Finding a Counsellor
Types of counselling
Your first step is to decide what kind of counselling you are seeking. Not all counselling is equal. There are various different kinds that do different things. Here are three of the most common:
CBT (Cognitive behavioural therapy)
This is short term counselling that aims to change the way you think and behave in order to change the way you feel. It works on the basis that the things we believe and think, what we do and how we feel all impact on one another. It gives people strategies to help them challenge their negative thinking and behaviour patterns that are unhelpful. It provides a toolkit that most people would find helpful in managing their thoughts and feelings.
Note: CBT is helpful for people with anxiety and depression that are caused largely by their present circumstances. It does not look in depth at the things that caused those difficulties and it does not allow much space for exploring feelings or looking at the past and getting to the root of the difficulty. CBT is often offered by the NHS because it is quick, relatively cheap and for some people it is more effective than anti-depressants. It does not help in every situation.
Person Centred Counselling
For those who need space to think and talk through things that have been causing them difficulty, this is ideal. It is often used for people who have experienced grief and loss. Person centred therapy helps people to reflect on what is going on and how they are feeling by creating a space where they are listened to without judgement. That allows people space to process emotions and difficulties and to move forward.
Note: If problems are particularly complex or deep rooted, person centred counselling probably won’t have the depth needed.
Psychotherapists use all the skills of person centred therapists and additionally have an in depth understanding of human psychology and relationships. They use the therapeutic relationship to help people to work through experiences and emotions that are causing difficulty in order to help people resolve them. Psychotherapists understand that the way we respond to current difficulties is generally rooted in experiences of the past. They have extensive training that enables them to help people getting to the roots of what is causing or contributing to present difficulties, such as trauma and the experiences of early childhood, with the aim of creating deep and lasting change.
There are different kinds of psychotherapy. An integrative psychotherapist is often a good bet as they will draw on expertise from a range of approaches. Some offer EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing) which has proven to be helpful for PTSD and can be particularly helpful in speeding up processing of trauma. If you know that there are issues related to early childhood, then finding someone with a particular interest in attachment and early childhood trauma might be helpful.
Note: Psychotherapeutic counselling is not the same as psychotherapy. It’s more akin to person centred counselling, with some added psychotherapeutic knowledge. Although they are similar disciplines, psychotherapists train for much longer and are likely to have a broader, deeper understanding and skill base. If you’re looking for a person centred counsellor, then a psychotherapeutic counsellor will bring very valuable extra skills and knowledge to that role. If you're needing psychotherapy, you're probably better to find a psychotherapist.
Finding a counsellor
First and foremost, you need someone with whom you are comfortable. Sometimes it takes a bit of trial and error to find the right person. Your best bet is to research possible therapists, make an initial appointment and get a feel about whether you want to work with them.
A good therapist will be prepared to talk to you about their background and training without feeling threatened. Use your first session to ask any questions that you have about them, their approach, their qualifications. Ask them about their qualifications and membership of professional bodies so you can assess their competence. They will be listed on their professional body’s website.
Afterwards, you can reflect on your thoughts and feelings about the session and decide whether you would like to work with them. Did you feel at ease with the therapist? Did you feel safe with them? Did they listen? Did you like their manner with you? Do you think you could build a trusting relationship with them? Remember. They don't just need to be a good therapist with the right skills. They need to be the right therapist for you.
If you don’t think they’re the right therapist for you, look again and try someone else.
Places to look:
If you’re looking for a psychotherapist, the UKCP (UK council for psychotherapy) has a register.
Looking more generally for counselling, you could try bacp.co.uk. Note: they have different levels of membership, depending on people’s accreditation and experience.
The Association of Christians in Counselling has a register.
You might know people who can make recommendations.
An internet search for professionals in your area.
Look at skills, experience, qualifications, areas of interest. People who offer supervision to other counsellors are likely to have more experience. Use your intuition about who you think you would be comfortable with.
Although you might get recommendations from others, in the end, the choice of a counsellor needs to be your decision.
Note: You need a safe space for counselling. That generally means a space away from your normal environment, including your friends, family and church. Under most circumstances it is recommended that you don’t receive counselling from someone with whom you have an existing relationship. Such as friend or pastor or work colleague. If they’re a good listener and helpful to talk to, then by all means go to them for a helpful conversation, but you’re probably better getting your counselling somewhere else.
Sometimes even having counselling in the same building that you attend for other things can feel wrong or unsafe. Follow your intuition. You will know what's right for you. Just because your church rents out a nice room to a local counsellor doesn’t mean you have to go it. Do what works for you.
Do you need a counsellor who shares your religious beliefs?
Christians in particular often ask this question. The answer is no. You need the right counsellor for you. You need someone who is skilled and competent. Someone with whom you can form a therapeutic relationship. A good therapist will be able to do that regardless of their personal beliefs. They will also be able to create a safe space where you can talk about all the things that are important to you, including your faith, if that’s relevant.
Sometimes, it can actually be helpful to have a counsellor who does not share your beliefs. It might give you a space away from environments where you are feeling under pressure to be a ‘good’ Christian or Sikh or whatever.
Sometimes the fact that your counsellor shares your faith can be helpful. It’s about what you need at this point in your life to move forward. There are organisations and lists of counsellors connected with particular faiths, if that's important to you. For example, the Association of Christians in Counselling might be a good place to look if you feel strongly that you would like to work with a Christian. Membership of the Association of Christian Counsellors (listed above) is for qualified counsellors, including some psychotherapists, and its members have to sign up to a very clear ethical framework.
Why you need to be careful about faith based counselling
Sometimes people who are providing what they describe as faith based counselling are actually more interested in encouraging people to adhere to particular beliefs and behaviours than in offering genuine counselling. An example would be the now discredited practice of offering 'conversion therapy' to people who are gay. In order to be effective and safe, counselling needs to be a non-judgmental space. If you want to learn about and develop your faith, there are lots of places you can do that. But that needs to be separate from counselling.
It is wise to be discerning about counselling that is connected with a particular faith. There is a world of difference, for example, between someone who is a qualified counsellor who happens to be a Christian and someone who thinks they can do counselling just because they’re a Christian and who thinks that the answer to your problems is to share particular Christian teachings with you.
If you are exploring organisations that offer counselling from counsellors from a particular faith background, look carefully at the qualifications and experience of the counsellors and at the codes of practice of their organisation. Are they connected with mainstream, respected counselling organisations, for example? You don't need to be paranoid. Just wise. And, of course, if you do find that you've begun working with a counsellor who is more interested in telling you what to think and believe and how to live, than in listening to you and helping you to work through your issues, then stop and find something and someone more helpful.