Business is booming for The Cottage Counselling Centre – which is both a blessing and a challenge.
It’s a blessing because, in the 25 years since the centre first began, people have become much more aware of and proactive about taking care of their mental health.
But it’s also a challenge because, especially since COVID hit, the centre is “struggling to keep up with demand”.
“I read an article the other day that said before COVID, about one in a hundred psychologists had closed their books. Now it’s about one in three. So that tells you something about the demand out there for mental health care,” Co-director of The Cottage Counselling Centre, Keren Calvert, tells Eternity.
The Cottage Counselling Centre’s growth also testifies to the increased demand for mental health services.
“We’ve gone from a few hundred sessions in a year to around 5000 …’ – John Parmentier, Co-director, The Cottage Counselling Centre
The centre began when therapist Nicky Lock started offering counselling services in a room located at the back of St Faith’s Anglican Church in Narrabeen on Sydney’s northern beaches. She had two other Christian counsellors working with her. Then the service moved into a cottage on the church property that was about to be demolished and officially became The Cottage Counselling Centre.
“Since then we have grown from one centre to seven centres. We started on the northern beaches and have moved to more central and west Sydney,” explains John Parmentier, the other Co-director of Cottage Counselling.
Apart from Narrabeen, the other counselling centres are based at Dee Why, Belrose, Lindfield, Crows Nest, Ryde and Parramatta. A new centre in Pymble, in northern Sydney, is just about to launch, and online counselling is also available. There are now 14 Christian counsellors, two psychologists and one social worker employed by Cottage Counselling.
“We’ve gone from a few hundred sessions in a year to around 5000 sessions in a year,” says Parmentier.
“We use a room in a church … and in return, they get a counselling service.” – Keren Calvert, Co-director, The Cottage Counselling Centre
The last few years during COVID have created a particular spike in demand for their services.
“We all know there’s so much need out in the community anyway. And then when COVID happened, all the things that were already difficult just became intensified,” says Calvert.
“COVID created its own issues – people lost jobs and finances, and got sick, and were separated from their families and were isolated, all of that. But as well, everything that was already going on in someone’s life got intensified.”
Like other mental health care providers, Cottage Counselling still feels the impact of this ‘silent pandemic’.
“Most of our therapists are close to capacity,” says Calvert. “So we’re keeping up with demand, but it’s a bit of a juggle in the last year or so to find spaces for everyone.
“The demand is huge. I think probably churches are finding the same thing.”
“It’s an enormous benefit to the church and the minister …” – John Parmentier
Fortunately, Cottage Counselling’s unique model has enabled it to expand quickly and easily.
“We have this nice little model where we partner with churches. We use a room in a church. They support us in whatever way they can and in return, they get a counselling service they can offer to their community. It means that we can move around and take the opportunities to grow,” Calvert explains.
In most locations, the counsellor is not a member of that church themselves, which avoids a conflict of interest when providing care to church members.
“That’s part of the beauty of the model. The idea is that the counsellor wouldn’t be from the church, so the minister can just refer [people to the counselling centre] … So it’s an enormous benefit to the church and the minister that that kind of load isn’t on her or him, and that the counsellor has the expertise to do that job well,” Parmentier explains.
The church partnership model has always been an important part of the Cottage’s ethos, founder Nicky Lock explains in a video about the service. She notes the value of prayer support from churches and adds, “just being part of the Christian body is an important part of who we are.”
All Cottage Counselling therapists have a strong Christian faith.
“It’s core to who we are,” says Parmentier. “It’s more than a value – it’s who we are, what we do and how we do it.”
“No person will be turned away … If you can’t afford counselling, we will make it affordable.” – John Parmentier
This leads to another reason for Cottage Counselling’s popularity: its affordability for everyone.
“Our ethos is that no person will be turned away from the counselling they need based on their financial position. If you can’t afford counselling, we will make it affordable,” asserts Parmentier.
Fees are based on a sliding scale in proportion to household income, so higher-income earners pay a little more, and lower-income earners pay a lower rate. The centre also offers subsidised sessions to those experiencing genuine financial hardship.
“It’s operated as a non-profit,” Parmentier explains. “And we’re really trusting God often because our subsidy is designed to make sure that money’s not a problem for people. So it’s kind of like a ministry.”
Another side of this “ministry” is to provide education to churches and their leadership about issues like family and domestic violence. Cottage Counselling also runs seminars and group programs for the church and community on topics including parenting, anger management, depression, anxiety and internet pornography.
In order to provide such a service that is affordable and accessible, The Cottage Counselling Centre is aided by donations from local churches, individual members and local clubs and organisations. But as the demand for their services continues to grow, Cottage Counselling is now seeking corporate donors to come alongside them.
“We want to open up two or three new centres and have two or three more counsellors, and so on, but we just can’t do it [without more funding],” says Parmentier.
“So we probably need to shift our efforts now to think bigger in terms of what’s possible. That’s a step of both faith and boldness, but also it’s just that next step of where this ministry is at.”
This is certainly not for financial gain for the Cottage Counselling therapists themselves, as Calvert expresses: “Most of the team at the Cottage love our jobs and would do it for nothing if we could. I sit with a client and just feel privileged to be the person they trust with those incredibly difficult stories that they have to tell. And if I can feel a connection with them, hopefully, help unlock some things along the way to help them get back to their better selves, then I go away happy.”
Parmentier agrees, adding, “We love doing the work. We’ll take a hit financially to make sure that it is possible for everyone to get care. But more money coming in just means that we can subsidise more, we can have more counsellors and keep growing to meet people’s needs.”