Counsellors spreading the word about life-saving app

Alan Hamilton, Carrickfergus Enterprise, with Noel McKee and Margaret Lavery, East Antrim Counselling. INCT 31-211-AM
Alan Hamilton, Carrickfergus Enterprise, with Noel McKee and Margaret Lavery, East Antrim Counselling. INCT 31-211-AM

Go Your Own Way: Answering the questions this week are Margaret Lavery and Noel McKee from East Antrim Counselling.

What is your business?

We are a private counselling practice based in Kilroot Business Park on the outskirts of Carrickfergus. We offer a confidential, non-judgemental and safe environment for counselling individuals, couples or families of any age, race, gender and religious denomination.

Tell us a little about yourself and how you ended up doing what you are doing now?

Noel’s community work made it clear that there was a need for a counselling service in the East Antrim area. It was this and the rising suicide rate that encouraged him to look into ways of helping people during times of distress and helping them build resilience after their loss. His aim is to educate and inform the community on mental health issues and by so doing, build people’s coping mechanisms, enabling them to overcome the many life crises that we all have to go through.

Margaret worked as a childminder for a few years, working with social services doing specialized minding for families facing difficulty. By acknowledging the problems that some people have to face in their lives she wanted to seek ways of preventing people from reaching crisis point by building resilience and sharing coping techniques in order to help them help themselves.

Did you always want to run your own enterprise?

No. Neither of us set out to open our own practice. However it soon became clear to us that although there are several free-to-access agencies and charities, their waiting lists were several weeks in some cases. We wanted to offer a private, rapid response option to people in urgent need whilst at the same time being there to offer referral to 24 hour crisis helplines.

What skills/qualifications do you require for the role?

Counsellors require a specialised set of skills to help individuals explore their emotional difficulties. We need to be good listeners, show compassion, never judge anyone and provide a place of safety by assuring confidentiality and understanding. It helps our clients to know that we come to this from a neutral point of view by not being connected to their circumstances in any way.

Has your business been affected by the current recession?

Yes definitely. People don’t have as much disposable income now and mental health seems to be well down the list of most people’s priorities. People will spend money on what they see as more acceptable alternatives to help themselves feel better for a day or two. What they don’t realise, is that money invested in your mental health is equipping you with valuable tools that can last a lifetime.

What were the biggest challenges you faced when setting up and what support did you get?

Our biggest challenge was that neither of us had experience in running our own business, so finding out how to go about it once we’d had the idea was daunting in itself. We attended a six-week course through Invest NI, which gave us the basics and helped us get started. After that, our biggest hurdle was in attracting clients. Counselling isn’t something where a client will share your card with a friend who may need help. There’s still a stigma around seeing a counsellor and talking about it to others is just a step too far for many. That makes it hard to rely on referrals and to this day, that remains our biggest challenge.

What three tips could you offer those considering starting their own business?

Do your homework – research the need for what you’re offering and have a solid business plan in place before you start.

Take advantage of any support that’s on offer, whether it’s from government agencies, friends, family or advice from other business people – don’t be too proud to ask for help.

Persevere. Success doesn’t happen overnight in many businesses and keeping up to date with technology and using social media to your advantage will be of great benefit.

What are your plans for the next 12 months?

Over the next 12 months we hope to expand our client base by working with other agencies and continuing to build relationships with local businesses, schools and health centres. We developed the here2help app in partnership with local businessman Jack Creighton. It is free to download on any smartphone and offers instant access to crisis helplines as well as a directory of mental health services that can help in times of difficulty. In the coming year, we hope to spread the word about this potentially life-saving app and encourage more people to download it to their phones. We are currently working with Carrickfergus Enterprise on a range of business growth initiatives and we hope to develop that relationship further in the coming year.

What do you get up to in your free time?

Noel: I get very little free time, but what little I do get is spent with my family and is very precious to me.

Margaret: Time with my family, yoga and walking my three dogs – living life as best I can.

If you could swap places with anyone who would it be and why?

Noel: Boring though it is, I’m very happy as I am.

Margaret: I am happy with who I am, however I would love to live with the passion of someone like the Dalai Lama. He is my inspiration for a simple, happy life.

Go Your Own Way series in conjunction with Carrickfergus Enterprise, Meadowbank Road, Carrickfergus. Telephone: 028 93 369528