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Community counselling

Yesterday I was listening to a podcast about people who were developing personal relationships with artificial intelligence (AI). Apparently you can create a person, using this technology, who will serve as your friend, lover, counsellor, fill in the blank.This particular person, featured in the story, suffered from loneliness and isolation due to personal health circumstances. They found relief in having a voice who would listen, offer words of support – someone they could count on to be there for them.  

Some of my friends and colleagues are embracing this new technology, saying it will provide ease and access for many people in need – people who can’t afford a counsellor, people who are alone. This may be true, but for me it invokes a lot of sadness. To think that we will approach an epidemic of loneliness with an artificial friend. Personally, I am unable to give up on the idea of being human, of having human needs for real friendship, closeness, intimacy, with other humans. I witness this need for connection every day in community acupuncture. 

When I first started this clinic model, one of the things I was most concerned about was how people would react to being treated in the same room together. In the school clinic, and in every other medical model, I witnessed people being treated individually in private rooms. Here, I was proposing to have everyone in the same room, treated together. What I discovered along the way surprised and relieved me. 

Over time, what I came to see is that for the people who were choosing community acupuncture, one of the things they enjoyed most was being together with other people! Folks would specifically mention it to me – how they enjoyed being treated in a common space with other people. They would talk about the healing effects of being together with others, of witnessing others, of witnessing us caring for others. 

I’ve experienced this positive human connection every day in the clinic and directly benefit from it myself. Working in the clinic and caring for people has directly benefited my personal health and I believe that it benefits everyone who participates in this healing experiment. Something I have noticed lately is that people will frequently book an appointment time when others will be in the clinic. If there is a choice to book an appointment where there is no one else booked in, and a choice to book around a time where others have an appointment, most often people will book next to someone else’s appointment. 

My own observation is that we have fewer and fewer places where we can be together in our society, especially healing spaces. These spaces provide care and comfort as community spaces – they fulfill a basic human need for connection. 

This gets me back to AI connections. Perhaps this new technology will serve some useful purpose in some easy but limited way, but they will never replace our need for community, friendship, and care of one another. All this has led me to an idea that has been floating around in my brain for several years.

Back in my twenties I was introduced to peer counselling – a useful and powerful means of providing support for one another as an addition to working with a trained counsellor. The guidelines were simple; think well of the person, see the person underneath their stories, refrain from giving advice, listen deeply. I can still remember some of my first sessions and how profound it felt to be listened to so deeply and with such love and care – how rare that was in my everyday experience of social interactions. 

I explored peer counselling for several years but eventually the people and practices moved on from my life and it became a sweet memory. Over the past few years though I have begun to think again about those days and the power and helpfulness of that deep peer-to-peer listening. I noticed how similar that listening is to how I work in the clinic every day, listening to people’s stories and holding space for them as they rest and recover. All this has given me inspiration to start a peer counselling practice again. 

The model I plan to use will be based in part on those early days of my peer counselling experience – helping people see how they can provide a lot of care and support to one another through the profound act of deep listening. For this first cohort I would like to have 6-8 people. We would meet once a week for 6 weeks to start, creating community and peer counselling together. I don’t imagine  this as a substitute for one-on-one professional counselling, but I do believe there is benefit in people providing counsel and support to one another, sharing our life experiences, together in a shared space.  Let me know if you’re interested in joining. I’ve included the details in the events section.