THE QUEEN OF COUNSELLING IS MADE FOR RELATE

Diana is not the perfect patron for a marriage guidance body, but at least she understands therapy
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The Independent Online
They could hardly have chosen worse. Appointing the Princess of Wales as patron of Relate was like choosing Myra Hindley for the NSPCC or the South Korean president for the Canine Defence League. When the Princess was chosen seven years ago, the writing was already on the wall. One observer within Relate at that time recalls caustically, "You didn't need X-ray eyes or contacts at the palace to know what was going on. When she came to visit the project in Battersea, she was a sad little person. She seemed to be hoping that she would gain some benefit from us by osmosis." Indeed, she sat in on several Relate counselling sessions, trying to inhale the advice, plainly to no avail.

Exactly who did or did not say what to the Sunday Times is lost in mists of obfuscation, but it has led to a divorce between Relate and its president, Joanna Foster. The Sunday Times, mendaciously or not, reported Relate's chairman, Ed Straw, as saying: "There are no plans involving the patron in public events over the next few months until the acrimony is resolved. ... I think the crucial thing is to get this episode out of the way and then she can return to being an active patron for us." Although he denies he said it, Joanna Foster is outraged at what she sees as a betrayal of trust, and a breach of Relate's policy never to comment on its patron. But, under daily pressure to say something about the divorce all the world was talking about, Relate fumbled. How could it avoid embarrassment at its patron doing everything in her divorce that it counsel others not to do?

If Relate seems edgy at the moment, that is hardly surprising. The passing of the new divorce Bill will lead to a leap in demand for mediation and counselling services, as all divorcing couples are compulsorily informed of services. The Lord Chancellor has promised Relate that there will be more money for early counselling before couples reach the divorce courts, as well as money for mediation for those actually divorcing, but nobody imagines it will be enough and there will be an unsightly scramble for it.

But in their battle for a good slice of the funds, Relate should not regard the Princess as a liability. One quality makes her an excellent patron for it: she is a champion of therapy - though she may not be the best advertisement for it. Indeed, the scene where she wept in the street in front of the cameras as she came out of a session with her therapist may have raised questions in many people's minds about whether they would want to go to a therapist who made them cry - or let them leave at the end of the session in such a vulnerable state of distress. But she is of a generation that regards counselling as part of everyday life, to be dipped in and out of without shame, the psychological sauna and the mental gym.

The Princess Royal, on the other hand, would make a very bad Relate patron. She comes from another era, another cast of mind. Recently she poured scorn on the counselling business, mocking the idea of post-traumatic stress disorder and the battalions of counsellors who step in after disasters. Her no-nonsense, pull-yourself-together approach played well with an old- fashioned sentiment, bemused by that routine last line of news reports: "Counsellors have been brought in to help them come to terms with their grief." Come to terms with it? First, the idea that the loss of a loved one is a "problem" rather than a part of the human condition is odd. Second, how are you supposed to "come to terms" with it? Both the stiff upper lips and the moralists have trouble with the idea of counselling away our cares.

But who are these people who are becoming universal emotional crutches in every adversity? The counselling world is an unregulated monster, with many tentacles, some of dubious origin. Dangerous fruitcakes, mind-bending brain-washers and Gypsy Lee palmists can all set out brass plates and acquire handsome phoney initials. The British Association of Counselling was enjoyably stung recently when a television programme sent in an application form with a pounds 50 fee and promptly received membership for one Bernard Manning, "specialist in race awareness and sexual problems". (The association protested vigorously that anyone can be a member, but to be an accredited counsellor requires thorough scrutiny.)

The trouble with regulating all this is that nobody knows what service these people are supposed to provide and how to judge their results. None the less, this task is being undertaken by an umbrella of organisations under the auspices of the British Association of Counselling (BAC). It is drawing up a register of approved counsellors, including those from Relate, the Samaritans and other established groups, certifying that someone has been screened and selected and trained by a reputable organisation. It will no doubt screen out bizarrely unsuitable practitioners, but this is never going to become a counselling equivalent of a medical Royal College. The NVQ qualification in counselling has the same dilemma. It can measure what goes into a counsellor, but not what comes out. What is effectiveness? How do you prove it? Where are the outcome measures? Recently Relate has published research to show how well the organisation does: 53 per cent of clients said their relationship improved as a result going to Relate, while 16 per cent said it had got worse.

Some people find the hairdressers or a bit of retail therapy does them good. Some prefer a drink or a joint. Some have good enough friends not to need professional listeners. In myriad ways people seek relief from anxiety, stress and unhappiness - including sessions with therapists. Yet there remains a very British reticence, a puritanism which suggests that paying someone to listen to you droning on about yourself is mere self-indulgence.

Princess Anne may pride herself on being tough as a carthorse, but those who hardly suffer mental distress could at least sympathise with the anguish of those who do - or, in the case of moaning sisters-in-law, be grateful for counsellors who are paid to listen to them.

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