Counselling service supports those in need across Lancaster and Morecambe

For those in need of a bit of support and guidance, it can sometimes be difficult to know where to turn.

Wednesday, 27th March 2019, 3:29 pm
Updated Wednesday, 27th March 2019, 3:33 pm
Photo Neil Cross North Lancs Counselling Service Jonathan Haslam, Rose Fisher, Karyn Brand, Christine Hill and Margaret O'Neill

But help is out there for people across the district who want to speak to a trained counsellor about their problems – although not everyone knows where to find it.

North Lancashire Counselling Service was launched 29 years ago, and has since helped many local people who feel lost in their lives.

The founder of NLCS was the late Rev Arthur Longworth, who was Canon of Sheffield Cathedral.

Photo Neil Cross North Lancs Counselling Service Margaret O'Neill

He started a counselling service there for all, including homeless people, serviced by religious people who were not trained, but had the time and willingness to listen to anyone in distress.

When he retired to Garstang, Arthur set up a similar service in Lancaster, but soon it evolved into a secular organisation with trained counsellors.

The service works with self-referring adults over 18 in the north Lancashire – and has previously also had clients from as far away as Preston/Garstang, the Lakes and Yorkshire.

The team works with people who are vulnerable and have complex needs, many of whom are unable to afford private therapy or could not wait long enough on the NHS waiting lists.

The number of clients referring themselves in 2017/18 was 117, compared to 88 in 2012/13.

Waiting time is estimated at four to six months, although this is expected to fall as new volunteer counsellors start during the spring.

Although essentially free, the service relies on donations to meet expenses such as the rent on its premises.

All counsellors and volunteers, and the service has no paid staff or government funding.

The charity operates from two rooms in a property in Sulyard Street, Lancaster.

“It’s very unobtrusive, and a comfortable and homely atmosphere,” service chair Margaret O’Neill said. “I would ultimately love us to move to a new premises with more rooms to help reduce the waiting list, and to be able to offer better disabled facilities.

“I think more people would refer if they knew about us. We would then need larger premises to accommodate more clients/counsellors at one time [eg three or four rooms] and twice the number of counsellors, plus new supervisors to support the increased number of counsellors. Money would make this possible in the future but not without big funding.

“Meanwhile, I am going to see if I can source some low cost/free rooms elsewhere that we could perhaps use in addition to Sulyard Street, which would then enable us to justify increasing the counselling team and supervisors so we could see a larger volume of clients more quickly.

“Numbers are rising all the time, and if we were better resourced we could meet the demand more quickly.”

NLCS currently has 17 counsellors on its team, and is recruiting for both new trainees and qualified counsellors. It also offers placements to local students on counselling courses.

The confidential service runs from 9am to 9pm, seven days a week, and is strictly self-referral.

Those needing help can call a telephone answering service on 01524 389389, and a suitable counsellor will then be allocated to the client.

The counsellors see clients with a wide variety of issues, many of them becoming more complex as society is changing.

“People come to us with some quite deep issues, such as bereavement, including bereavement through suicide and terminal illness,” said Margaret, who joined the service in 2014 as a counsellor before becoming chair in 2017.

“The volume is increasing of more complex and more vulnerable clients. We are seeing more distressed people, more with severe depression and anxiety.

“I think that might be down to more financial and social pressures.

“We are increasingly finding a lot of suicidal, high risk or complex needs clients, and we think this is probably a reflection of the under resourcing of mental health services.”

Margaret said that although traditionally the service had seen more women through its doors than men, this is also changing as society changes.

“Previous experience is that more women would use the service, but I think the gap is closing,” she said.

“Generally about a third of clients are male, but an increase in ratio of male clients to female was noted in our 2012/13 Annual Report.

“In particular younger men are becoming more open to the idea, but it’s still a problem, because males are still brought up to feel that perhaps it’s a kind of weakness to ask for help and they suffer in silence, but hopefully that’s changing.

“Men and women have different expectations of themselves and worry about different things.”

The largest group of clients seeking help is aged 18 to 39.

This falls very slightly for 40 to 59-year-olds, and again slightly further for those aged 60-69.

There’s then a significant drop among over 70s, who constitute only a quarter of the number between 18 and 39.

Margaret said one of the main problems for clients to overcome is the initial step is admitting they need help.

“We are self-referral only, because we then know the person is ready to engage in therapy,” she said.

“It takes courage to talk to a complete stranger and admit your deepest concerns, but with a competent counsellor that trust can build up quickly, and they can feel supported.

“It can be scary, especially for people in their 70s or 80s; it can be quite an act of bravery because they were brought up to get on with it and not talk about their feelings.

“It’s a great safety valve for them to know they can talk to someone in private and it won’t go anywhere.

“It’s a privilege to meet our clients, you really do feel gifted with their trust, it’s quite humbling, and it’s nice to know that you are making a difference.

“It’s very much a joint effort, a hand in hand process, and they can feel very proud of themselves.

“Coming for counselling helps people to know themselves better and to appreciate the inner resources they have, and it sends them away with more tools to cope with future events. They go away a different person.

“Some people don’t appreciate their own value which is really sad, so it’s nice to be able to show them what they are not seeing and encourage them as they take steps towards doing things differently.

“One time, a client at the end of his sessions gave us another one-off donation, and said that in our own way we are saving people’s lives.”

Margaret said it’s vital that more people are made aware of such an important service for their local community.
“Last year we were the Charity of the Year for Marks & Spencer in Lancaster, and I did some bag packs in the store and found that a lot of people I spoke to didn’t know about our service,” she said.

“The service was set up 29 years ago by a vicar’s wife and some counsellors who wanted to give back to the community, and it’s grown from there.

“We have always been quite a small charity and have struggled for funding. We are all volunteers, we have no office or receptionist, all the admin is shared by the volunteers, who are amazing people.”

The service’s total expenses for 2017/18 – including training – were £8,451, of which rent accounted for £6,060.

On top of this there are other costs including professional insurance and membership fees for the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.

Each counselling session is estimated to cost £15.

“Since the roll-out of Universal Credit, we have seen a lot of people with financial problems. Some people are in the most appalling situations.

“We don’t insist on a donation because if they need free counselling they will get it, but we do encourage them to offer a small donation if they can do so.”

* A quiz with Sunday lunch is being held on Sunday April 7 from noon at the Royal King’s Arms in Lancaster to raise money for the service. Tickets are £15 from Angela on 07936 050642.

* For more information about North Lancashire Counselling service, go online at, email [email protected] or find the charity on Facebook by searching North Lancashire Counselling Service.

* If you need urgent help, you can call the Samaritans on 116123 or Mind on 0300 123 3393.