How do I find a counsellor?

Increasingly, people are seeking private counselling and psychotherapy. But with so many private practitioners advertising their services online, it can be hard to know where to start. In this week's "Counselling Basics", I provide some pointers on finding the right counsellor for you.

Where to look for a counsellor

Like most professionals, counsellors may have their own websites, social media pages, adverts in their local parish magazine, or you might hear of them through a friend of a friend who's cousin's sister recently completed a counselling diploma. Whilst it's fine to do your sleuthing about your next potential counsellor by reading all of their online profiles in detail, exercise caution before booking an appointment.


Why? As I mentioned in my previous post "What is counselling?", counselling/psychotherapy is an unregulated industry, meaning that any unscrupulous individual can set themselves up in private practice, without any training, professional registration or insurance. So where should you look? What should you do to check their credentials?


1. Search a reputable directory

It can be tempting to Google "counsellors near me" and see who comes up, but it's far safer to search a reputable counselling directory to start with. Directories such as Counselling Directory, Psychology Today and Harley Therapy verify practitioners before listing them. They require evidence of qualifications/professional membership registration with a recognised counselling/psychotherapy membership body for all of their listed practitioners. You can search by location, specialism, or by other characteristics (for example if you specifically want to see a female therapist).


There are other directories with a more specific client focus - for example, Pink Therapy is a directory of professionals with expertise in supporting LGBTQ+ or GSRD (gender, sexuality & relationship diverse) clients; Thriving Autistic and the Association of Neurodivergent Therapists (ANDT) both have directories of professionals who have expertise supporting neurodivergent people (autistic, ADHD, etc.; Thriving Autistic is international, ANDT is UK-based and all of their listed practitioners identify as neurodivergent themselves).

2. Check they are registered with a professional body

Not all therapists list themselves on directories - most directories charge professionals a fee, and some professionals are able to attract clients without the need for directory listings (particularly if they have an established practice). So if you've found a potential therapist via some other means and can't see them on a directory, don't panic - it doesn't mean they're not legit. But it is worth checking.


If they have their own website, do they say they're part of a professional membership body? If not, it may be worth enquiring with them directly - they should be happy to tell you (and if not, that should ring alarm bells!).


In the UK, psychotherapy professionals are most commonly registered with one (or more!) of the following: BACP, NCS, UKCP, BABCP, BPS, BPC (although there are many others). Once you know which body they're registered with, you can check for yourself - go to the member body's website, and search their list of registered members to check that your potential counsellor is on there, as they say. Here I am on the BACP's list, and here I am on the BPS' list!


Why is this important? Not only is professional membership a mark of a minimum standard of professional competence, but it provides some protection and legal rights both to you and to the counsellor, should you need to raise a formal complaint.


3. Read more about them

You've checked their credentials - now how do you choose? If you live in a densely populated area, you're likely to be spoiled for choice. And if you want see someone remotely (over Zoom or another online platform), the choices may seem endless. One good way to narrow down your choices is to read more about individual practitioners.


Directory listings provide a snapshot of each professional's experience, but most practitioners have their own website or social media page where they explain who they are and what they do in greater detail. What additional qualifications do they have? What is their particular specialism? What interests do they have? Do they say anything about their lived experiences? Depending on what you want from therapy, these questions may or may not be important to you in your search for the right counsellor.


An important note on "personal recommendations"

You might be considering a particular counsellor due to a personal recommendation - perhaps a close friend told you about a counsellor who changed their life, or you know someone who has recently set up in private practice. Some counsellors have clear policies about who they won't work with - this can include people they know personally, or people known personally to their existing clients.


This is an ethical issue - whilst therapists are bound by confidentiality, working therapeutically with someone you know personally will affect both your friendship and the therapeutic relationship. Even if a therapist agrees to work with you despite knowing you (or someone you know), think carefully about this decision - what if you want to speak about aspects of your friendship in therapy? Would you be comfortable socialising with your therapist in a non-therapeutic setting? I'll talk more about this topic in a future post, but for now, you may find these articles from Huffington Post and VeryWellMind useful to consider.

What do you want from therapy?

First things first: if you are looking for a formal diagnosis or a medication prescription, then the best place to start is your GP. You can also seek assessment and diagnosis via a private psychiatrist or psychologist. Counsellors and psychotherapists provide "talking treatments" - not medical diagnoses or medications (there are rare exceptions).


That said - what is it that you want from therapy? Is it guidance on a very specific problem? Or are you feeling stuck but can't quite put your finger on the reason why? It can help to sit down and write a few lines to yourself about why you're considering therapy - what are you looking to explore? Is there a specific problem you want to talk about? What are you hoping to get from the process? What do you know about therapy or different therapeutic approaches already? Have you had therapy before - if so, what's been helpful, and what hasn't? What don't you want from therapy?


Considering these questions can help not only in clarifying in your own mind what you want and what you're looking for, but it can help guide you when you start interviewing potential therapists...


Shop around and "interview" potential counsellors

Approaching a potential counsellor can be a nerve-wracking ordeal - picking up the phone, explaining your situation to a stranger, asking them if they can help. You've checked they're registered, they've got the qualifications, they specialise in the issue you want support with, they're local and available... So why the need to shop around?


Counselling is a human interaction. Yes, it's important that your counsellor is a trained professional, that they're insured and qualified, that they understand something of what it is you want to discuss. But ultimately, you need to feel able to talk to them, human to human.


It's a tricky thing to put your finger on, but when you speak to someone for the first time, you might simply not "click". And that's ok! It's not a reflection on you, and it's not a reflection on them. Everyone is different, and the therapist who changed your friend's life for the better might simply just not be right for you. The hard fact is that counselling can be a big investment (not just financially, but also your time and your emotional energy) - shopping around can help you to invest wisely.


1. First impressions

This one sounds quite superficial, but look at profile pictures - do they make you feel comfortable, or do they look like a safe, professional pair of hands? If they have a social media page, do they post videos so you can hear what they sound like? If they blog, do you like the way they express themselves? Could you see yourself speaking honestly and openly with this person?


2. Ask questions

A lot of counsellors offer one-off consultations (often for free or at a reduced cost) so that you can ask each other questions and decide if you could work together. Use this opportunity to find out not only if the counsellor "gets" you, but also what they're like. How much you need to know in order to make a decision will be very personal to you - perhaps you want to work with a feminist counsellor, or who has lived experience of your presenting challenge, or is gender-affirming, or understands neurodiversity. You can also ask practical questions, such as how long their sessions are, how frequently you would meet, what their cancellation policy is.


You are free to ask a potential counsellor whatever questions you want - but they are also free to decline to answer. Different counsellors will have different views on "self-disclosure" (i.e. how much they tell clients about themselves), but if it's important to you to know where your future counsellor stands on a particular topic, then it's important to ask. (I'll talk more about therapist self-disclosure in a future post.)


These consultations should be "no obligation" - i.e. the therapists shouldn't pressure you into booking into future sessions at the end of the consultation. If you need to take time to make a decision, or consider what other options you have, then do just that.


3. How much does counselling cost?

Counsellors fees do vary, and cost is likely to play a part in your decision-making. Counsellors should be open open about how much they charge per session - ideally, they will list these on their website or directory profile. If it's unclear, simply ask them, much as you would ask any professional for any service. Some counsellors also offer reduced fees for people on low incomes or receiving benefits, students, or frontline healthcare staff - it may be worth enquiring about this as well.


Finally - you can change your mind!

Let's imagine you've gone through all of the above, and chosen a therapist to work with. You've seen them for a few sessions, and despite all your optimism about therapy, it just doesn't feel right for you. You are under no obligation to stay. There is nothing wrong with deciding that this counsellor is not right for you - it might be that you don't click with them, you don't like their therapeutic approach, or you just plain don't like them. You can simply say to the counsellor "I've changed my mind" or "this isn't working for me" or "I'm done". You don't owe them anything (well, except for fees for sessions you've attended, or anything covered by their cancellation policy - there are still legal obligations where contracts are signed and money changes hands). But you don't need to "stick with it" if it doesn't feel right to you. It's a professional service, not an irreversible pact.


Leaving therapy can be difficult - you've invested time, emotional energy, and cold hard cash into the process (even just finding a counsellor in the first place can be exhausting) - but don't get drawn into the sunk-cost fallacy of "I've spent x hours and £xxx on this already, I need to stick with it to make it work". I could make comparisons with other professional services, but counselling is unique in that you're working with a unique human relationship. You'll know if it doesn't feel right, and you want to look elsewhere. Any counsellor worth their salt won't want to keep you on just to line their pockets - they'll want to support you to make the decision that's right for you.


Did you enjoy this post? Did you find it helpful? Want to know something about counselling I haven't talked about yet? Please leave me a comment below, or email me at dr.astridcoxon@gmail.com!
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