David Tonkin has only been in his current role of senior wellbeing counsellor at Open Universities Australia for the past 12 months, but he’s loving it.
Mr Tonkin, who works with Student Success and Support Services, said one of the reasons he made the move was to challenge himself.
The accredited mental health social worker with formal qualifications in counselling, cyber counselling, human services management, substance abuse studies, workplace training and assessment, disability work, frontline management and youth work, had been working at Swinburne University when a colleague showed him the advertisement.
“I decided to apply for four reasons,” he said.
“I believe online counselling will play a major part in educational settings counselling services, online and on campus, to challenge myself with regard to technology - and technology advances happen regularly - to have the opportunity to counsel students anywhere in Australia and around the world and to be part of a business that is only 20 years young that has an exciting future.
“I worked with Lifeline in the 1990s for two years and while some of my peers asked why I would give up face-to-face counselling, I find it really exciting to be now working with students across the country.
“I can be talking to someone who is sitting on their couch on the front porch in the middle of Australia – and there can be the noise of huge trucks passing through.”
Mr Tonkin said telephone counselling could work faster than traditional therapeutic encounters. It also allows some clients to express themselves more freely, as they have a sense of anonymity.
“The fundamental difference between telephone counselling and face-to-face counselling is the lack of visual information available to the counsellor,” he said.
“This visual information provides many subtle clues, but most importantly enables the counsellor to send and receive non-verbal messages.
“Students often telephone the OUA counselling service as they are wanting to be academically successful and sometimes other life demands can impact on this goal.
“The role of the counsellor is to help the student express their problems and feelings so as to gain a better understanding of themselves.
“This requires the counsellor to build rapport promptly, focussing the student on the present, working with the presenting issue, assisting the student to problem-solve and the counselling being mindful of time restrictions, listening and observing student verbal cues, changes in tones of voice and background sounds.”
Mr Tonkin said students sought counselling for a range of issues including relationship breakdown, domestic violence whether it is emotional, physical and mental abuse, mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression, grief and loss, loneliness and isolation, employment-related conflict, career guidance, performance anxiety specifically related to academic success and problems related to studying online.
“My practice is influenced by cognitive behavioural therapy, person-centred, systems theory, life coaching, motivational interviewing and psychoanalysis, strengthened by group facilitation skills and knowledge and an overall integrated approach to leadership, counselling, training, education and health promotion.
“As an accredited mental health social worker I strive for ethical and consistent good practice, meeting legislative and reporting requirements.”
Mr Tonkin said while the current free OUA student counselling service offered confidential telephone counselling to students during AEST business hours and Skype counselling for students living overseas, there were moves under way to offer both live chat and email counselling.
“I would also like to see us offer more hours to our Western Australian students to make it more balanced.”
Mr Tonkin said his role was advertised to students through a Welcome Pack they received on enrolment and on the OUA website. Some students were made aware of the service through providers and other internal OUA services.
Contact with students was generally one-off, but some students, such as those with eating disorders or ongoing psychosis, were advised that face-to-face counselling was a more appropriate option. A referral to a service in their local community was also made.
Mr Tonkin has spent his life helping others with roles at Swinburne University of Technology and Kangan Institute, St Vincent de Paul Homeless and Drug Dependency Program, The Royal Children’s Hospital, Centre for Adolescent Health in Health Promotion and Education with the Adolescent Forensic Health Service and Young People’s Health Service.
But his latest position has him very excited about the future.
"I can’t wait to see where it goes next – and I don’t know where it will go – but I want to be a part of this.”
* This article was written by an independent journalist as part of a commercial agreement with Open Universities Australia.