Changing Direction to Counselling & Psychotherapy

Paul left school at 15 to start a plumbing apprenticeship. His entrepreneurial spirit led him to set up his own specialist mechanical company where he had 22 people working for him. As a respected business man, he was asked by some local counsellors to help set up a Low Cost Counselling Service in Dublin called the Beacon of Light Counselling Service. Agreeing to attend some of their meetings to help get them set up, Paul admitted “I was blown away by the vision they had and the whole idea of the work just appealed to me”. As Beacon grew, on the suggestion of one of the counsellors, Paul decided to take the plunge and see what counselling was like and enrolled in the National University of Ireland (NUI), Maynooth.

While Paul was studying in Maynooth, he discovered his love for counselling and made a life-changing decision after his first night. The tutor was discussing Jung & Freud and he found it incredibly uplifting. Once Paul was sure that he had made the right decision, he didn’t want to do it half-heartedly and so he began a process by which he could close down his construction business and return to the construction workforce in a different capacity. “It was a very tough decision, as it meant not only changing what I did but changing my family’s lifestyle as well. We had a relatively comfortable lifestyle up until then and certain sacrifices had to be made. My wife was very supportive of this decision.”

The return to college was certainly nerve-racking and Paul states that the foundation course was an essential preparation. While he was studying in Maynooth, PCI College’s BSc in Counselling & Psychotherapy, validated by Middlesex University, was recommended so Paul applied and was called in for an interview.  “When I went for the interview in PCI College, I was terribly nervous. I wasn’t even sure if I would be able for the return to education. However, my experience in PCI College once I was accepted was fabulous. The way PCI College approached education was totally different and unexpected. I felt like I was part of a small group that was really being looked after.” The work was challenging but it was progressive and built up steadily over the years. “It was difficult at times because I was working full time as a Contracts Manager. I found it hard to adapt from construction to sit in a classroom setting. However, I felt that there was a lot of encouragement and support at all levels.”

“I believe that if I had gone back to college and been in an auditorium taking notes, I would have found it a lot more difficult.” The style of teaching in PCI College was very personal and experiential in nature and Paul never felt isolated. People come into counselling from a variety of different backgrounds and have their strengths and weaknesses in different areas. Paul had good interpersonal skills already. He was working with the public and had 22 people working for him. Quite often he was an ‘agony aunt’ for the staff. However Paul still remembers being terribly embarrassed at first about having to speak out in class – because he wasn’t used to speaking in public. Moreover it was about sharing feelings and emotions. PCI College helped build up his confidence because in a small circle, you can’t hide – you have to participate.  “I had a hang up about my lack of education – and in the back of mind a fear that I was stupid. It was only when I got into counselling training in PCI that the belief was challenged and I realised that I am not stupid; I can do this and I can cope.”

Paul had a great sense of achievement at his graduation. He described that while the Diploma was the qualification that he needed to practice – the Middlesex University Degree was for him. His five daughters were very supportive and he believes quite proud. The little ones always delight in stating that Daddy used to be a plumber. However his eldest daughter who was in college at the same time was determined to get her Degree before Paul and be the first one in the family to achieve a Degree. “While I didn’t continue my education when I was younger (at the time, I didn’t think I was capable and besides, the family needed the extra money), it has taught me that education, while vital, does not have to be the ultimate goal when you are young. As long as you have the basics, you can return to it throughout your life.” He is delighted that his return to education and his Degree has had a knock-on affect. Now all of his children want to get Degrees and he has purposefully put the large graduation photos up on his wall with spaces for his younger girls.

Paul was fortunate as he was able to get all of his client hours through Beacon of Light. “I had lots of encouragement from the people in Beacon – and a very supportive wife.”  Throughout college he started doing more and more with Beacon and continues to serve on their board in his capacity as treasurer. It has now been in operation for over 10 years.

In 2007 Beacon of Light were invited by the Clondalkin Partnership, who had identified a need for a family service in Dublin, to send a representative on a study group to visit Holland and examine the affects of “Functional Family Therapy”, an American, evidenced- based programme. Paul was the Beacon representative on the trip and reported back on his findings to the board. Encouraged by its effectiveness and enthused by the evidenced based results of Functional Family Therapy, Paul was happy to recommend FFT to the board and he welcomed the opportunity of becoming involved in a Family intervention that would be implemented in Dublin. Paul applied for one of the advertised therapist positions, was successful, and, after being accepted for his first full time therapeutic job, he went from being a Contracts Manager on Friday to a Counsellor on the following Monday. He explains that “it was bit of a culture shock” but hugely challenging and enjoyable. 

Paul is confident that counselling is a growing profession and states that there is a need for more of a focus on counselling within the HSE {Irish Health Service}. He maintains that on a visit to the Beacon of Light Counselling service, then Minister for Health Mary Harney was in agreement for the need for a more holistic approach to medicine and that she was already convinced of the huge value of counselling.
Did Paul make the right decision in returning to education and changing careers? “I absolutely made the right choice. My only regret is that for the moment I have left studying behind me; I would also like to have the time to be more involved with IACP. ”

What advice would you give to people looking to embark on this rewarding Career? “I can’t speak highly enough of PCI College and their Degree programme validated by Middlesex University – it was a good fit for me. I would always recommend it to people embarking on this career. I have spoken to other people about the training in other colleges and I don’t think they had as valuable an experience.”

No doubt Paul’s story will inspire and encourage people who are looking for a change of direction; it is 
possible to totally change career path and lifestyle with a little determination and hard-work.

Paul Johnston, BSc (Hons) in Counselling & Psychotherapy Graduate 2008

(Interviewed by Maria McGrath, PCI College)

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