leaving cert
25 Jan 2022

Chatting all things Counselling and Psychotherapy on the Leaving Cert Guidance Podcast

Recently our very own Harry Dickinson, Senior Lecturer in counselling and psychotherapy here at ICHAS featured on the Leaving Cert Podcast with Donnchadh O’Mahony. They talked about the CAO courses on offer, professional accreditation, practice placement, student life at ICHAS, employment opportunities, and much more. You can listen back to the full episode and check out the full transcript below. You can also learn more about our CAO Courses. 


“So maybe, because Harry, I know you’re a senior lecturer on the counselling and psychotherapy program, but you give us a background about those courses?”

The reason why we have three courses, not just one course in counselling and psychotherapy is that we found through our years of experience that there are a couple of primary areas that seem to and people seem to gravitate in terms of working in the counselling profession. 

So we offer the counselling and psychotherapy program, which is by its very nature, dealing with counselling as a general career, and as a general practitioner in counselling. 

So people working in that area, as counsellors will be working with people who have life’s problems, the ones that we all experienced at some stage don’t like we all have low mood at some stage, we all have stress in our lives, we all may have bits of anxiety, we’ve all experienced loss at some stage, whether that be through bereavement or similar loss. So we all have problems in life, the everyday things that we all struggle with. Mostly we can get through those ourselves at some level, but from time to time, we can get stuck and these things can cause more of a problem than they should so. 

That’s where counselling comes in for people. So the counselling psychotherapy course is aimed at working in those areas, working with people who have lifes general problems, etc. 

If you move on to into psychotherapy, which would involve having to go for a master’s level, psychotherapy deals with more of the severe problems that we have so the long term psychological problems and difficulties and personality disorders, the ones where maybe people would have a lifelong issue or a problem that has to be dealt with. So it’s preparing people to work in general counselling, but also preparing them to work in psychotherapy if they want to do so.

The other two programs reflect where people are gravitating towards working specifically in different areas in counselling. Youth at risk is a major problem in this country. Because youth are running into an awful lot of issues and COVID is exasperating a lot of them, there’s a lot of issues around addiction, alcoholism, etc and working with adolescents has become a very important and focused field. So we have specialist topic areas that help people work in that area. 

It’s the same with addiction. Addiction is massively a huge area now. We’ve got an awful lot of our students who gravitate towards the addiction modules.


“From a leaving cert student’s perspective when they’re looking at these and researching these, they’re all four-year degrees, obviously, level eight degrees we looked at, it’s English or Irish as a requirement. One of the most popular questions I always get is the maths requirement. So there actually is no match requirement for these courses. And PLC Students can also apply for these courses as well.”

Yeah, the maths requirement is a funny one, because it often comes as a shock to people to discover that, you know, what, when you’re dealing with a topic that deals with human psychology, etc, there’s there is a little bit of maths in it from you know, it’s basic descriptive statistics, you know, understanding, what reports, say, and what the data says, etc. 

So we have no requirement for people to have a particularly strong level of maths.


“It’s not a state-funded college. So there are private fees, but funnily enough, the private fees, as private colleges go, are very, very cheap”

What we’ve endeavoured to do, and we did this deliberately, was to try and reflect the same kind of charges that were coming from the major universities, from the national universities, etc. So their registration fees we try to match them as close as we possibly can and keep it as economic as we can for students.

The one thing I do have to say is that the one that we don’t have access to grants. That’s, in my opinion, a criminal thing, because there are many of the courses that we offer, you can’t get them in a national university, you can’t access them. Yet people who want to take these courses can’t, as a lot of people can’t access them or will not have access, and because of financial reasons, and we can’t offer the grant, we can’t offer the SUSI etc.


“When we’re looking at it, because you said they’re all accredited by QQI and looking at professional accreditation there was kind of an overhaul and counselling recently”

Its exciting times for counselling in that sense because for a long time counselling has been very fragmented in terms of its accreditation processes and it’s professionalism in this country because there’re so many organisations claiming it at some level or other to accredit counsellors. 

So, fortunately, the government have now taken in hand, and Minister Harris was the man who started but it was probably the most influential in this area, where and what he’s done is he’s decided to get CORU to regulate counselling in this country. So CORU, as you may well know, it would be the regulating body for all the healthcare professions, so psychologists, social workers, physiotherapists, etc, etc, etc, are all and so counselling is now going to come under that umbrella. So, anybody who be starting a course, going from the CAO now and coming in an undergraduate course, by the time they qualify, they’ll be qualifying into a world where counselling will be properly regulated with a code of practice, and where they will have to have a certain high level of educational standard, as well as professional training. 

That’s really a huge benefit to counselling as a profession and to the general public. Because we should start seeing access to psychological therapies becoming much more widespread and much easier to access. 

So when it’s properly regulated, you’ll start seeing it being integrated into school environments, college environments properly into primary care, which will be vital so, currently, if somebody has a mental health issue, or severe emotional difficulty, or having problems, the first place to go so GP, basically living in America, the first place you go, is their therapist, you know, but it’s it’s the opposite of this country.

So hopefully, when we start seeing counselling in primary care properly when somebody arrives in a primary care situation to a GPS clinic, there’ll be two doors there, one for the GP and one for the therapists that the option will be there to see the therapist first. The therapist will be able to assess the client and say, well, okay, I think maybe you need to go next door and see the doctor first for medication or but there is a disconnect there at the moment totally, you know, when it’s properly regulated, we start seeing it the places as it should be, we start seeing a more kind of, we see the dots being joined together, and we start seeing more and more uniform approach to mental health care in this country.


“Just going on to the delivery of the course, because I know you have a huge input in this but there’s actually a blended learning approach. And you guys were kind of the first to do it before COVID even happens, you were doing this blended learning approach. Can you tell us a bit about that, Harry?”

The full-time courses are the full-time courses so the leaving cert students coming in, hopefully, the next batch coming in will experience full time, the way full time supposed to be experienced, actually, in the college sitting together in the classroom. That’s not the case at the moment. But with our part-time courses, we’ve always provided the option for people. It was really to help people with lifestyle choices to give them the option to study when it might not have been possible for them to study previously. So that, you know, for theory-based classes, we gave people the option to stay at home and study. 

So we created what we call hybrid classrooms. So you had the choice, you could come in and sit in the class, with all the rest of the students, or if you couldn’t do that, you could still attend the class live through our blended environment. So all our classrooms are fitted out with cameras and microphones. So you could sit at home, see everybody in the classroom on your screen, and they could see you, you could talk to them, you could talk to the lecture or listen to the lecture. You could interact almost the same way as you would do if you’re in the classroom. 

So what we found with that approach was that people had the freedom then, if they couldn’t make it for work reasons, or for distance reasons, that they could still attend the class directly. Plus, we record those and if somebody can’t make it at all, to be recording the whole lecture there for them to view and watch. 

So it proved very successful, very attractive to people who normally taught they couldn’t take on a part-time course like that. So the result was that when COVID hit we were in a position where we could immediately switch over to a virtual environment, and we had all the experience, all our lecturers are highly experienced in working in that area and lecturing in that environment. So we had kind of been almost, there wasn’t a heartbeat missed.


“But even your graduates, as a result, of learning in that environment, because counselling went on to a lot of zoom calls when COVID hit as well. So even your graduates would have been very familiar with the whole setup”

Good observation. Yeah, and COVID has caused, as I’m sure you’re well aware many difficulties for young people, in particular, around anxiety and stress-related problems and difficulties. 

Some have been related almost to post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s almost an epidemic before proportions, you know, the number of calls that we get on any given day from people looking for referrals to counsellors, for young people, adolescents in particular, but it’s not just adolescence, adults as well are having difficulty. But what it led to was a huge increase in counselling as a distance profession. So we start seeing technology-assisted counselling. In simple terms just as we’re sitting here on a zoom link. And we have zoom counselling. And that has proved hugely successful and has developed at an exponential rate. We were developing new ways to provide counselling services to people who couldn’t come out and access them in the normal way. And so we found that, that the level of skill that counsellors are developing in this area now has increased, we have specialist modules now in our degrees to cover this, because it’s become so prominent, so it’s now become a kind of recognised form of counselling, very recognisable form of counselling.


“So when I was doing my guidance counselling course, obviously with a good bit of counselling and that as well, one of the key components of it was practice placement. Is that something similar in the undergraduates at ICHAS?”

Yeah, it’s a big part of it. We’ve got three people dedicated to that area. Now. It’s, it’s, it’s quite a big part of what we do. How can we see in the future that when regulation comes in and CORU regulates, we see that’s going to become even more significant and more important. So we spend a lot of time developing relationships with a lot of organisations nonprofits, even private practices, to develop placement opportunities for our students. 

Generally speaking, our students don’t have any great difficulty in obtaining placements, but some run into difficulties depending on how isolated they are, what kind of communities they are living in, etc. But generally speaking, what we’re finding the placement thing, we’ve got that kind of under control now with the students going out, and also now we had a lot of students who are in placements environments where they were doing online counselling, which was really interesting to see, you know.

What I always find now, again, even after Christmas break, when I meet up the students again, I’ll be talking about how they’re getting on in their placement, you know, and they all have stories and they’re all talking about how things are changing. and how it’s different, it’s very exciting for them at the moment.


“Being kind of a smaller college, what would student life be like? And I guess for undergrads particularly?”

What we do after you is, and this is the one, I suppose in terms of feedback from students that we regularly get is that if you meet me in the corridor, you can stop and talk to me and ask me a question. And I’d sit down and talk with you if you need to talk about something. If you’re having difficulty with a topic area, the lectures are always there for you to approach and talk to, we’re very approachable. It’s not like a lecture hallway with 300 or 400 students sitting in the lecture hall. And it is far more personal, even in terms of our classroom environments. We are great believers in experiential work, but also in engaging with the students in the classroom environment. So we encourage students to ask questions, we encourage students to engage, at the end of the day, the training to be counsellors, and psychotherapists. 

You know, communication is going to be a big part of what they do. So we encourage it at all stages, you know, so that, I’d say if I was to identify something that will be the biggest plus of going into a smaller college is that ability to engage with your lecturers, etc,


“I suppose we touched on a small bit Harry but the employment opportunities. It’s not just private practice, where there are lots of other opportunities for graduates as well.”

If you were to ask students at the start what we call the miracle question:

You get to wake up in the morning, you’re a counsellor now, where do you see yourself?

For the majority, that would be in private practice, they have their own rooms, they’re seeing phones, and, you know, in a utopian counselling world, that’s what all counsellors want to do. But that can be quite a journey to get there, you know, so, so for a lot of students are going to find themselves initially working in a variety of organizations and a variety of vocations and, and maybe not directly in counselling roles initially, but they will develop to the point where to be allowed to work directly in counselling. So you can have different levels of engagement for counsellors, when they start, initially, they’d be shadowing professional counsellors and working with them. 

Then they get the opportunity to work with individual clients themselves, all this time under very strict supervision, clinical supervision. So they would be seeing a clinical supervisor every five hours of work 75 hours they spend with clients, they have to go and spend an hour with a clinical supervisor to review, and learn experientially from their experiences and reflect on them.


“Yeah, so lots of different opportunities, which is great”

Definitely, yeah, we have very good relationships with a lot of organisations now, who take a huge amount of our students, and are very pleased with them.


“For particularly adolescents listening, so leaving cert students listening, PLC students, you know, there’s a bit of a shortage for adolescents even to access counselling. And maybe there’s probably not enough education for students to know what exactly counselling is, to know if there’s something particular that’s wrong, that a counsellor you go to see or a psychotherapist, you go to see it. So what exactly Harry, could you explain particularly from an adolescent perspective, what counselling would be?”

At its core, it’s basically a helping profession, but being a professional helping profession works in a slightly different way. So as far as counselling is concerned, it’s generally helping people with the everyday issues that they have, what we call general emotional disturbance. So life’s problems that we all experience. Loss, or bereavement, mood issues, feeling depressed, anxiety, stress, things that impact us during our lives at all stages, which most of us can get through, either by ourselves or with the help of our friends. 

But sometimes we can get stuck or problems may seem bigger than we thought it might be. And that’s where counsellors can help. And counsellors can help in that environment. How they’re going to help you is probably a different story altogether. Because there’s a perception that counselling is just sitting down and talking. But it can be more than that, you know, some problems can be dealt with by having somebody listen to your issues and reflect on how you might deal with them, whether it’s required and maybe more active and directive type forms of counselling, where they’d be given homework to do, they have to go off and do what we call some like a behaviour risk exercise. 

So the counsellor gets them to go and do something. So they actually have to do their own therapy. So therapy and counselling comes in many different forms and shapes and sizes. What professional counsellors tried to do is adapt the form of counselling to suit their clients, not the other way around, not going to force clients to come to therapy in a certain way, they get the opportunity to pick the kind of therapy today wants to do the kind of therapists that they want to work with. 

So you will have people who, you know, feel best sitting down and comfortable talking about their problem and having somebody listen to them. And that’s how they want to work through counselling. And for them, the help is going to happen in that 15 minutes of that hour they’re sitting there for others it’s going to be the help is going to happen based upon what the counsellor gets him to go and do the therapy to get him to go and work on themselves. So they go home, and they do their own work on themselves. They do their exercises, they do their journaling, and they get active in their own therapy. So different strokes for different folks. 

Research shows us that counselling works. Not all counselling works for all people. Yeah. So my advice for anybody approaching counselling would be, you know, don’t worry, if you come in and the first counsellor you meet, you go, Oh, my God, no, this just doesn’t suit me at all. You have to shop around almost, you have to try and find out what kind of counsellor is going to suit me, what kind of approach is going to suit.

We do know that research shows that the relationship between the counsellor and the person coming in to see them is an important part of the whole process, you know, regardless of the kind of therapy or the kind of approaches that they have.


“There really should be no stigma here with counsellors and people going to see counsellors and this was a very Irish thing to have that stigma”

Saying it’s an Irish thing is probably true. Let me ask you a question. So you’re strolling down the street and Limerick, okay, and the end of the O’Connell Street there’s a brand new and psychotherapy clinic with big signs up saying the best clinic in Ireland 100% success rate, etc, you know, and you’ve got a choice, then you can go up the road and as one around the corner, an alleyway with no sign on the door? Which counselling service would you go to.

Most people are not going to walk in that door. People are going to see them walking in the door. Yeah, and you’re quite right. Stigma is still an issue in this country. But it’s not the only country, it’s an issue, but it would be significant in this country still, that there is some sort of stigma involved. 

I think, again, one of the benefits of COVID is it demystifies some of the things around counselling and, and a lot more people are approaching and, and, and looking for help with the difficulties that they’re having. This is great to see because there is help out there for anyone who is in a bad place of any description, there is help there, you know, there is help there, and you can be helped. It’s not hopeless in any way whatsoever. 


“For leaving cert students, particularly when they’re in such a stressful year. And as you were saying, you mentioned a couple of times already, it’s, it’s kind of you’re you’re ordinary everyday stress, and counsellors can help you with something maybe that you’re not coping quite well with, as you said, Some people can cope with those kinds. And it’s not to be seen as a weakness or anything, it’s just, you might just need a little bit of help”

That’s it. It’s a case of taking the help get better quickly and move on, or struggle with it. Don’t struggle with it, there’s help out there. Another thing is we were talking about young people, adolescents, you know, I often get challenged by traditional counsellors, and when they say, how can you how can somebody possibly the age of 18 know, coming from school, go into that kind of environment, and then to be a counsellor, for too young, they’ve had no life experience? How could they possibly be counsellors, because we see again, a popular perception of counsellors and these wise, yes, older people who, who’ve had this word of experience, and they know, all the fantastic courses just, it’s just crap. 

Now to be perfectly honest, when we first started presenting to the CAO, which we had to do when we were first, their first degrees are ratified by HETAC. Because it was seen as discrimination, not to make them available to everybody, but we had to present them, I would have been among one of the ones who would have been quite skeptical about what 18-year-olds coming into there had to be counsellors? We’re in trouble here. But I would have, I can happily say that I probably learned more from them than they ever learned from me.

That’s a fact. Because they came in with their own set of issues, and their own experiences of life, things that I wouldn’t have properly understood. So I learned an awful lot from them coming in. But what we tend to do is we mix in leaving cert students with mature students, so they feed off each other. We found that to be very successful and that the young people bring an awful lot to the table. In terms of if you’re a young person, the 16 or 17-year-old, who needs to see a counsellor, do you want to come and see an old fart like me? Or would you rather go and see somebody in their 20s who may be able to relate to you a little bit better? So there’s a definite role there for young people and our young counsellors going out have had no problems picking up work.


Thanks to Donnchadh for having Harry on the Leaving Cert Podcast.

You can also listen to it on Spotify

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