How many people have you heard say: "I've tried counselling and I didn't like it"? If you've decided to give counselling a go it's worth spending some time finding a good match so you don't end up saying the same thing. Depending on the counsellor you choose, you could find counselling to be the best thing you've ever done - or believe it's a complete letdown. Every counsellor is unique, and if you're investing time and money it's important you're happy with what you're receiving in return.
1. Don't choose your friend who happens to be a counsellor
The first thing to point out is that a counsellor should not be your friend. It's against the ethical code of practice for most professional bodies for counsellors to have what is known as a dual role. If they are your counsellor, that's all they should be. If you already know the person well or your social circles overlap then the counsellor will advise you to choose someone else. You want to be able to be open and honest with your counsellor. If you're talking about someone you both know then that isn't likely to be possible.
2. Make sure they're qualified
As I've covered previously, it's entirely legal for anyone in the UK to set up a practice and call themselves a counsellor - even if their highest qualification is a 100 metre swimming badge. A legitimate counsellor will be more than happy to tell you about their qualifications and experience, as well as which professional body they're a member of (see below). Unfortunately, deciphering what their qualifications mean can be difficult as there's no single way to qualify as a counsellor in the UK. If your prospective counsellor is a full member of a professional body such as the BACP, UKCP, NCS or BABCP then you know they've reached a minimum standard of qualifications and experience. If they aren't a member then you need to dig deeper. They should have a Level 4 Diploma in Therapeutic Counselling as an absolute minimum.
3. Check for membership of a professional body
As there is no official definition of a counsellor, numerous professional bodies exist to regulate the profession. Membership of these is entirely voluntary, but most counselling jobs are only open to counsellors who are a member of one of these. When counsellors sign up they agree to abide by their professional body's code of ethics, and it gives you somewhere to complain if things go wrong. Your counsellor is likely to publish the name of theirs on their website which means you can go to the body's website and have a look at their standards and code of ethics. If your counsellor is not a member of any professional body then that should prompt you to dig a little deeper. Membership is expensive and is not a legal requirement, but the vast majority of counsellors are signed up with one so that their clients have some form of recourse. It's possible to be a fantastic and highly ethical counsellor without being a member of one, but if you're unhappy with the service you receive then you could find yourself without anywhere to turn.
4. Look at the type of counselling they offer
Counsellors work within dozens of different modalities. You may have heard of some such as cognitive behavioural therapy or person-centred, or this may be entirely new to you. Some, known as integrative counsellors, work with different modalities depending on the problem their client is bringing and what suits you best. The way each counsellor works will produce a completely different experience for you so it really is worth reading the brief descriptions of some of the most common types of therapy. You can then decide which you like the sound of and which you want to avoid, and search for a counsellor who offers the ones that appeal to you.
5. Would a specialist suit you best?
Lots - probably most - counsellors are generalists and assist people with a wide variety of problems. Counsellors are never there to give advice, but some people still prefer to go to one who is experienced in a particular field such as bereavement, addiction or couples counselling. If this applies to you then make sure you include it in your search so that you don't end up settling on someone who has never dealt with the topic.
6. Check the cost
Free NHS counselling services can be extremely high quality, and are very helpful for a lot of people. Unfortunately waiting lists can be long and you won't get much choice (if any) over which counsellor you see. You'll probably be limited to six sessions and you'll almost certainly need to meet a threshold for depression or anxiety. Low cost agencies are springing up all over the country, and they charge what you can afford based on your income. Again, they may be a fantastic fit for you, but your choice of counsellor could be limited and they're likely to only offer you a fixed number of sessions. If you look at their website and like what you see then get in touch.
Alternatively, the best counsellor for you may be in private practice. This means they work independently and need to charge clients a fee in order to make a living. Qualifying as a counsellor is expensive. Any counsellor who is a member of a professional body will have to pay for regular CPD courses to update their skills, as well as paying a supervisor to ensure they are doing their best for their clients. They also need to fund premises, insurance and business costs, so it's easy to see how the fees they charge can escalate. A counsellor's charges should be clearly displayed on their website. They may charge everyone the same, or they may offer discounts to some people such as students or the unemployed. Fees vary enormously depending on where in the country the counsellor is; their experience; and the type of counselling they are offering. Expect to pay at least £30 per hour, rising to hundreds of pounds for top counsellors who are in serious demand.
7. Search online directories
As well as running a search for counsellors in your area, there are several directories which list counsellors. They usually have to pay to join these so they aren't exhaustive, but they can be a good place to check. Counselling Directory and Psychology Today are two of the biggest, and the professional bodies also have directories on their websites.
8. Read the counsellor's own website
Almost every counselling agency or private practitioner will have a website. Read it thoroughly, because it will give you an insight into the way they approach counselling work and whether you think it will work for you. If they only offer daytime, weekday sessions and you work 9am to 5pm then they're not going to be able to help. Hopefully the counsellor will have a blog like this one which will give you an idea of the way they think and work. They may have a world view which either resonates with you, or immediately puts you off. If it's the latter then look for someone else, and consider online counselling via Skype if you can't get what you want locally.
9. Ask for an introductory session
Most counsellors will offer an introductory session with no commitment. This allows you both to see whether you think you want to work with each other before the client or counsellor commit to anything. You may decide that they aren't the right fit for you after all; or they may say that they can't help with your particular issue. The counsellor should go through a contract with you setting out the boundaries and what you expect to gain from your work together, as well as letting you know about practical things such as confidentiality and whether there is a charge for missed sessions. Some counsellors offer this session free or half price, while others charge full price. Some will talk to you on the phone or Skype first. Ask your prospective counsellor how they operate and what you can expect.
10. Don't be afraid to change counsellor
After all that effort and the belief you've found your perfect match, it can be hard to admit things aren't working out. Many counselling sessions are not fun or particularly pleasant. Admitting things to yourself and vocalising them to another person can be challenging and painful - but your counsellor should be able to hold the space for you and not make you feel judged. If you aren't happy with the way things are going then raise it with your counsellor, and don't be afraid to move on if the disagreement can't be resolved.
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