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How to find a good counsellor or psychotherapist (Part I)

posted 30 Aug 2011, 09:08 by Christine Schneider   [ updated 24 May 2012, 08:13 ]

How to find a good counsellor or psychotherapist


Part I: What qualifications should a therapist have?

 (tl; dr? Scroll down to the summary at the end of this article!)

I am often approached for counselling by people who I can't ethically take on as clients. That includes friends, close relatives of friends or people who belong to the same social circle as I do. Sometimes I am able to refer them on to colleagues, but more and more often, all I can do is to give them some help and advice as to how to find a good counsellor. I have started to write some guidance on what to look for, but soon realised that I could end up writing  a whole chapter on the subject. This is why I have now broken it down into different sections about what to look for in a counsellor. The first part is all about what type of qualifications and other professional aspects you should be looking out for when choosing a counsellor. Please note that I have used the terms counsellor, psychotherapist and therapist interchangeably, the article itself explains why. Also, please keep in mind that this article is based on UK standards and that the information contained herein is correct at the time of writing. There may be different rules and regulations applicable in your country.

The probably most important aspect of therapy is the rapport you have with your therapist. That’s why, unless you know a lot about counselling and you are specifically looking for a therapist who works in a certain way, it isn’t really too important for you to know whether your counsellor is a Jungian, Adlerian, Gestaltist or Rogerian counsellor. What is much more important is for you to check that the therapist you are going to see actually has any reputable professional qualifications.

The terms ‘counsellor’ and ‘psychotherapist’ are at the time of writing not protected in the UK. This means that anybody could go and call themselves a counsellor/psychotherapist, and unfortunately, a lot of people who aren’t really qualified therapists do so. I have even seen salespeople for weight loss products advertise themselves as counsellors. This is also one of the reasons why I have used the terms ‘counsellor’, ‘therapist’ and psychotherapist interchangeably in this article.

 I would suggest that you ask three main questions when looking for a counsellor or psychotherapist:

  1. What are their professional qualifications?
  2. Do they belong to or work in accordance with a governing body?
  3. How is their work supervised?

 Let’s look at qualifications first. A person with a long string of acronyms listed behind their name isn’t necessarily better qualified than a person with fewer letters. I personally tend to avoid stating my qualifications with my name in any promotional material, unless I am being asked to do so by an organisation I might work for. The reason for this is that unless you are familiar with a specific field, most of these acronyms won’t really mean anything to you and they can even be used to deliberately mislead. You can see it here: [Christine Schneider IMO, IMTU, LOL]* See how easy it is? If a therapist has genuine qualifications, then you should be able to verify them on the internet without difficulty.

You can try it out with this example: Sometimes I will state my name as [Christine Schneider MBACP]. See if you can find out what that means, but most importantly, once you have done so, make your own judgement on whether you think that this makes me an adequately qualified counsellor or not**.

If looking up your prospective therapist’s qualifications hasn’t helped you to decide whether they are trustworthy or not, you might want to find out a little bit more about what kind of training course they actually attended. There are many very good and thorough courses available that will provide therapists with excellent theoretical foundations as well as expert practical knowledge and experience. Some of these courses are taught at degree level, others are taught at further education colleges or polytechnics. The kind of institution where your therapist has gained their qualification isn’t as important as the type of course they attended. The biggest problem is that there are many places that offer short term courses, some as short as six weeks or even distance learning diplomas in counselling and psychotherapy. This, as you can imagine will not do, but it will still allow a therapist to display a genuine and probably very impressive looking certificate. A professional therapist should have spent at least three years on a training course (some psychotherapy courses are five years long) and a proportion of that time should have been spent in a placement, working as a trainee counsellor. During their training your therapist should also have spent a considerable amount of time in therapy themselves.

So when you are looking for a counsellor, don’t be shy, ask them about their qualifications and what kind of training course they attended. If they are genuine, they won’t mind answering your questions. (But do be prepared for a truly person-centred counsellor to respond with: “I wonder what makes it so important for you to ask me this question?”)

Once you have established that your counsellor or psychotherapist is professionally qualified, you might want to ask whether they belong to any professional body or whether they at least work in accordance with such a body. The reason I have phrased this so carefully is that just as I said that there isn’t just one specific qualification that makes a good counsellor, I don’t want to state that a therapist has to belong to one specific professional body in order to work ethically. There are several reputable professional bodies for counselling and psychotherapy and each of them charge an annual membership fee. If a therapist were to belong to all of them (and some therapists do belong to more than one) the costs would quickly add up. There is another reason why I would not want to state that a therapist has to have professional membership of their own. For years I have worked both in private practice as well as for counselling organisations where I have been covered under their organisational membership without the need to pay my own fees. It has only in recent years become necessary for me to take out my own membership since I have moved the main focus of my work more and more onto private practice. However, even when I did not pay individual membership fees and was covered through organisations that I worked for, my private work has always had the following disclaimer: “I am bound by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy’s (BACP’s) Ethical Framework for Good Practice in Counselling and Psychotherapy.” This is what you will need to know about your prospective therapist: do they work in accordance with a governing body and if so which? This is to make sure that they are governed by some sort of ethical framework and aren’t just making up their own rules as they go along. The following is a list of some governing bodies in the UK. I do not want to present this list as complete or compare any of the individual organisations; you can make your own judgement by looking them up online. When you ask your therapist which organisation’s ethical framework and good practice guidance they adhere to, they might mention one of the following: BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy), UKCP (United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy), COSCA (Counselling and Psychotherapy in Scotland), ACC (Association of Christian Counsellors), BPS (British Psychological Society).

Finally, I mentioned supervision. Every professional counsellor or psychotherapist should have regular sessions with a qualified supervisor. This is to ensure that your therapist is providing you with the best possible course of therapy and has somebody to double check their work. This doesn’t mean that your therapist’s supervisor will know who you are though as any work presented to a supervisor should always be anonymised. A supervisor is a bit like a therapist for a therapist. They have additional qualifications and are registered, just in the same way professional counsellors are. The amount of supervision that a therapist has depends on their workload and on how experienced they are; the minimum amount of supervision required by the BACP is 1.5 hours per month.

 In Summary:

  • The titles counsellor and psychotherapist are at the time of writing not protected in the UK. This means that people can use them in a variety of confusing or misleading ways.
  • Where therapists list acronyms after their names you should look up what they mean and verify their relevance yourself.
  • It doesn’t matter so much where your therapist gained their qualification, what their theoretical background is and whether they gained their professional status at a university, polytechnic or a further education college. What is important is that they spent at least 3 years in training, have had therapy themselves during their training and have had to complete a placement as a trainee counsellor as part of their training.
  • Your counsellor should either be a member of a recognised professional body, or at least adhere to the ethical framework and best practice guidance of a professional body. Remember that some counsellors might be covered by organisational membership and simply not see the need to pay membership fees for themselves. Again, look up that professional body to verify its reputability and relevance for yourself.
  • Finally, ask you therapist how their work is supervised. Every professional counsellor or psychotherapist should have regular sessions with a qualified supervisor to ensure their work is of a professional standard.

 End of part 1, you can carry on reading part II of this article here. 

[*] ‘In my opinion’, ;I made that up', ‘laughing out lout’

[**] If you have indeed looked it up, you will have found out that MBACP only refers to my membership with a professional body and doesn’t actually tell you anything about my qualifications.

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