Meet the Therapist: Rowan St Clair
What attracted you to become a therapist?
I’ve always been interested in hearing people’s life stories. As a therapist, I look at how we use our stories to give meaning to our lives.
Sometimes the stories we tell ourselves don’t quite match our experiences – perhaps because we didn’t have the whole picture of events, or because circumstances, or we ourselves, have changed – and then therapy can help us create new ways of seeing things.
I also believe in the power of human connection. My own life experiences have shown me how connection with others can help us through difficult times.
During therapy sessions, I facilitate relationships, with ourselves, with others and with our environments. This can sometimes mean helping clients reconnect with parts of themselves they might have lost sight of; it can mean exploring how people connect in relationships with others in their lives; it can also mean connecting with new experiences and the wider world, including the rest of nature, of which we’re all a part.
I aim to foster a sense of connection in therapy, which my clients can take with them to other areas of their lives.
Where did you train?
I qualified in counselling skills and with a diploma in integrative therapy at the Mary Ward Centre and at the City Literary Institute, both in central London.
I completed further training for a year’s certificate in environmentally-based therapies (ecotherapy and nature therapy) with the Tariki Trust; I’m now continuing to study for their diploma.
Can you tell us about the type of therapy you practise?
I chose integrative therapy, meaning I combine different types of therapy in my work, because my experience is that every person is unique and comes to therapy with their own way of experiencing the world.
As well as therapy indoors, as a qualified ecotherapist I offer walk and talk therapy outdoors in London parks. Walk and talk therapy can simply be traditional counselling or psychotherapy, while walking or sitting outdoors in nature. I like to encourage connection with the natural world around us during the sessions, perhaps watching the ducks on a pond, feeling the breeze and breathing the fresh air, touching leaves and smelling flowers: mindful moments.
It can also draw out deeper connections to the elements, especially when we experience the rain, sun and wind and notice how they affect our emotional states. I’m led by my clients’ preferences, so sitting in the shade or taking a slow amble on the paths is as welcome as a hike across the heath.
How do walk and talk therapy and nature therapy help with symptoms of anxiety, depression or loss?
Walk and talk therapy provides the benefits of physical exercise, which can help alleviate depression and can channel some of the energy of anxiety. It involves movement, which can create natural metaphors and open up questions to focus on (where are you heading? which path will you take?). Simply sitting in natural surroundings can also be a calming experience, with benefits for mental health.
Taking therapy outdoors can help us connect with our experience of being human in an uncertain world, helping us find ourselves in times of confusion, pain or stress. Sometimes just the sensations it gives us can ground us when we’re anxious: feeling the breeze, rain or sun, hearing birds sing and leaves rustle, seeing the colours of nature.
Walking or sitting side by side can benefit those who feel less comfortable in a therapy room. It can also benefit those with ADD or ADHD, as movement and the sights and sounds around us can sometimes help focus. I've found that therapy in natural spaces can help those who are suffering anxiety, depression, and grief, because it provides some serenity and moments to look around us, gently.
What sort of people do you usually see?
My clients are usually over 18 and come to therapy with different issues. Sometimes they might begin therapy because of a general sense of feeling low or anxious, wanting to get to the root of this; sometimes their current life circumstances are causing them stress or unhappiness and they want to look at changes they could make. Sometimes they have childhood experiences affecting them in the present and need a space where they feel comfortable to talk about these.
I’ve been working for a charity supporting parents, so my clients there are experiencing the challenges parenthood can bring. They come to therapy for many different reasons and sometimes they’re so focused on their children’s needs that they really need a space to remind them that their own needs are important, too. We need to put our own life jackets on before we can help put someone else’s on, as the saying goes.
Have you noticed any recent mental health trends or wider changes in attitude?
I’ve noticed a lot more willingness to talk about mental health, perhaps due to longstanding campaigns by charities such as Rethink and Mind as well as the rise of social media.
There’s also more awareness of diversity and how different experiences affect each of us differently. I feel it’s very positive that younger people are more educated in emotional health than my generation and older ones perhaps were.
I’ve also noticed more awareness of the effect of social and political issues on our mental health and more willingness to talk about this in the therapy world, raising awareness of how issues of poverty, discrimination, migration and climate change, to give some examples, affect us at an individual level.
What do you like about being a therapist?
It’s always rewarding getting to know my clients, hearing their life stories, thoughts and ideas. Every individual I’ve met in my therapy practice has struck me with their courage and insight. As a result, I’ve found that being a therapist has strengthened my faith in human nature. As a therapist you get to see people at what they might feel is their worst, if they’re feeling vulnerable, but always, really, reveals the very best of people.
What is less pleasant?
How long have you been with Welldoing and what you think of us?
I’ve been with Welldoing since I heard about it in the media a few months ago and I’ve found the site very easy to use, with a very supportive team.
Do you ever suggest books or apps to clients?
I sometimes recommend online yoga for clients who can’t make it to classes: my favourite is Yoga with Adriene (on Youtube or her website) as she provides beginners’ videos as well as courses aimed at different needs, all free or donation-based.
When I’m working with parents, I sometimes recommend Parenting from the Inside Out by Daniel J. Siegel and Mary Hartzell. This book helps readers notice how their own childhoods might be affecting their emotional responses as parents. It uses exercises and reflections to help parents break negative cycles in their relationships with their children.
Another book I like to recommend is The Mindfulness Self-Compassion Workbook by Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer. The title speaks for itself, but I can’t emphasise enough how far just a little practice of mindfulness and self-compassion can go.
What you do for your own mental health?
Exercise and nature are essentials for me. I spend a lot of time in parks. Living in London, I don’t spend as much time by the sea or in forests as I’d like, but I do go walking in the Peak District and Wales when I can and I love wild swimming.
I’m also a big fan of what I call the ‘sit and stare’ method of relaxation. I can sit in a park looking at pigeons or in a cafe watching people passing by, or just gaze into space, and am quite content!
If I find the time, my ideal relaxation would be to lie in a hammock reading Shakespeare. Last summer I read The Tempest and this year I’m hoping to reread Twelfth Night. Sometimes engaging the brain can, paradoxically, relax it, just as physical exercise can help relax the body.
You are a therapist in Camden and North London. What can you share with us about seeing clients in this area?
Central and North London are such diverse areas. There are people who have lived here all their lives and others who have come as students, migrants or refugees or to work. It’s also characterised by diversity in life experience and income.
As a result, my clients have come from a variety of professions, nationalities, ages and backgrounds.
What’s your consultation room like?
Beautiful. One is an attic garret, in an old building renovated to create a serene and comfortable space – a therapeutic metaphor for what we might achieve with the dusty old things we’ve stored away in our unconscious.
The other is in a wonderful therapy centre in a park in North London, a historical building restored like a phoenix from ruins, another therapeutic metaphor.
Nature is also my therapy room. It can offer a non-judgemental space, where your day to day stressors of work or relationships are relaxed for a while and you can pause or assess your feelings. I offer outdoor therapy in parks and green spaces (Regent’s Park, Highgate Wood, Waterlow Park and Woodberry Wetland). Everyone has their own, individual feelings about the natural world, so when I’m holding a therapy session in a park or woodland, we explore how the space feels to you and where you would like to go.
What do you wish people knew about therapy?
I’d like to reassure people that therapy is OK. It might sound daunting, digging into dark places, opening cans of worms. And it can be, but a therapist will aim to work at your own pace and check with you that you’re ok with what’s coming up.
It’s up to you if you don’t feel ready to talk about something. It’s also ok if you do want to talk about anything: that’s what we’re here for.
What did you learn about yourself in therapy?
That it’s ok to feel all sorts of emotions. I had a tendency when I was younger to push aside my feelings, to try to just get on with things and to be a high achiever. Therapy helped me realise that my feelings mattered: it’s OK to slow down and give attention to them.