Meet the Therapist: Errolie Sermaine
What attracted you to become a therapist?
I was always interested in psychology at school because I was fascinated by what made people do the things that they did. For a while I toyed with the idea of pursuing it at university but as a young adult and the product of a difficult childhood, I didn’t have the confidence. Instead I got married straight out of college and ended up bouncing around between various pointless unfulfilling jobs. I never really settled into any particular career and so eleven years later when I found myself going through a very difficult divorce and battling postnatal depression, I began to question my identity and my purpose in life.
I now know that I was going through an existential crisis but at the time all I knew was that something was very wrong. Several years later when I finally started to piece myself back together I realised that I wanted to do a job that was meaningful, something that I would be proud of. I wanted to feel that something good had come out of all that angst and believed that I could use my painful experiences to help others.
Where did you train?
I completed my professional counselling training at Redbridge Institute, an outstanding local adult community college and it completely changed my life. The tutors were incredibly supportive and they empowered me to dream big. I was so impressed with my learning experience there that when a teaching position became available a while later, I jumped at it. Something I would never have had the confidence to do before my counselling training. Since then I have completed training at several other colleges and universities but none of them have compared to that initial experience at Redbridge Institute.
Can you tell us about the type of therapy you practise?
Initially I trained in humanistic counselling but then went on to complete further training in cognitive behavioural (CBT) and psychodynamic approaches, originally believing that working integratively across the three schools would be the best approach. However, I have always wholeheartedly believed in Carl Rogers' notion that ‘the relationship is the therapy’ and so I have tended to stay firmly rooted in the humanistic approach when working with clients.
I love the person-centred approach and for me Rogers’ six therapeutic conditions are absolutely necessary but unfortunately not always sufficient. Therapy isn’t ‘one size fits all’ and so I prefer to be able to tailor my approach to suit each client’s individual needs. I do this by incorporating existential and gestalt approaches into my therapeutic work.
Using the person-centred approach allows me to establish a rapport and build trust with my clients by using empathy to really understand their world from their unique perspective. Providing unconditional positive regard and being genuine creates a safe space where clients can explore their deepest darkest thoughts and feelings without fear of judgement or ridicule.
Using the existential approach allows me to help them explore the ‘ultimate concerns’ that we all struggle with at times – the certainty of death, feelings of isolation, what it means to have freedom of choice and the potential meaninglessness of our own lives.
Adding gestalt techniques helps me to creatively aid clients in exploring these and other issues around their thoughts and feelings, uncovering and freeing them from unwanted inherited beliefs.
How does humanistic therapy help with symptoms of postnatal depression?
Having a baby is one of the biggest life-changing experiences a person can go through and until fairly recently it was thought that only women could experience postnatal depression. However, the NHS now believes that one in ten men will also experience some form of depression following the birth of a child. There is no single cause of postnatal depression and it can start without reason, making it difficult for people to understand.
Humanistic counselling provides a safe space for mums and dads to explore their feelings and thoughts with someone that can offer empathy and understanding. Gestalt and person-centred techniques can be used to help them understand what they are going through and what they can do to change their experience. Having a baby can trigger long-forgotten memories and feelings around difficulties from our past and clients may wish to explore these along with their past and present relationships. Ultimately this exploration can help them to understand their postnatal depression and begin the recovery process.
Ultimately counselling gives clients a voice, helping them to express and process difficult emotions without fear of judgement. Shame and guilt can be a huge part of postnatal depression and providing a space where these are removed can help clients to begin accepting themselves.
What sort of people do you usually see?
A lot of my clients are women that have just had a baby and may be experiencing ‘baby blues’ or postnatal depression. However, I am starting to see more men accessing counselling who have recently become fathers and are struggling with their new role. It’s good to see that as a society we are more aware of the huge impact that having a child can have on both mums and dads.
I also see clients of all ages and genders experiencing relationship difficulties, depression and anxiety, including many teenagers and young adults. As I offer telephone and online counselling via Skype I find that people from all over the UK access my practice and for some this reduces their fears around running into their counsellor in social settings.
As I still work as a counselling tutor and clinical supervisor in adult education I find that I get approached by a lot of students from other colleges for personal counselling (obviously for ethical reasons I don’t provide counselling or supervision for my own students). I also provide counselling for a lot of teachers which I thoroughly enjoy as I feel they often take on a huge amount of pastoral work with their students but don’t always get the training or support that they need.
As a clinical supervisor I work with a lot of counselling trainees and newly qualified counsellors which I find truly rewarding.
What do you like about being a therapist?
I like helping people and making a positive difference to their lives. There can sometimes be a teaching element to counselling where you can empower a client with new skills that enable them to change their thinking patterns and opinions about themselves and others. Seeing that ‘lightbulb’ moment happen for clients is priceless.
What is less pleasant?
It can be difficult to see people in emotional pain and feeling stuck in their lives. Occasionally clients tell me about their experiences of being let down by other health professionals and that can be frustrating. I’d like to think that all health professionals go above and beyond for their service users but I know that’s not always the case.
How long you’ve been with welldoing.org and what you think of us?
I joined welldoing.org this year after it was recommended to me by a friend. I really like the website as it seems very user friendly and potential clients can easily access useful information. The articles are also a fantastic resource.
Do you ever suggest books or apps to clients?
Sometimes I might suggest a book if I feel that it may be of benefit to the client. I’m very careful not to add any pressure or judgement though as ultimately it is their choice whether they actually read it or not. A book I often recommend is Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.
What you do for your own mental health?
As I have been prone to depression and anxiety in the past I am ever mindful of my work/life balance. Working in private practice can be somewhat isolating so I surround myself with friends and family wherever possible. I meditate regularly and do sponsored walks to raise money for various charities. Last year I completed the Shine Night Marathon to raise money for Cancer Research UK.
You are a therapist in East London. What can you share with us about seeing clients in that area?
I’m fortunate to work in a London borough which is very culturally diverse. Local to my practice are areas with communities from both ends of the age scale; lots of couples and young families but then also a large number of older residents.
Providing telephone and online counselling and supervision also allows me to broaden my client group beyond local parameters which I find hugely exciting.
What’s your consultation room like?
I hire a room in a lovely building in South Woodford, E18. My room is small with off-whites walls and several comfortable chairs. There is a small table so that I can provide fresh drinking water and glasses for clients. It is a calm, quiet space at the back of the building, out of the way of interruptions.
When I’m counselling via Skype I make sure that my house is free of noise and interruptions and the background is homely but neutral.
I also offer home visits to new parents and older clients that may feel uncomfortable leaving their own home. When working in someone else’s home I counsel them in whichever room they feel most comfortable. However, I still insist that there are as few interruptions or distractions as possible as it’s important that we create a safe therapeutic space in which we can begin our work together.
What do you wish people knew about therapy?
I wish people knew how wonderful therapy can be. Yes, it can be uncomfortable, painful even but it can also completely change your life. Having counselling is nothing to be ashamed of and you don’t need to wait until you’re at crisis point to benefit from it. We all need a little support sometimes and rather than telling you what to do, a good therapist will help you to find your own answers.
The client is always in control of the therapy and they can stop or leave at any time. Contrary to what some believe, therapy is something done with you, not to you and most importantly, counsellors have been through therapy too as part of their training so they understand and respect the courage it takes to seek help.
What did you learn about yourself in therapy?
The greatest thing that I learned in therapy was that by exploring my deepest darkest fears, I took away their power. I learned to accept myself fully, including all those parts of myself that I’d buried through shame or guilt. As Rogers said, 'The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I change.’
I also learned that I am resilient and that I have freedom and choice. I stopped trying to change other people and learned to how to be myself.