Interview with Avril Johnson: Clinical Services Manager of The Mapesbury Clinic for people in exile

Avril Johnson – Clinical Services Director – talks to Louise Buckle about running the service

The Mapesbury Clinic was established in 2001 with the aim of improving the mental health and well-being of refugees and asylum seekers. The Clinic offers culturally and linguistically appropriate counselling, psychotherapy and support services and is staffed by people from different cultures and backgrounds. Many have been refugees themselves.

The services offered are available to refugees, asylum seekers and those who are displaced, aged 17 and over, living in London. Services are free. The advocacy service offers help with a wide range of issues including housing, welfare benefits, immigration and asylum support. Where necessary clients are referred for specialist advice and representation on these and other matters. There is also a drop in service for clients who feel isolated and links to other organisation that can provide a range of services helpful to refugees and asylum seekers.

Let’s talk about you to start with. You are the clinical services manager for the Mapesbury Centre. Why did you take the role?

I think what attracted me to the role was that it included clinical, managerial elements and working exclusively with a particular client group.

Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your journey?

I have a first degree in Psychology from Portsmouth University. I thought about training to become a clinical psychologist or psychoanalyst, but instead, with friends set up a company producing mainly documentary films for TV. Then around 1993-94, I decided that I would train to be a psychotherapist. I completed my training 2000 at the Institute of Psychotherapy and Social Studies. Since then I have worked in the voluntary and statutory sectors, and I have a private practice. From time to time, I still do some media work, but very little.

And is this a full time role or do you have other commitments as well?

No, I work part-time. I am about to start my second year of a family therapy training and I do other things as well.

How would you describe your job at the Mapesbury Centre?

My role is to build upon the success of the Mapesbury clinic, that is, in the services we provide, attracting funding to the project and expanding the clinic’s profile. However, as a team our raison-d’être is to provide solid therapeutic and advocacy services for the client group, that is refugees and asylum seekers. For me this means having capable counsellors/therapists from different ethnic groups, having/developing the appropriate systems so that we are efficient and effective; having an advocacy service that helps the service user in practical ways.

How would you describe the services that the Centre provides?

The Mapesbury Clinic provides culturally and linguistically appropriate counselling/therapy. Our clients have complex issues some of which are practical in nature, hence the need for an advocacy service. Ours is ably operated by Agata. The Mapesbury Clinic was established in 2001 and was set up by the previous director and students studying at the Minster, some of whom were also refugees. They saw the need for the service and set about making it happen.

You’ve mentioned the advocacy service. What other staff do you have?

Lemma generally manages the clinic and, of course, there are our counsellors who are a very dedicated and important part of the clinic. This is a voluntary organisation and, particularly in the present climate, there are always issues around financing, or the lack of it.

Now that we have a feel for the aim of the centre and its staff, can you tell me a little bit about your clients?

Our clients are men and women who are or have been refugees/asylum seekers. They usually present with complex issues that are a combination of psychological/mental health and social problems.

We provide a service to those people who have experienced all sorts of problems as a result of war and/or upheaval in their country of origin and resettlement in a new environment. The clinic needs to keep abreast with the languages new refugees speak, and to find ways of encouraging communities who do not consider counselling as an option to access the service. It should seize the opportunity whenever it is presented to expand the languages in which counselling takes place. The clinic needs to be able to attract new funding. We need to think about the range of therapeutic interventions offered, for example, couples, groups and families.

I find it amazing that you are still actively expanding the number of languages that you offer when I am aware that you already offer counselling and psychotherapy in Albanian, Arabic (North African, Middle East and all dialects), Bosnian, Dari, Farsi, French, Portuguese, Serbo-Croat, Somali, Spanish, Swahili, Turkish and English.

You are a psychotherapist as well as a manager. How do you see the role of therapy in your work and the work of the clinic.

Therapy is central. It is the Mapesbury Clinic raison-d’être. I think, as the clinical services manager, it is very important to separate the therapeutic from the managerial. This means not offering interpretations when a situation needs to be managed. In the Mapesbury clinic the kind of ethos I certainly want to encourage, in terms of our relationships with each other and our clients is respect, empathy, a boundaried approach to clinical and advocacy services and a willingness to try and think about our practices.

Therapy has developed and changed so much over the past century. What direction do you think it is going to take in the future?

I don’t really have an idea of how therapy will change in the years to come, but from past and current developments, I would speculate that governments will make more extensive use of talking therapies over and above its current short-sighted over-indulgence in all things CBT. I hope more money and resources will be made available to specialist community therapeutic organisations, like the Mapesbury Clinic. I hope that more and more black people, people of colour, and minorities overcome their suspicion and fear of psychological treatments and demand access to talking therapies.

And the role of therapy in society?

Since Freud published ‘Studies in Hysteria’ in the late nineteenth century psychotherapy, and our understanding of the psychological has increased to the extent that it is now embedded in the western social and cultural societies, I hope that continues.


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