Counselling changing lives in the NI

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A primary teacher before having her own children, Susan Panckhurst had always been passionate about prisons and supporting those from challenging backgrounds. Her mum had been a prison visitor (someone who provides support to those in prison) and her brother a forensic psychologist. 

It was a passion that would eventually lead her back to the classroom - this time as a student and she earned her Masters Degree in Psychology from the University of Canterbury, with her thesis on counselling in prisons. 

Now Susan fits volunteer counselling work inside the Navigate Initiative (NI) around her work as a guidance counsellor at a local school.

A pilot programme that has been running inside the NI since the beginning of the year, counselling is proving to be a powerful tool that is helping to rebuild lives and Susan is one of the volunteer counsellors that is making all the difference. 

“When people are coming up to the end of their sentence, that’s when things get hard for them,” she says in reference to the anxiety, the pressure and the fear that can prove overwhelming for many, particularly those who have spent more time inside than out. 

“That’s when they need this support the most.” 

Counselling men in the Navigate Initiative has been an incredibly powerful and rewarding experience for Susan. By remaining completely independent of the prison and not being connected to an agency, she says those she is working with respond particularly well and, because this means there are no bureaucratic boxes to tick, her work isn’t recorded.  

“What they tell me isn’t going anywhere, so that makes it easier to build trust and they can be completely vulnerable. It’s extremely rewarding work. I love it. I think it’s a real privilege to be able to sit with someone and have them open up to you,” she says.  

As a mum of four, Susan has had to learn how to take her ‘mum hat’ off because as we all know, a mum’s natural inclination is to want to ‘fix’ things. Her role as a counsellor, on the other hand, isn’t about giving advice or telling people what to do, she says. 

“It’s just about listening and many of these men have never been truly listened to.”  

Reintegration Manager Anaru Baynes says reintegration has always been about so much more than providing the practical framework of rebuilding lives post-prison and counselling is another critical rung on the ladder to success.  

“It is critical that we empower our Tū Ora with the practical tools they need for reintegration, but we also need to support the inner journey of wellness, because this is what sustains successful reintegration,” Anaru says. 

“Counselling is another way we are able to support the journeys of our men; journeys which are often filled with anxiety, stress and a lack of self-belief.” 

Anaru sees first-hand how powerful the counselling is. “It is about Tū Ora being able to make sense of their lives, in order to be able to move on positively and productively. 

“It’s also a powerful example of what can be achieved when the community gets involved through volunteering and just how effective that can be.”

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