A counsellor is an individual who helps people, families or groups deal with difficult immediate or ongoing situations. Their role is to help people cope or resolve issues in a non-judgemental and productive manner. A counsellor does not necessarily need any medical training and subsequently may not be qualified to deal with any condition with a medical base or that could severely impact an individual’s personality.
Counselling is quite distinct from professional medical psychology; however, the two roles are often confused. The role of a counsellor is to actively listen to people in need. A counsellor may be a professional, a volunteer or in some instances offer their services to ‘clients’. Those seeking counselling may include individuals, couples, families or groups and the role of the counsellor is to help resolve conflict. Conflict may include personal conflicts such as coming to terms with a bereavement or infidelity or difficulties between a group of people such as resolving difficulties in a marriage or making a team of individuals work together in a more efficient manner. Many counsellors will choose to specialise in a particular area.
Counsellors will employ a wide variety of techniques in order to resolve conflicts; however, they cannot offer any form of medical advice. Fundamental to almost all forms of counselling is establishing trust by listening attentively and non-judgementally. The role is also likely to involve asking open questions in order to help people understand why they feel a certain way.
Counselling will likely be tailored to specific circumstances but common techniques include:
- Non-directive counselling
- Problem-solving therapy
- Cognitive and behavioural techniques
- Behavioural therapy
- Interpersonal therapy
- Psychodynamic counselling
A lot of counselling in the UK is done on a part-time or volunteer basis. The British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists (“BACP”) estimates that 25% of counsellors are volunteers.
Professional counsellors will often work on a self-employed or freelance basis and with experience you will be able to charge around £30-£50 per hour. Top counsellors can, however, charge more than this. Employed counsellors should expect to earn around £16,000 – £25,000 increasing to £30,000 – £40,000 for more experienced practitioners.
Responsibilities are likely to differ substantially depending upon the area of practice; however, common to most will be:
- Meeting with patients or clients to listen and, where appropriate, discuss problems in a progressive and therapeutic way.
- Providing assistance in resolving minor mental health issues and ensuring that individuals meet their full potential.
- Advising on the best course of action/care for individuals, couples, families and/or clients to resolve issues.
- Providing comprehensive and methodical analysis and notes to assist in the diagnosis or resolution of a problem.
- Challenging the perceptions that clients may have of themselves or those around them in an empathetic and productive manner.
- Referring clients to qualified medical professionals as and when necessary.
- Supervising discussions between parties to help them resolve a situation in the most amicable means possible. This may involve acting as a formal mediator but is unlikely to include any form of binding arbitration.
- Acting within the ethical bounds of the profession, maintaining client/ patient confidentiality and ensuring that emotional distress is minimised.
- Keeping records of discussions.
Many counsellors work on a voluntary basis alongside their main career and you do not need qualifications as such but rather an appropriate skill set if you wish to become a volunteer. However, it has become increasingly common for those employing counsellors, even on a voluntary basis, to require some level of basic qualification.
If you wish to become a professional counsellor it is advisable to study for a BACP or UK Council of Psychotherapy (“UKCP”) accredited course. Details of accredited courses are available here. While the entry requirements for each institution differ, there are courses available that do not require a degree level qualification; however, it is possible to study for an MA or MSc in Counselling and a background degree in psychology, social work or other health related subjects will prove beneficial if you choose to pursue this route.
The majority of BACP and UKCP accredited courses can be taken full time (one year) or part time (over two to three years). The courses centre on the fundamental skills needed to counsel professionally and provide you with a broad spectrum of skills and techniques to employ on a day-to-day basis.
- Paramount to becoming a successful counsellor are strong inter-personal and communication skills.
- Being able to create an atmosphere of trust.
- An empathetic and non-judgemental nature.
- Tolerance and sensitivity.
- Patience and tact.
- An understanding of your own capabilities and when a client/ patient should be referred to a medical professional.
- Being able to work with disturbed and emotional people without getting personally involved.
- Ethics – counsellors need to have a well defined ethical philosophy as they are responsible for ensuring the mental and emotional health of individuals and groups who may be severely disadvantaged. It is imperative that you are able to remove yourself from the work environment and maintain a professional distance from the subject when appropriate.
- Impartiality – counsellors working with groups or couples will need to maintain their independence and neutrality and display a strength of character to ensure that one individual does not dominate the discussion.
- For careers focussing on the counselling of businesses or managers a solid knowledge of business practices and organizational behaviours is useful.
Working conditions will vary considerably between the different fields and the working environment will be defined by the job. Counselling can be intense, stressful and emotionally draining. Most counsellors practising full time will be expected to work 9-5 but you may also be asked to do shift work or work with clients and patients outside of normal office hours. Counsellors will normally work from an office but may have to travel extensively and work at hospitals, schools or prisons.
While it is not common, counsellors specialising in certain fields need to understand the risks of working with individuals with severe mental disorders. This can include violent, abusive or obsessive behaviours and can be highly distressing.
There is a large number of voluntary posts available and before committing to the job full time it is worth obtaining experience on a voluntary basis to see if this career is for you. Counselling roles have increased in recent years, partly as a result of changing demographic conditions, but there remains significant competition for full-time paid positions.
National Health Service (“NHS”)– the NHS is the single most important employer for counsellors in the UK.
BACP has a list of therapists working in the UK which may be a useful resource.
Due to the voluntary nature of most counselling positions, there is little scope for career progression as most organisations adopt a flat business structure. Larger organisations may offer management roles but this may reduce time spent counselling and be unattractive to some individuals.
There are, however, increased opportunities to specialise, with practising counsellors focussing on a particular area such as bereavement, adoption, couples’ therapy or anger management.
It is also possible to move into counselling psychology; however, this will require full time study commitment and most likely a three year full time psychology degree.
Also known as…
- Life Coach
What’s it really like?
Lucy Smythe – Voluntary Counsellor
How long have you been in this particular job / industry?
I am not a professional counsellor but, like most people in the field, have been volunteering as a counsellor for several years. Most of my time has been spent working for organisations like The Samaritans and Childline.
What did you do before this job?
The wonderful thing about working for charitable counselling services such as these is that you can get involved alongside a full time job. For the past four years my professional career has been as a journalist. I’ve been lucky enough to have worked across a range of different professional disciplines and have covered everything from finance to reviewing alcohol for a high profile trade magazine. I studied French at university and while I started an MA in Journalism was lucky enough to be offered a job that was too good to refuse. I have kept up the voluntary counselling as much as possible alongside my journalistic career.
What do you do in a typical day at work?
I volunteer on a weekly to fortnightly basis. The work tends to be shift based and this can be difficult to fit into your schedule without prior planning. Night shifts can be particularly difficult but you should expect to do these (for example the Samaritans ask volunteers to complete one night shift a month).
In a typical shift, I will arrive at the centre and firstly catch up with the other volunteers on duty. There is normally a good atmosphere as everyone volunteering is in the same boat. There is a basic handover where any key callers or concerns are raised and passed on to the incoming team. After the initial briefing session I will then begin taking phone calls.
The majority of the shift is spent listening and it’s amazing how therapeutic this process can be for people. Some people just need someone to talk to. As you might expect, there is a range of different problems that people call with; you also get some individuals who think it’s funny to phone us as a joke, plus the odd pervert and the like, and you have to be careful as a consequence. Anonymity is a key part of the role. Most shifts are around 3-4 hours.
If you want to volunteer you should also expect to undergo some training in active listening. For the Samaritans this involved about eight training sessions over weekends and evenings to give you the requisite skills. There is, however, a more experienced counsellor or professional on hand to help out at all times.
What do you like about the job?
I find it immensely rewarding to feel that I have helped people or provided comfort to someone who simply needed to feel that there was someone there. It brings a kind of satisfaction that I think is rare in most areas of work. There is also a communal spirit amongst volunteers.
What do you dislike about the job?
I sometimes find it difficult not to become affected by other people’s distress, especially if I have heard something especially upsetting. There are people on hand to help you with this but it is imperative that you are capable of dealing with these issues. There have also been several occasions when people have told me they are ready to kill themselves. You have to be very attentive and careful with people who are in a destructive place.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of doing this job?
To go and try some volunteer counselling at any charitable organisation offering this kind of service, to see whether they really enjoy it.
What job(s) do you think you might do after this role (i.e. career progression)?
I have enjoyed counselling so much that I am now returning to university to study for an MSc in Psychology with the aim of becoming a counselling psychologist in the future.