The Student Counselling Service changed my perception of professional help

Counselling isn’t necessarily always a success story, but a positive experience with Trinity counselling services has given this student invaluable help

My first experience of counselling was a terrible one. I was 12 when I started self-harming, 13 when my parents found out, and soon afterwards, I found myself driven to the local health centre every fortnight to speak to a CAMHS-funded, undertrained, probably underpaid counsellor. From entering her office on my first day, to leaving it for the last time several months later, I hated every second of it.

If a handbook called “things you shouldn’t do as a child and adolescent counsellor” existed, my counsellor would have broken every rule in it. She breached confidentiality several times, repeating things I confided in her to my parents almost verbatim. She forced me to show her my wrists at the beginning of every session to prove I hadn’t self-harmed – as if being a thirteen-year-old in counselling didn’t feel humiliating enough as it were. Once, I showed up to the Health Centre to find out that she wasn’t at work that day. She had forgotten we had made an appointment. She was judgmental and unpleasant, she heard only what she wanted to hear, and the concept of “suspension of disbelief” was clearly alien to her.

I decided I had had enough when she threatened to hospitalise me unless I fulfilled a certain condition – something she could probably lose her job for, but who was I to know at the time? The thought of involuntary hospitalisation causes my throat to close up even six years later. I had never felt so trapped, so utterly dehumanised, so stripped of my autonomy. I felt my life had been ripped out of my hands, and I decided that the only way to get it back was to end it.

“I had never felt so trapped, so utterly dehumanised, so stripped of my autonomy.”

I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say that I was seconds away from taking that final step when something – I still don’t know what – suddenly compelled me not to. I knew that if I were to give life another chance, my counsellor couldn’t be part of it. Counselling just wasn’t for me, I decided, and I carried that belief with me years into the future.

My mental health continued to deteriorate as I progressed through secondary school. Getting out of bed in the morning was excruciating. My thoughts, my actions, my life was controlled by what I now recognise as anxiety. My existence could have been reduced to three things: sleeping, crying, and studying, because even on days when I could muster the energy to do more, my anxiety and self-hatred always prohibited it.

It was the thought of college that got me through those years. I had convinced myself that my mental health problems were purely a product of my situation – that it was my dysfunctional family, my school, my homophobic town that made living so difficult for me. I had convinced myself that as soon as I moved to Dublin and settled into college, things would instantaneously get better. It was foolish, yes, but when you’re desperate for something to keep you alive, even the most naive of reason is better than nothing.

Needless to say, that didn’t happen. On the one hand, my college dream seemed to have come true – I loved Dublin, I loved Trinity, I was out and proud and had a circle of incredible friends who seemed to genuinely like me and want me around. But my moods were volatile as ever, my anxiety was through the roof, and thoughts and feelings I thought I had dealt with years earlier came flying back to bite me.

“I had convinced myself that as soon as I moved to Dublin and settle into college, things would instantaneously get better.”

There is one person, one specific friend who played a particularly important role in my life at the time. We met during Freshers’ Week, and by around Week Two of term I had already opened up to him more than I ever had to anyone. For the first time in my life, I had someone who seemed to genuinely understand, care about, and empathise with me. For the first time in my life, I had someone I could be honest with about what I was going through, who didn’t just brush it off or tell me I was overreacting. He was an invaluable source of support and helped me get through what proved to be the toughest weeks of my College career to date.

As hard as he tried, though, and as much as I wanted to believe that it were possible, a friend can never substitute a therapist. He encouraged me to go to the Student Counselling Service, but I’m nothing if not stubborn. Counselling just wasn’t for me, right? It wasn’t even worth trying. Even if not all counsellors were awful, I thought, they were all just waiting for a reason to slam their big red panic button and send me to the nearest psychiatric ward. Besides, even if none of those things were true – I didn’t think my struggles were difficult enough to “justify” getting help. I thought I just needed to get over it and stop being so sulky and realise that some people have it far worse than I do. I felt I was stealing pain I wasn’t entitled to.

I guess if you’ve never known true human connection, if you’ve never had someone you can wholeheartedly trust and rely on, it’s difficult to know where the line between support and dependency lies, and I found myself unknowingly stepping over it. My friend presented me with an ultimatum. Counselling was scary, but the prospect of losing my first real friend was absolutely terrifying. All he asked was that I go to one session. I didn’t have to go back if I didn’t want to. And yet I did.

“Even if not all counsellors were awful, I thought, they were all just waiting for a reason to slam their big red panic button and send me to the nearest psychiatric ward.”

Iseult was nothing like my first counsellor. She consistently debunked all of my fears regarding mental health services and made a conscious effort to ensure that my second attempt at counselling was nothing like my first. She assured me, not just in words but in actions, that my autonomy would be respected and the limits to confidentiality would never be narrowed. Her eyes, her words spoke compassion. She helped me to see things from a different perspective, to become a bit kinder to myself, and to be more open to the possibility that even if I have bad days, maybe the good days are still worth sticking around for. The decision to trust her was a huge leap of faith, but it was definitely worth it.

I know the Counselling Service isn’t perfect. From a limited number of available sessions to never-ending waiting lists, a lot needs to be improved, but the Service is doing as much as it can within the limited means the College gives them.

I also know that I wouldn’t be where I am were it not for the SCS. It was Iseult who referred me to the College psychiatrist, and I was soon prescribed medication for depression and anxiety. A year and a half later, I still take it, and I now attend weekly group therapy at the Service, which is a challenge and just as daunting as counselling, but also just as worth it.

I’m far from “cured” and I’m not sure if I ever will be. I still get occasional anxiety attacks for no reason; I still have days where getting out of bed feels like an insurmountable challenge; there are still some things I don’t feel capable talking about, not even to a counsellor.

I have a long way to go, but I am so much further ahead than the shuddering, gagging, panic-possessed 17-year-old sobbing in her best friend’s arms. I used to think I wouldn’t make it past the Leaving Cert, and now I am three years into my degree, planning years ahead into the future. I used to be terrified of speaking in even the smallest groups, and just a few weeks ago I won a debating competition. I have a long way to go, yes, but if it weren’t for the Counselling Service, I would never have started the journey in the first place.

If you have been affected by the issues raised of this article, support is available from the following services:

Trinity Student Counselling Service: 01 896 1407 or email student-counselling@tcd.ie

Samaritans: 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org

National Suicide Helpline: 1800 247 247 

Aware: 1800 80 48 48 

Pieta House: 01 601 0000 or email mary@pieta.ie 

Women’s Aid: 1800 341 900

TCDSU Welfare Officer: welfare@tcdsu.org