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Coming up for air through counselling partnership

Photo of two seated women smiling at the camera, one wearing black and the other wearing white, sharing a cuppa at a table in an outdoor setting with a large exercise book open between them.

Sue Battle (left) and Sandra Luxford, photo: John Ansell

by Leith Hillard

Financial counsellor Sue Battle and therapeutic counsellor Sandra Luxford both repeat the word ‘rapport’ to describe the essence of their working partnership.

It’s a bond making a big difference in the lives of their clients at Latrobe Community Health Service (LCHS), where the two women collaborate to help their clients break the challenging cycle of gambling harm. It’s a collaboration that acknowledges the bounce between stress and gambling – gambling leads to stress; stress leads to gambling and back and forth.

Sue and Sandra offer their broad range of supports across a huge slice of Victoria, seeing clients from Pakenham to Phillip Island through the Latrobe Valley and up to the New South Wales border. They’re clear with the clients they share about their particular expertise and might also work alongside LCHS drug, alcohol and family counsellors.

Sandra works with clients to help them feel safe and manage their emotions, especially the stress that drives them to gamble.

Stopping gambling in its tracks

‘I don’t fix people,’ she says, ‘but I give them the tools to help themselves. I teach them visualisation to distract their thoughts so they become more stable. They have to tackle that reflex to pick up their phone or go to a pokies venue. How do you stop them in their tracks? They learn to use breathing exercises and go to a safe space in their mind, but I also see their stress lessen when the financial stresses lessen.

‘With Sue’s expertise, we see a release of the stranglehold of mounting debts and unpaid bills. They begin to have more hope and more motivation to get out of the quagmire.’

‘I don’t fix people,’ she says, ‘but I give them the tools to help themselves.’ - Sandra Luxford

Sandra emphasises that she’s ‘not a numbers person. I’m more about words and emotions’. However Sue insists that financial counselling has ‘nothing to do with figures.

‘It’s knowing the law and holding creditors to account through the National Credit Code. I need to understand about 25 pieces of legislation from bankruptcy law to telecommunications law and children, youth and families law.’

They talk about one client’s life being transformed through their collaboration and his determination to change.

‘He had a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder,’ recalls Sue. ‘A work injury will prevent him from ever returning to his $3000-per-week job and he was soon to move from income protection onto Newstart payments of $550 per fortnight.’

With time on his hands, he described himself as ‘zoning out’ at gaming venues. His losses inevitably mounted.

The bank had given him repeat loans he had no capacity to service.

He had two mortgaged properties and was granted another in a series of personal loans. Twenty days later, he applied to refinance that loan. Several weeks after that he applied again. While that third loan was refused, the client was never asked to provide medical documents to show that a return to work was feasible. It wasn’t. Asked how he would repay the loans when income protection stopped, he blithely told the bank he would ‘just go and get a job’. But that wasn’t medically possible. The bank had given him repeat loans he had no capacity to service.

Holding creditors to account

Sue and Sandra began to work with the client in tandem and he quickly excluded himself from pokies venues and stopped gambling. Sue negotiated with his phone plan provider and the Australian Tax Office, referred him to a total and permanent disability lawyer, and provided assistance with superannuation and budgeting on his much-reduced income.

Most significantly, however, this textbook case of irresponsible lending enabled Sue to get all the client’s loans and credit card debt waived by the bank. He went from owing to $460,000 to a debt of zero.

Clients are present to advise and authorise Sue throughout some credit negotiations, while Sandra sits alongside to ensure they’re not overwhelmed by the stress.

‘I draw them back to the tools they’ve already learnt to calm themselves,’ she says. ‘It’s about the trust between the three of us.’

'What you get in the end is a person who finds themselves.' - Sandra Luxford

Sue and Sandra share the view that the other is an expert in her field.

While Sue sees her role as ‘closing Pandora’s Box and putting a band aid on it,’ Sandra admires Sue’s strong advocacy skills.

‘She gets really big results through her deep knowledge and dedication to task.’

Meanwhile, Sue admires the way that Sandra ‘leads by example.

‘She sees clients who are emotionally volatile and calms them down by being calm herself,’ Sue says.

Coming up for air

‘Addiction means there are always underlying issues,’ says Sandra. ‘There are reasons they don’t feel comfortable in their skin, but they can only be dealt with once the immediate financial pressures have eased.’

And so the client comes up for air, but they’re rarely the only person who’s been suffering because of their gambling addiction. For each person who gambles in a problematic way, up to six others are negatively affected.

‘We’ve had partners say that when he was gambling he was never really there,’ continues Sandra. ‘“Now he’s present again. He talks back. Wow!”

‘What you get in the end is a person who finds themselves. They get back the person they used to be and the person they want to be.

‘They regain their life.’