Counselling homeless young people is arguably one of the most difficult areas of work for registered psychologists. Homeless young people are often put in the ‘too hard’ basket, but there are three strategies that can be used to overcome the challenge – engagement, rapport and trust building, and a transparent approach to reporting.
Homeless young people are often told that they are ‘trouble’ or ‘too difficult’ to work with and, because of this, they have a deep distrust of services – including psychologists. The first step of encouraging them to participate is an informal, laid-back engagement approach. At this stage, names are swapped and a few ‘get to know you’ questions are asked during a session. After this initial stage – if they’re willing to continue – the psychologist can begin the rapport and trust building strategy.
Rapport and trust building is done by letting the client control the direction of the counselling sessions. The psychologist’s job at this point is to simply deal with what the client brings up, or address any crisis concerns that are present at the time. Homeless young people deal with complex issues and trauma; they have difficulty trusting other people, which is why it is important to remember that trust is earned. Another important aspect of this stage is to always deliver on the promises made during a session. If the psychologist promises to do something, or look into a particular issue, then they must follow through with that particular action. One false move and the trust could be lost permanently. Building rapport and trust is an ongoing aspect of the counselling sessions and the next strategy assists in this regard: it is important to have a transparent approach to reporting.
Homeless young people need to be made aware of everything that you’re reporting on. A good way to do this is to take notes in a way that the client can see what you’re writing down. A transparent approach to reporting can make the client feel like they are in control of the session (further building rapport and trust). This ensures the client opens up more about the issues and trauma they are currently experiencing.
The strategies outlined above have proven to be effective ways of engaging with homeless young people in counselling intervention. It’s a myth that homeless young people are ‘trouble’ or ‘too difficult’. Following the three strategies above will improve the chances that young people open up in counselling sessions and real progress can be made toward their recovery.
– Anna Michalopoulos, Mental Health team leader at Youth Off The Streets
Anna Michalopoulus is a registered psychologist and Mental Health Team Leader at Youth Off The Streets. In 2014, using these strategies, the Youth Off The Streets Mental Health team conducted 872 counselling sessions to help young people overcome homelessness, trauma and other issues. Youth Off The Streets is a community organisation working for young people who are disadvantaged, homeless, drug dependent and/or recovering from abuse.
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