I have recently begun to take my first, tentative steps down the long and rather complex path to a qualification in psychotherapy. When I first began to consider it as a potential future career, I knew very little about the possible different training routes, or even the basics of what they involved. At the time, I was seeing my former therapist twice a week and so of course I knew someone who had been through the training and was therefore in an ideal position to offer me help and guidance. In fact, it took me several months before I felt able to discuss my interest in the other seat in the consulting room with her, and I undertook my initial research independently. 

On the simplest level, I wanted my ideas to be clear in my own mind before I shared them with anyone else. I suppose I also felt that revealing my interest in pursuing a career in psychotherapy meant revealing quite how much of an impact our relationship had had on me. Not that this was something I was reluctant to discuss with her, and I often did. Nonetheless, revealing that psychotherapy has had such a profound effect on you that you would like to develop the skills to enable you to offer the same kind of support to other people is quite a statement. Finally, I was also wary of discussing my ideas with my therapist for fear that she might not think it was the right choice for me. I worried that she might feel that I was not self-aware or secure enough to be able to undertake the emotionally and intellectually rigorous training required to pursue a career in the field of psychotherapy. In the event, when I did finally share my (then still very vague) plans with her, she was incredibly supportive and encouraging.

My initial exploration of possible routes into psychotherapy revealed, perhaps not surprisingly, that the training is both time-consuming and expensive. Discouraged by both of these factors, uncertain as to how the training would work alongside my current job and perhaps still needing time to decide that it really was an option I wanted to pursue, I initially put my half-formed ideas on hold. I returned to them in the latter half of last year, when my therapist of seventeen years retired. It was a very difficult time for me, but also one that served as a catalyst for a number of changes in my life. It made me acutely aware of how valuable my own therapy sessions thus far had been, of the transformation they had brought about in my self-awareness, and also in my ability to support others emotionally and to show empathy.  It seemed logical and the right time to reconsider the idea of training to be a psychotherapist. I was still not clear how it could work in practice, but felt that I owed it to myself fully to explore all possible avenues, not least since this process in itself would help me determine quite how committed to the idea I actually was.

When thinking about training as a psychotherapist, it is first important to be clear on what the role actually entails. The first distinction on which to be clear is that between psychotherapy and counselling. While counselling may be offered as part of the psychotherapy process and a counsellor may work with clients in a psychotherapeutic manner, time frame is a crucial difference between counselling and psychotherapy. In general terms, counselling tends to be a brief treatment and often focuses on particular patterns of behaviour, and what is happening in the present. Psychotherapy focuses on working with clients in the longer term, and builds on insights gathered from discussions around emotional problems and difficulties. In terms of training, the requirements of each vary considerably, although it is possible to qualify as a counsellor while training to be a psychotherapist or to pursue further study in psychotherapy having already gained a qualification in counselling.

Useful first points of call when investigating training routes are the websites of the two professional bodies that offer accreditation to psychotherapists and counsellors. These are the UKCP - the UK Council for Psychotherapy - and the BACP - the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. Both offer lists of accredited training organisations. This accreditation guarantees that the training adheres to their ethical principles and high training standards. Once qualified, a counsellor or psychotherapist is able to belong to the relevant professional body, which is incredibly useful when applying for jobs and also when posting details in online directories. Many people who are new to therapy know very little about the type of counselling or psychotherapy that might suit them best - though websites such as welldoing.org can offer valuable guidance - but accreditation by a professional body gives potential clients reassurance about a practitioner’s training and qualifications. This is particularly important since therapists and counsellors are not required to register with either organisation, which means in effect that anyone can call themselves a counsellor or psychotherapist, irrespective of the training they may have undertaken.

In terms of training, the requirements of each body reflect the usual distinction between the commitment required to train as a counsellor or as a psychotherapist. Professional counsellor training usually takes between three and five years and can be at diploma or degree level. There are numerous theories that underpin counselling, and all training courses list their theoretical approaches, enabling potential applicants to make an informed choice. There are a few main categories of approach. These are: psychoanalytic / psychodynamic, which believes a person’s issues are rooted in the past; transpersonal, which is more spiritually focused; cognitive and behavioural, which are more practical approaches, focused on the relationship between feelings and behaviour; humanistic, which considers that a person’s issues are rooted in their environment, and integrative, which takes a blended approach depending on what suits the client. A qualification in psychotherapy is at post-graduate level, can take five years or more and usually leads to a masters degree. With both counselling and psychotherapy qualifications, academic study is only one element of the course. Students are required to undertake personal counselling or psychotherapy for the duration for their course, with a professional whose approach is compatible with the particular course of study being undertaken. Students also begin to see their own clients once their institution considers that they are ready to do so, and are then supervised by an experienced professional - who provides support for the client work and also writes regular reports on the individual student’s progress. Some courses also require students to undertake additional voluntary work with an appropriate provider - such as The Samaritans or a bereavement charity - either prior to or after beginning to train.

Many training institutions run open days and taster sessions. These give prospective students the opportunity to get a real sense of how the courses work and of the time commitment involved. This is particularly important since most courses are held on a weekday and so preclude students from continuing to work full-time. Give the costs involved in training, this is a significant consideration to bear in mind. Most courses also require prospective students to complete some kind of Foundation or introductory course as a precursor to professional training. These courses provide students with a vital introduction to the fields of psychotherapy and counselling in which they are intending to undertake further study. Students develop a basic grasp of the key aspects of psychotherapy and counselling theory, develop their skills in these areas, and are also challenged to increase their own self-awareness and their capacity to relate to and interact with others in a counselling context. At the open days I attended, one course facilitator explicitly stated that the vast majority of the trainees on their post-graduate psychotherapy course have completed the foundation course run by the same institution. What this means in effect is that very few, if any, places can then be offered to external applicants. This is something else to bear in mind when choosing a training body and a foundation course.

The best advice I could give to someone thinking about training to become a psychotherapist or counsellor - the position that I myself am currently in - is to attend as many open days as possible and to ask as many questions as possible. On one open day I attended, the facilitator placed us in the position of clients and gave us practical examples of how a psychotherapist might engage with them, depending on his or her particular theoretical approach. As someone whose experience of psychotherapy has been exclusively psychodynamic/ psychotherapeutic, I found this incredibly useful. It helped me rule out approaches that definitely did not appeal and identify those which merited further exploration. I have also had the opportunity to meet current and former students, to talk to course tutors and to look at the potential schedule of the training courses I am considering, to understand how they would sit alongside my current job. As a result of all my research, I applied for and just this week was accepted onto a Foundation course at The Minster Centre in London. I am excited, slightly overwhelmed at the reading list, but looking forward to getting started and to having the opportunity to work out whether psychotherapy training is definitely the next, logical step that I hope it is.