top of page

Which Counsellor, Psychotherapist or Psychologist?

The prospect of talking to someone about your personal and emotional issues can be a frightening experience, especially if you are not accustomed to sharing in this way, worry what it will all mean or feel concerned about what others may think of you. Deciding to get help is a huge first step, and actually heralds the beginning of your therapy or counselling process. Then there is the minefield of who to see, where to find them, and how to get there. It can be a complicated journey, with many unknowns. Your GP, Health Visitor or Practice Nurse may be some of the first ports of call, to get some advice and direction for getting the ball rolling. If you have trusting relationships at work or in the school that you are attached to, there should now be Mental Health First Aiders, with whom to have a chat.

Sadly, if you are seeking counselling or therapy through NHS services, there is unlikely to be much in the way of choice as to who you see, given the fact that mental health services try hard to cope with ever increasing demands and increasingly stretched staff teams. However, the gender of the counsellor or therapist is something that most services will consider, if this is an issue for you. If there are cultural or language based preferences, some services may be able to assist in this regard too, even if it means recruiting a translation service. The good thing is that mental health services are generally staffed with clinicians from diverse backgrounds, and hopefully you can see someone you best relate with - if this will help you to talk more freely or in a manner that you will feel better understood. The same holds true for clients who may worry about seeing someone who will best appreciate their LGBQT status. It is always right to ask the question and let services know what you need.

If you are fortunate enough to have health insurance or the financial capital to afford private psychological therapy, the prospect of finding the right therapist for your needs is more open, although no less daunting. There are countless directories, and so many different terms to describe services that seem quite similar, that you just can’t be sure. Your mind may swoon with questions - are you looking for a counsellor, and how is this different to a therapist? Why might you look for a psychologist or psychotherapist instead? What exactly is a life coach, and why do people keep talking of CBT, CAT or EMDR !!!! I hope to iron some of these dilemmas out, in the paragraphs that follow.

But, why look for therapeutic help at all?

People look for therapeutic help for a wide range of reasons, so don’t worry about fitting a certain definition or criteria. Simply put, if life does not feel as fulfilling and vibrant as you would like it to be, or once was, you may benefit from talking to someone who is trained to listen and offer constructive ways forward. This is especially so if your feelings are impacting on your day to day functioning and ability to sustain and complete basic tasks to a decent standard. Examples may be not being able to sleep or wake in time, struggling with housework, missing or falling behind in your work role, school refusal (for children), not gaining pleasure in things you used to enjoy, and growing distances in relationships with others

The issues brought to therapy may be manifold, but in my experience the most common concerns are difficulties with mood (sometimes called depression), anxiety (often used interchangeably with words like stress, worry or nerves) or self-esteem (sometimes talked about as low confidence). These three issues - depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem can be the underlying concern for a range of other issues that affect day to day life.

Of course, there are more severe and enduring mental health needs, such as eating disorders, suicidal or self-harm behaviour, psychosis, post traumatic stress disorder, personality disorders and so on, but many of these are often picked up in acute NHS settings, so will not be the focus of this article. This is not to say that clients with such needs should not have a choice in who they see, or the kind of therapy offered. I’d be happy to offer tailored advice, if anyone reading this wishes to get in touch via the website email.

'Outward’ symptoms of depression, anxiety and low self-esteem are often seen as an expression of ‘inner’ or ‘underlying’ emotional difficulties, which need to be resolved. These may be connected to past trauma (e.g. significant loss, life threatening incidents or abuse). Whilst there is a place for working with the symptoms (the outward expression of distress), and making life feel more manageable, there may be a need to address these underlying issues if you are to truly move forwards towards better emotional and mental health. Drug treatments tend to address the symptoms only, sometimes for better or worse, and cannot work on the underlying or psychological aspects of the problem. For that, you will need to seek some form of talking therapy. Infact you should always question why you are being given medication, unless there is a plan for talking therapy attached.

Who should I see?

And here we come back to the conundrum of who to see, which therapy modality will work, and how do you access it? To help you with these issues, allow me to give a very general description of the range of therapeutic services available;

Modality One

Reflective listening - where you do most of the talking and thinking, with a practitioner who facilitates this process, usually through the use of person-centred counselling which is based in principles of therapist authenticity, empathy and unconditional positive regard for their client. Expect the counsellor to say less than you do in this form of support - some people find this disconcerting, but there is a rationale for why the approach is used.

Modality Two

More prescribed interventions - where the practitioner (usually called a therapist of some kind) is more active in setting tasks and teaching skills to manage how you feel, usually through evidence based practice (i.e. therapy techniques that have been used in clinical trials, and known to be effective in treating certain mental health difficulties).

Modality Three

Development of deeper psychological awareness of yourself - where you are supported over a relatively longer period to analyse and find meaning for your history, feelings, actions and relationship experiences. These therapies are usually carried out by psychologists or psychotherapists with additional training and tend to be concerned with the root of the issue whilst also addressing the symptoms.

It is often contentious to try to differentiate between schools of therapy, or to make evaluations as to which therapeutic approach is more or less effective, more or less deep. There is also much overlap between each of the modalities, such that they are not mutually exclusive. In terms of what works, much depends on the therapeutic relationship, which is an interplay between your need (the kind of problem you are struggling with, but also your personal resources, support networks and resilience), what works for you (which may change over time) and of course the personal characteristics and life experience of the counsellor, therapist or psychologist you see. Any worker in the mental health field should have the skills and integrity to undertake a first assessment and consider the kind of approach that is best indicated for you - even if this means they need to recommend someone or something other than themselves. Always be willing to ask why your practitioner feels they can help, and what you may expect in further appointments that may be arranged.

At risk of being even more contentious, I have attempted to describe key differences in support services available, in the categories below. Where I offer typical fee structures, these are basedservices on the 2019 context, but please also be aware that fees do vary across and certainly around the country. If you are London based, it would be conservative to add an extra £15-£20 onto each fee structure for privately funded sessions. Major cities and conurbations tend to be at the upper end of fee structures, simply because of costs and outgoings for the therapists, counsellors or psychologists themselves.