If you’ve never had counselling before, it’s likely you have a lot of questions. I’ll try to answer a few here. This page and its friends will be updated under urgent support.

What is counselling?

Counselling provides you with a safe space where you can talk through your difficulties and get expert help in trying to make sense of it all. You will be treated in a non-judgemental way, in confidence.

Counselling is usually for problems with the here-and-now such as PTSD, work stress and bereavement. Counsellors often combine different ideas and techniques in an “integrated approach” so that they can best support each individual client.

If you want to deal with underlying problems, psychotherapy may be more suitable.

How does it work?

Counsellors see you in a private space. This could be based at a doctor’s surgery, a specialist counselling centre or in a private room in their own home.

A session is usually 50 minutes but it’s known as an hour. You might find 6-12 sessions of counselling is enough to deal with a specific difficulty. You choose what you want to work on – it’s your time.

Most counsellors expect to see you weekly. Some may be willing to see you fortnightly. Discuss your working pattern because you need to know your therapist can manage it too. It will usually be easier to get appointments during the day on weekdays, so offering to meet at these times will usually help.

Can my employer help?

You may have access to an Employee Assistance Program through your service or volunteering organisation. It has the advantage that the person you talk to should be familiar with ambulance service issues and know how your employer can support you.

However, you may wish to find help outside the service. This could give you a different perspective on life. Someone who is not paid by your employer may feel more comfortable for some people.

Can I get help via the NHS?

Your GP can refer you for counselling. It will be free but you won’t get to choose who you see, it may be a limited number of sessions and you are likely to be put on a waiting list. Some counselling is provided through charities such is Mind but is accessed via NHS referral, so you’re best to see your GP.

If your GP is unhelpful or judgmental, make an appointment with a different GP at your practice. Alternatively, see a GP at a different practice altogether.

Your GP may also recommend medication. Be sure to discuss side effects before accepting a prescription. For example, if the medication causes drowsiness it may affect your ability to drive or work in a time-critical environment. Your GP should be able to work with you to find the best option.

Sometimes people seek help privately whilst waiting for NHS help, to tide them over, and then deal with the change of counsellor or therapist. You can’t see two professionals at the same time.

I’m willing to seek help privately. How do I find a reputable counsellor?

The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) is the professional association in the UK. The BACP aims to ensure that counsellors and psychotherapists adhere to high standards of practice. They are equivalent to the HCPC, which provides the same function for allied health professionals such as paramedics and physiotherapists.

You can find a counsellor using the local search tool on the BACP website.

Or, you can search online listings such as the Counselling Directory. or google for counselling in your local area. Then check the BACP register to see if the counsellor is properly registered with them.

Can I get a recommendation from a friend?

If a friend or family member is seeing a counsellor they like, you can’t see the same professional too. It would create a conflict of interest if you ever wanted to discuss each other or people you both knew. However, your friend or family member can ask their counsellor for a recommendation of someone else who could help you. Remember to check them against the BACP register.

How do I know if someone is right for me?

All the qualifications and professional registrations in the world don’t mean they will be right for you.

Talk to a few counsellors. See if you think you can work together. A discussion over the phone is a start, but an initial meeting will give you a better idea if you can work together. Often this is free or a reduced fee. If you don’t find someone you like in your first look, just try a few more.

Some practitioners will offer Skype sessions for exceptional circumstances, and they will have different rules about cancellation of appointments. Check details.

How much will private sessions cost?

Typically, a session is around £50 per hour but will vary with location and practitioner.

There is no way of knowing for sure how may sessions you need in advance. However, you could decide to set yourself a budget and see what you can achieve in that period. Work with your counsellor to decide priorities for what you want to get out of your counselling so that you can see how you are moving forwards.

Ouch! I can’t afford that!

I can’t deny it’s expensive. Before I go on to the other options, I will quickly challenge our perspective on price: it is comparable to seeing a personal trainer or private physiotherapist. It is socially acceptable – aspirational, even – to spend this kind of money on our physical health. It should be just as positive to invest in our mental health.

From the other perspective, and I know it’s an annoying question, but how valuable is your health?

Remember that help via your GP or your Employee Assistance program is free. Check out other options for self-help and support groups.

I can contribute something, just not that much. What other options do I have?

Some counsellors take a few clients on a reduced rate as part of making a contribution to their community. So, if you are genuinely low-paid (or an unwaged volunteer or student) they could take you. You are likely to have to ring round to find someone with an available spot but it is worth trying.

Alternatively, counsellors who are in training will charge significantly less because they need clients to help them learn. Trainees should be well supervised by an experienced counsellor. Ask them them how this process works, so that you are confident you will be treated safely. Find a local training centre and ask them to put you in touch with students, ideally in their final year of training.

Have you used a counsellor or employee assistance programme? How did it help you? What advice would you pass on to your colleagues? Please share in the comments below, or contact me if you’d rather share in confidence and I can anonymise your feedback.

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