Counselling is a talking therapy that involves a trained therapist listening to you and helping you find ways to deal with emotional issues.
Sometimes the term "counselling" is used to refer to talking therapies in general, but counselling is also a type of therapy in its own right.
What can counselling help with?
Counselling can help you cope with:
- a mental health condition, such as depression, anxiety or an eating disorder
- an upsetting physical health condition, such as infertility
- a difficult life event, such as a bereavement, a relationship breakdown or work-related stress
- difficult emotions – for example, low self-esteem or anger
- other issues, such as sexual identity
What to expect from counselling
At your appointment, you'll be encouraged to talk about your feelings and emotions with a trained therapist, who'll listen and support you without judging or criticising.
The therapist can help you gain a better understanding of your feelings and thought processes, and find your own solutions to problems. But they won't usually give advice or tell you what to do.
Counselling can take place:
- face to face
- in a group
- over the phone
- by email
- online through live chat services
You may be offered a single session of counselling, a short course of sessions over a few weeks or months, or a longer course that lasts for several months or years.
It can take a number of sessions before you start to see progress, but you should gradually start to feel better with the help and support of your therapist.
Can you get free counselling on the NHS?
You can get free counselling on the NHS.
In 2010, the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme was introduced to make talking therapies, such as counselling, more widely available on the NHS.
As a result of the IAPT programme, you can now get free counselling from:
- many GP surgeries – and if your GP doesn't offer counselling, they can refer you to another service locally
- most workplaces
- many universities, schools and colleges
- some voluntary and charitable organisations
Find out more about free counselling services on the NHS.
If you decide to pay to see a private therapist, make sure they're qualified and you feel comfortable with them.
The cost of private counselling can vary depending on where you live, with a session costing anywhere between £10 and £70.
Many private therapists offer an initial free session and lower rates for students, job seekers and those on low wages.
You should ask about charges and agree a price before starting a course of counselling.
Charities and voluntary organisations
Some charities and voluntary organisations also offer counselling. These organisations usually specialise in a particular area, such as couples counselling, bereavement or family guidance.
You don't need a referral from your GP for an appointment for these services, but you may have to pay a fee to cover the cost of your sessions.
Charities that may offer counselling include:
- Cruse Bereavement Care – for bereavement advice and support
- Rape Crisis England and Wales – for women and girls who've been raped or sexually abused
- Relate – for relationship advice and counselling
- Samaritans – for people to talk about whatever's troubling them at any time
- Victim Support – for victims and witnesses of crime
You may also be able to access support groups through your local community, church or social services.
Finding a qualified therapist
As counselling involves talking about sensitive issues and revealing personal thoughts and feelings, your counsellor should be experienced and professionally qualified.
Reputable therapists will be registered with a professional organisation that's been accredited by the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) – this means they have met the PSA's required professional standards to practice.
You can find a qualified therapist through the PSA check a practitioner page or the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) directory.
Other talking therapies
As well as counselling, there are many other types of psychological therapies (or "talking therapies") that involve a person talking to a therapist about their feelings or problems.
Read more about other talking therapies and how they can help.
As well as counselling, there are many other types of psychological therapies, including psychotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
This page covers:
Like counselling, the term "psychotherapy" is sometimes used to refer to talking therapies in general. However, psychotherapy is also a specific type of therapy. It may also be described as psychoanalytic or psychodynamic.
Psychotherapy is a more in-depth form of therapy than counselling, and it can be used to address a wider range of issues.
A psychotherapist can help you explore your thoughts, feelings and beliefs, which may involve discussing past events, such as those from your childhood.
They'll help you consider how your personality and life experiences influence your current thoughts, feelings, relationships, and behaviour. This understanding should enable you to deal with difficult situations more effectively.
Depending on your problem, psychotherapy can be short or long term. Adults, young people and children can all benefit from psychotherapy. Sessions can take place on a one-to-one basis, in couples, families, or in groups whose members share similar problems.
The Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme provides a type of specific evidence-based brief psychotherapy called dynamic interpersonal therapy (DIT). This offers a focused approach over 16 sessions of therapy.
Read more about psychotherapy.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a talking therapy that helps you understand the links between thoughts, feelings and behaviour. This allows you to manage your problems by helping you change the way you think and behave.
CBT doesn't remove your problems, but helps you manage them in a more effective way. It encourages you to examine how your actions and thoughts can affect how you feel.
It's based on the idea that the way you think about a situation affects how you feel and act. In turn, your actions influence the way you think and feel. It's therefore necessary to change both thinking (cognition) and action (behaviour) at the same time.
CBT is an active therapy, and you'll be expected to work on your problems between sessions, trying out different ways of thinking and acting, as agreed with your therapist. The aim is for you to develop the skills to become your own therapist.
CBT is usually a short-term treatment. For example, a course may consist of between 6 and 24 one-hour sessions.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends the use of CBT for:
- panic disorder
- obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- long-term illnesses
- eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia
CBT is widely available on the NHS for treating depression. If you feel CBT may be helpful, you should first discuss it with your GP.
Private therapists are also available. Before starting CBT with a private therapist, you should check the therapist is accredited by the British Association for Behavioural & Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP).
Computerised CBT (CCBT) packages are also available. CCBT is delivered in a series of weekly sessions and should be supported by a healthcare professional. NICE recommends CCBT for some people with depression.
Humanistic therapy incorporates your body, mind, emotions, behaviour, and spirituality. It encourages you to think about your thoughts and feelings, and take responsibility for your actions.
A humanistic approach provides a distinct method of counselling and focuses predominantly on an individual's unique personal potential to explore creativity, growth, love, and psychological understanding.
Group therapy aims to help you find solutions to your problems by discussing them in a group setting. Sessions are led by a facilitator who directs the flow of conversation.
As well as group therapy, many people find psychoeducational groups or courses very helpful. These provide information and skills without having to discuss personal problems in-depth.
NICE recommends group therapy for people with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and for children and young people with mild depression.
Many people are initially anxious about attending a group, but find they benefit from meeting people who share the same experiences and work together to overcome them.
Relationship therapy is where people who are having relationship difficulties work with a therapist to resolve their problems. It can be used to help couples, family members, or work colleagues.
NICE recommends relationship therapy for people who've tried individual therapy without success.
Family therapy can be used for children with depression, or where a family member has a mental health condition, such as anorexia or schizophrenia.
Mindfulness-based therapies help you focus on your thoughts and feelings without becoming overwhelmed by them.
NICE recommends mindfulness-based therapies to help people avoid repeated bouts of depression.
Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing
Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) is a treatment that uses eye movements to stimulate the brain. It's been shown to make distressing memories feel less intense.
EMDR can help a person deal with traumatic memories, such as those that occur after an accident, or after sexual, physical, or emotional abuse.
In particular, NICE recommends EMDR for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Samaritans provides a confidential listening service for people who would like to talk about whatever is troubling them. Everything is off the record and without judgement.