Meet the Therapist: Michael Armstrong
What attracted you to become a therapist?
My main career was in English prisons and then ten years in the Scottish Prison Service. I served for 34 years from joining as an officer and gaining promotions until finishing my career as a Prisons Inspector in Scotland. In the late 1980s, I decided I would like to offer support to victims of crime, this was how I started on my journey into counselling.
Where did you train?
My local victim support scheme gave me training in basic listening skills and supporting victims through giving evidence to police and courts. I also trained to help victims of serious crimes, particularly sexual offences. This gave me a good understanding of supporting trauma cases which in turn helped me to develop post-incident support for prison staff.
In Edinburgh, after retiring from the prison service I was offered a role with a trauma charity and completed an integrative counselling course with Chrysalis courses.
Can you tell us about the type of therapy you practise?
I chose Chrysalis courses as the training was a good mix of models and particular subjects. Chrysalis is based in South West England but run courses all over the UK. For my training I opted for an integrated based course as this philosophy gives counsellors a good understanding of the strengths of each of the main models so this is useful in tailoring the style to suit clients’ individual needs. I prefer this way of working as clients can gain benefit from being able to bring numerous problems to counselling and benefit from different approaches to different issues.
How does integrative therapy help with symptoms of trauma?
Using an integrated approach can be a game changer with a wide range of symptoms and helped me to specialise in trauma for prison incidents then complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) for survivors of abuse. This has since proved helpful in every other situation from bereavement, to stress, anxiety and depression and even couple counselling. I feel that adopting a tailored approach is key to supporting people through change regardless of their issues and symptoms.
What sort of people do you usually see?
I see people of all ages and personalities regardless of their issues. I believe that counselling should be available to all and as a therapist I can relate to any clients who seek out my support. My most recent client case load consisted of people with issues at work, stress, relationships, depression and anxiety. I also have a core of people in long-term counselling for trauma related issues.
What do you like about being a therapist?
I love meeting people and am appreciative that my clients feel confident in sharing aspects of their lives with me. The people I meet may be looking for short-term solution-focused therapy, through to embarking on life-changing long-term therapy for CPTSD. They are all interesting and offer their individuality in an equal counselling relationship.
I enjoy the challenge of tailoring my approach to meet the needs of my client; when this is successful it is immensely pleasing to see them flourish and make decisions about their future selves. I particularly enjoy it when a client reaches their goal and comes to the point where they have achieved what they came to therapy for.
What is less pleasant?
Sometimes people are ‘persuaded’ by other people that they need counselling. Often agencies or well-meaning relatives or friends do this. Sadly, if the client isn’t ready for counselling, this can have a negative effect on the engagement of a client who may feel an obligation to someone else rather than embracing the idea that the support is solely for their benefit.
How long you’ve been with welldoing.org and what you think of us?
I like the approach that welldoing.org has, I have only been with them about a month and have found that:
- They have the needs of counsellors at heart and have developed sound technological resources designed to match clients with counsellors, clients can schedule sessions and there is a painless system for payments
- This means that counsellors can be focussed purely on client needs
- Welldoing.org create a good community feel with social media and accessible support should it be needed
- They’re also proactive in promoting good practice, information and access to training.
Do you ever suggest books or apps to clients?
Being an integrative counsellor I have benefitted from learning a lot about different models and come across some interesting books along the way, some of which are listed here. I often mention books to clients and also in clinical supervision to other counsellors. None of these books are too lengthy and offer down to earth ideas that are easy to adopt:
Counselling for Toads (Robert De Board) – a plain English explanation of what counselling is and how it can help people.
Games People Play (Eric Berne) – From the father of Transactional Analysis this is a helpful guide to the psychology of relationships within family, friends, colleagues or partners.
60 Tips for Self-Esteem (Lynda Fields) – a handy guide that gives the reader snappy yet informative ways to boost their self-confidence.
Rescuing the Inner Child (Penny Parks) – a superb breakdown of different aspects of therapy for adults who were sexually abused as children.
Creating Success (Andrew Bradbury) - Develop your NLP skills – a concise and easy to read guide to Neuro Linguistic Programming, a model that can be used in with other therapies to enhance aspects such as positive thinking, goal setting and building quality relationships.
I tend to encourage self-sustained relaxation exercises, physical exercise and good nutrition rather than apps to help clients. Some clients suffer from over-exposure to their phone or (the opposite) are on the verge of being a technophobe.
What you do for your own mental health?
I am also a massage therapist so believe in taking a holistic approach for my clients and in looking after my own physical and mental health. My mantra is that ‘I need to be okay, before I can help you to be okay.’ One analogy that clients seem to relate well to is that when on a plane the air crew give a safety presentation and state that:-
“You should put your own oxygen mask on before helping anyone else with their.” I encourage self-prioritisation to clients and this example seems to reaffirm the meaning of that perfectly.
In order to maintain my mental health I do relaxation and breathing exercises daily. Also I exercise about six times a week (run, cycle or gym). On any days that I don’t exercise I’ll do something gentler such as have a massage, a walk or watch a hypnotherapy DVD.
Where do you practice? What can you share with us about seeing clients in those areas?
I conduct online sessions covering the whole of the UK and face-to-face sessions in Cumbria and Dumfries and Galloway. I experience all walks of life and professions including some people from employee assistance programmes (EAP).
I hope to broaden my online private client base across the UK through welldoing.org's directory. Also, now that people are allowed to attend face-to-face sessions, it would be great to see more EAP clients who live and work locally.
What’s your consultation room like?
My room is in Carlisle Therapies, 34 Lowther Street, CA3 8DH, which is conveniently located in the centre of Carlisle. Situated in a large Georgian townhouse, the room benefits from large windows and natural light. It’s to the rear of the property so isn’t affected by traffic noise. It is possible to have the chairs more than two metres apart to ensure social distancing.
What do you wish people knew about therapy?
I’d like people to know that therapy doesn’t have to be the last resort and that they have to keep it a secret from friends and family. As a nation we need to be able to attend sessions with a therapist and be proud of that in order; this will allow us to feel comfortable in being in charge of our own destiny. British culture is still awkwardly stationed about the ‘stiff upper lip syndrome’; this needs to change to make us a healthier nation.
What did you learn about yourself in therapy?
I learned: whatever you have an issue with, there is always someone who can help you.