Thursday, 5 November 2015

Bev Clarke - award-winning volunteer counsellor Ystradgynlais Mind

Bev receiving her Outstanding Contribution Award from the
High Sheriff of Powys, Lieutenant Colonel Mike Lewis DL
Bev Clarke has been volunteering at Ystradgynlais Mind for the past 4 years as a Level 6 counsellor / supervisor, enabling the mental health charity to provide a free counselling service to the community. She volunteers 3 days a week. She has enabled the recruitment of 7 further student counsellors, who benefit from her supervision and guidance. Her input both into clients and students is life changing.

In October 2015 Bev was winner of an Outstanding Contribution Award at the Powys Volunteer of the Year Awards. Her nominator said: “Bev has experienced her own difficulties throughout her life and she demonstrates you can overcome anything and give so much to the community despite those difficulties. She inspires all at Ystradgynlais and is loved and respected.”

Carol Stephens, Chief Executive at Ystradgynlais Mind, said: “We are thrilled about Bev's award, it is so well deserved. She's a diamond.”

We talked to Bev to find out more about her invaluable contribution at Ystradgynlais Mind.

What originally motivated you to start volunteering at Ystradgynlais Mind?

I graduated from the University of South Wales at Pontypridd in 2009 (Bachelor of Science (BSc) Hons, Systemic Counselling) and was looking for a counselling placement. I needed 450 hours of supervised counselling for my accreditation. I have 1050 now, 800 of these from counselling sessions at Ystradgynlais Mind.

I first came over to Ystradgynlais looking for plants and saw that there was a Mind centre here. I set up my own counselling practice in Port Talbot with a friend from university and volunteered my services to Ystrad Mind. Carol interviewed me and it went really well. She said – can you start next Wednesday?!

I have bipolar and Carol said “we’re looking for people like you”. It’s been a wonderful experience. I didn’t have to hide my mental health issues, it was like the start of a new beginning.

Carol and I share the same vision – which is to do the best for our clients and also to provide good packages for our student counsellors.

Tell us more about your role as a counsellor at Ystradgynlais Mind

A lot of men come to us for counselling which is unusual. It stands out at about 55%. They have moderate issues as they almost leave it too late to seek help. Women are not afraid to access the service, so their issues are often mild to moderate.

Most of our clients are middle-aged – in their 40s and 50s, with various issues. Often they might be waiting for treatment from the statutory mental health teams so they seek support from the voluntary sector instead. They usually have about 7 – 8 one hour counselling sessions, weekly or fortnightly depending on the complexity of the issues.

How does counselling make people’s lives better?

It is a forum where people can be heard. They take their issues away from their families and share them with someone else who is prepared to listen. They have more clarity with the help of a counsellor and so see things that they couldn’t before.

Who is eligible to receive the counselling service, and for how long can they access support?

The service is available to people 17 +. They can self-refer – some people walk in off the street - or they are referred by the GPs in the Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board cluster area.

If your role didn’t exist, what would happen to people who needed support with their mental health in Ystradgynlais and district?

I’ve seen mental health care decrease unbelievably in the past 4 – 5 years. There is no help there for people. Mental health isn’t a “sexy” health condition, so there is no investment or focus as with other ailments. It feels as if mental health is the poor relation. This is really obvious when working in the Third Sector.

Tell us more about your work supporting 7 student counsellors

I provide support for them, which includes 1½ hour supervision once a month where we’ll talk about the issues that have been raised with clients and signposting options for people. I also make sure that the counsellors are safe, and don’t take home any issues that could impact on their lives.

We source new student counsellors when we need them from the universities. The students are supposed to complete 100 hours of supervised counselling here, but some have already done 300. We give them an excellent level of support, their insurance is covered and they enjoy the experience here so they stay.

I believe you also provide counselling for GP patients in a neighbouring health board?

Our counselling services have now been taken on by GPs in the Ponterdawe and Neath Valley area so it has been well worth it.

Tell us some of the hardest things about being a volunteer counsellor

Watching how hard it is for those working and volunteering in the Third Sector to apply for grants and funding just to make ends meet. I’m here 2 – 3 days a week, but Carol is here for 5. I know how hard she works and how little she takes. I’ve got a bigger picture as a volunteer.

What is the most rewarding aspect of volunteering at Ystradgynlais Mind?

To see how the clients improve. And most of them give back – for example they give talks on their own mental health which is so enlightening for the student counsellors. It’s great the way that they find it good to say what they’ve been through. Clients also feedback to counsellors in supervision sessions.

What was it like winning the Outstanding Contribution Award at the Powys Volunteer of the Awards ceremony?

Well, at the end when I knew it was me who had won – my first thought was – don’t fall down the steps! There were fifty to get down!

I’m so proud of myself. My daughter was with me and she said – “you’ve set the bar even higher now!” To hear the words Carol had written when she put me forward for the award was wonderful.

The narrative of my own mental health issues was a guilty secret for so many years, it is almost a relief to talk about it now.

It was just a wonderful experience.

What would you say to encourage other people to volunteer to support people experiencing mental distress?

Don’t be afraid. We seek help from a psychiatrist in the same way as someone who is diabetic would go to a medical ward. It’s not like “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. We’re working with wonderful people who just have unfortunate mental health issues.

I have enjoyed every minute that I’ve given to Ystradgynlais Mind.

Many thanks to Bev for telling us about her role at Ystradgynlais Mind. You can contact the charity by emailing or ringing 01597 824411, or visit the Ystradgynlais Mind website.

You can read more about the Powys Volunteer of the Year Awards on the PAVO website.
Outstanding Contribution category: These awards are in recognition of the outstanding contribution and commitment made to voluntary activity. The volunteering undertaken is selfless, a response to local need coming out of the community and is carried out willingly.

The Judges’ Panel was made up of PAVO trustees - Gloria Jones Powell, Ian Charlesworth and Keith Rollinson. The panel felt that Bev stood out because of:

  • Her willingness to support others achieve their goals.
  • She has overcome huge personal adversity in order to help others.
  • Her unyielding commitment to the organisation she volunteers for.
  • The difference she has made to the organisation on many levels.
  • The difference she has made to the local community.
Claire Sterry, County Development Officer for PAVO, who helped organised the 2015 awards, said: “Bev is truly inspiring, it was an honour to meet her - she is a very special lady, and so unassuming!”

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