Today’s youth face a host of challenges unknown to previous generations. ER24 counsellor Alan Neilson provides trauma counselling and mental health treatment to help school learners find answers to their problems.

In a dramatically changed society where social media dictates norms and the family structure is under pressure, young people often struggle to find their way. This is the background against which ER24 counsellor Alan Neilson provides trauma counselling and mental health treatment to help learners at two KZN schools cope.

Neilson says he especially enjoys working with young people, so when Mediclinic was asked to provide pro bono counselling services to learners at Sandfields Primary in Tongaat and Haythorne Secondary School in Pietermaritzburg, he was pleased to become part of the team. “It’s spiritually rewarding to help people,” he explains. “I experience real joy when I can assist someone – even if that means simply providing a listening ear.”

He visits both schools weekly, providing one-on-one counselling for children who are experiencing trauma because of assault, bullying, and physical or emotional abuse. He also helps those who need mental health treatment because of a bereavement, suffering depression or anxiety, or having a rough time at home. “Learners know they are welcome to step into my office, although most often they are referred to us by a teacher who has noticed they’re not themselves. Occasionally, their families will attend the sessions, or even request them.”

Safe space

However, Neilson makes clear that counselling is all about creating a safe space. This means that before he takes any other action, he needs to gain the learner’s trust. “My first step is always to assure them that anything we discuss in my office is confidential. I won’t tell their parents unless they want me to.”

This is just one way in which he empowers the young people he counsels. “I always speak to the learner at their level. I understand that every person and every family is different, which means that every case is different. I don’t try to tell them what to do or what they should be feeling. I simply try to help them work through their options so they can find their own solution to the problem.”

This is important, he adds, as each person has an intrinsic understanding of what they need to do to help themselves. But when someone is under pressure or stressed, it’s difficult to unlock such knowledge. As a counsellor, Neilson says it’s his job to equip learners to do just this.

ER24 counsellor Alan Neilson is on hand to provide a listening ear for children in need.
Neilson provides pro bono counselling at Sandfields Primary, Tongaat, and Haythorne Secondary, Pietermaritzburg.
With learners, teachers, and ER24 paramedics.

Empowerment and support

“Of course, there are limitations to what we as counsellors can achieve,” he says. “Because we’re not prescriptive in our approach, we can’t make people take a particular action. All we can do is to draw their attention to the choices at their disposal.”

Sometimes, that’s all it takes to create a big difference in someone’s life. He refers to a case where he counselled a high school student who had fallen into drug taking. His habit was leading to delinquent behaviour, he was neglecting his studies, and the situation was placing his family under stress. Neilson spent just one hour with the boy talking through his situation, at his mother’s request – but it was enough to get him back on track, attending classes.

It’s not always that easy, though. “The current environment is especially difficult for our teens and children. We live in a society that thrives on negativity, fed by social media, and they are unavoidably affected,” Neilson says.

“Counselling can help them find a way to navigate this complex world.”

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