The chances are that even if you’re not in weekly therapy, you know a few people who are. As social stigma around counselling falls away, more and more of us feel able to seek help when we’re going through a tough time.
Over 1.4 million people were referred to NHS mental health therapy last year, and while no exact statistics exist for the number of people who opt to pay and seek private counselling services, evidence suggests there’s been at least a 65% increase in demand over the past two years. And that’s being conservative.
Therapy is now one of the UK's biggest growth industries, and as well as the rise in the number of people seeking help there has also been a steep increase in the volume of people who wish to train to become counsellors. As you’d expect, this is broadly a good thing. An increased demand for a service can only be met if there are more people able to provide that service.
However, becoming a counsellor is a serious commitment – training lasts a minimum of three years and there are huge costs involved (anything from £12,000 to £25,000) – and it’s a job that suits a specific type of person, one with dedication to lifelong learning.
"Training to become a counsellor or psychotherapist is definitely not for everyone," says Maureen Anne Brumby, a counsellor, cognitive behavioural therapist and supervisor. "I know people who enter the profession believing they have much to offer, who then find the demands and expectations of the work too high."
To make a slightly clumsy analogy, just as we’ve all got a friend (or six) who loved yoga so much that they’ve trained to be a yoga teacher, there are thousands of people who begin studying to be therapists after a positive experience with a therapist. But while it’s admirable to want to train in a profession that helps you 'give back' by being a useful member of society, Brumby recommends people think carefully about what the work entails before making any commitment to retrain.
"The work can be incredibly demanding, stressful and therapists do struggle at times," says Brumby. "A good way to begin is to enrol on a short introduction to counselling course and go from there."
Cultural growth in interest in mental health, the self and wellbeing goes a long way to explain the increased demand for psychotherapy training. One teacher at a London Counselling Centre that offers three, four and five-year courses said they often see students who are "drawn to become therapists because they are really trying to fix themselves. We have several people every year who come thinking they will learn about themselves rather than because they want to begin to learn how to serve others."
This starting point doesn’t necessarily negate someone’s potential to eventually qualify as a therapist. In fact, it can be a good starting point. The counselling profession's official body, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), recommends that training programmes make it mandatory for trainees to enter into private therapy as part of their training.
Brumby agrees it’s very useful for trainees to experience therapy and "have an insight into the work by another professional". She adds: "It can also provide someone with the opportunity to work on some of their own issues. This can be helpful in order that the therapist’s own emotional and psychological residue has an opportunity for discussion, reflection or resolution." Or to put it another way, it’s vital that a trainee has dealt with their own shit before they’re ever in a position of trying to help someone vulnerable or in crisis.
Sian* is 32 and enrolled on a part-time foundation certificate in counselling last September, studying for three hours after work on Tuesday evenings. "I was feeling unmotivated in my marketing job and really wanted to do something where I was helping others," she says. "I’d like to think I have empathy and sensitivity, but I quickly realised it was going to be much more intense than I’d realised.
"There was a group of 11 of us and from day one we’d share deeply personal information. I’d lost a good friend the year before and I spent most of the first sessions crying. I couldn’t handle it. I left before Christmas. My course leader advised me to get some therapy before revisiting training in the future."
A quick scan of psychotherapy courses offered in the UK reveals stock lines in their application questionnaires which are presumably used to prevent people like Sian from enrolling, such as: "We do not admit people who are experiencing serious stress from outside events such as recent significant loss or bereavement, current depression or addiction(s)" and "Have you had any physical, psychiatric or emotional conditions or any addictions for which you have received treatment during the last five years?"
But for Sian and others, there may well be a course that’s willing to accept them. Shockingly, the counselling and psychotherapy profession in the UK is unregulated, meaning application processes are not standardised – and there’s money to be made by filling courses with students. As Brumby says, "the industry is ungoverned, [so] anyone can practise", which is a very different thing to saying that anyone has the ability to do it well.
Sian hopes to return to her counselling studies after taking a year out, buoyed by the knowledge that more life experience can only be a good thing. Ultimately, therapists are just people, and many admit to being 'broken' by the intensity of training and learning to build themselves back up.
While it's certainly not true that anyone can become a therapist, for anyone seriously considering it, it's powerful and rewarding work, deeply complex and ceaselessly challenging. But it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that therapy isn’t the only way to reach a greater level of self-understanding, and it’s certainly not the only way to give back to society and help others.