‘There really isn’t anywhere else for young people to go’

THERE TO HELP Counsellor Matt Gettins, right. talks to''a client at Off The Record.  Picture: Allan Hutchings (120641-714)
THERE TO HELP Counsellor Matt Gettins, right. talks to''a client at Off The Record. Picture: Allan Hutchings (120641-714)
Dr John Steadman, archivist of Portsmouth History Centre based at Portsmouth Central Library     Picture:  Malcolm Wells

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For 35 years it’s been an understanding ear for young people to confide their innermost fears and worries.

Whether it be a pet dog dying, parents getting divorced or a drug problem, this is one place where you will not be judged.

Off The Record could not be a more apt name for this hard-working charity.

It is based in Leigh Park and Fratton and has provided counselling to thousands of people aged 11 to 25.

And its services, which are entirely funded through the goodwill of local authorities, charities and the general public, are in more demand than ever.

Waiting lists for one-to-one counselling have more than doubled in the past six months, with a total of 86 young people across Portsmouth and Havant waiting to see a counsellor.

The reasons? Financial hardship being suffered by families in the economic lull could be one of them.

Austerity measures have also seen schools and the NHS cut their counselling services, leading to a rising number of referrals to Off The Record.

‘It’s going up at a really fast rate at the moment, which is very worrying as we are very limited in what we can do,’ says Michelle McKay, who has worked as service delivery manager for the charity for 12 years.

‘The biggest issue people bring to us is about relationships, because when things aren’t going well it’s the relationships that suffer.

‘I think absolutely it’s related to the whole economic situation. Say a young person is at school, they don’t need to worry about jobs but their parents do.

‘The parents are fighting and not getting on – the kids are going to feel or see that tension.

‘That’s when they start getting in trouble at school, maybe because they can’t focused and get stressed out, and that’s where we start to come in.

‘The biggest impact is on the family and the financial strain of it. It can break families up and of course the kids are affected by that.’

Thankfully the charity is not short of enthusiastic volunteers, who don’t get paid a penny for giving up their free time.

Around 100 people are on the books, working as one-to-one counsellors or as support workers manning the phones and answering the door to clients.

The charity’s centre in Purbrook Way is a place of calm, with comfy rooms set aside for the counselling sessions, which generally last 50 minutes.

Michelle says: ‘They come to us with anything from issues like falling out with their best friend, their hamster dying, through to being homeless, substance abuse, childhood sexual abuse and grooming.

‘We have young people who are in the process of being groomed. Anything that young people are likely to be dealing with – that’s what we are here for.’

Every year around 7,000 young people make contact with the charity, whether it is a phone call or a knock at the door.

The counsellors are from all walks of life.

What they all have in common is empathy and the ability to listen without judging.

Matt Gettins, 29, one of the counsellors, says: ‘To me every client’s problem is the same – they are all equally important.

‘Whatever is said in the room stays in the room.’

Matt, a student from West Leigh who hopes to train to become a professional counsellor, was inspired to go into the field after his eyesight suddenly deteriorated at the age of 17.

Encouraged to visit a counsellor, he found the experience cathartic.

‘I spoke about everything else but my eyesight,’ he says.

‘I felt it was such a powerful tool. It was opening me up and allowing me to be myself.’

Becoming a counsellor involves a four-day induction course.

Would-be counsellors then have to work as support workers for six months to get a feel for what the charity does, as well as taking counselling qualifications.

Mum-of-two Charlotte Cornelius, 45, from Hayling Island, juggles her jewellery design business with volunteer counselling.

She admits she has been shocked by some of the stories she has heard while working at the charity.

‘Sometimes inside it can cause you to feel a bit shocked,’ she says.

‘But it’s important to not show that you are shocked because you don’t want to make people feel they are being judged.’

Charlotte says it is sad that a stigma is still associated with counselling.

‘People can see it as a weakness,’ she says.

‘I don’t. I see it as a strength.’

With demand going up, pressure to fund the charity goes up every month.

Grants come from local councils, the Wates Foundation, Children in Need, Lloyds TSB and The Henry Smith Charity.

Mik Norman, the funding development officer, searches every avenue possible to get funding.

‘A pound in our sector goes a long way,’ he says.

Whether the demand for counselling continues to go up remains unknown.

But what the charity does know is its principles will never falter.

‘Without us, there really isn’t anywhere else for young people to go,’ says Michelle.

‘We are completely independent and people know that – their confidentiality is protected.’

KATY SEXTON

Swimmer Katy Sexton turned to counselling after struggling to cope with the highs and lows of competitive sport.

In 2003 she became Britain’s first ever female world champion when she took the 200 metres backstroke title. But several years later the 29-year-old suffered depression and was referred for counselling.

The experience gave her a new positive outlook on life and she is now one of the patrons of Off The Record, along with broadcaster Sally Taylor.

Although her counselling was through the NHS, Katy’s counsellor was also a volunteer for Off The Record.

Katy, who lives in Cosham, says: ‘I think it’s self-pressure.

‘For me when you are at the highs of your sport, when you have a bad year there’s nothing to support you when it does go wrong.

‘You are just left to fend on your own. You then lose your funding so financially things become difficult.

‘When your sport goes, there’s nothing. You work all your life, it’s your life and there’s nothing to go to afterwards and it’s kind of like “what do I do?”

‘I discovered who I was again. Depression is a fog in your head. You can’t think straight and everything is just so disorganised. It’s nice to start filing everything away again in my head.’

Katy, who still hopes to compete in the London Olympics, says of Off The Record: ‘This place is fantastic. They’re volunteers who want to help young people.

‘It’s nice to know people have somewhere to go to talk to someone who’s not going to judge them and will listen and help them find their way again.

‘Some children might only need a couple of sessions – it just clears their head.’

OFF THE RECORD

Off The Record has centres at 138 Purbrook Way, Leigh Park and 250 Fratton Road, Portsmouth, and drop-in sessions are available.

Young people can make contact by calling (023) 9281 5322 for the Portsmouth centre or (023) 9247 4724 for the Havant service. Alternatively call the support helpine on 0808 80 10 724. They can also e-mail otr@off-the-record.org.uk.

For more information visit off-the-record.org.uk.