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Differences between Counselling and Helping Activities

Counselling and helping activities differ from one another. Counselling is a managed activity versus helping activities which are not necessarily managed.

As a definition of counselling, The British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP – the largest organisation in the UK that oversees counselling and counselling ethics) states that:

"Counselling takes place when a counsellor sees clients in a private and confidential setting to explore a difficulty the client is having, distress they may be experiencing, their dissatisfaction with life, or their loss of a sense of direction and purpose."

This needs to be at the request of the client: if someone is sent for counselling, this will not usually be very successful.

In short, people have to want to go to counselling in order to try to get an understanding of where they are in life and how best to tackle their problems.

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Shared Values of the Counselling and Helping Professions

Counselling and helping professions – for example, medicine and teaching – have certain shared values, but they do differ in significant respects.

For example, whether you go to a doctor, teacher or counsellor, you can expect:

  • to be treated with respect
  • to be able to hold the practitioner accountable if need be (e.g. if you wish to make a complaint, this would be handled in a professional and transparent way, and you would know the outcome of it)
  • to be listened to with empathy (i.e. trying to see things from your point of view) and without judgement
counselling and helping professions have certain shared values
  • to be seen by a qualified practitioner (or at least someone working towards the relevant qualification, in which case this would be made clear to you)
  • to be offered choices, based on your preferences and wishes
  • to have your information treated as confidential, within the definition used in that profession
  • to be able to count on the genuineness of what the practitioner says
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Different forms of helping relationships:

About Doctors

Doctors are qualified, have defined confidentiality, give advice, and can prescribe medication and/or surgical treatments.

They might need to refer you to other professionals – and therefore would need to share your personal details with them.

This is an essential part of you being able to complete your treatment program.

Doctors have limited time (enough to be able to see you, make a diagnosis and then decide on a course of treatment) and work to a medical code of ethics.

About Teachers

Meanwhile, teachers are educators.

Again, they are qualified or working towards a qualification in teaching.

They too have defined confidentiality – meaning that they share information about learners among other professionals.

They give advice, for example on how to prepare your work and how best to pass examinations.

Teachers have a code of practice, and again have limited time: in a classroom environment, they can often spend only a limited amount of time with an individual learner.

They have a defined role: to teach and assess educational support.

About Counsellors

Finally, counsellors are qualified in counselling or at least are in recognised training.

Their version of defined confidentiality is much narrower: there are certain things that they have to disclose but generally speaking they would not speak about you to other professionals unless you gave them specific permission to do so.

Also, counsellors do not give advice.

Plus, they contract with you – which means that they will talk to you about the length of sessions (likely to be much longer than you would get with a doctor), the number of sessions available, any cost implication, and what you can expect from therapy.

They will also tell you a bit about their professional background and way of working.

You choose to go to counselling – that is, you make an informed choice to go to see somebody with whom you can discuss feelings.

But if you were seeing a doctor or a teacher and they started to counsel you, asking about deep-seated emotions, this might feel inappropriate, partly perhaps because of the different definitions of confidentiality.

Counselling is a managed activity – in that counsellors go for regular supervision.

That is, they take their client work to a supervisor (somebody who is further on in their practice and qualified to supervise counsellors), in order to try to understand how they can better help you.

In counselling, the client leads the way, so the counsellor will accompany you wherever you want to go with your conversation.

The focus is on you sharing your emotions, and finding out what you want to do to change or maybe to accept.

You choose to go to counselling – that is, you make an informed choice to go to see somebody with whom you can discuss feelings.

But if you were seeing a doctor or a teacher and they started to counsel you, asking about deep-seated emotions, this might feel inappropriate, partly perhaps because of the different definitions of confidentiality.

You might not want to share your feelings with them, instead preferring to stick to the business of what you went to see them for.

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Counselling Codes of Ethics

Counsellors should always belong to a professional body; there are various of these that oversee ethics in counselling.

  • The BACP is the leading body for counselling and psychotherapy in the UK; many people who practise counselling are members.
  • Another professional body for counsellors is the National Counselling Society (NCS); this too has its own code of ethics.
  • There is also the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP).
  • In Scotland, COSCA is the professional body for counselling and psychotherapy.

Different forms of counselling and psychotherapy have different overseeing bodies.

For example, the International Transactional Analysis Association (ITAA) oversees practitioners of transactional analysis (TA).

Human givens therapy has its own organisation, the Human Givens Institute.

Psychologists, meanwhile, normally belong to the British Psychological Society.

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