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Counselling Programme

By charles - Posted on 02 May 2010

Sophiaton West Services

Volunteer and Community Counselling

Counselling services are offered by volunteer and community counsellors at the main centre now situated in Westdene.

Counselling services for adults continue to be rendered by a small team of dedicated volunteer counsellors based at St John’s parish in Northriding. Because there are no full time supervisors here, the counsellors only see adults within the traditional confines of the counselling relationship. If clients need other levels of interventions they are referred to external agencies or to the full-time team based at Westdene. Presenting problems usually relate to unresolved childhood experiences, relationship difficulties, and exposure to violent or otherwise traumatic events. Financial issues due to relative poverty (aspiring to live beyond the means available) or absolute poverty are significant contributors to emotional distress and interpersonal conflict in families.  Most clients attend 10 to 15 sessions and some come back after months or  even years to process another distressing life event or experience.

Although not professionally trained therapists, our volunteer and community counsellors, sourced from communities served, undergo training in counselling, therapeutic work with children, and group work, and receive intensive supervision from qualified social workers/psychologists on a weekly basis. They have an intimate knowledge of community needs and are instrumental in providing cost-effective ways of reaching large groups of clients whilst increasing community capacity to deal with presenting problems. Just over 593 made us of indiviudal and group counselling in the Sophiatown West service in the course of the 2011 year.

Clients who are found to present with multi-layered problems and those who are thought to be at serious risk of harm are referred to community counsellors immediately as it is the community counsellors who have more experience than the volunteer counsellors – being fulltime employees. Where required, complicated cases can also be referred to the social worker or to appropriate external service providers. Children and younger adolescents are also referred to community counsellors who have had special training in working with them.

Walking through deep pain with our clients and being invited into the often very intimate sphere of their suffering, is one of the great privileges of being a counsellor. Becoming a witness to their healing and growth is another.

In the Westdene office, one or two full time counsellors are available to attend to clients during the day. Most of these are booked, but there is also an increasing number of walk-in clients, often students from the university across the road. Clients  of all ages and social backgrounds make use of this service and present with a wide range of issues- from poor academic performance, to behavioural difficulties in children, to domestic violence, rape and trauma.

The counselling services offered on Wednesdays from the community hall in Noordgesig are very well utilized with referrals coming from local schools and increasingly from community members themselves. Here bereavement, domestic and criminal violence, substance abuse, and poverty are the main contributors to emotional distress and interpersonal conflict. Similar conditions affect the well-being of young people in the township of Riverlea where a counsellor is seeing learners referred by their teachers at the local high school.

A weekly service is also being run from the community centre in Mzimhlophe. This service is not well utilized, with many elderly women seeking assistance with documentation and access to social security rather than counselling, which still seems to be a foreign concept. The same counsellor is also seeing children and their families at St Martin’s school nearby on a Friday morning.

Funding permitting, we hope to be able to employ a full-time social worker to support, complement and further develop the work of the counsellors in the Noordgesig, Riverlea and Mzimhlophe communities.


Siyalalela -Community Walking

A different kind of counselling happens in the informal settlement of Zamimpilo and the newly established sub-economic housing estate of Pennyville.  For two whole days a week the two community workers walk through these neighbourhoods, visiting and listening to chronically or terminally ill patients who cannot or will not access formal medical and/or psycho-social support services, because they do not have the resources, the social support, or because they simply have given up. In 2011 a total of 24 patients have been consistently visited, listened to, supported, challenged, accompanied and referred. Some have eventually made their way to the hospital and with much ambivalence finally agreed to treatment. Some have died because for this one life-saving journey they no longer had the energy or the will. This work requires constantly being on the look-out for many entry points. When one fails, the community workers look for another one. It requires patience and the willingness to try again and again and again- and if in that one year one life can be saved the heart-breaking effort has been worth it.


Sophiatown East Services

Individual and Family Based Counselling

Counselling services in the “East” are rendered mainly from the centre in Bertrams, with counsellors also seeing children and adolescents at Athlone Girls High School, Observatory Girls Primary School and at Kidshaven in Benoni. About sixty percent of the clients seen here are refugees and migrants from other African countries, mainly the DRC, and so it is inevitable that many of the problems they present with are directly associated with war and forced displacement. Levels of trauma are extremely high and compounded by severe daily stressors, many of which in themselves meet the clinical criteria for “trauma”- domestic violence, xenophobic attacks, evictions, exclusions from schools and clinics, continuous harassment by the Metro, confiscation of goods, and as is to be expected unimaginable poverty.

The vast majority of our clients are women, most of them mothers of young children, many single, widowed, or unable to rely on their partners for any form of emotional or material support. With every woman who enters the service, therefore, comes a whole family and although we open one file in the name of the caregiver, each “primary client” comes with a range of issues and needs all of which require multiple interventions with different family members. Most pressing are always the immediate material needs- food, shelter, school fees and uniform, “connection” fees for low level jobs, and taxi fare to Home Affairs for the three monthly stamps which legitimizes the existence of a refugee.

Most clients walk in and there are days when it is so busy that there is still a queue waiting a closing time. Yet the task of the counsellor, therapist, community or social worker, is to give each person her full and congruent attention. In the face of extreme material need, counselling needs to fully acknowledge people’s hunger, while at the same time tapping in to whatever internal resources are left to explore and act on each tiny ray of hope and possibility.

Walking the fine line between the always desperate material plight of our clients and our own mission of providing psycho-social support to a highly traumatized, “forgotten” population group is an ever-present and very demanding challenge. Some clients walk away when they are told that this is not a service where they can get hand-outs. But most come back, again and again, and we continue listening to them until they themselves can acknowledge the value of being heard, affirmed and supported.

Contact details

Address: 4 Lancaster St, Westdene, 2092

Tel: +27 11 4828530

Fax: +27 11 4828530

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