Counsellors and psychotherapists play a crucial role in improving the health and wellbeing of our society. They help people to talk about their feelings, think about their choices or their behaviour, and make positive changes in their lives.

What counsellors do

People seek counselling to help them resolve emotional, psychological and relationship issues. Clients may be experiencing difficult and distressing events in their lives, such as bereavement, divorce, health problems or job concerns. Or they may have more general underlying feelings of anxiety or dissatisfaction with life.

Some clients feel isolated and have no one else to talk to, but even people with supportive family and friends can find it difficult to talk to loved ones about feeling anxious or depressed. They may find it easier to talk about personal, family or relationship issues with an independent professional therapist.

Counselling involves a series of formal sessions where the therapist and the client talk about the client’s issues and feelings. Even short-term therapy typically involves six to 12 sessions. The sessions take place at a regular, agreed time and in a ‘safe’ private place where the client and therapist will not be overheard or interrupted.

Therapy may involve talking about life events, feelings, emotions, relationships, ways of thinking and patterns of behaviour. The therapist will listen, encourage and empathise, but will also challenge to help the client to see their issues more clearly or from a different perspective.

Counselling is not about giving advice or opinions, nor is it a friendly chat with a friend. The therapist helps the client to understand themselves better and find their own solutions to resolve or cope with their situation.

Where they work

Therapists may work with individuals, couples, families or groups, and may provide counselling face-to-face, over the telephone or online. They can work in a variety of settings, such as schools, universities and colleges, GP surgeries and hospitals, in the workplace, addiction agencies, disability support groups or private practice.

Therapists may specialise in specific fields, such as addiction or relationships, or may work with clients on a wide range of issues. Some counsellors have dual roles, such as counsellor and teacher, welfare and advice worker, coordinator and nurse. Others work on a purely voluntary basis, with many helplines staffed by people with counselling skills.

Types of therapy

There are many different ways of working with clients, usually referred to as 'theoretical approaches' or 'modalities'. These range from Freud's psychoanalysis to humanistic counselling, based on personal growth and self-development, or behavioural therapies used for specific phobias and anxieties. Therapists usually train in one model of therapy - or modality -but may use different techniques where they think it would be helpful for a client. Or they may use specific approaches for specific issues. You can find a brief explanation of the approaches in Types of therapy.

How to become a counsellor or psychotherapist

Starting out on a counselling or psychotherapy career is a big step. It will take a great deal of time and dedication, it costs a significant amount of money, and it can be personally and emotionally challenging. You’ll need to think about how it will affect you and your family.

But if it’s the right career for you, the rewards and satisfaction once you have qualified will outweigh the initial costs.

Here are some of the things you’ll need to think about:

Personal qualities

To be a therapist, you need to be:

  • able to work and communicate with people from all backgrounds
  • warm, open and empathetic, able to gain people’s trust and help them feel relaxed
  • patient, tolerant and sensitive with an impartial, non-judgmental attitude
  • trustworthy and discreet, with a good sense of personal integrity and ethics
  • resilient and self-aware, with the ability to examine your own thoughts and feelings and understand your limitations

Counselling is often a second or third career, and life experience is valued.

Our Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions describes the personal qualities and values expected of a practitioner.

Training and qualifications

Most employers, and increasingly clients, understand the importance of using a therapist who is professionally trained and qualified, and is a member of a professional body. Our registered membership represents the minimum level of training and experience that we recommend a client should expect from a therapist.

You can find more information about the training you need, how to find a course and the costs involved in Training.

Supervision

BACP, and most other professional bodies, expect counsellors and psychotherapists who are working with clients to receive supervision from another qualified practitioner. On BACP-accredited courses, students must have at least 1.5 hours of supervision a month. You should have at least one hour of supervision for every eight hours of client work.

A supervisor is not a manager but a professional mentor who helps the supervisee develop their skills and work to best practice standards, while providing personal and psychological support.

You can use our Therapist directory to search for supervisors in your area.

Personal therapy

Some courses want students to have had therapy themselves or to be in therapy during their training. This is so that you can experience therapy from the client’s point of view, but it's also for personal development and to help you cope with issues and emotions raised when counselling others. Personal therapy is not a requirement for BACP membership.

You can use our Therapist directory to look for registered practitioners in your area.

Membership of a professional body

Many courses recommend that you join a recognised professional body, like BACP. This can benefit both your training and future career, through access to resources, knowledge and networks. It also gives you professional credibility, showing that you are committed to practising competently, ethically and safely and to continuous professional development. Find out how to join BACP.

Finding a counselling job

The opportunities for paid employment in counselling field is increasing, but there are still not enough jobs for everyone who is professionally trained. Many roles are part-time or voluntary.

We would not recommend going into private practice straight after training. It is safer for newly qualified therapists to work somewhere where they will be allocated appropriate clients and will receive peer support.

As a student member, you will receive our Therapy Today journal, which carries counselling and counselling skills job adverts. When you complete your training and upgrade to become an individual member of BACP you’ll also have access to our online jobs board to help you in your job search.

You can find counselling jobs advertised in:

as well as the more general job boards such as:

Voluntary work

There are a lot of opportunities for voluntary work in counselling. Agencies like Relate, Cruse and others select and train volunteers for counselling work within their organisations. It’s useful to have basic counselling skills training before applying, and they may expect you to commit for several years.

Voluntary work will help you develop your skills and give you valuable experience that is looked on favourably when you are applying for courses and paid employment.

You can sometimes find voluntary roles advertised on the main job websites or you may be able to find opportunities through the following organisations.

You could also try contacting local charities and advice services.