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“Hello, how are you?” An Interview with a University Counsellor

Periods of social tension may create an environment for arguments, disagreements and conflicts within households, friendship groups, and schools. No matter the nature of your conversation, it is important to take into account your own and others’ mental health.

Many people claim that university is one of the best times of their lives. It is where young adults accumulate knowledge, build on their professional networks, practice self-management, tune into a healthy lifestyle, etc. However, University students have been facing a difficult time over the last few months. With school cancelled, periods of uncertainty, and politics entering campuses, they have been left with an environmental not conducive to good mental wellbeing.

This piece explores ways to cope and support those who are in distress due to interpersonal conflicts, with insights from a professional university counsellor on students’ mental health and recent events.

It is  important to note that it is perfectly normal and human to experience some level of distress and anxiety because of the social unrest. If you continue reading, you may find something helpful and applicable to your situation. If you would like to discuss this with a professional, you may want to reach out anonymously via Open Up (https://www.openup.hk/chat_login.htm?lang=en) or arrange a face to face meeting with a mental health professional. For additional resources, please visit Mind HK’s website: www.mind.org.hk.

The following article has been written based on an interview with the Head of Counselling and Wellness Center at a local University, and has been supported with information from their website.

————— Counselling in general —————

Q: What is counselling?

A: Counselling is where a counsellor empowers you through non-judgmental, goal-based discussions to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals.

Q: What are the main challenges/differences between counselling a local versus an international student?

A: When counselling different audiences, the main difference would be the medium of delivery, as it may be easier for one to express themselves more accurately in their mother tongue (Cantonese vs English). Another point to note would be one’s cultural sensitivity – meaning that the counsellors would request the student to let them know when certain gestures or practices would be inappropriate based on their cultural background.

Q: How do counsellors refrain from their own beliefs and opinions during a consultation?

A: The focus of counselling services is to lend a listening ear to those in need of support through a safe, trustworthy platform. Regardless of the topic concerned, it is their role to guide their students to express their emotions and further understand themselves. This is achieved through respect and practicing active listening, thus forming a rapport between the counsellor and the student.

It is always the counsellor’s priority to care for the student’s well-being. Counsellors are also very open-minded and are willing to listen and try to understand other point of views.

————— Effects of current events —————

Q: How have recent events affected the trend of users of your counselling services?

A: Consistent with the rising demand of the 24-hour Hospital Authority Psychiatric Hotline, there has been an increasing trend in the use of counselling services at university. It is difficult to directly associate such change to the social movement, but an increase in level of importance of current events as well as political concerns can be observed amongst the university community.

Q: Is it more difficult to offer counselling services in the current situation?

A: Most concerns have no definite short-term solutions. However, counsellors will offer continuous support to their visitors – to accompany them through the journey and help maintain their well-being until the situation has been resolved or come to an end. Although there are a lot of uncertainties in the future, the university counselling team will try to continue its support and accompany all students through this journey. 

————— Tips from a Counsellor —————

Q: How can people manage relationships with those who take on different points of view?

A: The first thing to take note of, and the most important thing, is to practice self-care. This includes living a healthy active lifestyle as well as being emotional stable. Take good care of yourself before managing interpersonal relationships.

When different parties meet and discuss on such topics, there is a mutual trust amongst the individuals. Therefore, it is advised that both parties keep an open mind and listen to what the others have to say. Embracing differences and respecting each other’s opinions would be the optimal way of maintaining a healthy relationship. 

Summary: If you are able to look after yourself, you can offer emotional support to others by lending an ear, offering companionship, and staying calm and patient.

Q: How should people respond to discussion on sensitive topics if they do not intend to initiate an argument with the other party/parties?

A: When one has conflicting opinions or is unsure of the appropriate stance to adopt in specific scenarios, it is advised that they adopt a relatively neutral role. Focus on the speakers’ well-being, concerns and safety; extract information from their speech and guide them to express their feelings and help them to stabilize their emotions. Keep in mind that there is no right or wrong in most situations, and all feelings and opinions should be respected. 

Summary: If you are not sure of what to say, try not to focus on your own beliefs or those of the individuals you’re speaking to. Instead, try to understand the other party’s concerns. Find out what is really bothering them and comfort them accordingly.

Q: How do you define a “good” break from TMI (too much information)?

A: Management of emotions and stress management are very much alike. When you notice signs of distress (link to website of symptoms), you may consider pausing the act of taking in new information actively. There is no universal level of appropriate content intake, but it is important that each of us explore and understand where our own limits are to maintain emotional stability and mental well-being. 

Summary: Take a break when you begin to feel overwhelmed by negative information, until you feel less upset or triggered by the news.

Q: Will taking breaks cause someone’s views to change?

A: Periods of detachment are only measures in case someone feels overwhelmed by the content. These breaks only last until the person feels ready to reconnect to the stream of live information. It is rare to then experience a sudden change of perspective by taking some time off. 

Summary: Taking a break from discussing a specific topic can be good for you, if you feel overwhelmed, but in many cases may not help change your perspective.