As a former debt ‘counsellor’, I feel the need to respond to Clare Pointon’s article ‘Debt despair’ (therapy today, October 2008)
As a former debt ‘counsellor’, I feel the need to respond to Clare Pointon’s article ‘Debt despair’ (therapy today, October 2008). While delighted to see an article on this subject, I’d like to draw attention to what I feel was a rather glaring omission: in focusing so much on individuals’ ‘spending problems’ as a cause of debt/money problems, it failed to allude to people who amass debts because they simply don’t have enough to live on, whether this is people in receipt of state benefits as their sole source of income or those experiencing poverty through low pay. People who, due to inadequate benefit levels for example, may have to get into debt in order to acquire basic household items and clothing, or to pay for adequate heating.
While some people in these circumstances may have what could be described as ‘spending issues’, in my experience the vast majority have debts entirely due to poverty, not only a lack of money but poor housing and many other interrelated complex issues. The world of home and car ownership, credit cards, bank loans and overdrafts, which is currently having terrible consequences for a wider section of society, is nonetheless a world away from the experiences of many marginalised and socially excluded people who have been struggling for years with debts such as rent, council tax and (even) poll tax arrears; substantial and increasing amounts owed to utility companies due to fuel poverty; and money owed to other creditors such as catalogue companies and door-to-door lenders charging extortionate rates of interest.
In my experience, such forms of indebtedness generally have nothing to do with any supposed ‘self-defeating money behaviours’ on the part of the individuals concerned, many of whom really know the value of money and manage brilliantly overall considering they’re having to subsist on such meagre incomes. Even where people in this situation do have ‘spending issues’, this merely exacerbates the problems caused by having to live on an inadequate income in the first place.
As to how counsellors might best respond to individual clients living in poverty, I believe it’s vital that we are willing and able, as part of our ongoing personal and professional development and our ethical commitment to working with equality and diversity, to develop our awareness of wider social and economic realities such as poverty and inequality as major sources of psychological distress. I also believe it’s incumbent upon us to be prepared to look at our own attitudes towards people who are poor, to identify our own preconceptions, judgements and prejudices in this area. For example, the notion that poor people are poor because they are weak or feckless, are not ‘aspirational’ or have problematic ‘spending behaviours’; or the belief that many people in receipt of state benefits are work shy, scroungers or benefit cheats; or beliefs around the so-called deserving and undeserving poor, etc.
In my view, this is the kind of work counsellors working with clients who are living in poverty should be engaging in if we are to be truly present and ethical in how we offer emotional support to the individuals concerned. Those running training courses also have a responsibility to ensure opportunities for this aspect of personal development work are included in the courses they offer. As regards the issue of counsellors incorporating advice on budgeting into their therapeutic practice, this is not something I as a person-centred counsellor would be willing or able to do. However, I appreciate that some counsellors, especially those from certain other theoretical orientations, may consider this appropriate. In my view it’s crucial, however, that counsellors working with these individuals likewise try to be aware of the wider social and economic context and to be self-aware regarding their own attitudes.
© British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy 2011.