From desperate key workers to school children fearful for their future, a Scottish counselling service has become a lifeline as people struggle to cope with the impact and effects of lockdown.

In recent weeks it has seen demand in schools it delivers its service in rise by 250% as young people seek help about their anxieties and worries over their future.

However, while demand has increased in schools lately, Inverness-based Scottish Counselling Services saw a worrying trend as lockdown hit in March. With many of their adult clients referred through work-place schemes, referrals dropped off from 60 a month to around five and restrictions meant they couldn’t continue with school-based counselling.

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“We were concerned that all of a sudden we had been seeing a steady number of adults and young people being referred to us for counselling but the face to face model just couldn’t continue,” said founder Carole Mackintosh.

HeraldScotland:

“We knew that people still needed help and perhaps more so than ever so we had to look at ways we could reach them. With adults we were able to change how we worked with them pretty quickly either by phone or technology, but that just wasn’t an option to do that with young people outwith the school and environment and that was a concern for us.”

While still keen to help SCS launched a campaign during lockdown, Situp 4 mental health, to raise funds to offer free counselling for key workers as well as looking at ways to change how they delivered their services to young people when schools returned.

Ms Mackintosh added: “There was a massive drop off rate of people who were being referred to us but that didn’t mean people no longer needed help we just had to help them access the service differently.

“We decided to open up what we do to offer a free service in particular to key workers. We were speaking to a home care workers, delivery drivers, postal workers – people who were all working in the middle of it all.

“Some felt they couldn’t burden their co-workers with how they felt and turned to us. Anxiety about their jobs, finances, and relationships were high on the list of concerns people had as it was such an uncertain time. And while we weren’t able to counsel young people during lockdown part of their anxieties can be around school so to a certain extent that lessened while they were off.”

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With schools returning in late summer it sparked a melting pot for some of young people’s anxieties according to SCS, who work with youngsters from P6 right through to Sixth Year, the looked at how they could reach more young people who might need help.

“Young people have struggled with the uncertainty of it all and have concerns over whether they will be able to sit exams and what will happen to their future. They have had that to cope with as well as other school issues,” added Mrs Mackintosh.

The private counselling service was set up in 2004 and now has a team of more than 20 counsellors. Mrs Mackintosh sought the expertise of rural enterprise agency GrowBiz which has helped them with a social enterprise arm to the organisation which will allow them to make counselling services as accessible as possible to young people.

Through a Scottish Government fund set up to allow schools to manage how they deliver their counselling services, the SCS has now expanded from working in the Highlands and has now developed a new partnership in some schools in the Tayside area and hopes to expand across Scotland in 2021.

And one area they wanted to develop was how young people accessed their service and developed online access for young people to be able to refer themselves.

Mrs Mackintosh added: “Normally young people would be referred to us through their guidance teachers but we know that not everyone will feel comfortable about even taking that step. One thing we were able to develop through lockdown was a system which could be accessed on a school website or app which allows the young person to seek help. The school would still be notified and help with the management of appointments, but it means young people can come straight to us and it gives them confidence to come forward.

“And we know the demand is there. In one school we work in we had been there one day a week which would be seven appointments, now we have increased that to four days and are seeing 28 young people in that time. As well as helping the individuals the feedback is that the counselling services also helps the school community. The important thing now is that young people know they can come forward, seek help and talk through their problems.”

Case study

A safe place without being judged and having an empathetic listener. That is how counselling was described by one user who turned to it in the early days of lockdown.

Gillian, whose name has been changed, had a feeling of becoming overwhelmed and in a panic as lockdown set in. Coupled with worries over her job and finances, the 51-year-old's anxieties were heightened as the nation was gripped by uncertainty.

However, having sought the help of Scottish Counselling Services in the past, Gillian can now begin to recognise the signs and triggers and self-referred herself.

"From time to time I would go for top up sessions after first going for counselling five years ago," said Gillian. "I am better equipped at knowing the signs and triggers. Pretty soon into lockdown I began to feel overwhelmed and panic set in. My employment had been shut down and I was worried about finances.

"I didn't qualify for financial help, so I was feeling pretty much abandoned."

Having been to Scottish Counselling Services in the past Gillian had no qualms about seeking help this time.

"Some people might have seen using a counsellor as a failure, but I think knowing when to seek help is a positive thing and a strength. From the moment I begin counselling, I begin to feel that a weight has been lifted and that someone is there listening to me and more importantly they are empathetic," she added.

"There is no set pattern to it and it is not a case of this is how long you will need. It is about empowering you to feel you can make a change and it is not the counsellor who decides how long you need, you can make that decision for yourself. It is about equipping you with the tools to live your life."