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Put your money where your mind is… NHS vs Private - What’s best?

Let's discuss mental health. I've been reaching out to friends and writers for their stories about mental health. 

The first post in this contributor series is by Becca Frankland who is discussing the differences between the NHS and Privatised counselling. (Please note that this is a personal opinion and that there is no right or wrong when it comes to healthcare). 

What would you normally buy for £30 out of your hard-earned wages if you were 22-years-old?

A blouse you’ve had your eye on for a few weeks? An indulgent meal with pals? A gig ticket? When the cash is in your hand and those things come to mind, it’s easy to begrudge every month spending it on a private counselling session.

To rewind, I’ve suffered with anxiety for the majority of my life, whether I knew it at the time or not, but it really reared its head when I started university. Being thrust out of my comfort zone really changed my mental health, so after nights in tears, consistent stomach churns and feeling engulfed with dread, I decided to visit the doctors.
After a quick chat, she asked me if I felt like I was depressed, I assumed I was so said yes, and she packed me off with Citalopram. I was two months into my first year, and I was curled up on my bathroom floor feeling nauseous with horrendous bloodshot eyes within a few days - I stopped taking them after a few weeks. I should not have been prescribed them without being offered any other support first and I knew that personally, I did not want to put something that strong into my body every day.

I then made the decision to be referred to NHS for Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. I waited for about three months, which is apparently fast by their standards, before I saw someone called Marcus. He was good, he delved deep into my past, asked prodding questions and certainly opened up my mind to how the brain works and assured me I wasn’t going insane. I saw him around 12 times for an hour each session, before our conversations slowly turned to social life and university rather than neurotransmitters and serotonin - and that was that, we said our goodbyes and I never went back. 

I didn’t feel cured by any stretch of the imagination, but I felt like I had been proactive about my mental health, and that was enough to tide me over for a while.

It wasn’t until about 18 months after that that I felt compelled to reach out to the NHS for support again. Another Marcus, I thought, would help me deal with a new strain of anxiety. After two 30 minute sessions with a new therapist, I felt utterly bewildered. I was getting given sheets to take home with me, charts to fill out and tasks to complete. I felt like I was back at school, I was completing the tasks the night before my sessions, just like a child would begrudgingly do their homework last minute. 

She would ask me when I came in, “How are you?” I’d say, “Fine”. I really wasn’t.

I started thinking about how I would feel if I didn’t have Marcus to compare her to, if I was a young person attending these sessions for the first time ever and not only was I not improving, I was getting worse. How alone, stuck and desperate would I feel if the lifeline that I’d been thrown had failed me after such a long wait?

I began to Google private counsellors in my area and text a number of one who seemed best, and waited for a response which soon came. I cancelled my appointment with my NHS therapist and told her I was going private, almost triumphantly, as I sent the email which would hopefully say all it needed to say about what I thought was inadequate service.

I’m not alone with my experience either, in a 2015 report published by the United Kingdom Counselling and Psychotherapy (UKCP) association, 94% of counsellors report treating clients frustrated with the NHS. Standard complaints involve (a) long waiting times, (b) unable to receive the help desired and (c) session lengths are too short.

My sessions now take place in a little wendy house at the bottom of the therapist’s garden. The space, filled with the scents of aromatherapy oils, is a far cry from the clinical box rooms I’ve sat in previously. I can dip in and out when I need (unlike NHS sessions which are set weekly) and it’s mainly talking therapy, not a chart sheet in sight. The wait for NHS is long, very long in some areas. In that period your mind can completely change course, what you were crippled by when you started might be replaced by something else, leaving it unaddressed.

With the NHS, the amount of sessions is normally capped and set every week, and you don’t have the luxury of coming back a few weeks later if you just fancy talking again.

My advice would be, if you’re feeling absolutely at the end of your tether, just scrape some cash together for a couple of private sessions whilst you’re on the waiting list. The quicker you act, the better you feel. You absolutely might get a Marcus, or you might get someone unsuitable, but you won’t know until you go. And if they are rubbish, and if you don’t feel better or comfortable, don’t worry, it’s not you, you’re not just stuck the way you are, things can and will get better. Just because one therapist doesn’t suit you, doesn’t mean another won’t.

£30 is a lot of money, especially if you need to go weekly to begin like I did. That’s almost £100 in a month just to talk. Fortunately I had parents willing to help me out a bit, and all I needed to do was rebudget a few things myself. But the long and short of it is, you can’t, and shouldn’t, put a price on your mental health - no matter how good you look in that blouse - make it a priority.

If you’d like to speak to me about anything related to counselling please don’t hesitate to reach out @beccafranko