Becoming a counsellor: A guide
In recent years, counselling has become more highly recognised by the NHS as an effective way to help people with mental health problems. Various programs to improve access and recruit more counsellors mean that it is a good time to consider a career in counselling. However, you should think carefully about your current career, if any, and your personal traits before deciding whether this is the right path for you.
What is Counselling?Counselling is an umbrella word that covers many different kinds of talking therapy. At a very basic level, we think of counsellors as "helping" other people. If this describes you, then counselling is worth considering as a career.
You probably have questions about how to get into counselling. In fact, you likely share many of the same questions as some of our readers. Some people know early on they want to work as counsellors, others decide on making a career transition later on in life. Counselling is a career choice that really values life experience. Read on to learn what you need to know to become successful as a counsellor.
Counselling QualificationsCounselling is an interesting profession when it comes to accreditation. The title is a protected one but not in the same way the title of a medical doctor is protected. You cannot, for example, advertise yourself as a medical doctor if you are not a registered medical doctor. You either are registered and you are a medical doctor or you are not registered and you are not a medical doctor.
Counsellors are a bit different. A person can use the title of counsellor whether they are registered or not. However, they cannot say they are a registered counsellor if they are not. For this reason, you can expect to charge more for a counselling session if you are registered compared to if you are not. Once registered with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, you can legally advertise yourself as a registered professional counsellor. Registration proves to clients that you have satisfied strict educational, practical and ethical standards.
What Kind of Counselling is Best?There are many forms of counselling but the main ones are:
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This type of counselling involves focusing on the present rather than the past. You set goals with your client and use strategies to help them think and act in a more positive way. CBT has been studied more than other forms of counselling and has shown success in many research studies.
- Person-centered therapy. Based on the approach of Carl Rogers, this kind of counselling focuses heavily on empathy, viewing your client with unconditional positive regard and behaving in a congruent way that means your actions honestly reflect your thoughts.
- Psychotherapy. If you believe strongly that a person's past is critical to their healing today, then this may be the right counselling approach for you. Psychotherapists often work with people who have persistent problems that they have struggled to overcome for many years.
How Volunteering HelpsVolunteering as a counsellor has huge benefits for many reasons. First and foremost, spending time in a volunteer role can help you to decide if counselling is the right fit for you as a career. It can also help you to choose the best style of counselling for your personal beliefs and traits.
There are countless charities that will provide "free" training in return for a commitment that you will provide volunteer services for a specified amount of time such as one year. You will get to meet other people and learn about yourself as you train to become a counsellor. This training will not be sufficient for private practice or work as a counsellor in a professional setting. However, it's an ideal way to start. You may also manage to use these hours to satisfy entry requirements to a college or university training program, many of which require some previous exposure to counselling before you are accepted.
You can contact the local branch of the council sector for voluntary services to find out what opportunities are available in your area. Try searching online with keywords that include the counselling approach of interest to you, the word "volunteer" and the words "non profit" or "charity." These searches can also take you directly into the websites of organizations looking for volunteers.
Choosing a University
Be forewarned that there are many unaccredited training programs that are not recognized by BACP. If you wish to become a registered counsellor, make sure you check their website to ensure any program of study is recognized. Unrecognized programs may still provide quality training but your employment opportunities afterwards will be more limited.
What Will I Study?In a training program, you will study theory as well as practical skills. Counselling programs also focus on personal qualities. This means you will learn more about yourself and how you relate to clients. Any course of study will also involve a practicum to apply your newly learned skills. Here, you will be supervised by an experienced and qualified counsellor who will provide feedback on your skills and relationships with clients.
I'm Done - What Now?Once you have finished your training and are registered if you have chosen this avenue, you have many options for employment. Counsellors work in an enormous range of settings. Some counsellors are offered employment based on their practicum work. Some excellent places to check for employment opportunities are:
- NHS website. The NHS posts employment opportunities for counsellors. There are opportunities in everything from primary care to specialties such as oncology, where you provide care to cancer patients and family members coping with cancer diagnosis and treatment.
- BACP website. BACP provides links on its website to employment opportunities. Here you can find options for employment if you are registered with BACP.
- University websites. Many universities offer links to employment opportunities relevant to its graduates. Some are open access, so you can view them even if you didn't attend the university. More often than not, however, you will gain access to the information from the university where you attended.
- Social media. Connect with non-profit agencies and other potential employers through sites such as LinkedIn. Make sure you are vocal about your efforts to find a job after finishing your counsellor training.
- National and regional newspapers. Many newspapers are freely available online, allowing you to browse adverts or create job search alerts when jobs matching your criteria become available.
- Don't forget unadvertised positions. Many roles in counselling are not advertised and are filled based on word-of-mouth. Contact charities and other potential employers to register your CV.
There are seemingly endless opportunities in counselling, from working in a center for addictions to private practice or employment with the NHS. Many people find it easier to start out working for an employer before going into private practice, namely because private practice requires start-up money for insurance and advertising. You will also need money to see you through for the first year or two before you build up a good reputation and referral base to provide full-time, reliable income.
Some tips for getting employment include:
- Get an up-to-date CV. Make sure your CV is current and covers all of your counselling relevant experience, including volunteer work. Counselling is a career where volunteer experience is strongly valued, so be sure to create a section dedicated to volunteer experience. Also ensure that you include your education at the top of your CV, as education is similarly valued in counselling. In fact, for some roles, it's critical.
- Talk to other counsellors. Ask other counsellors how they got their first job. Let them know you are actively looking for work and would appreciate any advice and support.
- Contact counsellor program trainers. Talk to trainers from places where you have studied and/or volunteered and see if they can connect you to opportunities in the field.