Ciara now works for Serco as Deputy Clinical Director at HMP Dovegate. Ciara is an accredited UKCP Psychotherapist and Supervisor, with specialist experience in forensic services and eating disorders, including training and experience working with sex offenders. Ciara has extensive experience working in the Voluntary Sector and of working with men, women, and children, individually and within groups.
What initially motivated you to become a psychotherapist?
I’m not sure whether it was just one, but rather a slew of things. Early in my life, I had reason to seek personal treatment, which introduced me to dealing with and understanding my inner world at a young age. In addition, from an early age, it seemed that I had the capacity to detect other people’s emotional situations and to provide well-being to those who were in need. As a result, as part of my Bachelor of Arts degree, I studied psychological studies, which gave me first-hand knowledge in the field’s theoretical elements and piqued my interest in it even more.
How did your placement experiences help to prepare you for working in the field?
I gained a great deal from my placement experience for a variety of reasons. Their assistance helped me put into practise what I learned on the MSc, as well as to discover new areas of learning and growth that I needed to pursue both academically and emotionally. Along the way, I learned about working in an organisation and the need of documenting clinical work. Having the opportunity to work with others from the beginning of my study and career in Psychotherapy provided me with a feeling of belonging and support. It also provided me with feedback on my work with clients as well as collegial support. While on my Placements, I learned and developed abilities that I’ve carried with me into my career as a Psychotherapist.
How has the training you completed with SPTI helped you in your personal/professional journey?
For a number of reasons, my job experience was very beneficial to me. In addition to putting what I learnt on the MSc into practise, their guidance allowed me to find new areas of learning and development that I needed to pursue academically as well as personally. This journey taught me a lot about working in a team and the importance of recording clinical results. From the outset of my studies and profession in Psychotherapy, I had a sense of connection and support from working with others. It gave me feedback on my work with clients and gave me encouragement from my colleagues. During my Placements, I gained knowledge and skills that have helped me in my professional life as a Psychotherapist ever since.
Can you tell us about the setting you currently work within?
I’m a Senior Psychotherapist in the Therapeutic Prison at HMP Dovegate presently. Serco manages HMP Dovegate for the Ministry of Justice, and it looks after high-risk male criminals. Even though it’s part of the larger Main Establishment, the Therapeutic Prison/Community (TP/TC) has its own perimeter. On TC, we have room for 200 inmates, and there are another 800 inmates housed in the Main Prison. Working in prisons is both intriguing and demanding, and each prison has its own unique dynamics that are both fascinating and difficult to navigate. Clinical Leads are managed by me, each of whom is responsible for a Community. A Community is comprised of 40 or 20 inmates, and each Community operates the therapy programme. I also supervise staff teams throughout the company and train new staff. Interacting with residents in the Communities as a Clinician is one of my favourite parts of the role. I also deputise for the Clinical Director in all aspects of operations and management.
What is the ‘Therapeutic Community’ at HMP Dovegate and how do the resident’s benefit?
The Therapeutic Prison has two Therapeutic Communities (TC) which hold 20 residents each and four Therapeutic Communities (TC) with capacity for 40 residents on each. There is a particular therapeutic paradigm used in the Communities, and that is TC Principles. All the residents gather in big community meetings and small groups to think about problems that are happening in their Community. It is designed around group therapy. Through conversation and connection, rather than through action and defence, the men learn how to think about and process their internal worlds. This intervention is great for that. Residents at TC are all on the Offender Personality Disorder Pathway, which means they have a wide range of requirements and behaviours that go along with them. As a result, therapy may be exhausting and difficult at times. No two days on TC are ever the same since there is never a boring moment. As a result of all of the above qualities it is also very gratifying and therapeutic. It is a high-octane rollercoaster of emotions and experiences.
Do you have a specialism or current interest?
When I started working in the TC, I had no notion I wanted to work in a forensic environment. It was more like I was attracted to this line of work from my time on a female estate. In training programmes, Forensic Psychotherapy isn’t well-known or discussed, which has a lot to do with how people see prisons and the role they play in society. When I first joined the TC, I was a Clinical Lead for one of the four main Communities. I thought I understood what to anticipate before beginning the role, but nothing can completely prepare you for working in a prison Therapeutic Community. In spite of years of personal therapy, so much more emerged for me within weeks of beginning the role and I realised very quickly the importance of having sufficient support in place for myself, as regards managing my experiences of the work. I am always learning about myself on a personal and professional level, which keeps me engaged in what I do on a daily basis. Forensic rehabilitation can learn a lot from Psychotherapy, as I’ve seen it work wonders for people who faced and overcame enormous challenges during their time on TC. With my Forensic Psychodynamic Psychotherapy training programme at the Tavistock and Portman Clinic in London drawing to a close, I have gained more knowledge and abilities in forensic work, particularly dealing with sexual crimes, while also reigniting my enthusiasm for the field as a whole.
Eating Disorders is another area in which I have a keen interest, and I received invaluable theory-based training, at The National Centre for Eating Disorders in London. Again, I believe Psychotherapy, has a lot to offer in the treatment of Eating Disorders, but it’s also a difficult task for any Therapist to take on. More individuals should be able to receive the assistance they need to overcome the difficulties they face because of the secrecy and stigma surrounding these complicated, extremely debilitating, and deadly illnesses.
How do you attend to your own self-care?
Self-care used to seem like an indulgence to me at the beginning of my training, and as a result, I pushed myself too hard and encountered a lot of roadblocks. Even though it was painful, hitting those barriers made me take a step back, assess, and make some adjustments. That included achieving a better equilibrium in my life between helping others while also taking care of myself. In the past several years, I’ve made great progress on this, and I want to keep working on it. Everyone’s definition of self-care will be different, but for me, it’s all about getting back to the fundamentals. The older I get, the more I appreciate a restful night’s sleep. I’m an early riser and as such, I’m most productive throughout the day. It’s not uncommon for me to wake up at 5am and don my trainers to go running or perform a high-intensity interval training exercise in my living room. This may seem insane to others, but it is pure pleasure to me. One of my favourite times of the day is early morning, when the world is quiet. Running allows me to think and absorb things better, and it gets me ready for the day ahead. In addition, I maintain a healthy weight and like relaxing and having fun with family and friends when I have free time. Every day, I make an effort to laugh and have fun. Having fun isn’t restricted to children’s age groups! Before the epidemic, taking trips with my girlfriends or seeing my Irish roots were important components of my self-care regimen. I’m excited to get back in touch with those parts of myself soon.
What advice would you give to someone considering work in a prisoner/offender setting?
It’s not for everyone to do prison work, and it’s certainly not for everyone to do Psychotherapy prison work. If you’re someone who suffers with problem-solving and decision-making because of the lack of clear boundaries, it’s better to remain outside the gates. This field of employment will be ideal for individuals who thrive in fast-paced settings and who thrive dealing with unique therapeutic materials that are both difficult and complicated. Most importantly, be open to whatever comes your way, both outwardly and inwardly, and hold yourself responsible by attending supervision and therapy often. The final piece of advice I would give is to surround yourself with individuals who you can think with and who are willing to give you feedback on your ideas.
Ajmer Wahiwala and Carleen Bentley
2018 Graduates from MSc Integrative Psychotherapy
The Autumn of 2015 was just typical, even-handed, seasonal transition into, what had been a bit of a dismal summer. The air seemed bright and fresh, colours were vivid and vibrant, yet daylight hours were becoming more noticeably reductive, inch by inch. Winter, the Sherwood start date and nerves; synchronous.
MSc Integrative Psychotherapy; Group A-Room 6. 12 enthusiastic adults, wide-eyed, riding high on adrenalin and bravadoes, gathered like a gaggle of geese, which made the Registration Process seem a complete smudge.
Amidst the blurry watercolour memories of that day, I remember seeing a very still and poised figure observing the gouache, yet it seemed, somehow from a very different, yet similar perspective. This was the first encounter of what turned out to be, a transformational friendship with my colleague, friend and brother. A friendship that proved unequivocally that relationship, truly has the power to heal.
I felt apprehensive during Group Process especially, the group was busy forming its shape; a square I thought. Not fond of squares, being more of a circle person, I found comfort in observation and silence. I think, in retrospect the working alliance between us both was born from a gentle yielding and pushing of silent energy. Our movement and energy danced to a melodic, yet powerful rhythm of knowing; yet not knowing at all, really. Introspectively, as much as Group Process was abhorred by me, it was the catalyst for the creation of the relationship.
We eventually formed a study group; which was the foundation of our success. It meant we could draw on our strengths; we completed whole chapters of books and got lost in dissecting the data together. We became an unrecognisable force academically, and our grades rocketed since we started working relationally, drawing on each other’s strengths to combat each other’s drawbacks, we began absorbing theory like sponges. Academically, and theoretically we began to push each other’s windows of tolerance, whilst personally supporting each other through the emotional and physical journey of the course.
My colleague’s cognitive ability to process rapidly and my own ability to work creatively and artistically, adapting data into a heuristic felt sense, opened up a vortex of transferable learning. We both became proficient in each other’s learning and processing style. We both found a new way to learn, process data and be in the world.
By the end of the 4th year we had finished our Dissertation 2 weeks early, by working relationally we were able to command higher academic grades, both graduating with distinction, valedictorian.
Since then we have cultivated our experiences of training at SPTI and have since set up a very successful, private practice, based in Nottingham and Peterborough. We have been busy writing academic and theoretical articles and plan to present our research at Clinical Conference. Our research has been accepted for the BACP New Researcher Award 2019.
Our plans for our future are to complete further research at PhD and possibly lecture at SPTI and beyond.
If you would like to contact us, to ask any questions or are looking for academic support, please get in touch with SPTI for details on how to contact us.
Good luck and best wishes, with your training, Carleen and AJ.
2012 Graduate from BSc (Hons) Counselling & Psychotherapy
I studied for my BSc (Hons) in Counselling and Psychotherapy at SPTI from 2009 until I graduated in November 2012, through Coventry University .
After I finished my degree course, I continued to volunteer with First Step, Leicester; a service for male survivors of sexual abuse. In all I would spend 8 years working in this vital area of support for men.
As soon as I graduated, I sub-let/rented counselling rooms around the East Midlands. I worked from rooms with two other SPTI graduates in Leicester city, renting rooms for a few evening hours a week whilst still working full-time for a local council. To start, I forged ahead developing my website, Facebook business and Counselling Directory pages, networking and other avenues for publicising my services.
When the number of clients enquiring about counselling out stripped my availability, I changed to being a part-time employee and therapist. I also diversified my work locations and where I sourced clients from. I rented space in Leicester, Northampton and Daventry. A top tip for finding suitable rooms is to look at hairdressers! I also found hairdressers sent me clients and occasionally my clients would treat themselves to the services of the salon.
I made enquiries with Employee Assistance Program (E.A.P.) services, I worked with The Well Being Therapy Centre, Health Assured, Validium Group and was sent referrals by The Listening Centre. I had been a serving police officer for several years, so I contacted local police forces to offer my services as well.
I decided to become a full-time private practice counsellor in 2015 and divided my time between Leicester, Northampton and Daventry. The only problem with this idea is that you can spread yourself too thinly and never be in the right place at the right time. I continued working for myself until 2017 but to be honest; self-employment can be quite stressful and take over your life.
I saw an advert for a High Intensity Therapist for Northamptonshire Health Trust, and this was something that really interested me. I knew that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) was the preferred panacea for short term NHS counselling, but I have always believed in Humanistic/Person-centred therapy being an equally effective tool for clients and an alternative to CBT. Rather fortunately the interviewing panel agreed with me. I had a 4-hour long interview and got a phone call that afternoon offering me the job; the first of 2 Person-centred counsellors the trust would employ. I’d found my new passion and started 5 days a week in 4 different locations around Northampton and Daventry seeing about 6 clients a day. Being an accredited BACP member was essential to the role.
This was my new home and career, at least I thought so. Until I reconnected with a friend on the opposite side of the world and fell in love. Little did I know that after 14 months at Northamptonshire NHS trust I’d be leaving for Western Australia. There are many ways to get to Australia and sometimes counsellors are offered sponsorship to different states; this means you can apply for a job from the UK and if it’s the right state you can migrate and work for your employer for a specified time whilst waiting for permanent residency status. Free to move states thereafter.
I was too old, and Western Australia wasn’t looking for counsellors from abroad, at the time (2018). I moved to get married, so I arrived on a visitor’s visa and then arranged to get married and apply for a partner’s visa. This meant I couldn’t look for work until my visitor’s visa expired (3 months); then I could look for work.
I had looked at numerous jobs for “counsellors” whilst in the UK, but it was only when I looked at them in detail that I realised the differences in counselling in Australia. There’s no NHS here, all healthcare is paid for in some way. Psychologists and Social Workers can be counsellors here, and they can offer services through the Medicare system (as sort of basic health cover). Counsellors, unbelievably, aren’t recognised to offer this service; therefore, your full fee must be covered by the client. Whereas psychs and Social workers get a refund through government.
It’s easy to join a professional body here if you come from the UK; my degree, BACP accreditation and the number of clinical supervision and practice hours put me straight into the top level of the Australian Counselling Association – overnight once I’d collected the right paperwork!
I was employed by an Employment Services company (a private company providing services like Job Centre Plus) as their only counsellor in Western Australia (look at the size of it on a map!), in reality it was just the southern half of Perth, but I covered 6 offices and had a huge number of clients and an ever growing waiting list.
In July 2020 I found my ideal job just a 10-minute train ride from home. I now work as a Men’s Time Counsellor and facilitator for Anglicare WA. I’m the only male counsellor in my office and we work with females and children who experience mental wellbeing issues. I work with couples and families but mostly men; 1-2-1. I have run a group program called Caring Dads (for fathers who have used DV in front of their children) and I am currently looking at starting other programs for fathers, partners and ex-partners to find better ways of dealing with family violence, child development and improving mental wellbeing.
Pay rates are particularly good here and there’s the opportunity to spend a lot of time outdoors, beautiful scenery and gorgeous uncluttered beaches. The summers are hot and the winters chilly; it’s amazing how cold 16 degrees centigrade is once you acclimatise.
An SPTI degree has helped me travel a lot of the world and enabled me to enjoy home and work life. It’s a wonderful life.
What did you do before psychotherapy?
Before I became a therapist, I was a criminal prosecutor. In my 26 years in the job I prosecuted everything from motoring to murder, but I specialised in sexual offences – mainly child abuse and rape. My last job role was running the East Midlands Serious Sexual Offences unit, managing a team of 20 lawyers.
Why did you become a psychotherapist?
It was actually another psychotherapist who got me hooked. As a prosecutor I came into contact with a lot of victims of sexual crimes and found it hard to understand why memories of such traumatic events were often so poor. I also didn’t understand why victims would often behave in ways that seemed counterintuitive – for example by not screaming or fighting back. When I went to a talk given by a psychotherapist and learned about the freeze/flop reaction and the impact of dissociation on memory, so much became clear to me. Later my learning about attachment helped me to understand why clients would fight to stay with abusive parents – which again seemed counterintuitive. I made it my mission to learn as much as I could to try and educate other lawyers so that we would make better decisions and enable more victims to feel understood and believed. I also learned that ‘evidence’ was always filtered through our own beliefs or ‘life scripts’. When I started to get disillusioned by the politics of my job psychotherapy really appealed. As well as a desire to help, my legal career was driven by a complete fascination and endless curiosity about people – and in many ways so is my psychotherapy practice.
How do you work?
My qualification was in person centred psychotherapy, but I consider myself to be an ‘integrative’ or pluralistic practitioner. My experience has shown me that not all clients respond to the same approach, and we need to have the courage and creativity to adapt. I got out of my old legal job because of the politics – so I’m not going to let politics over modalities get in the way of doing the best job I can as a therapist. I’m also a firm believer in psycho-education. My knowledge doesn’t make me the expert of the client’s experiences – but who doesn’t want to go and see a therapist who knows about the mechanics of trauma and who can help clients understand and normalise their reactions?
What doors has your qualification opened?
Lots! One of the best has been the total joy of becoming self-employed. Unfortunately I have always had a tendency to be a bit of a workaholic and that hasn’t really changed, but at least I now only have myself to blame! But having said that I really treasured no longer getting up at 6am, and battling my way into a city centre (I work much closer to home in Edwinstowe).
The other fabulous door opened to me has been the opportunity to start my own training business ‘Inspire CPD for therapists’ with a colleague I met through Rape Crisis. This is Nottingham based but during the pandemic we have had to adapt to delivering workshops via Zoom which ironically has allowed us to become known to a wider audience. Whilst I love my work with clients, after so long as a court lawyer sometimes the ‘stage’ feels a bit ‘small’! Training allows that part of me free rein to re-engage with an audience!
What is your special interest?
Trauma. My previous work experience was obviously rooted in this and I remain fascinated by everything we are learning especially as we get more advancements in neuroscience. I also like the fact that I can still add a legal dimension to our training workshop on disclosure, safeguarding and pre-trial therapy.
What do you do for self-care?
Sometimes not enough – see above on being a workaholic! But I do Pilates twice a week, ensure I regularly meet up with friends I can really talk to (even if that is outside these days!) – oh and get plenty of sleep. I also try to make sure that my reading isn’t all work based too – so I love a good crime fiction novel.
What’s your view on supervision?
I love supervision as a place to safely download and really explore what is happening for me in my client work. I’d go every week if I could, but I’m lucky to have a couple of really close colleagues that provide excellent peer support. I completed my supervision training at SPTI and it was lovely to go back after such a long gap. My business is now approximately 50% supervision and I enjoy being alongside students as they cope with the stresses of client work and college work – often whilst battling massive change in their own processes.
What is the most recent CPD activity you’ve undertaken?
A Zoom presentation by Richard Erskine who has been very influential in my way of working.
What advice would you give to someone joining the profession today?
Never forget where you’ve come from and what transferable skills you have – nor who you are. In many ways criminal law and psychotherapy are light years apart and it took me a long time to stop denying aspects of who I am to try and fit in with what and who I thought a therapist should be. I now feel much more comfortable in who I am and also blessed that all that previous knowledge and life experience can still be put to good use.
What piece of wisdom do you like to share with clients?
Although we may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that also happen to feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that also happen to think.
Sally is a therapist, supervisor and trainer based in North Notts. For information about Inspire CPD visit Sally’s website www.inspirecpdfortherapists.com