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Student Advice and Wellbeing

Choosing an External Counsellor

Introduction

This information has been prepared to guide students seeking a counsellor outside the SOAS counselling service.

It may be you want longer term counselling than the service is able to offer or you may prefer to see a counsellor who is external to the School. In some cases, e.g. where a student is concerned about their use of alcohol or recreational drugs, we may suggest an external agency with specific focus on these concerns.

There are many varied counsellors and counselling approaches. We hope this information will help you find the right person for you. The counsellors at SOAS also remain available to assist you in the process, if required.

Information available from SOAS counsellors

We have a range of information available about counselling centres and individuals in the London area and can make suggestions according to your needs, geographical considerations, counselling approach, cost etc. We do not provide a standard list as the range within London is too great for this to be practical. We will therefore discuss your specific circumstances with you to help in the process of selection. However at the end of the day, the choice will be yours, including whether you want to follow the suggestions or not!

Deciding on the ‘right’ counsellor

Practical considerations

Aspects of accessibility may affect your choice:

  •  Is the journey convenient? Counselling requires some commitment over time so can you imagine making the same journey, say once a week perhaps for several weeks or months? If you are likely to go in the evening imagine making the journey after dark
  • Do you need disabled access? Though many counselling centres will be accessible some centres and individual counsellors may not be
  • What is the cost? Generally individual counsellors charge more than counselling agencies. Low cost counselling is usually via community projects, voluntary sector centres, GP surgeries or counselling training institutes, though some individual counsellors offer a sliding scale according to income
  • How long might it take to get an appointment? Generally low cost centres are more likely to have a waiting list, due to demand. Find out how long you may have to wait, whether it is ‘first come first served’ or whether priority is given to more urgent circumstances.

Compatibility considerations

The relationship or rapport you are able to establish is also important as the quality of relationship itself is proven as an significant factor in the effectiveness of the counselling offered. Counsellors will be trained in different ways and this, as well as their personal style, will affect the way they relate to you.

  • Do you have confidence that this person can help you? The counsellor’s role is different to that of a friend or partner and the qualities that are important may also be different. You need to feel that you can trust this person with what may be sensitive or intimate information and feel you can be open with them. You need to feel that you will be treated with respect whatever you say.
  • Some counselling approaches involve the counsellor saying relatively little, especially about themselves. In other approaches the counsellor may share more of their own reactions and experiences. Some counsellors use creative forms in their counselling eg art, drama, music, movement. It is quite acceptable to ask the counsellor about their training and their approach so you have an idea of what to expect.
  • The setting of the room may also tell you something about how the person works. Some counsellors work in a very neutral room, others will have a room with a very personal style.
  • If the counsellor is from a different cultural, racial or language background to you do you feel they are able to relate to you and your life experience? The same question applies if you are gay or lesbian or if you have a disability. It may also apply where the difference is one of gender. Working across differences of these kinds can be stimulating and productive when you feel that all aspects of you are fully welcome and appreciated.
  • At the first meeting it is normal for the counsellor to outline what the arrangements will be eg cost, frequency of meeting, what happens if you arrive late, cancel a meeting or miss a meeting, how and when you can contact them between sessions, whether they offer open ended counselling or a specific number of meetings. This information should be provided clearly and unambiguously.
  • Generally speaking you need to pay attention to your gut feeling. After all this counselling is for you.

Professional considerations

Anyone can set up privately as a counsellor, or set up a counselling agency. While most GPs, like all universities and colleges will check the qualifications and training of counsellors they employ you need to feel able to ask for this information yourself. Relevant questions may include:

  • What training and qualifications does the counsellor have?
  • How much experience do they have and what kind of experience eg do they specialise in certain areas eg study related difficulties, couple work, alcohol/drug dependency or do they work with a range of concerns.
  • Are they accredited with or members of any of the professional bodies eg the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy or the UK Council for Psychotherapy. Accreditation ensures the person has a recognised level of training and competence. Membership of a professional association means there is an organisation you can turn to if you have cause for complaint for professional misconduct.
  • Do they have supervision? It is a requirement for counsellor accreditation in the UK for counsellors to see a supervisor – this is not their manager but a colleague with whom they meet regularly to discuss their work confidentially to ensure that they are working effectively and professionally.
  • What records do they keep and do they observe the Data Protection Act which means that you have access to any organised notes or information kept which concerns you, and that that information is kept secure and destroyed after an appropriate period.

Summary

You may not need or want to ask all these questions, or not necessarily at the first meeting but we hope they give you an idea of some of the things to think about when choosing a counsellor and to feel your own authority in making that choice. And of course they are equally relevant if you are thinking of using the SOAS Counselling Service! Above all give yourself time to choose and if you are at all unsure it is probably better to arrange to see another one or several counsellors before you commit yourself.