Safety Through Diversity Conference Q&A with PACFA Secretary Nigel Polak

29 July 2022

PACFA Secretary Nigel Polak, who also leads the PACFA Safety Through Diversity Conference Committee, answers some burning questions about the upcoming conference from 14-18 November.

What’s behind the ‘Safety Through Diversity’ theme of the conference?

We wanted to make something exciting, we wanted to create something that was interesting to members; we wanted to generate feelings; we wanted to harness whatever strong feelings were already in the counselling and psychotherapy community, in the PACFA community.

So our conversation on the Conference Committee ranged to the areas where we heard counsellors and psychotherapists venting their spleen. What were counsellors and psychotherapists upset about?

And we realised that what counsellors and psychotherapists tend to be upset about is the place that they hold in the broader mental health system – lack of Medicare, no GST exemption, lower rates in NDIS and other areas. So there’s a feeling of being treated like second class citizens and not having our skills and knowledge and way of practising valued even though we know we are at least as effective and certainly better liked by our clients than many of our mental health counterparts who have a more clinical lens.

The other thing that was going on was that anyone who works in an organisation at the moment, particularly a large organisation, will know that diversity and equity and inclusion are big issues. They always have been but they’re actually finally being dealt with, by organisations and governments around the country.

And we were aware that PACFA’s College of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Practitioners hadn’t had an opportunity to showcase itself. PACFA’s Diversity in Gender, Body, Kinship and Sexuality Interest Group, even in their name, set a model for a more inclusive vision for understanding, representing, and discussing diversity. They also hadn’t had an opportunity to showcase what they’re passionate about and interested in.

Does it also encompass an idea that diversity is intrinsic to safety in therapy?

One of the things that we know about works in therapy is the goodness of fit between the practitioner and the client. Client-therapist ‘fit’ can be around the client’s perception of the therapist’s ethnicity, religion, gender, age, and sexual orientation and identity. We know that clients tend to do better, and like to be treated, by people they perceive to be similar to themselves. So it’s really important that we have diversity in practitioners.

It also really talks to the lack of diversity that being threatened in the broader mental health landscape. If you look at the broader mental health landscape, there was the potential for counselling and psychotherapy, in all its rich diversity, to be outed from the mainstream mental health system and certainly it’s been an uphill battle and continues to be an uphill battle for acceptance, inclusion and equality for psychotherapists and counsellors within that wider mental health landscape. And so, there’s safety through diversity in that broader service landscape as well. I think every single one of our PACFA members would feel the deep sense of despair that we on the committee do, if counselling and psychotherapy were to be made redundant, irrelevant, extinct. If our society was left with only the medically and scientifically oriented pharmacological and psychological models of treatment.

You’re one of the conference sub-committee organising the third day of the conference focusing on the politics of mental health. Do you want to say more about what people can expect on that day?

In supervision groups, PACFA Committee meetings, and in online spaces where counsellors and psychotherapists hang out, I read and hear a lot of our members talk about what’s going on in the broader political landscape. To our detriment, we as a profession are not that interested in the broader politics around mental health; we’re interested in doing the work with our clients and the communities we work with, as we should be. Our sense was that while a lot of people have a lot of opinions, we lack a solid understanding of what the politics of mental health really are and what that means for how we need to position ourselves, both as individual practitioners and as a profession.

Can you elaborate on the collaborative ‘festival of ideas’ format of the conference and how that will work in practice?

What we wanted to get away from in this festival of ideas, was the dominant Western model of having an expert who stands at the front and delivers their lecture and then takes a few questions from the audience before moving on to the next speaker. We are moving to a format that is going to engage a range of informative speakers in an evolving and deepening dialogue together with all of the participants (conference attendees) that have signed up to be a part of this conversation. So, it’s going to be more like a Q&A or Insight episode.

Effectively, over 5 days, it is one evolving, deepening conversation. And each day is, of itself, one evolving, deepening conversation, from 10am to 5pm and potentially beyond 5pm!

Part of honouring the diversity theme of the conference is to adopt a frame in which a sense of time is more fluid than in Western culture. So we’re saying, ‘It might finish at 5, it might finish at 4, it might finish at 6 or 7, for those who are willing to stick around and have that longer conversation’.

No-one is going to be forced to stick around and have that conversation – nevertheless, it is an opportunity to have a deepening conversation where the initial speakers are the invited speakers and successful applicants – we’re calling them the key collaborators – and they have been invited because they have a knowledge base and an experiential base that will support the building of a solid foundation for a fruitful conversation between equal peers.

How can people from marginalised communities be confident that they will feel safe in the conference space?

We’re working together with the College of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Practitioners and with the Gender, Body, Kinship and Sexuality Interest Group to ensure that we maintain a strong focus on individual and personal safety, community care, and shared responsibility for safety each day of the Festival of Ideas.

Each day is likely to bring up topics that are controversial, where people don’t share agreement, don’t share lived experience and have had diverse lived experiences. We know that these kinds of conversations can get heated and people can get activated. And that’s OK. Our facilitators from the organising committees will be guiding each day, and they will be guided by PACFA’s Community of Care Guidelines. The facilitators, with the support of the collaborators and other participants will be supported to respond in a proactive way to anybody who’s speaking out in a way that might be offensive or harmful to other people, particularly about other people’s lived experience when they may not have that lived experience themselves. Part of the process, the experience of the Festival, is to raise awareness and invite participants to take responsibility for the impact they are having on other people. To be able to challenge and be challenged without stifling conversation. We’re conscious of holding the balance between hearing from diverse lived experiences in the moment, while being careful and concerned to take care of one another, and allowing a robust discussion to better understand our professions and what’s needed to secure our collective futures.

What do you hope participants get out of the conference (apart from CPD hours for PACFA registration?)

The Festival of Ideas is about tapping into the different voices and collectives that exist within our profession and providing a forum for their diverse voices and needs.

To the extent that each individual wants to, I hope that they feel they can safely, openly and honestly participate and contribute their own ideas, and be part of this wonderful profession.

I hope participants get a real buzz out of the experience. It’s something new and different to what many may have experienced before. I hope they leave feeling excited and hopeful about their profession and the future of their profession.

One thing that we tend to lack as therapists is closeness of community; we work alone with our clients, and no one really gets to see what we do and who we are as professionals. So this is a real opportunity to build a sense of community amongst PACFA members as people with both diverse and shared experiences of being and relating, and to help us all feel that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves.

For me, that’s exactly what PACFA should be.

Read more about the conference program. Conference registration will open soon!