How to become a counsellor: duties, qualifications and jobs

Updated 29 August 2022

A counsellor helps clients to recognise the origins of their mental health concerns, before conceiving ways to overcome them. In this role, you might use your expert knowledge to help clients live more fulfilled lives. By learning more about a counsellor's responsibilities, you can decide whether you're interested in pursuing this career. In this article, we explain how to become a counsellor, offering details about your typical duties, certifications you might earn and six different career options.

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How to become a counsellor

To answer the question 'how to become a counsellor', it's useful to understand the duties typically associated with the position. As a counsellor, you might help clients to cope better with mental health issues, such as anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder or depression. You may also encourage clients to set achievable weekly goals, so they can gradually build up their self-esteem without feeling overwhelmed. You act as a receptacle for the client, both listening to their problems and devising solutions to help overcome them.

The list below details the core responsibilities of a counsellor:

  • using talking therapies to help clients to understand their problems

  • helping clients come to terms with upsetting experiences, such as a parent's death, childhood trauma or military service

  • helping clients to become happier and more confident in their own lives

  • explaining different therapy options to clients, so they can choose the best one for their needs

  • advising clients on their future, such as career options or relationships

  • being non-judgemental about a client's concerns

  • ensuring your client feels safe and comfortable at all times

Related: The detailed guide on how to become a counsellor

What certifications might you earn to begin a counselling career?

Before you begin working as a counsellor, It's useful to earn several academic and professional certifications. These qualifications offer legal proof that you're a mental health specialist, able to treat people with varying conditions. The list below details several core certifications you might earn to begin a counselling career:

1. Earn a bachelor's degree

You might firstly enrol on an undergraduate course in a related subject, such as psychology, nursing or social work. You use such programmes to begin building up technical knowledge related to counselling. Employers often consider a bachelor's degree a bare minimum when assessing job applications. If you hope to work on a freelance basis, you could better prove your credentials to customers by possessing an undergraduate qualification.

Many British universities offer degrees relevant to a counselling career. For example, at the Open University, you can study for a Bachelor of Psychology (With Counselling). Here you can learn about different theories and academic debates concerning good counselling practice, alongside how to apply them to practical work. You can enrol on this course with no prior qualifications in psychology, studying on a part-time basis. If you already hold A-Levels in psychology and two other subjects, you can instead study at a traditional institution.

Related: What is a degree in psychology? (Plus skills and careers)

2. Earn a postgraduate degree

If you aim to perform more niche roles, it's important to also earn a postgraduate degree. Here you can start to gain skills useful to a specific professional specialism, such as family or behavioural therapy. You can then compete for more high-paid positions. Alternatively, you can use the more niche technical knowledge and a focus on independent study to prepare for life as a freelancer.

Many UK-based institutions offer postgraduate courses relevant to counselling. For example, the University of Greenwich offers a three-year Master in Therapeutic Counselling course. Here you learn about different counselling theories, alongside how you can adapt these theories to different cultural contexts.

Related: How to become a cognitive behavioural therapist in 7 steps

3. Earn professional certifications

After graduating from university, you might consider earning professional certifications in your own time, to further enhance your CV. By earning these certifications, you can stand out against rival providers, increasing your chances of securing new customers. When working for a firm or charity, you might use these attributes to show a commitment to self-improvement, potentially securing promotion as a result.

You can enrol on a training scheme to become a registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. You might do so by earning the institute's Certificate of Proficiency. During your studies, you undertake an online multiple-choice assessment, covering core principles of good counselling practice. Upon registering, you're officially recognised as a high-quality practitioner.

Related: The importance of upskilling

What skills might you acquire to begin a counselling career?

Besides your education, it's also important that you possess certain soft skills useful for a counselling career. You can build up these skills at university, through volunteering and work experience.

The list below details several skills you might try to acquire:

  • Empathy: You might encourage clients to discuss their problems more openly if you appear genuinely interested in their plight.

  • Communication: It's important to effectively communicate therapy options to clients, to ensure they can choose the option best for them.

  • Critical thinking: You use this skill to adapt established counselling methods to your client's unique circumstances.

  • Organisation: You can uphold client satisfaction by preparing for therapy sessions in advance.

  • Confidence: It's important to have faith in your judgement, to ensure you make decisions in your client's interests.

Related: What are critical thinking skills and how are they used?

Salary information for counsellors

The national average salary for a counsellor is £30,951 per year. You might increase your income by building up greater professional skills further and work experience. For example, if you're a trained child counsellor, you might earn an above-average salary. This figure reflects the additional certifications and background checks you might complete to access this position. External factors can also influence income, such as your location, employer or specific work duties.

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What careers can you pursue as a counsellor?

You can pursue a range of careers in counselling, depending on your professional interests, prior experience and key skills. The section below details six careers you might pursue as a counsellor, alongside their average salaries:

1. Licensed clinical social worker

National average salary: £32,586 per year

Primary duties: A licensed clinical social worker helps individuals to overcome mental health concerns caused by deprivation, such as addiction. They can help victims to overcome problems by analysing their root causes. They may also help to repair family relationships ruined by these issues, to encourage a more harmonious home life in the future. They might also help disadvantaged children to overcome their problems, such as school truancy or behavioural concerns.

Related: 13 essential social worker skills

2. Mental health technician

National average salary: £34,256 per year

Primary duties: A mental health technician might care for hospital patients with long-term mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia or psychosis. They may oversee routine elements of care, such as administering medication or assessing changes to a patient's mental state. They might also produce written reports detailing a patient's current situation, to help doctors devise long-term treatment plans.

3. Therapist

National average salary: £35,863 per year

Primary duties: Therapists help their clients to overcome more entrenched mental health issues, such as childhood trauma or intrusive thoughts. They might train individuals to react differently to stressful situations, using cognitive techniques to end maladaptive behaviours. For example, a therapist might teach clients to use breathing or meditation techniques in stressful situations, to prevent their thoughts from spiralling. They also anticipate future stresses, helping clients to be more resilient in pressing circumstances, such as sudden unemployment or if a parent dies.

4. Clinical therapist

National average salary: £43,887 per year

Primary duties: Clinical therapists often possess a degree of medical training, so that they may diagnose a patient's condition and recommend treatment options. They might conduct risk assessments, to determine whether a patient is a suicide risk. Clinical therapists often specialise in helping a particularly at-risk group, such as children, victims of crime or the elderly. They can work for a wide range of organisations, such as hospitals, social services or charities.

Related: What's the difference between clinical and counselling psychology?

5. Behavioural therapist

National average salary: £42,111 per year

Primary duties: A behavioural therapist often focuses on helping clients to change their self-destructive actions, such as impulsive sexual activity or alcohol addiction. They may help clients to identify psychological triggers, before developing strategies to combat these thoughts more productively. For example, if a client wishes to reduce their alcohol consumption, a behavioural therapist may use exposure techniques to make a situation less stressful. The client might then feel less inclined to drink alcohol to soothe their feelings.

Related: 10 essential counsellor skills

6. Family therapist

National average salary: £46,235 per year

Primary duties: A family therapist works with couples or extended groups to process family-centric issues, such as divorces, a child's behaviour or bereavement. They might ask each individual to complete an assessment, to understand how they can best support the entire family. They may also see every family member at once, to ensure every issue is fully discussed. If possible, they might then explore ways to move forward without breaking down the relationship. If they're working with children, family therapists might adapt activities to suit their needs.

Please note that none of the companies mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

Salary figures reflect data listed on Indeed Salaries at time of writing. Salaries may vary depending on the hiring organisation and a candidate's experience, academic background and location.

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