Counselling is working out your personal problems with the help of a trained professional. The counsellor helps you to resolve your problems in a positive way by helping you to clarify the issues, explore options, develop strategies and increase self-awareness.
Everything you discuss with the counsellor is confidential, except in a small number of specific cases, such as where the counsellor is required by law to report a crime.
Anyone who is struggling with a personal concern can seek counselling. Common personal concerns include relationship difficulties, grief, difficult life circumstances, anxiety and depression.
If you would like to have counselling, you can:
Counselling or psychotherapy
Counselling usually refers to short-term treatment for a particular problem, such as difficulties in a marriage. Psychotherapy usually refers to longer-term treatment for complex issues that are having a negative effect on a person’s life. There can be a lot of overlap between the two approaches, depending on the needs of the person.
A counsellor is not a psychiatrist
A professional counsellor is not the same as a psychiatrist. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who has extra training specialising in mental health. A psychiatrist may offer talk-based therapy and can prescribe mood-altering medications to help manage the symptoms of mental illnesses such as severe depression or anxiety.
A counsellor is not a medical doctor and cannot prescribe medication of any kind. A trained counsellor is someone trained to offer a talk-based therapy. There are many different types of talk-based therapy. A counsellor may work in partnership with a medical doctor at times to give comprehensive and integrated care.
Professional qualifications of a counsellor
Do not assume that all counsellors are professionally qualified. There is no law in Australia that requires a person who provides a counselling service to have either qualifications or experience. This means that people without training or skills can call themselves counsellors or psychotherapists.
A trained counsellor has usually spent three or more years studying counselling at university, often at postgraduate level, or has an equivalent level of training in another accredited higher education institution.
The Australian Counselling Association (ACA) is the largest registration body for counsellors and psychotherapists in Australia. They provide a range of services, including representing their members to the government, offering professional development, and setting quality standards and ethical codes of practice.
The Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA) is another peak professional body that provides national standards for counsellors. Trained counselling professionals may include psychiatrists and psychologists who have counselling or psychotherapy training, and members of the professional associations linked with PACFA.
Questions to ask when choosing a counsellor
Before committing yourself to a particular counsellor you should:
- Ask for proof of their specialist training
- Find out how long they have been working as a counsellor
- Ask about their main fields of interest
- Ask for an estimate of fees. Some counsellors (for example, those who work in universities or community health centres) may be free, or may charge very low fees. Others may charge anywhere from $40 to $150 (or more) per hour. Keep in mind that the price may have no bearing on the quality of service.
You can only claim counselling fees on Medicare if you were referred to the counsellor by your doctor. You may be eligible for a partial rebate on your private health insurance, depending on your policy.
The first counselling session
Your first session will help you to decide whether this counsellor is the right one for you. Questions to ask yourself include:
- Do I feel comfortable?
- Am I able to talk freely about deeply personal thoughts and emotions?
- Is the counsellor paying attention to me?
- Do I feel they understand and respect me?
- Can I imagine seeing this person on a regular basis?
If you decide that the counsellor isn’t right for you, don’t go back. You are under no obligation to continue seeing a counsellor if you aren’t comfortable with them.
Number of counselling sessions
It is reasonable to ask the counsellor at the end of the first session for an estimate of how many sessions they think you will need. However, remember that this is only an estimate. Some problems can be successfully resolved in a few sessions. In other cases, talking about the particular problem with the counsellor may bring up deeper, unresolved issues that need further exploration.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- Your local community health centre
- Lifeline Tel. 13 11 14 (24 hours, 7 days)
- Mental Health Foundation of Australia (Victoria) Tel. (03) 9826 1422
- Australian Counselling Association Tel. (07) 3356 4255 or 1300 784 333
- PACFA: Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia – Register of psychotherapists and counsellors Tel. (03) 9486 3077
Things to remember
- Counselling is not only for people with mental health problems. Anyone who is struggling with a personal concern can seek counselling.
- A trained counsellor has usually studied counselling, psychotherapy or psychology at university level for between three and six years.
- You do not have to continue seeing a counsellor if you are not comfortable with them.
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
Relationships Australia Victoria
Page content currently being reviewed.
Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your doctor or other registered health professional. Content has been prepared for Victorian residents and wider Australian audiences, and was accurate at the time of publication. Readers should note that, over time, currency and completeness of the information may change. All users are urged to always seek advice from a registered health care professional for diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.