An interview with Ms Elena Felice, a Gestalt Psychotherapist, Counselling Psychology Practitioner, a Kids’ Yoga Instructor and a Member of TAASC

Ms Elena Felice -  Gestalt Psychotherapist, Counselling Psychologist & Kids Yoga Instructor

Ms Elena Felice - Gestalt Psychotherapist, Counselling Psychologist & Kids Yoga Instructor

1. Perinatal mental health and wellbeing is a relatively new area in the field of psychology. Why is it a growing area of importance?

Perinatal mental health and wellbeing has always been around but not talked of because of the stigma that it holds. Society paints a picture of pregnancy and birth as an experience that is solely surrounded by happiness and extreme positivity. Although this may be true for some, this is not the case for all. The most common experience in this regard is baby blues, which occurs in about 80% of mothers. This refers to changes in mood that subside after two weeks of giving birth. We also know that 10-15% of mothers, and fathers, may also experience mood changes and other symptoms of depression and anxiety both during pregnancy and postpartum. That is quite a significant number of parents who go through these experiences and need to have the right support, both professionally and from family and friends. The importance of dealing and treating antenatal and postnatal mental health issues becomes even more significant as we find that they not only affect the individual who is struggling with the experience but also their partner and child. Unfortunately, research shows that about 75% of mothers and fathers who do go through these experiences do not reach out for support. Hence, I do believe that for this support to be present and for parents to feel that they can reach out, awareness needs to continue to spread on normalising these experiences and dealing with them with appropriately.

2. What do you wish was more widely understood about perinatal mental health?

It’s ok to speak up no matter what stage of the perinatal period you are in. This includes those who are struggling to conceive, those who cannot accept the pregnancy, those who externally seem to have everything and should not be feeling sad, and those who unfortunately lost their child through miscarriage, stillbirth or an untimely passing. There is no wrong time or wrong situation, and it does not matter if you are the mother or the father experiencing difficulty in this time. The wellbeing of both parents and the family as a whole is crucial at this stage in the family life cycle.

3. What are the benefits of working with a Gestalt psychotherapeutic approach?

Gestalt Psychotherapy is one of the primary modalities that I use in my work. The beauty of it is that it allows the focus to be on the uniqueness of the person and to raise awareness on their current state of being. Through this awareness, we work on different aspects of the self so that the client may recognise and reach their full potential. The therapeutic process that is co-created between the therapist and the client is based on working with what the client brings to the session, and doing so in a creative manner that allows for flexibility and widening of perspectives, for both the client and the therapist.

4. You are also a certified Kids Yoga Instructor; how do you feel yoga can help children?

Yoga for kids is a fun way to get kids to connect with their changing emotions and bodies through movement, breathing exercises and fun yoga games! It is a fun way for them to develop essential skills in a supportive, non-competitive environment. Yoga helps children to be able to develop self-awareness, learn to regulate emotions and understand the importance of supporting each other within the group. Thus, yoga for children does not only focus on the physical aspect of yoga but integrates mindfulness activities, creativity and, most importantly, having fun!

5. What advice do you have for persons experiencing tough times? What is your way of coping?

My main advice would be to reach out. This could be through talking with family or friends or reaching out to a professional you trust. Many people and agencies are willing to help and support persons who are going through a tough time. Having said this, reaching out is a hard thing to do for some, as needed as it may be.

Taking time to stop and reflect on how you are doing on a regular basis can be a good start to identifying what you are going through, being kind to yourself and addressing your needs. This comes hand in hand with keeping a healthy lifestyle that includes finding a self-care routine that suits you.

I do try my best to cope with life stressors and tough times by keeping up my own self-care routine and regularly reflecting on how I’m doing. I do this by reaching out to friends and loved ones, going to therapy and keeping up my yoga and mindfulness practices. What is also crucial for me, in the long run, is trying to have a healthy work-life balance.

6. In your experience working within the TAASC team, what do you think is key in developing a good team ethic?

Being part of TAASC is very exciting. I think the qualities that make a good team ethic around TAASC are respect, communication, laughter and support. Trying to balance professionalism and human touch in the work that we do as a team, looking out for one another and encouraging each other’s ambitions and endeavours are things that I feel are shared by team members at TAASC. It does get hectic sometimes since the team is continuously evolving, but it helps to know that I can communicate my concerns easily and that they are listened to.

Ms Elena Felice graduated with a Bachelor in Psychology and a Masters in Counselling Psychology from the University of Malta and has also finished a Postgraduate Diploma in Gestalt Psychotherapy with the Gestalt Psychotherapy Training Institute of Malta. Currently, Ms Felice is furthering her studies by reading for a Masters upgrade in Gestalt Psychotherapy while participating in continuous training in other psychotherapeutic modalities such as Interpersonal Psychotherapy, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and Dialectical Behavioural Therapy.

She also specialises in the field of perinatal mental health and wellbeing, working with mothers and fathers who experience difficulties during pregnancy and the postpartum period. This is in addition to her experience working with adults and young adults who experience mental health issues, as well as those who wish to delve deeper into their own self-exploration and self-awareness or who may be struggling with dealing with challenging life events. Her passion for mindfulness and yoga practices has led her to a certification with the Yoga Alliance International as a kid’s yoga instructor through which she is able to help children by guiding them on how to balance their inner emotions with their outer movements.

Her role within TAASC’s multi-disciplinary approach to treatment is to provide psychotherapy, psychological assessments such as personality testing, and groups for children through the art of yoga.

Interview with one of TAASC's newest members: Ms Michelle Mifsud

Despite only graduating from University of Malta 2 years ago, Ms Mifsud is already helping children around the country both as a Speech and Language Therapist within TAASC, and by contributing her skills to the education sector’s Early Intervention Service. Her passion for assisting those facing adversity early in life is clear; as a student she focused her undergraduate final-year research on the reasons some children fly under the radar for Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnoses, and as a young professional she plays a vital role in making sure children with Autism or other difficulties are properly recognised and effectively helped early on. Read on for the insights she’s gained from University and her first years on the job…

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You graduated from UOM as recently as 2016, has a career as a speech and language therapist (SLT) been different to what you expected / experienced as a trainee?

As a student I covered over 450 hours in clinics with clients, so that offered a realistic taste of the working world. I consider myself lucky to have met some very inspiring educators along the way who helped mould me into the professional I am today. The reality is when you're no longer a student you'll never have the luxury, or not, of being up until 3 am preparing materials - so time management Is key.

I joined TAASC's family In February 2017 which offered me a different perspective of working as a speech-therapist. With so many in-house experts from different areas of health care, my SLT services are part of an interdisciplinary service, aiming to offer therapy which is more holistic.

 

As a specialist within the Early Intervention Service, what in your opinion is the biggest hurdle the children with difficulties you meet face in early education? 

Like our lifestyle, our education system is rushed and on steroids. We're expecting children to lift weights before they can walk. Children are expected to sit and listen - as early as 3 years old in Kindergarten. Currently the early years at school are highly academics based - it is hard enough for children to transition to a school environment, let alone for them to become 'students' so early on - they should be allowed to be children; children need play, children need to be little explorers. This is true for all our tiny humans in Kindergarten, let alone for those facing developmental struggles. It is just as overwhelming for the parents/caregivers as it is for the children - nobody wants their child 'lagging behind' at age 3. If a child has not yet developed basic communication skills, how then can a child cope with comprehending academic material?

Thankfully, this situation is likely to change in the near future. Changes to the Maltese education system are in the pipeline which aim to make learning more child-led and explorative. This should lead to schools becoming a happier place for all children, especially those experiencing developmental difficulties.

 

Your UG Dissertation was titled ‘Girls with autism spectrum disorder: missed diagnosis or misdiagnosis?’. Could you summarise why young females are at a higher risk for mis/missed diagnosis, and what the general symptoms for Autism Spectrum Disorder are in young children?

Two of the main diagnostic criteria of Autism are impairments in social communication and social interaction.

Females, in general, are more socially inclined than males - this does not change with the presence of autism. Girls often 'pass through the net' as due to this natural need to be social-beings, girls with autism may learn to imitate social behaviours, and to mimic females in order to act appropriately in different situations. So, although it does not come naturally to them, many females with Autism who do not have a cognitive impairment may appear to present with 'typical' social behaviours during the early years of life. Then there comes a point, particularly during teen years, when dynamics of social relationships change, and often become more complex and less superficial. It Is here that very often females with so-called 'high functioning' autism start to struggle building social relationships. It is very often here when such girls start to question why they feel different - in fact, often times a diagnosis comes as a relief to them.

In addition, females with autism who are on the higher functioning end of the spectrum have a higher incidence of co-morbid mental disorders than males. Such mental disorders may mask the autism. Differently, these girls are sometimes misdiagnosed with mental disorders rather than autism.

It Is noteworthy that most diagnostic tools for autism were standardised on symptoms of males since there Is a higher prevalence of males with autism - one may then question, is the higher prevalence of males due to girls 'flying under the radar'? - A vicious cycle.

 

What is the role of a Speech and Language Pathologist in the context of TAASC’s holistic approach to the diagnoses and treatment of children and young persons?  

 

Within TAASC SLPs collaborate with other professionals through assessment pathways and multi-disciplinary team meetings. Assessing Communication is a vital factor when assessing for the presence or otherwise of Autism; Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder; and Behaviour difficulties. TAASC's SLPs offer individual and group therapy - for speech, language and feeding. I also co-plan and co-deliver social language groups.

For more information on social language groups please check out: https://www.taascmalta.com/group-sessions/

And finally, what are your suggestions for any parent / care-givers concerned about the communicative development of a young child?

Nobody knows a child better than their parents/main caregivers. When concerned about their child's communicative development they should seek a professional opinion by setting an appointment with a SLT for an assessment.  An assessment may serve to put a parent/caregiver's mind at rest, or to guide them in the right direction. Early identification of difficulties allows for early intervention, and this in turn will offer a more positive prognosis for the child.

Interview with one of TAASC's founding members: Dr Etienne Muscat

Not immune to the social stigma that has long surrounded the topic of mental health, Dr Muscat discusses how psychiatry ‘chose him’ when he was still a nervous doctor-in-training, and the misconceptions he has seen influence other individuals’ attitudes towards his field in the 15 years he’s been practising. He also describes his role as one-third of the team behind the creation of TAASC, and why he is so proud of what TAASC has achieved in the 4 years since its inauguration.

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