Dr Stephen O’Kane

Dr Stephen O'Kane

Meet Dr Stephen O'Kane, Family Violence and Relationships Counsellor

Each month we spotlight an ACA member in the ACA Monthly Bulletin, our monthly newsletter. The Member Spotlight is designed to showcase the work of our members to you! We hope their stories inspire or spark interest. Let’s share our experiences within our counselling community.

I’m a specialist Family Violence Counsellor and Family Relationships Counsellor. I’m also designated as an Authorised Family Counsellor under the Family Law Act 1975. I work for EACH Limited which is a community health organisation based in the east of Melbourne. It has its 50th anniversary this year and started life as the Maroondah Social Health Centre which was opened by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1974. I’m also a Member of the ACA College of Supervisors and do some counselling supervision of counsellors in my spare time!!

What motivated you to pursue a career in counselling?

I was initially trained in human resources and public policy and gained experience as a senior manager and a CEO. I have worked at Commonwealth State and Local Government levels in a variety of roles. I’m also formally trained as a mentor and coach and ran my own executive coaching and consulting business for several years. There is often crossover between work and home life, and I’ve always loved working directly with people and helping them with their issues regardless of where they arise. Counselling was a natural fit for me, and I made this career change about 15 years ago and have never looked back.

What specific areas do you primarily work within?

Within EACH I work for the Family Relationship Centre (FRC) in a small counselling team of three people. We work alongside a group of Family Dispute Resolution Practitioners. The FRC engages in mediation for children’s matters (e.g. shared parenting arrangements) and finance and property settlements. Family Dispute Resolution is an alternative to going to the Federal Circuit and Family Court to obtain Parenting Orders.

We deal with supporting parents through the difficult cycle of relationship breakdown with our major focus on ensuring that the interests of children are the separating parents’ focus. Children only have one childhood, and they are entitled to have two good parents who love them and keep them safe & help them flourish. You don’t have to like the other parent to be an effective coparent.

I also work as a Specialist Family Violence Counsellor in this role and have spent several years working at the Courts and in the crisis homelessness area. Sometimes the behaviours of both parents or either parent has been the cause of the family relationship breakdown. We offer support to any parties without judgement.

What is a recent personal success or achievement you’re proud of?

I’ve seen a long history of men being blamed and shamed for their behaviour and them feeling as a client group that there’s nowhere for them to go to be heard and understood. They often feel “judged” by health professionals and do not access counselling services. I’m really disturbed by this. There were approx. 3000 suicides in Australia last year and 75% of these people were men.

As a volunteer and in my professional life I see many men and try to help them turn their lives around and be there for their families and particularly for their children. I’m passionate about getting men to engage in counselling services and to get them to keep engaging so they can be supported and helped. It’s what makes me get up in the morning.

What is the most rewarding aspect of being a counsellor for you?

If you help one client in a week then as counsellors, we have done our job. My objective always is that our clients are better for having had the courage to come to counselling and start the journey to creating a better future.

I have worked with several women who have suffered significant trauma from their childhood, and it’s been gratifying to see how much they have also turned their lives around.

I’ve had the privilege of working with several same sex couples as well who, despite discrimination and trauma have really been able to go on and lead fulfilling and satisfying lives. This is what makes counselling worthwhile.

Helping people is what we do and even small wins in our work is something we all need to celebrate.

How do you contribute to the betterment of the profession and your community?

I’m a passionate volunteer and have been on and chaired a few community Boards and also been a volunteer counsellor in some not-for-profit organisations who do crisis work.

I’ve been lucky enough this year to be part of the ACA family of volunteers and have been invited to be part of the ACA Ethics and Professional Standards Committee. I’d encourage all ACA members to be a volunteer member of some part of ACA’s activities. I can guarantee that you will help develop and enrich the profession and help make it the best that it can be.

Are there any particular projects or initiatives you’re currently involved in?

I’ve just made a series of videos encouraging men to come forward and seek assistance through counselling and accessing other support services. The message is that everyone needs assistance at some time in their lives, rather than making do or “toughing it out”. We all need help and men as a client group are no exception.

What advice would you give to someone considering a career in counselling?

Go for it! To know at the end of the day that you’ve contributed to helping even one person is something to be cherished and celebrated. If you can help a client create a better future, or to be a better parent you have made a significant contribution to society and to the welfare of them and their families.

Is there a quote or philosophy that inspires your work?

I’m very fond of the quote attributed to the suffragette Maya Angelou who said: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”.

I also like the quote that for me provides the idea that if you intervene early and create firm foundations then you can achieve almost anything. It says: “Tall timber does not grow with ease, the stronger the winds the stronger the trees”.

Last thoughts

I’ve written an article during COVID-19 which was published in the Australian Counselling and Research Journal on Counselling Supervision. At its core is the idea that as counsellors we need to not only do no harm, but to treat every client with “Hope, Compassion and Justice”. This means staying away from labels like “victim” and “perpetrator” which are not helpful to creating meaningful change. It means not usurping the role of Judges and Magistrates in determining questions of guilt or innocence before the law. It means helping all clients that present to us for counselling support, whether you agree with them and their past actions or not. Counsellors are in the business of providing professional services without judgement, and also providing hope and helping clients find a clear pathway towards a different future.

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