Counselling Psychology?

What is Counselling Psychology?

Counselling Psychology is a branch of applied professional psychology. It has its origins in the UK within the humanistic movement with influences from counselling psychology in the USA and European Psychotherapy on the one hand; and the science of psychology (cognitive, developmental, and social) on the other. Counselling psychologists work with people in a variety of settings from severe and enduring mental health services to those whom life has challenged and who are struggling to adapt to these changes. The focus is on working with an individually tailored psychological formulation of an individual’s difficulties to improve psychological functioning and well-being. Counselling psychologists understand diagnosis and the medical context to mental health problems and at the same time work with the individual’s unique subjective psychological experience to empower their recovery.

Counselling psychologists work across mental health care provision in health care settings such as hospitals (acute admissions, psychiatric intensive care, rehabilitation), health centres, the new IAPT services for people with anxiety and depression, community mental health teams (including home treatment teams), child and adolescent mental health services. They also work within private hospitals, independent private practice, forensic settings including prisons, in companies supporting people in business including with employee assistance programmes, the Third Sector, and in other public and private institutions.

The founding members of the profession of counselling psychology in the UK were socially and politically aware, questioning the underlying assumptions of the status quo within society with a distinctly anti-psychiatry approach. Their background was first and foremost in psychology but also in the models and thinking of counselling and psychotherapy. Much of this spirit continues to the present with questions from philosophy influencing counselling psychology.

The emphasis on the importance of humanist values in conjunction with a solid scientific evidence base for clinical practice can be seen in the following statement contained in the Professional Practice Guidelines for Counselling Psychology.

Counselling psychology has developed as a branch of professional psychological practice strongly influenced by human science research as well as the principal psychotherapeutic traditions.

Counselling psychology draws upon and seeks to develop phenomenological models of practice and enquiry in addition to that of traditional scientific psychology. It continues to develop models of practice and research which marry the scientific demand for rigorous empirical enquiry with a firm value base grounded in the primacy of the counselling or psychotherapeutic relationship. These models seek:

  • to engage with subjectivity and intersubjectivity, values and beliefs;
  • to know empathically and to respect first person accounts as valid in their own terms; to elucidate, interpret and negotiate between perceptions and world views but not to assume the automatic superiority of any one way of experiencing, feeling, valuing and knowing;
  • to be practice led, with a research base grounded in professional practice values as well as professional artistry;
  • to recognise social contexts and discrimination and to work always in ways that empower rather than control and also demonstrate the high standards of anti-discriminatory practice appropriate to the pluralistic nature of society today.

What does this mean in plain language?

  1. We concentrate on the self-reliance of the person with the problem.
  2. We work together with the person with the problem to understand the internal world and all its social pressures.
  3. We apply the best of scientific evidence and leading edge professional practice in the field to that healing relationship towards the goal of the client’s wellbeing.
  4. We seek to relate to the whole person with the problem, regardless of the way in which he or she may be perceived by wider society.

The core competences of counselling psychologists include psychological assessment, case formulation and the delivery of evidence-based therapies, the design and evaluation of therapy, management, research and development. They often work alongside other applied psychologists and mental health professionals (e.g. Medical, Nursing, Occupational Therapy) in health care settings and have a complementary skills-mix. Consultant psychologists in health care settings are frequently responsible for managing services, service development, clinical governance and providing clinical leadership [1]. 

[1] New Ways of Working for Applied Psychologists in Health and Social Care. The End of the Beginning. Summary Report. (2007).

What they do?

Counselling psychologists are a relatively new breed of professional applied psychologists concerned with the integration of psychological theory and research with therapeutic practice. The practice of counselling psychology requires a high level of self-awareness and competence in relating the skills and knowledge of personal and interpersonal dynamics to the therapeutic context.

Key tasks include:

  • Assessment, including assessment of mental health needs, risk assessment and psychological testing
  • Formulation (i.e. a psychological explanation of the genesis and maintenance of the psychological problem)
  • Planning and implementation of therapy
  • Report writing and record keeping
  • Evaluation of the outcome of therapy
  • Supervision and training of other psychologists
  • Multidisciplinary team work and team facilitation
  • Service and organisational development
  • Audit and evaluation
  • Research and development
  • Management of services

Where they work

Counselling psychologists work almost anywhere there are people. For instance, counselling psychologists are currently employed in industry, commerce, the prison service and in all layers of education from primary school to university. About half of all counselling psychologists are employed to do clinical work in health and social care settings. Other career paths can be found in teaching and research for academic bodies. Counselling psychologists can also practise privately as organisational consultants.

Who they work with

Counselling psychologists may work directly with individuals, couples, families and groups, or act as consultants.


The contents of this page are taken from the British Psychological society’s website


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