Email this article
Speech by SLW at the Inaugural Pan Pacific Rim International Counselling Conference (English only)

    Following is the speech by the Secretary for Labour and Welfare, Mr Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, at the Inaugural Pan Pacific Rim International Counselling Conference today (July 10):

Professional Counsellors and Para-counsellors in Hong Kong¡VTheir Development and Contributions

Ladies and gentlemen,

    I am honoured to be invited to address this conference. I cherish the opportunity to meet a group of dedicated professionals who are very important to our lives. As Secretary for Labour and Welfare, I know something about labour and welfare issues but very little about counselling! Or, perhaps I should say I will not pretend that I know counselling in the company of esteemed professionals in this very field. So, perhaps I should approach my address from areas that I am familiar with - welfare. I shall talk about para-counselling or lay-counselling and its application in the local community.

    Everyone needs counselling at one time or another in his life. Counselling existed long before the term counselling was used. From the dawn of human history, people benefited from guidance and advice in one form or another in meeting with and solving problems in their lives. Long before counselling became a subject of the social sciences and long before professional counsellors were trained, counselling was given by the wise old men in the village, the fortune tellers in a temple and even the barbers who did your hair! As trained counsellors, you will probably not agree with me that these people are providing counselling in the professional sense of the word today. However, you will probably agree that what these people do is to help people change or at least that should be their intention. In this sense, they are counselling!

    Today, counselling and counselling psychology have been scientifically studied and developed. Professional counsellors are mostly holders of post-graduate degrees. Counselling training programmes are specialised programmes that emphasise both theoretical as well as practical training. In Hong Kong, most counsellors work in non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or are in private practice.  A Division of Counselling Psychology had just been established in the Hong Kong Psychological Society, the largest local learned society. Despite the long history of development of counselling and the vast demand for counselling services, the number of professional counsellors in Hong Kong is still rather small. This is in part due to the fact that counselling in Hong Kong has traditionally been taken up by other professionals such as clinical psychologists, educational psychologists and social workers. Many counsellors are employed as guidance personnel in schools or as social workers in NGOs. Therefore, the number of people providing counselling is actually greater that the number of people with the word "counsellor" in their post titles. Again, this is related to what I said earlier on that counselling may not be provided by professional counsellors alone. Is this good or bad? Is this a healthy development?

    Historically, there is one unresolved controversy in the field of counselling or psychotherapy and that is the nature versus nurture controversy. Some say that helping professionals such as counsellors, psychologists and psychotherapists cannot be trained. They mean that some are born to be more suited for the work and their potential can be developed and actualised through training. Some just "do not have it" and no matter how much more training they receive, they can never be good counsellors or psychotherapists. I suppose this makes sense as obviously some personalities are meant to be cut out for one job but not another.  Opponents to this view, however, contend that with proper training, everyone can be a counsellor. To me, I think probably there is truth in both positions. This perhaps explains the stringent criteria for intake into proper counselling training programmes. Hence, the small number of counsellors trained or "produced" locally. Intuition tells me that you would have to be high both in EQ and IQ, you would have to study and work very hard and you would have to like what you do in order to become a good counsellor. The demands and standards for professional counselling practices are high and they should be when you think of the profound impact that you can have on your clients' lives. Given the high demands, what do we know about the return? Well, let me put it this way: there are easier jobs that are paid much more. This perhaps is another reason why we do not see that many counsellors in Hong Kong.

    However, as I said at the beginning, the need for counselling permeates almost all aspects of our lives. It is inconceivable that such an immense need can be satisfied by professional counsellors alone. This is where I think para-counsellors or lay counsellors come in. In a healthy society - and I mean mentally healthy society - we would like to see that people with problems are helped to get the problems solved, and people without problems can be helped to attain higher level of functioning. Counselling can serve both ends but we will need more than the professional counsellors to do the job. Para-counsellors or lay counsellors are not professionally trained counsellors. They are people who do not have formal counselling qualifications but who, by virtue of their work, would need to provide some forms of counselling to people that they serve. The most common example of a para-counsellor is the school teacher. Today, we have school counsellors, school social workers and school guidance officers. However, everybody understands that other teachers often take up the counselling role when they have to advise and guide their students in matters other than the subjects that they are teaching. A policeman can take the role of a para-counsellor when he helps young offenders to stay out of trouble or when he gives support to victims of family violence. Priests in various religions are also para-counsellors as they help people to deal with problems in their everyday life in addition to leading them spiritually. A personnel manager in a business firm can be a para-counsellor when he helps candidates to make the right career choice. Family doctors have taken up increasingly more counselling roles in their consultations and they can be para-counsellors too.  Even hotline workers and radio phone-in programme hosts often play the role of para-counsellors.  So, if we look closer, there are para-counsellors all around us, except that they may not know it themselves.  They supplement the work of counsellors and significantly extend the "safety net".  They play vital preventive roles.  In an affluent society, we may need to promote the idea of para-counselling more.

    Para-counsellors will never replace professional counsellors. Promoting para-counselling does not mean corresponding cut in the resources put in developing professional counsellors. On the contrary, promoting para-counselling is merely to supplement what professional counsellors do or to help the latter by providing them with a better working environment when their professional expertise can be focused on the quote-and-unquote "tougher" cases. There are a number of advantages in developing and promoting para-counsellors.

    The first and most obvious advantage is of course availability. No one will buy the idea that there should be one counsellor for each family. However, what is wrong with having one para-counsellor per family? Our professional counsellors cannot work 24 hours a day and seven days a week. No matter how much resource we put in, we cannot provide counsellors for everybody! However, it would be much easier to have para-counsellors in each different sub-group in the community. Availability would mean a lot when crisis intervention is needed because the para-counsellors are there in their respective communities all the time and they can be readily accessible in times of crisis.

    The second advantage is the lack of stigmatisation. Even though the receptiveness or acceptance of many towards receiving counselling help have been much improved in the past 10 or 15 years, for many, there is still some discomfort when they have to talk to a professional counsellor. Even though they acknowledge that there is the need to see a counsellor, they will prefer not to tell their friends or families that they are seeing one! This is actually the reason why some would turn to their teachers or priests for advice or guidance instead of seeking help from professional counsellors. These people will be greatly helped when the teachers and priests they see are trained para-counsellors instead of merely teachers and priests. At the end of the day, if the para-counsellors are doing their job, they can reassure and encourage the client to seek professional help apart from giving support when the problems are really complicated and thereby helping to reduce the stigmatisation problem.

    The third advantage of using para-counsellors is their knowledge about the people that they serve. This is particularly so when the para-counsellors are the peers of people needing help. I am sure that you all understand the importance of speaking the same language and knowing the culture when you provide counselling. As para-counsellors are from the community itself, they do not have problems with understanding the language and the culture of the community in order for them to function well.

    You would all recall the 2004 Tsunami and the thousands of volunteers who poured in to Southeast Asia to try to help. The Academy for Disaster Management Education Planning and Training (ADEPT) set up a Lay Community Counsellor Model in India for post-disaster crisis intervention in face of the challenging situation faced in the aftermath of the Tsunami. Short-term training on basics of psychological first aid was provided to local community leaders, teachers, village health nurses and health inspectors, self-help group members, leaders of faith-based organisations, and disaster response workers who were then sent out to help victims/survivors of the Tsunami. Because they were local people, they have no problem in understanding the culture, the values and the language. They are readily available and more easily accessible. Also counselling of disaster survivors may require to be undertaken in informal settings. A supportive conversation or a focused problem-solving session during a casual home visit could very well be a counselling session. The lay counsellor or para-counsellor will have that flexibility. Incidentally, the experience from the Tsunami is quite a valuable one that may inform the helpers what they can do for the survivors of the recent Sichuan earthquake. The situation is comparable to the Tsunami where a large number of people are affected. Their particular culture, dialects and ways of life are probably novel to most quote-and-unquote "outsiders" - even the helpers from Hong Kong. The development of lay community counsellors and para-counsellors could be a useful direction for the community rebuilding in Sichuan in the many years to come.

    The fourth and last advantage is the healing effect for the para-counsellors themselves. In the follow-up evaluative study of this Lay Community Counselor programme, the findings were very positive. Besides finding that the victims were helped, they found that the para-counsellors grew personally from the experiences of helping others. They became more confident in themselves; cope better with the problems brought by the Tsunami; and healed better. The helpers help themselves too in the course of helping others. Imagine that many individuals are trained as para-counsellors in a community, they are expected to be able to better handle their own problems or at least they will be more resilient or will recover faster. It is not difficult to think of the community resources that can be saved to attend to the needs of those with more serious problems!

    The use of para-counsellors is certainly not new or limited to the developing countries after disasters. People who have been there have been trained up to provide support for others all over the world. Examples are ex-convicts, ex-drug addicts, victims of family or sexual violence, cancer patients and all kinds of other volunteer groups who make use of their own experience in facing a certain problem to help others facing the same predicaments.

    Notwithstanding the vast potential and advantages that para-counsellors may offer, we must all be wary of the need to do no harm when promoting or developing para-counselling. This includes doing harm to the para-counsellors themselves. I am sure that you are all aware of the damage that can be done by someone venturing into helping others when they are not ready. Para-counsellors are not professional counsellors and should not replace them. Naturally, they will not need the kind of intensive training professional counsellors are subjected to. Yet, they need to master good communication skills and learn to understand and accept others. They need to know their limits and when to refer cases for regular professional assistance. They need to understand the basic counselling concepts. They need to understand the specifics of any critical incidents that their potential clients have gone through so that they can analyse the problem, and make recommendations or give advice. They need to be experienced and mature enough to be mentally stable and capable of handling stress. Above all, they need to have good common sense. Contrary to what the term suggests, common sense is not common. Last but not least, all para-counsellors should have a fair understanding and commitment to upkeep the basic ethics in counselling such as keeping confidentiality. Brief training of some sort is a must for anyone who wants to be an effective para-counsellor. Fortunately, unlike formal professional counselling, learning opportunities for the areas I have just mentioned are quite abundant in the community.

    There has been a great deal of development in the field of counselling in recent years. New theories and strategies of help are being discovered. Professional counsellors become more and more scientific and specialised in their work. At the same time when they develop themselves, I think it is also important for professional counsellors to be mindful of the need to help to develop lay or para-counsellors who can do a lot to supplement their work. One of the most cherished goals in counselling is to help people to help themselves. Instead of providing all the help, the professional counsellors can spare some of their efforts to train more helpers.

    Counsellors are human beings too. It is unrealistic to expect that they do not have problems. However, if they believe in what they are trained to do, they stand better chances to effectively solve the problems and attain higher levels of functioning - in whatever sense of the word. Thinking along this line, it is heart-warming just to imagine a community with more counsellors than clients, or, rather with more helpers than people needing help. Will we not then achieve the goal of having a society in harmony? Imagine a community with more auxiliary policemen or para-military force than regulars and you can tell the benefits.  Well, perhaps this is my personal dream as the Secretary for Labour and Welfare. Yet, I hope that you can share it. Thank you.

Ends/Thursday, July 10, 2008
Issued at HKT 09:30


Print this page