Talking therapies: the benefits & how to access them

We currently find ourselves in possibly the greatest mental health crisis, with cutbacks in mental health services across the board, from young people's services to psychiatric services in general all stripped back to a minimum. As a result, help for people who are suffering from depression, anxiety, work related stress or any other mental health issue can be difficult to find.

This background context adds to the vulnerability that individuals experience when they need psychological support. 

As a psychotherapist, counsellor and educator, I can confirm from my own clinical experien, the many studies that show us that talking therapies are often the key to finding our way back to full mental health again. One in 4 of us will need psychological support at some time during our lives according to current Mind statistics.

It is time to destigmatise this and accept that daily pressures of modern living, increasing demands on work roles and the stresses of balancing home and work life can sometimes lead us into emotional and psychological difficulties. For most of us, we will recover with a bit of specialist help- but we need to be brave enough to ask for it and seek it out.

What are the benefits of talking therapies?

Psychotherapy or counselling provides a safe, confidential and reflective space - whether on the phone or face to face, it can be a hugely beneficial experience - where both the therapist and client are both engaged in identifying the nature of the difficulties and challenges.

This then, can lead to establishing a healthy way forward by building and sustaining resilience and change. It is not an easy process because it is often painful, but it is a very worthwhile endeavour in helping us towards sustained recovery- regardless of whether our difficulties are mild or severe.

So how do we know what kind of therapist or counsellor to choose?

Psychotherapists will have a much more extensive training than counsellors. They will have had to undergo many years of psychotherapy themselves as patients or clients. Many counselling courses demand this as well, but not all of them. Broadly, psychotherapists tend to be interested in the unconscious forces that influence the decisions and choices we make about our lives.

Counsellors are more likely to focus on the presenting issues, rather than what might be underlying them. They are likely to be less attuned to unconscious motivations; that is not to say that counselling is less useful or beneficial- only that its exploration in the consulting room may not be as deep as the therapeutic encounter between the two individuals in the room and is likely to be less intense with the counsellor.

The relationship between therapist and client is regarded as critical. This is because, in a therapeutic encounter, the way in which the client relates to the therapist often provides clues to the way in which the client relates to others and is therefore material that maybe used in the sessions since it may shed light on some of the client's difficulties.

For example, does the client always turn up early or late? Is the client always trying to please the therapist? Does the client get easily angry or withdrawn when the therapist asks probing questions? This is the stuff of therapy and can be extremely helpful in the insights it provides about the client's thinking or behaviour; and in the long-term changes, it can consequently bring about.

Also, psychotherapy takes place at least once a week. Many counsellors are happy to see their clients less often, and therefore, the process is much less intense.

What works for some people does not work for others.It is important to shop around for a good fit between yourself and the counsellor or therapist you choose.

What help is available?

Many people turn, in the first instance, to their doctors. This is certainly a good place to start. However, doctors are often very short of time, and are most likely to prescribe medication. Whilst this can be useful, it is not always the answer. GPs can also refer you for up to six sessions of short-term Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) but there are often long waiting lists for this.  In statutory terms there is little more on offer at the current time- and GPs themselves seldom have specialist training in mental health.

However, the situation is not bleak. There are many therapies available. There are a number of low-cost psychotherapy and counselling clinics available nationally.

You can also refer yourself to the free Education Support Partnership helpline, where you will speak to a qualified counsellor. This is a very worthwhile service because many teachers and lecturers in the education sector often find it difficult to know where to go when in a professional or personal crisis, or how to support other staff who may need similar help.

A number of schools and colleges have access to face-to-face counselling via employee assistance programmes, so it is well worth enquiring with whoever is responsible for Human Resources or Personnel in your school, college or university to find out if this is something they offer.

How to find a counsellor or therapist?

The market place is full of good clinicians as well as those who have done short courses and set themselves up with far less experience.

So, if you are looking for someone privately be sure to ask them where they have trained and what their qualifications and experience are.

So, if you are struggling, finding life difficult professionally or personally, feeling overwhelmed or anxious - common features of working in the current overstretched education sector - don't struggle alone.

It takes courage, but seek help and start talking about it to professionals who are trained to help you find a way through and resolve your difficulties.

Bev Gold has worked in psychiatric services, GP practices, the college and university sectors as lecturer, psychotherapist and counsellor and is currently in private practice in Cambridge, where she lives.