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The National Council of Psychotherapists

Est. 1971



Members profiles - An interview with Michael O’Sullivan FNCP


Michael has been a long time supporter of the NCP is probably best known for his work researching training standards within the Hypnotherapy field in the UK culminating in publication of the Hypnotherapy Resources & Careers Guide.


Michael was interviewed recently by our membership secretary, David Doohan.


Dave:           You have a very unusual background for a therapist, would you like to tell us about it?


Michael:       Well, I served 5 years as a combat soldier with the French Foreign Legion (FFL). I suppose that might seem a bit unusual considering what I went on to do when I finished my contract. However there are a lot of former military people working as therapists.


A lot of the surprise probably has more to do with the mystique associated with the FFL than the fact that I used to be a soldier per se.


Dave:           You specialise in PTSD and trauma.  Is there a direct link between this and your experiences in the FFL?


Michael:       Definitely – I saw and experienced some very nasty and often very disturbing things during my time in the FFL.


Dave:           Can you give some examples?


Michael:       Well there is a lot I can recall so I’ll just briefly mention a few that spring to mind. The one that eventually led to a complete change in my personal philosophy was surviving an attempt on my life; it was pure luck that I did so as it was a very determined attempt.  I also helped in the search for a murder weapon, a hammer, where a murder between soldiers was successful at my base camp.  On an exercise we found the decomposing body of a woman in a river. There have been more suicides than I like to think about as well as attempted suicides. I have seen the struggle to ‘cope’ with pressure turn clean living teetotallers into alcoholic drug users.  I could go on a bit but you probably get the picture.


                    One thing that I want to put right from the get go.  There is none of the organised or officially sanctioned brutally in the FFL that some people claim exists.


The violence that does occur usually happens because of the mix of over 140 different nationalities living in close proximity, little privacy, testosterone, freely available alcohol and boredom when on camp duties. It’s a lethal mix. I remember one Christmas when there were around 17 stabbing’s after a series of alcohol fuelled fights at parties.


Also the culture plays its part. It’s a very macho environment as you can imagine and runs very much on big boys rules. What this translates to in practical terms is that if someone has a ‘pop’ at you, you have to stand your ground or you are guaranteed to get more of the same from every low life bully around.


Dave:           Was there much bullying?


Michael:       Sometimes one of the hardest things to deal with was the bullying. A lot of people desert from the FFL and its not normally because they can’t hack the regimen or the life. All too often its because they become targets for intimidation or bullying.


One German kid woke up at 3 in the morning to find a couple of pratts in his room playing Russian Roulette, using his sleeping head as their target of choice. That German kid went straight over the wall and disappeared at the first opportunity and I personally don’t blame him one little bit.


Dave:           It doesn’t sound very pleasant.  Its easy to see why your speciality is PTSD and trauma work as you obviously have strength's in this area. Can you tell us a bit about your approach?


Michael:       I think one of my strengths is my background and the wealth of life experience that I have gathered over the years.  I can identify with a lot of people’s experiences and have a number of unique insights that can’t be book learned. Going through the school of hard knocks wasn’t easy but there are a number of definite advantages to being a graduate. One being that I approach my work with a great deal of confidence that people can be helped.


The approach is basic common sense; there are no mysteries involved in being there for traumatised people.


Dave:           Can you give any general advice:


Michael:       The single most important thing that you can do to help someone through the aftermath of involvement in a traumatic event is to let him or her know that they are not alone.


Family, friends and colleagues should listen carefully to what the affected individual is saying and should be prepared to spend time with them. You should be prepared to help and talk to them even if they have not asked for assistance.


People need to be reassured about their personal safety as much as possible as they will very likely be feeling very vulnerable.  Be prepared also to respect their need for privacy but don't allow this to develop into seclusion or neglect. 


When they lose their temper with you, shout at you or respond in other ways that are out of character, don't take it personally. Above all, don't patronise. Saying things like "It could have been worse" or "You'll get over it, don't worry" are not the kind of statement that ends to console someone in this kind of situation.  Instead ask them to try and help you understand what has happened, how they feel about it and what they want to do next.


It can be difficult for families especially to understand what may be going on.


Where this is the case I would explain what PTSD is and that what the traumatised person is experiencing is normal and predicable under the circumstances. It is extremely important for people’s families and friends to know this.


They might otherwise be very worried about changes in behaviour, comportment, habits and so on. A lot of the fear can be removed from this situation by providing simple, basic information.


A major problem with the uniformed services could be a need (perceived or otherwise) to hide problems due to fear of being stigmatised or otherwise having a career damaged.


Dave:           But don’t you find that people expect more of people in uniform?


Michael:       Indeed, and rightly so. However, it is very important to bear in mind that people in all of the uniformed services can experience as much stress and trauma in as short a period as a single day than the majority of the population might experience in a whole lifetime. There is a price to pay for that kind of exposure.  The uninformed shout loudly that people in the various services knew what they were letting themselves in for.  Well, actually, they didn’t!


No one can know the horror of looking at a dead body, someone whose death they may have been responsible for in combat, until it actually happens to you.


Ambulance workers and firemen do not join the services because they want to be first on the scene of a fire involving child fatalities, only to find a smoke detector in place whose batteries had been removed for use in another appliance.


Policemen do not join the police service because they relish the thought of having to sort out road traffic accidents or because they want to knock on people’s doors and tell them that their loved ones won’t be coming home.


Dave:           You admit yourself that there is no comparison between you now and the person that you used to be while in the FFL. So what happened?


Michael:       Probably a very corny thing to say but I underwent a spiritual experience.


There was an incident while on an overseas posting during which I rated my chances of survival as absolutely zero. At the precise moment that I accepted that I was going to die I became very calm, happy even. It was like my mind suddenly opened up and a lot of the baggage that I had been carrying around with me just vanished.


When the incident was all over my team came over to my position to collect what they were sure was going to be my dead body. Shortly after this I requested a transfer out of combat section.  I was not very popular because they had spent a lot of money training me but in the end I spent my last 6 months as a driver in a support section. I couldn't wait to get back to civilisation.


Dave:           How did your time in the FFL end?


Michael:       I completed a 5-year contract in September 1989 and received an honourable discharge.


Dave:           And your interest in Hypnotherapy/Psychotherapy?


Michael:       I suppose that this was a natural progression from my interest in helping people overcome trauma. I have always had an interest in hypnotism (I am related to a number of psychics and mediums who employ hypnosis, although they like to call it something else) so already had a very good grounding in the subject before beginning formal study.


                    My interest in hypnotherapy really only developed into a serious                        passion when I discovered that it was one of the most effective                        treatments for assisting people with PTSD. My interest in                        psychotherapy grew from there because I was interested in

                    being the most effective therapist that I could be.


Among the various training I completed an NCP accredited course in hypnotherapy and psychotherapy. I also trained experientially with a well-known UK based hypnotherapist, Duncan McColl - I never thought I could learn so much from just one person. That was one of my most valuable and valued learning experiences.


Dave:           You famously carried out a major research project into training standards within the hypnotherapy profession in the UK. This culminated in the publication of the widely acclaimed Hypnotherapy Resources & Careers Guide, which you co-authored with Morris Berg. How did this start and what are your views on the profession now and what do you think the future holds?


Michael:       Nothing like putting me on the spot is there?


                    Firstly I think it’s a strange profession where well trained, supervised and competent therapists have to compete on equal terms with poorly trained and unsupervised therapists and where the public have no way of telling the difference.

While overseas I took a distance learning course with a UK based training school. When I returned to the UK I began networking with other therapists having taken the same training. With the advantages of my earlier grounding I recognised the very serious limitations of the training that I had taken.


At best I could say that it was an enlightening experience.  The problem was though that these people had no frame of reference. People entering the profession had no way of finding out about and therefore comparing the large number of courses available. People had to take the course sellers word for it that it was the course to take. It was around then that I decided to find out exactly what was available and this eventually led to the guide being published.


The guide is now out of print but I have recently began another, and much less ambitious initiative, which is the publication of an annual directory of UK based hypnotherapy organisations. There is a free electronic version available from my web site.


Generally though, we are left with a disparate profession which, to coin a phrase, could do better.


Dave:           There have been a lot of developments both within and independent of the profession over the last few years. What are your views?


Michael:       There have been various attempts at harmonising standards, attempts at unification and so on. Although in themselves the initiatives are generally laudable and deserving of success, by applying a systems approach we can identify a number of key problem areas quite easily.


                    In an unregulated industry, organisations and individuals are not bound by anything that anyone else does, decides, proposes or agrees to.


For example a therapist was expelled from a ‘leading’ hypnotherapy organisation a few years back after being found in serious breach of their code of ethics. After initially keeping a low profile for a couple of years this person has now popped up again as a tutor with a hypnotherapy training school.


Key to the whole issue of standardisation is the question of public confidence and protection. The DOH have placed protection of the public, and quite rightly, as central to any initiatives that the industry might propose.


I have also assisted a number of people to bring complaints through hypnotherapy organisations.


Suffice to say that glossy brochures, glib promises and smug claims about having the best complaints procedure's since sliced bread mean nothing. There are of course notable exceptions, the NCP being a case in point.


The whole question of complaints is contentious.  I would like to see organisations begin to publish statistical information about their complaints processes so that everyone in the field can take stock and structure procedures to suit.


I’d like to see more therapists move from being passive members of their respective registering organisations and ask a few questions about what is being done in their name.  I harp on about complaints procedures but after talking to interested groups, POPAN being the obvious main one, complaints brought against hypnotherapists continue to be disproportionate to the numbers practising in comparison to the counselling and psychotherapy fields.


                    The field is replete with schemes and initiatives.  There have been too schemes in place for years that have not been properly policed, if at all, until recently. 


For example one accreditation scheme that has been operating for years has only recently begun to do any kind of meaningful checks at all, apart from collecting the yearly fee.


                    Speaking generally it is my view that schemes that are not enforced discredit the profession and often lend false credibility to organisations who are prepared to take advantage of the situation.  Of course none of these initiatives and strong complaints procedures will prevent problems, however their un-enforced existence will only surely encourage them.


Dave:           Some will accuse you of painting a bleak picture


Michael:       Indeed – but its not all doom and gloom. One thing that is very clear throughout the entire profession is that no one is now unaware of the issue of standards.  This might seem like a strange thing to highlight; after all hasn’t it always been this way?  In a word, ‘no’ it hasn’t, and it has taken a lot of hard work by many different people, generally unthanked, to bring things to the point that they are at at the moment.


Another excellent development is the credit towards degrees from some Universities that graduates of some higher-level hypnotherapy courses can now achieve. This move can only raise peoples expectations of what they will get for their money when they train – some trainers will be found wanting.


Dave:           What do you think the future holds?


Michael:       Eventually, many years down the line, some form of voluntary self-regulation.  It will probably end up being a situation similar to the one we see with the UKCP and BAC. Although attempting to move to the next step they remain at present semi-regulatory bodies.  What I mean by this is that they have achieved credibility and are taken seriously as representative organisations. I say semi because they don’t at present have the power to prevent anyone expelled by a member organisation or from their registers from continuing to practice outside of their framework, and they can’t prevent people practising psychotherapy and counselling outside of their ranks.


Dave:           Thank you….  


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