Israel and Palestine in the therapist’s office: how counsellors support people without taking sides
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War and politics can cause serious mental anguish and trauma, even for people thousands of miles away from a conflict. Counsellors who specialise in loss and grief may well meet clients who have lost relatives in conflicts such as those in Ukraine and the Middle East.
How do we work on the side of our grieving client without taking sides in a conflict?
Counselling should be a safe and confidential space for clients to express their true feelings, particularly about complex topics. For counsellors to create this space, they must be both politically aware and self-aware, and have a healthy relationship with their own clinical supervisors.
Politically aware counsellors recognise that the emotional issues bringing clients to counselling often cannot be separated from political issues – poverty, discrimination, violence and war.
Dealing with personal bias
Therapists are human. They will have strong feelings where they perceive inhumanity, injustice and oppression. Nevertheless, they can work with people affected by war from either side of a conflict.
Counsellors and psychotherapists adhere to ethical codes that inform their work. The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy’s ethical code expects a therapist to be aware of strong feelings, including perceived injustice, which could affect the therapeutic relationship with their client.
The ethical bereavement counsellor eschews their bias. They can work with an Israeli, a Palestinian, a Ukrainian or a Russian, even with their personal perceptions of the rights and wrongs of the politics of a particular conflict.
Difficulties arise, however, when the counsellor is unaware of biases they may hold. Unconscious bias is a prejudice against a person, group or culture which is outside of the practitioner’s awareness, and is a recognised issue in health professions.
Because this could negatively contribute to the counselling relationship, a therapist’s work is supervised by a peer, an experienced practitioner generally with a diploma in clinical supervision. In most countries, including the UK, clinical supervision is mandatory throughout a therapist’s career to ensure their clients are kept safe.
If a counsellor has any feelings that may affect their relationships with clients, they discuss it with their supervisor. This is an opportunity to reveal unconscious behaviour and harmful biases.
Once these have been discussed in supervision, the counsellor may decide that they favour one side in the conflict and that it would be unethical to take on a new client bereaved by war. If the relationship was with an existing client, the counsellor might decide that they couldn’t work with the new bereavement, and instead support the client in finding another counsellor.
However, bias doesn’t always mean ending the client relationship. A counsellor with sympathies towards Ukraine in the face of Russian military aggression may still feel able to counsel a bereaved Russian wife or mother.
Supporting the client without taking sides
Many bereavement counsellors follow the model of person-centred counselling. This approach helps clients explore their own feelings and reach their full potential (rather than a counsellor solving their problems for them).
One of the core conditions of person-centred counselling is not judging the client for their words and actions. The client may express vengeful thoughts about the “enemy” who killed their loved one, and here the counsellor treads a difficult path.
When the counsellor listens without judging, the client may interpret this as the counsellor taking their side. They may even post about their therapist’s support on social media, which would compromise the therapist’s neutrality. A counsellor may need to be explicit about supporting the client’s grief and understanding their feelings, without taking sides in the conflict.
For some people bereaved by war, activism becomes part of their grief. Parents of victims or soldiers in a war may campaign for justice for their child. Counsellors may raise with the client the possibility that activism is masking or delaying the grieving process. They may also need to be explicit that their support for the client’s grieving approach is not the same as supporting their cause.
Empathy and trauma in counselling
Counsellors are trained in using the skills of empathy. A bereavement counsellor learns to feel what it’s like to learn that a lost relative died in a terrorist attack, was crushed under the rubble of an apartment block, or bled to death after being hit by a mortar bomb.
Hearing one side of the atrocities, along with graphic news coverage, can vicariously traumatise the counsellor, leading to strong emotions, compassion fatigue and even the risk of developing a partisan position.
It is just as important for counsellors to take care of their own responses to war and conflict. Counsellors are urged by their profession to practise self-care, which can include regular emotional support with the therapist’s clinical supervisor. Even counsellors need counselling.
John Frederick Wilson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.