have.

1. Be proud of yourself

You have picked up the phone, you have discussed your needs, you have asked for help – all of these things are a massive step to begin your journey to a better mental health and wellbeing. I remember when I finally got referred to my own counsellor, myself and my partner went out to dinner to celebrate this new path I was hopefully going to improve my life and better my thoughts on. It was a liberating feeling and you should be so proud of yourself for taking that step, reaching out and not settling for feeling worthless, anxious, hopeless and drained for any longer.

2. Do not be afraid of asking questions

Attending therapy for the first time can be a daunting experience. With ZGBTST we find the initial engagement the hardest step and process out of everything. From the first consultation to actually attending a therapy session with one of our professional counsellors is where we loose most clients as the feeling of becoming overwhelmed and the uncertainty of what they are getting themselves into starts to raise its head.

This exact moment is when you need to step back and understand that those exact feelings that are taking over you are the distinct reasons why you need to engage and receive counselling. Do not be afraid to ring up the service and ask them to explain to you and outline of the process of what you are to expect during your first couple of sessions. As each client is treated individually only a simple outline will be given but you can presume the first – second session will be getting to know each other, third-fourth routine based, fifth – sixth mechanisms and strategy.

In my personal opinion I believe it takes a couple of sessions with your counsellor before you can have a feel for them and vice versa, its important to try and give them that to develop a rapport. Therefore as it takes a couple of weeks to develop a positive relationship with your counsellor, at ZGBTST we do not limit ourselves on the maximum or minimum number of sessions one individual can have as some may take longer to adjust to a opening up to a new person than others.

3. Think about what you want to achieve through therapy and how you want to feel after

Goals are important for everyone, no matter what the size of the goal may be. A goal can be as small as opening you’re curtains in the morning or making your bed however what seems small to some is a massive challenge to to others. Therefore along with expectations, goals are also extremely individual and depend on how a person feels or what way their life is shaped.

When attending counselling having an end goal on how you wish to think/feel is something yourself and your counsellor can discuss together and work towards achieving this milestone together. You may wish to feel ‘normal again’ or be able to ‘go into a coffee shop without feeling overwhelmed’ no goal is too big or too small for yourself and you counsellor to talk through to start your journey towards making it happen.

4. Block out time before & after a session

When I finally was accepted to receive professional counselling, I was back working full time. I regularly had panic attacks in the office which was embarrassing to say the least, especially when I was surrounded by people asking me if I was ok. My employer was fantastic at giving me the time to attend my sessions but it was during counselling that affected me, it was after.

Therapy can sometimes dig at your emotional side, a side that sometimes you feel as though you have to hide. Hiding is just a bomb waiting to explode but often after therapy the only thing you want to do is have a rest and process what you had just experienced. Jumping straight back to work or in a busy space doesn’t allow our minds to understand and develop the session we have just had.

Allowing some time between sessions will enable you to progress quicker, understand better and be emotional in your own space.

5. Expect to feel uncomfortable at times

Think about going to the gym, sometimes you are really excited and other times you can not be bothered. Change is difficult and you will feel uncomfortable at times but it is apart of the process to get to where you want to be in life. Counsellors are training to push and decrease pressure during your session and also understand balance to ensure your are benefiting from the experience.

In saying this thought, again like the gym, you know your own limits and no one else can tell you any differently. If you are feeling extremely uncomfortable within a session simply tell them to stop (it won’t be the first time they have heard it, promise).

6. Your counsellor is there to help you

The best way to think about or focus on your first counselling session is to realise that your counsellor is there to help you, not expose your frailties, weaknesses, mistakes or to make you feel worse that what you are already feeling. Once you experience the release of talking about your problems/situation you will understand that it quickly decreases fears and anxieties that you thought about before your sessions.

7. You do not need to go into each session with something life changing to talk about

Sometimes talking about something small has the same benefits as talking about something big. This is when you can have the biggest breakthroughs, it is part of a counsellors job to ensure that each session is productive and on track towards your end goal.

This is especially true during times which nothing big has happened as a therapy session with an open agenda enables yourself and your therapist to have the opportunity to talk about different things that are going on in your life, and therefore undercover that there was something you wished to talk about after all.

8. Therapy should be about bettering your life, even if it is hard work

Remember you are giving your time and emotions to this professional. 2 things that should never go to waste, so demand you get what you need, and if you don’t, please find someone else who can do that for you. Being a human is difficult, especially in these times and therapy can help – but never give up.

9. Communicate with your counsellor

Maybe you have gave it a chance and decided to not continue with counselling as it is not for you, or maybe this particular counsellor is not for you. It is important to explore things rather than just leave your sessions without notice, especially if you are receiving counselling from a Non Profit Organisation like ZGBTST. Missed sessions without communication is taking that opportunity away from someone else who can be benefiting from it greatly. So please be considerate to your counsellor.

10. Keep in touch

You have built a bond with someone for weeks, months or even years. Although you are feeling like you can take on the world now, there could be a time you may need them again. Checking in every now and again keeps that conversation open and the bond alive. If you ever need them again, all you ever need to do is ask.