Counselling, also referred to as talking therapy, could prove beneficial to people who have suffered a sudden upheaval in their life, such as redundancy, divorce or bereavement. Equally, people who are depressed or dissatisfied with certain areas of their life, might find that counselling can help to give a better quality of life.

Counselling can be used for the treatment of many different health conditions such as anxiety, depression, long-term illnesses and drug misuse. The therapy can be delivered in a number of ways including face to face, both individually or in a group, by phone, email and through on-line self-help programmes.

Counsellors come from a wide range of backgrounds and communities. All will have undergone professional training and hold a recognised qualification, with membership of a professional body such as the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP). There are many different approaches to counselling and your chosen counsellor will explain this to you to help you decide what type of counselling you feel will work best for you. Always check that your counsellor is registered with a professional body.

Counselling doesn’t work for everybody, it often involves talking about difficult issues.

What to expect from counselling

People will ordinarily book in for a number of counselling sessions, however this can vary according to an individual’s needs. Sessions usually last for about an hour. In the first session the therapist will typically begin with an initial assessment of your situation. Questions could include:-

  • why you are seeking therapy
  • your personal history and current situation
  • current symptoms
  • your GP details
  • any medication being taken
  • previous mental health history
  • eating and sleeping patterns
  • alcohol and substance abuse.

The counsellor will use this information to better understand the problem and plan the right treatment on a case-by-case basis. The first session ordinarily also covers issues such as confidentiality and boundaries and your hopes and long term aims.

Do be prepared to be pro-active. If you are not open and honest, it is unlikely that counselling will be beneficial. It can be a good idea to write down the reasons why you are seeking help in advance of the first session, as this can help you to describe your situation more clearly to your counsellor. Be prepared, not just to answer questions, but also to ask questions if there is any part of the process that you are unsure of.

It will often involve talking about difficult issues which can bring back painful memories, and for some people, this can lead to them feeling worse in the short term. However, with the help and support of a counsellor, people do gradually start to feel better.

For further information on the benefits of counselling, and the kind of help that is available, see the NHS website.

Combining medication and therapy

A combination of medication and therapy may be more effective than either treatment on its own. It could be a good idea to discuss treatment options with your local GP to help you to decide what approach is best for you.

Accessing NHS counselling services

People living in England can access therapy via the NHS Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme. This means that anyone who needs therapy, such as counselling, can access it through their GP, workplace, educational establishment or voluntary and charitable organisations. Ordinarily, this service is free to NHS users and GPs should be aware of what is available to patients in their local area and also make the necessary referral.

For people who prefer not to go through their GP, some services have a self-referral option which enables you to go directly to a professional therapist. To search for local psychological therapy services, see the NHS Choices website.

Availability of services can vary and NHS therapy in some parts of England, in particular rural areas or small towns, can be very limited. Equally, people may have to wait a long time or travel some distance to find something suitable.

If you live in Wales or Scotland, please visit Health in Wales or NHS Scotland for information about services.

Listening Friends

If you are undecided about counselling but feel you need to talk, Pharmacist Support’s Listening Friends service offers a confidential listening ear. You can contact our Listening Friends Helpline on 0808 168 5133, or you could contact our enquiry line on 0808 168 2233.

Alternatives to NHS

Some charities offer free, or relatively inexpensive counselling services. These include:- 

  • Cruse for bereavement care
  • Beat for eating disorders
  • Mind for mental health issues
  • Relate for relationship counselling.

If none of these prove to be suitable, people may wish to find and pay for a counsellor themselves. People can also ask their local GP if they can suggest a local private therapist, or choose their own therapist. There are no rules governing who can advertise counselling services, so it is essential to check that the therapist is listed on one of the registers of approved practitioners.

For further guidance on how to choose a therapist The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, who are the regulatory body for counsellors, holds a register of accredited counsellors and psychotherapists. You can also look at You and your therapist on the NHS choices website and the Counselling Directory which both provide lists of counsellors available in your local area. 

You may also be interested in the Counselling Directory’s partner company, Therapy Directory, which lists your local service providers of complementary and alternative therapy.