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How to become a counsellor

Are you the person your friends and family come to when there’s something on their mind? Do you love to help others solve their problems?

Sounds like you’d make a great counsellor! From training and qualifications to skills and attributes, this post takes a thorough look at how to become a counsellor – as well as answering what does a counsellor do, and exploring what to expect when you get there.

'Do people turn to you when they have a problem? A career in counselling could be for you'

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What is a counsellor?

You’ve come to this page, so you’ve already got a pretty good idea what a counsellor is – right?

Well, maybe. Counselling belongs to a type of treatments called “talking therapies”, which means there are a range of related professions, such as psychiatry and psychotherapy. 

So what does a counsellor do?

In its strict sense, counselling is about talking through a patient’s problems and feelings. Counsellors don’t tell people what to do, but mainly ask questions and listen to their patient’s responses. They use this information to get to the bottom of the problem and work with the patient to come up with an action plan or set of "coping strategies" to help them overcome it.

Woman with head on her knees
Bereavement, trauma, depression and other
problems all lead people to seek counselling

There are a number of reasons why someone might seek counselling:

  • Addiction.
  • The death of someone close (bereavement).
  • Relationship problems, connected with a partner or family member.
  • Illness.
  • Trauma.
  • Anxiety, stress or depression.
  • Mental health problems.

These are some of the most common reasons why someone might choose to have counselling, but the list goes on. You will find that every patient is different.

Counselling often takes place in person with just one patient, but not always. Patients can also receive counselling:

  • Over the phone: Allows the patient more flexibility, or let’s them receive counselling in their own home.
  • In a group: Allows patients to interact, discussing and working through their problems together.
  • Online: Allows the patient to write down their thoughts and feelings, which may be easier or more helpful for them.

What skills do I need?

As a counsellor, you'll deal with sensitive and sometimes painful issues. Your patients may be discussing some of the most significant problems in their lives. To become a counsellor, the right mix of skills is vital. These include: 

  • The ability to talk to people from all walks of life.
  • Empathy and compassion.
  • Patience and a tolerant, non-judgemental outlook.
  • Trustworthiness.
  • Emotional resilience, as you could have to deal with some very tough issues.
  • Good problem-solving.

What training and qualifications do I need?

You’ll probably be surprised to learn that you don’t technically need any formal qualifications to become a counsellor. However there are a few steps all good counsellors take... 

You need to register with an approved organisation

It’s recommended that people seeking help look for counsellors registered with bodies such as the British Association of Counsellors and Psychiatrists (BACP) or the National Counselling Society (NCS).

That’s because these organisations are in turn approved by the Professional Standards Authority, which independently monitors the quality of health and care and answers to parliament. 

You need a diploma to register

To register with the BACP or the NCS, you will need a level 4 diploma in a subject like counselling and psychiatry. Higher qualifications, such as degrees, are also available. You’ll need to work towards your qualification with a college or university which is approved by the body you want to register with.

Mortarboard and certificate
You need a diploma or degree or similar qualification
to become a registered counsellor

Your diploma should:

  • Take one year full-time or two years part-time.
  • Include at least 100 hours of supervised placementBe classroom-based.

To do a level 4 qualification, you will need A-levels or equivalent.

You may also need post-16 qualifications specific to counselling, such as a certificate in counselling skills, to get on to the course. You can find out the entry requirements on the college website.

How much will it cost?

The BACP says a diploma costs between £2,200 and £3,000 per year. A degree costs up to £9,000 per year.

Read this next: What jobs in psychology can I do?

You may be able to get a student loan to help towards your fees.

You won't be able to apply for a student loan if you’re doing a level 4 qualification, but you could apply for a professional and career development loan through a bank or building society.

What happens when I’m qualified?

When you get your diploma, you’ll be able to join the BACP or the NCS, and join their register of accredited counsellors.

To keep your BACP or NCS membership, you’ll spend at least 1.5 hours of supervised practise per month. This means an approved counsellor will sit in while you’re with a patient to make sure you’re doing your job to a high standard. This is to make sure you still deserve your accreditation.

Person holding up trophy
Extra qualifications can boost your professional

If you work towards extra qualifications, you may be able to boost your BACP or NCS membership and get a higher-level or accreditation. This shows your patients and peers that you have high expertise, and could help you gain a higher-paying job.

How much do counsellors earn?

As a counsellors, you can expect to earn between £19,000 and £40,000 per year:

  • £19-26,000 when you’re just starting out.
  • Around £30,000 when you have some experience.
  • £40,000 when you’re highly experienced.

You’ll work between 35 and 40 hours a week. To become a counsellor at some practices, you may have to work unsociable hours to fit in with your patients’ needs.


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