Voluntary work

When you’re a therapist, it is essential that you focus on the financial bottom line, ie, recruiting enough customers/clients to ensure that you pay your bills, both professional and personal, and so remain in business and be able to help others, and so the cycle goes on.

However, I would recommend spending at least part of your time, if you’re able, working for nothing (financially that is). There are a huge number of charities out there that would benefit from your expertise – and you will be an expert in something – whether you’re a therapist, counsellor, plumber or whatever.

In early 2020, I completed ten years as a volunteer: firstly with the Rowans Hospice in Purbrook, Hampshire; followed by the Macmillan Centre at the Queen Alexandra Hospital in Cosham. I hope that I’ve been able to help people who would otherwise not have thought of hypnotherapy or been able – for medial or monetary reason – to see me privately. Certainly, I feel I’ve benefited, gaining experience in dealing with clients with a whole range of issues, which I’ve then been able to apply to my paid practice. I believe it has also helped me psychologically, and I’d like to draw your attention to the work of the inspiration Dr David Hamilton PhD, whose work on the benefits of kindness should be essential reading for all of us.

In 2020, I wrote of my experiences as a volunPaul Hancocks Hypnotherapyteer for the spring edition of the  journal of the National Council for Hypnotherapy. A text copy of the article is set out below.

As a therapist, I’m often asked what’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever encountered. My reply is usually: ‘An empty diary page.’

Joking aside, I know that in the complementary sector, we’re expected to be above the capitalist grind. However, the bottom line is that you can’t practise, and by extension help others, if you can’t pay your bills.

In 2008, I left a reasonably well-paid job as an assistant chief sub-editor working for the Southern Daily Echo in Southampton, having hopes of becoming a full-time hypnotherapist and replacing at least some, of if not all, of my past income. Unfortunately, my emergence on the therapy scene coincided with the crash that saw the world teetering on the brink of a financial meltdown – or so the bankers told us anyway – but that’s another story.

Thanks to a lot of hard work and luck I survived, and I am still in practice twelve years later. Ironically, one of the things that helped me through that time, and has supported me ever since, has been working for nothing (financially). Around 2009, I was invited to become a volunteer working at the Rowans Hospice in Purbrook, Hampshire. I was one of the first – if not the first – hypnotherapist to work at the Rowans, so it was exciting/frightening to be able to advance the cause of hypnotherapy in a new environment.

My role was to spend Fridays at the hospice, attending a series of clinics for those newly diagnosed with a life-limiting condition. These were on a six-week cycle and those attending would often be accompanied by carers, spouses, families and so on. They would be given advice on such things as finance, nutrition, emotional needs, counselling and a range of complementary therapies such as massage and hypnotherapy. It is a marvellous place and I wish that everyone in the UK had access to something like this.

The downside, for me, was that I sometimes had to sit through the same talk, on nutrition, for example, many times. On a lighter note, the tasty yet calorific lunches provided weren’t good for my waistline. The upside was that I was able to help people who might never have thought of trying hypnotherapy, who couldn’t afford private sessions, or would physically be incapable of attending. I thought that my main work would be pain management, but the most common problem highlighted by clients was sleep issues.

I also saw staff and other volunteers for things ranging from phobias to anxiety. The hospice confounded my expectations in many ways. For one thing, it was a much happier place than I expected. There were tears, but a lot of laughter, too, which fits with the ethos of the hospice movement.

Those attending could also be an eye-opener. I remember one man, who seemed to be relaxed, coming with his mother, who was obviously highly stressed. I remember thinking: ‘Isn’t it nice that he’s supporting his poor old mum.’ You’ve probably guessed where I’m going with this; in fact, it was the son who was terminally ill and his mother was his carer. Illness is a burden borne by loved ones, too – something society should do more to recognise.

Macmillan I then applied to be a volunteer working at the Macmillan centre at the Queen Alexandra Hospital in Cosham. You’re probably wondering where the financial pay-off for this is – be patient, I’ll explain later.

 For a while, this overlapped with my work at the Rowans, but I soon realised I couldn’t do both. I opted for the Macmillan centre as it was nearer to where I lived, and I tended to see more clients there. It was a difficult decision and I remember my time at the Rowans fondly. In training, I was taught to host an hour-long initial consultation for the clients during which the information gathering would take place and I would explain the workings of the brain, the basis of the therapy, expectations etc.

The client would then be given a CD and an appointment for the following week. This luxury of time is something that many clinicians in the NHS can only dream about. At the Macmillan centre, I had to adapt this model for various reasons: the first was that I felt the fortnightly interval between appointments was too long to allow me to have a session without hypnosis; clients would sometimes be too stressed to take in the necessary information; and if a client has a phobia about needles and a chemotherapy session is due that afternoon, you have to act then and there. I therefore decided to cut the therapy sessions to forty-five minutes or so, which also enabled me to see four clients in the time I would normally see three.

As they were entitled to a maximum of four sessions, condensing the initial consultation meant more time in trance for those with more complex issues. A CD would still be provided, and the client encouraged to play it on a regular basis. As with the Rowans, sleep disturbance was a common issue, along with phobias about such things as needles and confined spaces. As many of my clients were undergoing chemotherapy and/or MRI and CAT scans, you can imagine how much stress this put them under. Aside from these specific areas, much of what I did was similar to my work as a solution-focused therapist, i.e. the quest for exceptions to a problem and signs (however small) that it was easing.

This could lead to conversations in which clients would reveal that their first hopeful sign would be taking a walk or sanding down their front door in preparation for painting. I concluded that clients had had their lives knocked off track by their illness, and my job was to enable them to get back to some form of normality, whatever ‘normal’ represented for the client. Usually, I aimed to equip clients with with the techniques they needed to be able to tackle challenges without me being present, whether it be having a scan, injection or simply going for a check-up without suffering a panic attack.

On rare occasions, I attended procedures with the client. This would involve me having to make an additional trip to the hospital. It was also an insight into the workings of clinical staff. I like to think I was able to make some positive changes to their way of working without obviously trying to criticise their expertise or tell them what to do. For example, if a clinician first straps you to a bit of machinery then runs out of the room, what message do you think that sends?

As with the Rowans, I sometimes saw staff and carers, whose issues could be as diverse as any I saw in private practice. Saying goodbye Over the years, my voluntary role fitted in pretty well with my paid role. At the end of their sessions, clients were given a confidential feedback form to be given to the Macmillan staff.

 It’s not for me to blow my own trumpet, but I was happy with the results, as presumably were Macmillan. However, this year, I have been offered a role as a senior lecturer helping Lisa Williams deliver the Clifton Practice’s hypnotherapy training courses in Hampshire. This meant taking the difficult decision to say goodbye to the Macmillan centre and to focus on helping train the next generation of therapists, some of whom I hope will provide some of their expertise pro bono.

 So, what has been the pay-off? You might well ask. Earlier, I said that my time as a volunteer has helped me as a paid therapist. Why? Well, because helping people to deal with incredibly challenging situations, has – I believe – given me expertise that can be directly applied to private practice: confidence that no amount of training can provide. It has also meant that I have met some wonderful people.

In a hyper-connected era, in which we are bombarded with negativity, it is good to be reminded that there is much to celebrate in the world, that medicine is advancing, that people do not only survive but sometimes thrive in challenging circumstances, and that most are decent and caring.

For my closing remarks, I’d like to draw readers’ attention to the work of Dr David Hamilton PhD, whose book, The Five Side Effects of Kindness, sets out so eloquently the benefits of being good to others. Dr Hamilton quotes the appropriately named Bob Hope, who said: ‘If you haven’t any charity in your heart, you have the worst kind of heart trouble.’ * By the way, Bob Hope lived to be 100. * Some details may have been changed to preserve anonymity * The use of the word ‘client’ is for convenience and not intended in any derogatory way.