How To Become A Counsellor Later In Life

Beyond a certain age, most of us have accumulated the kind of knowledge and life experience that could help others in a number of ways. If you want to offer your expertise, counselling as a part-time career could be the answer. We went to a professional to find out exactly what the job entails and how to get started.

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What does a counsellor actually do? 

“As a counsellor, you'll actively listen to clients, offering them time, empathy and respect to talk about particular issues and problems, with the aim of reducing confusion and increasing their ability to cope with challenges, or to make positive changes to their lives. Sessions with clients can cover a range of issues, including divorce or relationship difficulties, illness, bereavement, unemployment or job uncertainty and general anxiety. Counsellors are impartial and non-judgemental, providing a safe and confidential environment for clients to look at their own values and beliefs. You won't give advice, but you will support clients to explore their behaviour patterns and make their own choices. This may involve challenging their beliefs in order to help them see things from a different point of view. Some work activities overlap with the role of a psychotherapist, and both can encompass a range of talking therapies.” – the team at Prospects.ac.uk

What sort of services do counsellors offer?

“You'll provide face-to-face counselling, as well as telephone and online counselling. Settings can include hospitals and GP surgeries, schools, colleges and universities, charities and addiction organisations, and in the workplace. Counselling is often undertaken on a one-to-one basis, but it can also involve work with couples, families or groups. Counselling can take place over six to 12 sessions or for a longer period, lasting months or over a year, depending on the needs of the client. Sessions typically last around 50 minutes. With experience, there is scope for self-employment in private practice and freelance work. Many counsellors have a portfolio career combining part-time, voluntary and private work. You'll need a good support framework as the work can be emotionally demanding. Professional supervision is essential to help counsellors work through any difficulties they experience.” – the Prospects team

What kinds of counselling are there?

“There are many forms of counselling, but the main ones are:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – this type of counselling involves focusing on the present rather than the past. You set goals with your client and use strategies to help them think and act in a more positive way. CBT has been studied more than other forms of counselling and has shown success in many research studies.
  • Person-centred therapy – based on the approach of Carl Rogers, this kind of counselling focuses heavily on empathy, viewing your client with unconditional positive regard and behaving in a congruent way that means your actions honestly reflect your thoughts.
  • Psychotherapy – if you believe strongly that a person's past is critical to their healing today, then this may be the right counselling approach for you. Psychotherapists often work with people who have persistent problems that they have struggled to overcome for many years.

Most training courses will at the minimum do a brief overview of the other counselling types, so you are well informed when patients have questions about your specific approach. From here, you can also branch into specialisations such as couples counselling or family counselling. It is often when a person has worked many years in the counselling sector that they make a decision about specialisation.” – Ian Murnaghan, The Counsellor’s Guide

What do the working hours typically look like? 

“Working hours are typically 9am-5pm but some posts may require evening or weekend work to meet with clients. Although opportunities for paid work in counselling are increasing, many jobs are part-time or on a voluntary basis, too, and there may be opportunities for flexible working and job sharing.” – the Prospects team

Focus on GETTING EXPERIENCE through VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITIES and, remember, becoming a counsellor requires COMMITMENT and an OPEN MIND to LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF in the process.

What kind of qualifications do you need?

“Although there's no compulsory training required to become a counsellor, most employers will expect you to have undertaken professional training and be registered with a relevant professional body. Registration shows that you meet certain educational standards and abide by a code of ethics.

The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) recommends a three-stage training route, comprising the following:

  • Introduction to counselling – provides basic counselling skills and an overview of training before committing to a full counselling course. Courses typically last eight to 12 weeks and are available at further education (FE) colleges or adult education centres. These courses are a good way to help you to decide if counselling is right for you.
  • Certificate in counselling skills – a deeper theoretical understanding of counselling, develops your counselling skills and prepares you for the core training at the next stage. Courses typically last one year part-time at FE colleges.
  • Core practitioner training – equips you with the skills, knowledge and competence to work as a counsellor. The minimum level of training at this stage should be a Level 4 Diploma, but can also be a foundation, undergraduate or postgraduate degree. Training must adhere to internationally recognised standards of quality and cover reflective, competent and ethical practice. Courses should be at least one-year full time or two years part-time, with a minimum of 100 hours in supervised placements.” – the Prospects team

Where can you train to get qualified?

“Training courses are provided by colleges, universities and private training organisations. Research courses thoroughly to make sure they meet your career needs as training is a substantial investment of time and money. Look for courses that are approved/accredited by a professional body such as:

Completion of an accredited core practitioner training course will allow you to apply to join the professional body's professional register of practitioners. Different courses have different entry requirements, and you should check with individual providers for what they are looking for in terms of previous training and experience. A degree in a related subject, such as nursing, psychology, social work or education, might help you to get onto a counselling course. However, previous counselling experience and evidence that you have the necessary personal qualities, commitment and self-awareness can be just as important.” – the Prospects team

What are some of the personal qualities you need to be a good counsellor?

“You'll need to show self-awareness, sensitivity and empathy; excellent observation and listening skills; a broad-minded, non-judgemental attitude and a respect for others; an understanding of your own attitudes, limitations and responses; the ability to work well and think clearly under pressure verbal and written communication and presentations skills; an ability to establish rapport with people from all backgrounds and to gain their trust; time management skills; the ability to work well as part of a multi-disciplinary team; common sense; an understanding of the importance of confidentiality and also an awareness of its limitations; personal integrity; resilience; a belief in people's inherent ability to change and develop; a sense of humour and an energetic and positive approach; and, finally, an understanding of equality and diversity issues.” – the Prospects team

Is work experience necessary – how do you find it?

“Counselling is often a second or third career and relevant experience in a 'helping' profession, such as nursing, social work, mental health or teaching, is useful. Experience of working with a range of clients can be particularly helpful. There are also many voluntary opportunities available across the counselling sector. Some basic counselling training is usually required, but some agencies train their own volunteers. Voluntary experience is valuable and may even lead to further training and paid work. You can always use the Prospects site to find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships available.” – the Prospects team

So, is volunteering a good place to start?

“First and foremost, spending time in a volunteer role can help you to decide if counselling is the right fit for you as a career. It can also help you to choose the best style of counselling for your personal beliefs and traits. There are countless charities that will provide ‘free’ training in return for a commitment that you will provide volunteer services for a specified amount of time, such as one year. You will get to meet other people and learn about yourself as you train to become a counsellor. This training will not be sufficient for private practice or work as a counsellor in a professional setting. However, it's an ideal way to start. You may also manage to use these hours to satisfy entry requirements to a college or university training program, many of which require some previous exposure to counselling before you are accepted. You can contact the local branch of the council sector for voluntary services to find out what opportunities are available in your area. Try searching online with keywords that include the counselling approach of interest to you, the word ‘volunteer’ and the words ‘non-profit’ or ‘charity.” – Ian

Counselling is a HELPING CAREER and a VERY GRATIFYING one for those who want to MAKE A DIFFERENCE to the lives of OTHER PEOPLE.

And where do you find out about paid opportunities?

“Counselling vacancies can occur in a range of settings, including schools, further education colleges, universities and higher education colleges; statutory and voluntary sector care agencies; health sector settings including hospitals; youth services and agencies; children's centres; specialised telephone helplines; and churches and other faith-based organisations. Another option is to set up your own private practice. This can provide a greater degree of flexibility, but it may take time for you to get established. Counsellors may combine private practice work with other counselling jobs.

Look for job vacancies at:

Just bear in mind competition for full-time paid positions is high. Many paid posts are part-time, and some are combined with other duties, such as teaching, nursing or advisory work.” – the Prospects team

Any tips for breaking into the industry?

“Get an up-to-date CV and make sure it covers all your counselling relevant experience, including volunteer work. Counselling is a career where volunteer experience is strongly valued, so be sure to create a section dedicated to volunteer experience. Also ensure that you include your education at the top of your CV, as education is similarly valued in counselling. In fact, for some roles, it's critical. Then, talk to other counsellors. Ask other counsellors how they got their first job. Let them know you are actively looking for work and would appreciate any advice and support. Finally, contact counsellor programme trainers. Talk to trainers from places where you have studied and/or volunteered and see if they can connect you to opportunities in the field.” – Ian

What are some of the different career routes available?

“Although opportunities for paid counselling work are increasing, many roles are still part-time or voluntary. Promotion in areas such as health or education is likely to be into team leader or management roles. These usually involve less time spent with individual clients and more on supervising a staff team and working on strategy and policy implementation. You can take on increased responsibility in training or supervision, or choose to specialise in an area such as:

  • bereavement
  • children and young people
  • family therapy
  • mental health
  • sexual health
  • sexual violence
  • substance abuse

You could also establish yourself as a self-employed counsellor once you've gained enough experience. It may take time to build your client base and income, but it may provide greater flexibility and new opportunities.” – the Prospects team

Is professional development part of this career?

“Once you've completed training accredited by one of the main professional bodies, such as the BACP, UKCP or NCS, and have met all their membership requirements, you can access the full range of membership benefits they offer. Each professional body has different levels of membership and, as you gain experience, knowledge and skills, you can progress through the levels. You should also join your professional body's professional register of practitioners, which is accredited by the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) for Health and Social Care. Becoming registered shows you adhere to high standards of conduct, competence and ethical practice. Once registered, you'll be required to engage in continuing professional development (CPD). Activities may include short courses on new therapeutic approaches and possibly progression to higher qualifications at postgraduate level. You'll need to plan, record and reflect on your CPD activities and this is supported by the professional body you're registered with.” – the Prospects team

Any final words of wisdom you could share?

“Counselling is a helping career and a very gratifying one for those who want to make a difference to the lives of other people. Starting out can seem daunting, especially if it's not your first career. But remember that your experience can help make you a better counsellor. Focus on getting experience through volunteer opportunities and, remember, becoming a counsellor requires commitment and an open mind to learn about yourself in the process.” – Ian

For more information, visit Prospects.ac.uk and TheCounsellorsGuide.co.uk. You can also find more information on pursuing counselling as a career via the BACP, National Counselling Society (NCS) & UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP).

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