The cicadas hum and buzz, the sun beats down on me, a warming orange orb, and the dry soil beneath my feet is amber brown. I’m walking through the car park of a small high school in Kempsey. It is the start of my day as a mental health counsellor doing outreach support with young people in the community. My appointment calendar is at best a loose representation of what my day may entail. This isn’t because I don’t have clients to see, it is because the forces that pull and push the young people of this community are far greater than a text message reminder for an appointment.
The birds chirp and cackle in the trees overhead and a lingering smell of bush fire smoke and flowers in bloom give this town a sense of age and character. While I do walk and work amongst this, it is not my community nor place. I am an outsider here in the land of the Dunghutti people. The best I can do is listen; listen to the stories of triumph, pain, strength, friendship and loss this town bears.
Luckily for me, listening is a fundamental cornerstone of my work. It is through listening we can educate, empathise and understand. This is what I do.
I have taken numerous roles and supported people experiencing different hurdles and issues in their lives. These include adults experiencing problem gambling, alcohol or substance use issues; mental health concerns, such as depression anxiety, trauma and loss; parents struggling with family members who have mental health or substance use issues, and adolescents with alcohol and drugs concerns and mental health issues.
This may appear to be a diverse range of clients, yet my approach to therapy remains the same. Peers and colleagues may ask, “what approach is best to take with young people?” or, “how do you work with addiction?” An individual is the expert of their own experience and world. For me to do my best job, I need to understand this and not instruct, persuade, lecture, or give advice. These are easy traps to fall into, yet they do not respect the individual that is sitting in front of me.
Kempsey is a largely Aboriginal community of the Dunghutti people. Their land bears diverse wonders, from cascading waterfalls in lush hideaways to vast fields of rolling green hills and white sand beaches that beam golden in the Summer. As a white, middle-class man, the most empathic act for me is to tread on their land with respect and patience.
The Dunghutti land, and all of Australia, was never conceded on amicable terms, nor are Aboriginal people given a basic right of a parliamentary voice and representation. The people still carry this inter-generational trauma. It is a wound that begs to be healed but cannot be due our national ignorance. It is my place to support and listen to the issues of young people in this community and champion their strength and perseverance.
To empower an individual, to listen to their world and respect it, is a true gift. This is what I bring to all my work, whether it be with adults in the inner-west or young people on the mid-north coast. This approach to my work has allowed me a window into a world of adversity, perseverance, loss, passion, and bravery.
All of these are traits I witness every day in my clients. The land and the people who inhabit it show the scars and stories of who they are. Loss is no stranger to these people. Not a month will go by without a member of the community passing away, with it bringing great sorrow, grief and a coming together of people. There is a connection in their shared experience that is truly unique.
We will all experience pain in this life. For some, that may be emotional pain, others physical or existential distress. We all need a means to soothe and cope with such pain. This will drive certain behaviour to avoid pain and move away from it. This could be reading, being in nature, painting, being with people, alcohol, drug use, or video games.
This behaviour is adaptive and serves a function. Any one behaviour may become an issue if it becomes our only means of coping and self-soothing. Much of the work I do with clients in listening and learning is hearing the pain in their life and then understanding the means of soothing and coping.
For a tree to firmly take root in soil, it needs an array of things: ample sunshine, water, fertile soil, and roots to anchor it. Without even one of these, it may topple or fail to flourish. This is analogous to our lives. If we do not have sufficient and diverse resources and resilience to cope with adversity, we may also fail to flourish.
The young people I support often use maladaptive behaviour, such as drug use, alcohol, withdrawing from others, or negative cycles of thinking, to soothe or cope. At some point these were all ways they utilised to cope; however, these young people often telling me that they now find these techniques are causing further harm and failing them. The best thing to support this is being connected with one another and widening our sources of nourishment so we can grow and flourish.
I am a blow-in here, an outsider. I cannot truly understand or belong to their community, yet I can respect, listen, and support it. I value my clients as the experts of their world. They are the ones who can teach me about their strengths, their pains, and their goals. It is then that I can support them to plant their roots firmly and grow.