AJAX SCOTT Counselling & Psychotherapy
Cheltenham / Dursley (Gloucestershire) & Islington (London)



Choosing a counsellor or psychotherapist you can work with probably has more impact on the outcome of the work you do together than any other factor – yet it is often hard to know where to start. I know, because I was in that position once. The internet has made it easier to access therapy, but finding the right counsellor or psychotherapist for you can still feel a little like looking for a needle in a haystack. This article is intended to offer a few pointers as to how and where to start.

Once you have made the decision to look for a counsellor or psychotherapist, there are three obvious places to start:

  • Personal recommendations from people you know. This can be a valuable source of information, especially if someone who you trust has had a good experience. It can be a sensitive subject since not everyone is comfortable sharing their experiences of therapy. That said, you don’t just have to ask friends and family – ask your GP, or anyone else with whom you have a trusting professional relationship if it feels appropriate.
  • Resources that may already be available to you. Some larger employers offer in-house counselling or out of house referrals, while some schools and many universities also have some kind of counselling team. I have been fortunate to work in two such settings – at Transport for London and London Met University – and both offered strong support to hundreds of people every year.
  • Searching online. This is perhaps the easiest place to start. The internet can seem bewildering to navigate if you don’t know what you’re looking for, but there are three good places to start with for practitioners based in the UK: the Counselling Directory and the listings provided by the two leading regulatory bodies, the BACPand UKCP.

    Counselling Directory has a large database and its search functionality is user-friendly, though you should be aware that it contains a wide variety of practitioners who have different levels of experience and training, all of whom pay to be listed. Meanwhile the BACP and UKCP sites have clunkier search functionality but provide a comprehensive listing of their respective members. Almost any reputable practitioner should also have a website of their own, however basic, although again it is worth noting that the quality of website often bears little relation to their skill as a practitioner.

    When it comes to narrowing down your search, there are a few basic questions to bear in mind. In no particular order:

    What you are actually looking to achieve?
    If you have a specific issue that you want to resolve then the work can be very different than if you have a nagging sense that something is wrong in your life and you can’t quite put your finger on it. Though your goals may change during the work, it is helpful to have as clear an idea as possible about what you want to achieve at the outset.

    Does it make a difference to you what gender or race the therapist is?
    For example a woman who was raped by a man might find it too challenging to work on this issue with a male therapist, while a black client might feel that a therapist with a shared cultural background might have deeper insights into their life experience. Only you will have a sense of what is important here. That said, if it feels safe enough, building a trusting relationship with such a therapist could ultimately be a very healing and powerful experience. As so often, it comes down to personal preference – it’s what feels right for you.

    How much you are prepared to pay?
    Average fees tend to vary slightly depending on where you are based in the country within a broad range of around £40-£80 per session. Meanwhile some therapists deliberately maintain a number of low-cost slots so that they can work with clients with differing financial circumstances. Expensive therapy does not generally mean better quality therapy, but if you are only able to pay £20 per session then your options will be limited. By the same token, if price is your key criterion and you are looking to get a bargain deal, then you may not end up with the best therapist for you. Indeed this may also say something about the priority that you give to your mental health.

    How far your are prepared to travel?
    If you live outside a town or city then chances are that you are used to travelling further to get to appointments on a regular basis, but make sure that you are comfortable travelling the distance to whoever you choose on a regular basis. If it is a struggle to make it on time each week, then this can impact the nature of the work.

    Do you have strong feelings about the way in which the practitioner works?
    A large body of research suggests that the depth and quality of the working relationship that client and counsellor establish has more impact on the outcome of their work than the modality of the practitioner. Nonetheless, some approaches suit some clients better than others. For example, if you are interested in exploring how patterns established in past relationships are playing themselves out in the present, then a psychodynamic approach might be suitable. If you are interested in changing the way you think in certain situations, then Cognitive Behavioural Therapy might be appropriate. If you are drawn to exploring the links between mind and body then a body-based approach could suit you. These examples are deliberate simplifications, but if you are interested in drilling down into different modalities then you can research them online – or easier still ask any of the practitioners you are drawn to to explain in simple terms what they do.

    Do they have a photo on their website and what is your response to it?
    In particular here I would be wary if a practitioner has a photo that either looks overly slick / seductive, or if they have a photo that shows them engaged in a leisure activity that has nothing to do with their professional work (is their passion for deep sea fishing really relevant to any work you may do together?). In either scenario I would question their motivation for choosing such shots and I’d suggest that you monitor your response. Note that some practitioners choose not to publish any photos of themselves online for the legitimate reason that they don’t feel that how they look should influence whether a client wants to work with them.

    I usually suggest to people that research people who fit the criteria above and then narrow them down to a shortlist of two or three practitioners who they speak to on the phone, or even arrange to meet. Treat is a bit like an audition: after all, however nervous you may feel, you are the one hiring their services rather than vice versa.

    At this stage there are various questions that it is worth asking:
    What is their approach?
    Get them to explain how they work and what a typical session might involve. Many might answer that there is no such thing as a typical session, but notice how you feel as they are describing what they do and how they would work with you.

    What accreditation do they have/who are they regulated by?
    There a number of different accrediting bodies. However, I would suggest that you look to work with someone who is registered with either the UKCP and/or BACP. This should be listed on their website.

    What experience and training do they have, and do they have any areas of special interest or experience?
    Note, a therapist who has years of experience is not always preferable to someone who has recently qualified. Research shows that those who are more recently qualified can sometimes have a fresher approach and pay more attention to new clients than those who are long in the tooth. That said, those who have been working a long time can draw on all their experience when working with particular types of clients and issues.

    How much do they charge?
    Here is is worth asking whether they charge for missed sessions, when they are on holiday, and whether they have any concessionary places. Some practitioners offer lower fees to students and the unemployed, for example. It is also worth asking whether you will have to pay for your initial assessment.

    Have they had therapy themselves?
    Surprising though it may seem, some practitioners have not had to spend years in therapy themselves in order to gain a qualification. This always seems suspect to me – after all, unless they have worked through their own issues, how are they going to be well placed to help you work through yours?

    How long do they think it would be sensible for you to work together?
    There is no right or wrong answer here, of course, but if someone is promising to resolve all your issues in just a few sessions then I would be wary, just as I would if they tell you from the outset that you will need to be in therapy for a number of years.

    As you discuss some of these questions, notice how you feel when you speak to the person on the other end of the phone. Do you feel they are listening to what you are saying? And do you feel comfortable with them? That is not the same as asking whether you think you could get on with them as a friend – after all you are embarking on a professional relationship which takes place within the therapy room, and sometimes that relationship may need to be challenging. But you probably don’t want to start working with someone who makes you feel unsafe.

    Above all, trust your instincts. They are usually right.

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