If you’re reading this page because you’ve decided you need some help and are wondering how to find a counsellor you’ve already taken a huge step. However, finding a counsellor or psychotherapist, can be daunting. Especially, if it is your first experience in what can seem like a strange, confusing world. The article below is intended as a guide on how to find the right counsellor for you.
If you’re reading this because you’re in serious distress and you need help right now then contact your GP. If you are at imminent risk of serious harm call the emergency services or visit your nearest Accident and Emergency Department.
PART ONE: How to Find a Counsellor and Stay Safe
If I were to decide, on a whim, to set up a dentist’s surgery and start poking around in people’s faces I would, quite rightly, end up in a lot of trouble. This is because ‘dentist’, along with a number of other jobs, is classed as a protected profession in the UK. It is illegal to call yourself a dentist if you haven’t been to dentist school and passed all their qualifications. The same goes for doctors, lawyers and most other jobs where you need absolute trust in the professional competence off your practitioner.
‘Counsellor’ and ‘psychotherapist’ on the other hand are not protected professions. Anyone can call themselves either and set up a website and start seeing clients without any professional training. So how can you be sure that I, or any other therapist, is going to be safe to work with?
In the UK there are several professional bodies who maintain public registers of the counsellors and psychotherapists who meet their rigorous standards. The most common ones are the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) and the National Counselling Service (NCS). By only considering counsellors who are registered members of a professional body you can be sure that they:
- have completed at least a minimum level of training to practice safely as a therapist
- Operate within an established ethical framework
- Undertake regular supervision
- Are committed to ongoing training and development
- Have professional insurance
- Have undertaken their own personal therapy
If you ever needed to complain about your therapist their professional body can investigate and, where necessary, take action on your behalf. If your therapist isn’t accredited, unless they’ve committed some kind of crime, you might have no recourse in the event of unethical or incompetent practice.
Other Professional Bodies:
There are other professional bodies representing counsellors in the UK who work in more specialised areas. If a body is approved by the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) then their members should be safe to work with. You can see if a professional body is approved by the PSA here.
When looking for a counsellor or psychotherapist I urge you to only consider therapists from one of the accredited registers.
I am a Registered Member of the BACP and you can search for me on the Register here (reference 291319).
Online Directories and Accredited Registers
If you’re looking for an accredited counsellor close to where you live there are a number of searchable, online directories you can use like this one which list BACP registered therapists, or this one that is open to therapists belonging to any of the main professional bodies. These directories are a great way to easily find accredited therapists. However, because therapists have to pay to appear on directories not every registered practitioner will always appear on every directory.
To be clear:
A register is a list of approved therapists maintained by each professional body. All therapists who meet the standards of their professional body should appear on that register. You are advised not to consider working with an unregistered therapist.
Online directories are a way for clients to search for registered therapists in their area. Directories can be hosted by the professional bodies themselves to promote their own approved therapists or by third party websites who allow therapists from any professional body to appear. Directories provide clients with more information about the therapist than the register which is usually just a list of names.
I am on the BACP register because I meet their set professional standards. I choose to advertise my practice through the Counselling Directory. They only allow me to do so because I am on the BACP Register.
PART TWO: How to find a Counsellor that’s Right for you
So, now you know how to find safe and competent therapists in your area but how do you know who will be THE right counsellor for you?
Making an initial Selection:
Searching most big towns or cities in the UK through an online directory will probably reveal dozens of counsellors for you to choose from. This is when you need to think about what you are looking for in your counsellor. If you feel like you want to work with someone of a particular gender, age or ethnicity you should honour that.
Your other big decision might be what type of counselling you need. It is beyond the scope of this article to write about all of the many different types of counselling that exist. If you have a particular counselling approach in mind, perhaps something you have read about or been recommended, then you could try filtering your choice down to practitioners who work in that particular way. If you have no idea whether you want person-centred, Gestalt, existential, CBT or whatever, then I wouldn’t worry too much about it. In the end the quality of the relationship you establish with your therapist will matter far more than the particular approach they follow.
So, you’ve filtered the choices down but still have a huge list of possible therapists in front of you. At this stage I would suggest that your intuition is as good as anything else. Look at their profiles and websites and go with the ones you like the look of. If their website seems too formal to you or you don’t like the jacket they’re wearing in their photo then that’s already an indication that they might not be right for you. If someone leaps out at you, even if you’re not sure why, consider contacting them first.
How to Find a Counsellor? Meet them First.
You’ve looked online and you’ve found an accredited therapist you think you might like the look of.
I believe the only way you can be sure to find the right counsellor for you is to meet them and see how you feel then. This is why I offer all my potential clients a free, initial consultation. Do they feel like someone you could share your deepest secrets with? Are they willing and able to answer any questions you have about their practice? Are they friendly and welcoming and help you to feel at ease with them? Whilst I can tell you what you should look for in terms of professional standards I can’t tell you what this might look like for you.
Here is a personal reflection on some things to consider when meeting a counsellor for the first time:
Go with your Gut
If you feel uncomfortable for any reason, they might not be the right therapist for you. The counsellor might not be at any fault. Perhaps there is something about them that reminds you of someone else in your life. Working through that discomfort might be therapeutic but, if it’s tangible from the beginning, particularly if this is your first experience of counselling, it might be difficult for you to establish the trust you will need to do that.
If a counsellor ever tries to pressure you into starting therapy with them, I would walk away.
Transparent Business Arrangements
If a counsellor is evasive about any aspect of their business arrangements I would take this as a warning sign. Ideally they should offer you a written business contract that sets out things like their session fees, cancellation policy etc. Effective therapy depends so much on absolute trust between therapist and client that anything short of complete transparency in their business dealings is likely to diminish the relationship and therapy.
How they work
If a counsellor is unable or unwilling to answer the questions you have about their practice or the way they work, I would think twice about working with them. This is not to say that you have a right to know everything about the therapist and their personal life. In fact, it would be detrimental to the therapeutic relationship if you did. Your therapist is not your best friend for good reasons. However, I do think a good therapist should be happy to talk to you about the way they work and what you can expect from therapy with them.
They should be able to explain what they will do with any data they hold on you. For example, how long they will keep it and under what circumstances they might share your information and with whom. There are legal considerations here as well as ethical. Again, it comes down to trust. Any counsellor should be able to explain their data protection policy clearly.
Share how you feel
Sometimes, as clients, we project stuff on to our therapists. It’s possible, for example, that you might feel a counsellor is trying to push you into working with them but, because you’re feeling anxious, you might not be sure if you’re being more sensitive than usual? My suggestion is to share your feelings and concerns with them and see how they respond. If they continue to pressure you or become defensive I would leave. If, on the other hand, they take your concerns seriously and are able to address them, they might be worth sticking with.
My advice is to meet a few therapists until you find someone you really like. It’s a competitive market. Don’t put up with a counsellor who takes it personally if you want to meet someone else or think about things before committing to them. That sounds to me like they’re more concerned about their own ego and needs than yours. This is not a good start to establishing a counselling relationship.
For all of the reasons above I offer any potential clients a free, initial consultation so they can decide for themselves whether they want to work with me or not. Not all therapists do this but many will offer a reduced rate for an initial session.
PART THREE: How to find a counsellor if going private is too expensive
If you’re looking for therapy but can’t afford the fees of a private counsellor, what are your options?
If you’re struggling with your mental health you should make an appointment with your GP who can refer you to NHS mental health services. Unfortunately, most NHS services are currently under great strain and the waiting lists are usually long. The NHS employs many excellent, caring therapists and is a life saver for people suffering with their mental health. For some patients though therapy on the NHS can sometimes feel a little impersonal. This is just because it can be difficult for a huge and complex institution like the NHS to provide the same level of one-to-one care that an individual practitioner can.
Affordable Counselling Services
There are many charities and local organisations offering affordable counselling services to the public. I manage such a service in Exeter alongside my private practice. Some of these offer general counselling whilst others are focussed on particular client groups such as carers or the bereaved. An internet search or visit to your GP will probably show you any available services in your area.
To provide counselling at an affordable rate, these organisations often make use of student counsellors on placement working towards the client hours they need to be become fully qualified. This is not a bad thing. Trainee counsellors, providing they are working within a supportive, professional service can still provide highly effective therapy.
It is difficult to offer clear guidelines on what to look for if you are considering approaching one of these organisations. The main thing to check for is that all counsellors in the service, whether qualified or in training, belong to a recognised professional body. The organisation should also have qualified, accredited therapists involved in the management of the service along with with some kind of screening process to ensure that counsellors are always working within their competence level.
In Conclusion: How to Find a Counsellor
Effective counselling saves lives and change lives. There are many excellent therapists out there but finding the right one can be overwhelming. The most important thing is that any therapist you consider working with is properly trained and accredited. They should also be someone who you feel comfortable and confident working with. The best way to find this out is to meet a few until you find someone you click with.
If you are in the Exeter area and look for safe, professional counselling I offer a free, no obligation consultation. You can contact me here and find out more about initial consultations with me here.