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counsellingIn the past, people have thought of counselling and psychotherapy as being only for 'serious' problems, or for 'crazy' people. Going to see a counsellor was often seen as a sign of weakness.

This could not be further from the truth, and people these days realise that talking to a counsellor about their problems can be a very positive experience. Counselling might also be called therapy or psychotherapy.

What is counselling?

The idea behind counselling has been around since people first started to use language. It is sharing problems in order to find solutions and receive some support. Most people get this sort of support from family and friends, but sometimes it is helpful to talk things out with someone who is not involved in a personal way.

Counselling usually takes place on a one-to-one basis.

  • A counsellor and client will normally sit with one another for an hour to discuss any issues the client has.
  • The process involves a 'getting to know you' period; just like any new relationship. The idea is for the client to see if the counselling style is suited to her and for the counsellor to see if she is the best person to help.
  • Many counselling services ask if the client would prefer a male or female counsellor. If they do not ask, you have the right to request either a male or female counsellor. This is all part of making the client as comfortable as possible.
  • The counsellor and client play an equal role in the counselling process. The counsellor may have had the training, but the client is the one who knows the most about their particular situation, so there is no 'expert' in a counselling relationship.

Going into a room with a stranger to talk about your problems can seem like a very scary experience, but the counsellor will be working towards making the process safe and supportive.

Who can be a counsellor?

Counsellors come from many different backgrounds. Some people have professional training in counselling, however, there are many people who use counselling in their daily work. Nurses, doctors, police and priests are people who perform some 'counselling' as part of their everyday interactions with people.

Currently there are no laws or regulations for people who register as a counsellor, which means anyone can legally claim to be a counsellor, even without any training. Because of this, it is very important to find out about a counsellor's background and training before starting to share your problems with them.

Here are some health care professionals with specific counselling training.

  • psychiatrists are medical doctors with advanced training in psychotherapy - they are also able to prescribe medications.
  • doctors who have a special interest and extra training in psychotherapy.
  • clinical psychologists who have a masters or doctorate level degree in psychology
  • social workers
  • some social science students, who may do counselling training as part of their university studies
  • some nurses whose training has included psychotherapy
  • some counsellors who have done professional counselling courses, eg. at university or through private organisations.

There are various pathways to counselling qualifications, including experience gained from a variety of life occupations. It is important to check what path a counsellor took to gain their title and check with others to see if they are qualified.

In South Australia, contact:

Counselling Association of South Australia Inc.
Phone: 08 8227 0456
Web site:


One great aspect of counselling is confidentiality - everything that is said to a counsellor will be kept private. This can make it easier for people who may be having trouble talking to family or friends.

There are times though when a counsellor must tell other people what has been said, due to safety and law requirements. Each counsellor or organisation will have some guidelines on what needs to be reported by law. These guidelines may be based on the age of the client. These guidelines or rules should be explained before counselling begins.

Here are some examples of times when a counsellor may need to reveal information:

  • when the client is in a situation of abuse
  • when the client is abusing someone else
  • if the client has been reported as missing
  • the counsellor is told about a major criminal activity that has not been reported
  • when required by a court of law - for example, when the client's records have been requested for a court case.

Types of counselling?

Typically, counselling involves talking about what ever is going on for the client. A counsellor will listen to the client and then attempt to help them come up with some solutions to their problem(s). This is the traditional one-to-one 'talking' counselling.

There are other techniques and styles of counselling though. Here are just a few.

  • Group work. Some services offer group programs. This is where more than one person shares within a group of people who have similar concerns. A trained counsellor or facilitator will guide the group. Confidentiality is very important, and this time the clients must also agree not to talk about the problems others discuss in the group. Sharing your experiences with people who have similar problems, or have experienced the same life events, can be a unifying and freeing experience.
  • Cognitive-behavioural therapy. This is a complicated way of describing something that is fairly simple. A counsellor helps a client recognise the patterns in their thoughts and behaviours that are not helpful. This usually involves the client in keeping written records.
  • Relaxation techniques. The counsellor may help the client learn ways to relax their mind and body.
  • Family or systems therapy. This is where the counsellor focuses on all the other things going on around the client. Usually more than one family member agrees to be involved and participate in the therapy. The counsellor and client try to discover the ways in which the environment the client is in affects their thoughts and actions.
  • Art and music therapy. This can include: drawing, sculpting, writing, and listening to music, to name a few examples. The client is encouraged to express themselves in other ways apart from speech.
  • On-line counselling. A new type of counselling has become possible due to the internet. Some web sites offer 'real time' online counselling. Others offer email responses to emailed questions.
  • Telephone counselling. Talking over the phone to a counsellor can be a good introduction to the counselling process. It can be easier to talk to someone when you are not in the same room. The telephone counsellor can also help you to work out what sort of face-to-face counselling would be best for your situation. In Australia, for urgent help there is Lifeline on 13 1114.

Why do people go to counselling?

Just as no two people's experiences are exactly the same, the reasons people go to counselling are never the same. Counselling is not only for people with 'big' problems. In fact, the problems people might feel are 'small' can sometimes turn out to be the start of something more serious – 'fixing' it early can help avoid the big problem. So counselling is for anyone who wants it, even if you are not really sure why you need support.

There are some things that seem to come up frequently in counselling, however. For young people these can include:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • relationship breakdown
  • drug and alcohol abuse
  • school difficulties
  • financial problems
  • body image

... to name a few.

If you feel you are managing OK with the problems you have, counsellors can help you to maintain this.

You can go to counselling even if you don't know what the problem is, as counsellors are also there to try and help you figure that out.

How long will it last?

When psychoanalytic counselling first started, it was performed over a long period – sometimes over years. When 'counselling' was done in family or tribal groups it was life-long! These days, counselling can take place over only a few weeks or months – or sometimes only one session! It is all up to the client and counsellor. When they feel like things have been properly addressed, the counselling will end.

The client has the right to end counselling at any time. If they do not feel comfortable with the counsellor, they can end the counselling right from the start. Counsellors understand that sometimes people are not suited to one another, or to a style of counselling, and so they will not take it personally if there is a request to see someone else.

How much will it cost?

Fees for counselling vary depending on the individual or organisation.

  • Some can be very expensive, but free counselling might be available in schools or universities and from some community health centres.
  • Some private counsellors offer a sliding scale form of payment - this means that the fee is dependant on what the person can afford to pay.
  • Many of the government-funded organisations offer free counselling.

It is important to ask around and find out how good a service or person is, and what type of counselling they offer.

What sort of counselling is the best?

There has been a lot of research to try and discover the answer to this question.

  • Many of the results seem to say that most of the major types of counselling are helpful. This depends on whether the counselling style and the counsellor are appropriate to address the needs of the person who is seeking support.
  • It is felt that certain techniques work well for some problems - for example, phobias (like being afraid of spiders) have had good success with cognitive-behavioural techniques. So it may be a good idea to get some advice on what sort of counselling you would be best suited to.
  • The counsellor should have an understanding of the client's background to increase their understanding of the issues presented. The client's language, culture and religious beliefs can all influence how they see the world and how the counselling should progress. It may be best to contact a counsellor or service that has the best understanding of the issues and culture you are coming from.
  • The relationship between the counsellor and client has been shown to be very important to the outcome of counselling. If the counsellor-client relationship is one of genuine care and openness, the counselling is usually more effective.

Making a complaint

If you have had a bad experience in counselling, you have the right to make a complaint. You can complain to the organisation the counsellor belongs to, or if it is a criminal matter, contact the police.

You may like to read about the rules counsellors are supposed to follow – their Code of Ethics. Each organisation, or individual, may have a different Code of Ethics. To check out The Code of Ethics for The Counselling Association of South Australia Inc,

Counselling is often seen as an 'extreme' way to deal with 'extreme' problems. The truth is: counselling is a positive way to get support and find solutions to problems, big or small.

  • Counselling can help you see your situation more clearly and give you the opportunity to talk about things that you have been finding hard to discuss.
  • Counsellors are normal people just like you. They will not try to 'label' you or make you feel stupid. They are usually caring people who are trained in listening to others.
  • If you feel you are not ready to jump into a counselling session you might like to talk to a counsellor on the telephone. This way you can ask them about the counselling process and get an idea of the way they work.



South Australia

You can search for services 'SA Community' 


Harris B &, Pattison S. 'Research on counselling children and young people: a systematic scoping review'. Rugby: British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, 2004.

McLeod J. 'An introduction to counselling.' McGraw Hill: Open University Press, 2009.

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Youth Healthline on 1300 13 17 19 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).
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