HSF – a tool for our time?


Our society values wellbeing and happiness and yet many find these elusive and out of reach.

Eugene (known in the UK as John) Heimler was a Hungarian Jew: As a result of his early experience in Hitler’s death camps, he discovered that, even in the direst of circumstances, it is possible to survive and find meaning. (He tells his story in Survival in Society, Night of the Mist and Link in the Chain).

In the UK following the war, Heimler studied the fledgling discipline of Social Work and brought unique insights to the newly developing field of counselling: he valued a peer relationship rather than the prevailing psychiatric model. As he developed his approach to helping those in difficulty, he recognised the power of listening and enabling a person to really hear themselves. This partly arose from his own lack of fluent English with the need to ensure that he had heard correctly, but he soon discovered that as the person heard themselves, not interpreted – but really heard their own thoughts and feelings they were enabled to choose and change. Facilitating choice is life changing and health-giving.

As his experience developed he noticed that some people were so concentrated on their problems that they tended to become magnified and their sole focus – rather like the tendency in medicine where a patient may become ‘the hernia in bed 3’!

To further his understanding of the relationship between the physical and emotional, that he had already observed in Auschwitz, Heimler teamed up with a GP, joining him on house calls one afternoon a week. He understood a symptom to be a ‘symbolic language’; and that neither medicine nor reassurance could effect a change until the underlying cause was discovered

In A link in the Chain, Heimler describes that over the period of one year they found that much less medicine had been prescribed and 50% of patients functioned measurably better than before. He observed that where people were not thriving and functioning well, there seemed to be a number of recurring themes that were associated. He identified these into five broad categories: work, finance, friends, family and personal. Where, for whatever reason, there was insufficient satisfaction in these areas, people tended not to function so well. Later in collaboration with other colleagues a further five areas were identified, where if too much frustration was experienced, this poor functioning was exacerbated. So if there was insufficient energy, concern over health, difficulty in relationships, low inner resources or a reliance on escapist activities, the facility to function well was further compromised.

As counsellors we are often wary of using questionnaires and in anyway offering direction in our sessions but we are being encouraged to use forms and questionnaires to enhance professional standards and measure our services (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies IAPT: see BACP website). Heimler’s questionnaire, the HSSF, a part of his counselling approach, is a subjective therapeutic tool which can be easily understood by a client and is of prime value to them: it invites a person to see themselves as a whole person, greater than the particular issue that has brought them to counselling – not just ‘my problem marriage’ or ‘my difficult colleagues’; it offers them the opportunity to reflect on their strengths as well as perceived weaknesses that can be used for motivation. In Survival in Society Heimler, comments: ‘[I had] a growing awareness that we exist as sane or useful people only as long as we can transform and utilise … the negative in us’

UntitledAs the simple ‘life diagram’ is drawn up, the individual can see their lives in terms of the positives and negatives that affect them day-to-day. They can identify, ‘ what is working for me?’ ‘What are my strengths?’ ‘Where are my supports?’ ‘What is holding me back?’ And most importantly, ‘where do I need to change?’

Heimler recognised, from his experience, that when almost everything had been stripped away from him: his wife (killed in Auschwitz), friends, family, food and freedom, he could still make small everyday choices. Encouraging people to take responsibility for their own choices about their life, in itself, is life-enhancing and the start towards positive change. Wellbeing starts from making such positive choices.

Part 2 will take a further look at this remarkable tool