‘The focus must be on the person in front of you’

Ian Florance talks to Kimberley Wilson at HMP Holloway.

I learnt several things about Kimberley Wilson before we started talking. She is a counselling psychologist and likes baking and salsa. But there was much, much more to find out about her and her role as the Operational Lead in Primary Care Mental Health at HMP Holloway.

‘I fancied myself as the new Adrian Mole’ 
‘I was born in Haringey, though my family moved around. I have an older brother and a younger sister. I was the quiet one who watched people rather than joined in – I always wondered why people did what they did and what they were thinking. I fancied myself as the new Adrian Mole and kept a diary in which I wrote, “I think I may be an intellectual”. Only problem was I’d misspelt intellectual!’ Another thing I learnt about Kimberley is that she likes to laugh, not least about herself. ‘So I always practised self-reflection! I was often the only black person in my year at school. In primary school there was another black boy in my class. He looked up and said, “Wow, you’re black!”. I replied, “So are you.” “No I’m not,” he said, “I’m brown.” So that was my first lesson in intra-group differences.’

Kimberley loved school. ‘It was an escape – my mum had MS and got increasingly ill, and I didn’t get on with my brother and sister. School gave me validation, praise and a sense of achievement. It also gave me the opportunity to find my voice. Though I had low self-esteem I wasn’t afraid to speak my mind, leading one astute friend to say, “Kim, you’ve got issues with authority.” I think he had a point!’

‘I’m going to do this better than you’ 
Which feeds into her description of how she came to study psychology. While doing A-levels, she became depressed. 'I was referred to a counsellor who didn’t listen to a single word I said. I was devastated. I thought, “One day I’m going to do this better than you.” I didn’t want anyone to feel as lost as I did in that moment.’

Kimberley is honest about her motives. ‘Education was a way of escaping from poverty. I always knew I would go to university – the first person from my family to do so. My two teachers for psychology A-level didn’t teach me much, so I worked hard on my own initiative. I did my BA in Manchester. I did courses in evolutionary psychology, psycholinguistics and neuropsychology because they seemed to give answers to my original questions – why do people do and say what they do?

I loved it.’ Again, Kimberley was intent on doing a postgraduate course. ‘I first thought I’d do clinical qualifications, but the process is madness, and the more I looked into it the more I realised it wasn’t for me. Then I found counselling psychology, and it exactly fitted what I wanted to do, which was to facilitate healing.’

In order to get experience (and earn some money) Kimberley worked at, among other places, the Marie Stopes Clinic in Kings Cross as Results Manager and in client liaison. ‘You can use your work experience to test your own thoughts and feelings. What did I think about abortion, for instance? I took two things from that placement. Everyone’s pain is different: from the woman attending for the ninth time and the terrified young girl with her mother, to the woman who wanted to keep a child but whose partner wouldn’t let her. I also saw the cynicism that comes with burn-out and how that affects staff’s attitudes to clients. Work experience is not just about accruing what you need to qualify for a course – it tests your limits and empathy.’ Kimberley also worked for three years in one of the top 20 global law firms as Community Affairs Manager, providing a range of community investment opportunities and recruiting for them.

‘My manager, Felicity Kirk, was wonderful and allowed me to start my training alongside my work.’

‘I took my MSc at Roehampton. It was academically taxing, gave you experience with your own clients and through continual self-reflection pulls you apart and puts you back together. I loved it.’ Did you pick up one counselling approach? ‘No. You need a range of approaches. It’s not about me or the particular model I subscribe to. To me, all the different schools are using different language to say the same thing. The focus must be on the person in front of you, so you ask both what and who can help that person. If I’m not the right person to help someone, then I need to know someone who can’.

‘My dissertation was on work stress and attitudes to help-seeking among corporate lawyers, which touched on a number of gender issues. It’s a male system; women work as lawyers, but the power resides with partners who are mostly men.’

Kimberley also worked for two years with Kids Company, the London charity ‘which gave me a chance to work with school-aged children’.

‘I’m probably something of a Pollyanna’

For most of the interview I’d wanted to ask how someone who had ‘issues with authority’ ended up working in the prison service. ‘I had placements at Holloway and Pentonville. It was straight in at the deep end, and I don’t suppose I really understood what I was getting into. I’d learnt about pathologies on my course but not about the histories of unrelenting trauma and distress these people come with. That they even survived was extraordinary to me. To answer your question, it’s that that draws me to my work. In every client there’s a thread of humanity keeping them alive. Where do they find hope? Prison is the end of the line. For most people the option is prison or death. Your job in counselling is to find the hope, that tiny spark of hope that things can be different. By nature I’m an optimist, which probably helps, and I’m probably something of a Pollyanna – holding on to a maybe naive belief in the innate goodness of people and the possibility of growth and change.’

I’d wanted to ask another, sensitive question. ‘You’re young and you look young. How do you establish your credibility in the prison?’ ‘I just try to do my job. I am young, and I think it’s better, easier, if I just accept and work with that rather than be defensive about it. I’m a similar age to many of our clients so I can draw on shared references and insights other staff may not have. And my own life experiences give me some credibility.’

What about your team? ‘All of them are older than me, which is interesting. I try to remind myself that I was awarded the post because of my ability to do it.’

A narcissistic disorder 
What does the future hold. ‘Ambition is sometimes treated as a narcissistic disorder in counselling psychology, but I’m ambitious – for myself and for psychology. People need to know the stuff psychologists know, so  I fight against protectionist attitudes. I’d like to work with the media to get accurate information and advice out there to the public.’

Kimberley is also involved in The House Partnership, a partnership of therapists and counsellors in Central London. ‘We launch officially in September, which is very exciting. ‘

Kimberley was off to be interviewed for a psychodynamic training course at the Tavistock. ‘I’m a bit late so I’ll leave my bike here.’ After she’d left I realised I hadn’t had time to ask her about her baking and salsa. But her parting shot wrapped it all up. ‘The further you get, the more leverage you have to get information, knowledge and services to people who really need them. And that’s the whole point.’

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