What is Counselling

Counselling is a talking therapy which is delivered by a trained practitioner. The therapist works with an individual for a short time or a prolonged period with the aim of bringing about an improved outlook in their mental health and wellbeing.

Couples (marriage guidance) or perhaps even an entire family may consult a therapist in an effort to improve the dynamic between them.

What is counselling

Individuals approach a therapist for a variety of reasons such as unhappiness, isolation, depression, bullying, bereavement, bullying, redundancy etc. By approaching a neutral individual ie someone who is not their friend, partner or family and therefore does not have a vested interest in their decision-making, the client may feel better able to express feelings and anxieties.

The therapy itself could involve talking about present day difficulties and how they relate to past experiences, or dissecting current day behavioural patterns and emotions. The therapist will then endeavour to get the client to resolve their problems or learn to live with them in a way which is not detrimental to their wellbeing.

Sessions can last from a one-off single meeting to once a week for fortnight over a number of years.

There are various different types of counselling and therapy. These include Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), person-centred therapy, drama therapy, psychodynamic therapy, art therapy etc. The approach may depend on the client’s condition eg specific methods would be used for addictions, eating disorders, sexual therapy etc.

What to expect from a Counselling Session

In the case of individual therapy you will meet with your therapist in a private room. In the majority of cases it will be understood that everything said in the room will be confidential - unless otherwise agreed by yourself - and you will not be physically disturbed.

The therapy will take place at an agreed time and place and you will be advised from the outset that the relationship is a professional rather than personal one. You should also be informed of the cost beforehand.

Most counselling sessions last around 50 minutes to an hour and this will usually be agreed in advance. You will remain completely clothed and sit opposite or diagonal to the therapist on a chair. In some analytic type counselling sessions you may be asked to lie down on a couch.

Counselling Session

At the first session your counsellor will ask what brings you to see them. They’ll then ask you for some background information, probably asking you to outline your family, work situation and perhaps your history. The counsellor may prompt or allow you to continue uninterrupted. The whole focus during the session will be on you and the counsellor will rarely reveal details about themselves therefore it is not a normal ‘chatting’ situation.

He or she may point out a connection in situations and encourage the client to look at them. At times there may be long periods of silence where you may wish to digest what you have just been discussing.

Future sessions may be less structured where the client will be encouraged to relate issues that have affected them since the last session or to look at a particular experience they found disturbing or interesting. You also may be asked what kind of effect you feel the therapy is having.

Often counsellors provide ‘homework’ such as asking the client to think about particular discussions you’ve both had until the next time you meet.

During sessions areas you may find difficult emotionally may be covered and it is not unusual to get weepy, angry or upset while discussing them.

The counsellor should show empathy, a genuine attitude and a willingness to help rather than criticise or point in a particular direction. You should feel that you can completely trust your counsellor. Always tell the truth otherwise the success of the therapy will be jeopardised.

Effects and Benefits of Counselling

Counselling has become increasingly popular as more people than ever before seek out the therapy. Its effects can be wide-ranging, helping people deal with difficulties in a number of areas (both in their lives and physically ie at work, within the family, with a death or other form of loss etc.

In many cases it can be combined with medication prescribed by a GP or other health practitioner. Most NHS authorities provide counselling free of charge in certain cases although waiting lists are notoriously long.

Some of the benefits of counselling are listed below but the list is far from exhaustive:

  • Helps people understand destructive behaviour and emotional patterns
  • Helps with anger and addictive behaviour
  • Improves relationships with family, friends, spouse, at work
  • Identifying and increasing inner strengths and resources
  • Gaining a new perspective on old experiences
  • Learning to express feelings and emotions
  • Having someone listen to you without interruption
  • Obtaining appropriate and impartial advice
  • Clarifying confused thoughts and feelings
  • Increasing confidence, self-esteem and motivation
  • Improving emotional awareness of self and others
  • Can aid a couple to enjoy a better relationship
  • Enhances creative thought and expression
  • Helps an individual deal with phobias
  • Understand how outside influences such as religion and family value can affect a relationship
  • Allows one to gain a feeling of control over ones destiny

Professional Bodies & Organisations

The British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP)

The largest and broadest counselling organisation in Britain. Works with both small voluntary agencies and large nationwide organisations such as the NHS. Also gives advice and help to independent practioners. Formed in 1977, the organisation has an international reach.

Counselling and Psychotherapy in Scotland

Scotland's professional body for counselling and psychotherapy. The group promotes counselling and psychotherapy through providing professional support including professional development for those delivering counselling services and education. It also offers a complaints procedure for the public.

The British Psychological Society

Develops and promotes psychology with the public in mind. Sets standards for psychologists and covers both the research and practical side of the profession. The organisation also provides a directory of chartered psychologists, produces information for public consumption, supports members and arranges conferences. Also advises on psychological testing for recruitment and other purposes.


The charity promotes health as well as respect and justice in families and between couples. Has 600 outlets throughout the UK. Therapies covered include individual and couple counselling, young persons and child therapy and issues over sexual relationships. Campaigns for improved services for separated parents and children. The body is governed by a voluntary Board of Trustees.

The British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP)

Members are involved in the practice and theory of behavioural and cognitive psychotherapy. Formed in 1972, it now has around 6,500 members. The organisation promotes behaviour and cognitive psychotherapies in line with a standard of ethics. Acts as a forum for members and accredits members who meet their criteria. Members include clinical psychologists, researchers, educational psychologists, students, occupational therapists, social workers, GPs, nurses.

Fascinating Facts

  • In 2008 there were more than 665,500 officially registered counselling practicing in the States
  • More than half the counsellors employed in America work in education and schooling
  • Around one in four people will require counselling at some point in their lives. However, they won’t all opt for it
  • Anxiety is the most popular form of mental distress in Britain (in the year 2000 around 9.2 per cent of the population were recorded as suffering from anxiety)
  • Around 50 per cent of marriage these days are said to end in divorce
  • The Office for National Statistics reckon 10 per cent of the population suffers from depression at any one time
  • Official figures from the Royal College of Psychiatrists in 2009 stated that 7 in every 1000 young women and 1 in every 1000 young men were affected by an eating disorder
  • CBT is a merging of behaviour therapy and cognitive therapy
  • In England and Wales the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence recommends CBT for such conditions as post traumatic stress disorder, OCD, clinical depression and bulimia
  • One of the pioneers of cognitive training was Abraham Low in 1937 who gave patients techniques following hospitalisation. Later he adapted them for self-help groups
  • CBT is not advised for anyone who has difficulty in reading or writing
  • B F Skinner became popular in the States in the 1960s with his behavioural work on individuals experiencing psychosis and autism
  • CBT is helping patients with stuttering by focusing on their anxieties surrounding the condition
  • Some prison sentences in the UK and abroad advise participation in a counselling programme as part of the convicted offenders sentence
  • Mental health affects an estimated 450 million people throughout the world
  • The record for insomnia is 18 days, 21 hours and 40 minutes and occurred during a rocking chair marathon. The winner experienced paranoid, hallucinations, slurred speech and memory problems