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Remedial Massage Therapy – Being a Port in the Storm

By Vanessa Hough, DipRM

Purple Sister Massage and Administration Assistant for SRAA

Oh but a “few” years ago, I worked in the student residences of a public university in the US. I was a Resident Advisor. I was the go-to person for between 35-50 resident students on my floor from my second to sixth year of study. It was a great job and we were given very thorough training in the weeks leading up to semester one of each academic year before students moved into the residences. At that time, we were taught to deal with circumstances like fire, roommate disputes, body fluids, first aid for injuries and suicide.

Whenever we would role play the suicide scenario, everyone’s anxiety levels would go up. Nobody ever wanted to be confronted with this issue, but we had to prepare for it. We talked about behavioural changes to watch for as well as changes in communication. Today, this may be training to screen for risk of suicide (or SRAAs Foundations program).

So here’s the thing, all manner of occupations train in Basic First Aid and CPR. Only a few specific occupations like Doctors and Mental Health Professionals, even Police and Paramedics are given Mental Health First Aid training. The broader population is being exposed more and more to mental health problems on a significant scale, and people who are dealing with varying degrees of mental health issues are seeking out help in non-traditional ways because of a delay or lack of availability and accessibility to mental health care professionals.

In my case as a Remedial Massage Therapist, clients often find their sessions an opportunity to unload their minds and hearts during a massage. While I am not a psychologist and have never claimed to be, I have had a lot of training in active listening skills. My clients know that I am a “captive audience” for an hour or so and feel safe confiding in me. For some, it takes a while to open up and others let the flood gates go. To be honest, I am quite comfortable in this role as confidante during our sessions. However, there have been times when the talk is much heavier than the pressure exerted through my elbows!

I have listened to many a heavy heart and weighty shoulders. Some of the topics have ranged from relationship splits, abusive situations, parental stress, drug rehabilitation, job loss and just last year, I had a client come to see me just a few days after he attempted suicide.

This young man, mid 20s, was a labourer. He worked hard, long hours, and came to me through his partner several months prior to this attempt. He often spoke of his work-related stress and sometimes relationship woes. More so, he had chronic back pain. He wasn’t sleeping well and was often “grumpy” after a full day of work when he would get to my clinic. I pride myself on having my clients laugh during treatment. It really is good medicine for the soul and a great ab workout, and he did laugh. There had been only a short break between our weekly sessions, he had cancelled the week before due to work, and then a message came to me from his partner begging me to see him. She said he just got home from seeing the doctor at the hospital after attempting suicide. I was overwhelmed in that moment, to say the least. I was overwhelmed by the feeling of sadness at this news; overwhelmed by the guilt that I didn’t see this coming; overwhelmed by the fear of assuming I was going to be seen as his “counsellor”.

How is it I was the first call to help him and not the psychologist or counsellor he had been referred to? His partner sent multiple messages and rang several times insisting that he needed to see me as he was physically in pain. I really wanted to help, but I also had to establish some parameters for his treatment.

The first thing I insisted on was that he see a Mental Health professional first before seeing me. After he had a few sessions with his counsellor, he came for a massage. From the time of his suicide attempt to his massage session was one week. I was nervous. So was he. Not surprisingly, he didn’t want to talk about what happened. He just said that his whole body hurt and would love nothing more than one of my usual “pummelling” treatments. In his words, “make me feel every sore spot so I know I am still here”. Whoa! Took everything to choke back a few tears when he said that. At the end of our session that day I said to him, “I am glad you are still here. This massage wouldn’t have been the same without you.” It got a little chuckle from him. He said it felt good to laugh.

When I look back on this moment, I realise just how much massage therapists are sounding boards for their clients. We don’t just hear about physical aches and pains, we are privileged to the emotional and mental ones, too. So where is the training for this in our education packages at TAFE or private colleges or University?

Due to a lack of funding in most cases, we are left to seek this kind of training on our own. I know I would have felt better equipped if I had a bit more training in this area. I would have felt better if I would have had a resources pack at hand to refer to, not just a list of phone numbers to hotlines. I am not saying those numbers are not valuable, quite the opposite. In that moment, certain communication skills, a way of making sure I could support him and his partner. Let’s not forget her in this. She is the one who found him after all. Fortunately,  training to screen people who may be feeling suicidal is available and SRAA are available to support you.

If you have any comments or questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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