‘An empty stomach has no ears’…..What do your ethics say?

‘An empty stomach has no ears’ is an African phrase commonly used by clients within our context. Referring to a hungry person not being able to concentrate on anything else, except their need to get their basic needs met. Many times as clinicians we sit and contemplate the contextual realities of many of our clients. My client has nowhere to live, another has no job, there’s no money for school fees and ones that can’t even afford food for their children. In sitting with these things an overwhelming sense of helplessness can become all consuming (which is often an echoing of the helplessness the individual is feeling about their situation). When I first started I used to have immense feelings of guilt and sadness, really just wanting to be able to give my client money to get food for her children. But that goes against two important aspects of my training, the first being to empower the individual to be able to do this for themselves and secondly that my professional ethical code of conduct prohibits it. Rationally being able to understand why I couldn’t did not help with the feelings. I eventually found myself switching off to it and constantly telling myself that that is not my role as a therapist. But my training also told me that you cannot do therapy with a hungry person and that can at times be so present in the therapy room that no amount of rationalisation can make it feel better.

Then we start coming towards the end of the year, which to me means Christmas time and holiday. Things that my socioeconomic status allows me to look forward to, but it is also a time where I reflect on the many things that I have in my life. So this year as the clinic we decided to try something a little bit different. We know that we cannot really give our clients things directly but technically that does not stop us from getting things donated. Some may have heard of the Santa shoe-box initiative whereby people can sponsor a child and pack a shoe-box with some essential toiletries, stationery, a toy and clothing. So we decided to do one for the children of the clients that we see at the trauma clinic. This was done specifically because many parents are often filled with sadness at not being able to give their children anything over the Christmas period and that the beginning of the year is often filled with such stress at getting basic stationery for the children old enough to go to school. Initially once we put together the list of children the task began to seem a bit overwhelming and I doubted the ability to get everything together and ensure that all the children got something. But truly sometimes the universe aligns itself and hears what is needed and the people that were approached began offering to help and helped in abundance of what was requested of them. And as a result 60 children’s Santa shoe-boxes were donated and given in December. Of course, this did not meet the greater basic needs of clients and perhaps it just met my own need to do something about my own levels of despair regarding client’s contextual realities.

What this also really speaks to the ethical dilemma that many individuals may face when working in impoverished settings, the professional ethics of what one is supposed to do and the human ethics of what one wants to do as a human being for another and this constant tug of war between the two. So before we begin to feel completely shut off to this aspect of others it was worthwhile seeing what could be done in the confines of what we could do. Being mindful of the reality that one small parcel does not solve the hunger that will be in the therapy room with me in the next session.

Written by Jacqui Chowles

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