Counsellors help people deal with life issues or crises, and provide a supportive, safe space for clients to talk about the challenges they’re experiencing.
The demand for counsellors is expected to grow by 14.2%, or 3500 jobs, in the five years to 2026.
Almost half are employed in health care and social assistance, just over one-third in education and training, and almost five per cent in government positions.
Although counselling and psychology may overlap in therapy, training and registration of the two professions are markedly different.
The counselling profession is self-regulated, so a qualification isn’t mandatory, but training in mental health will give you the skills you need to make a real difference in your clients’ lives. A qualification will also set you apart from your peers, and allow you to take out professional indemnity and public liability insurance – important considerations for all health professionals, especially in private practice. If you’re applying for counselling roles, you may also find employers prefer registration with peak professional organisations.
The many types of counsellors include school counsellors, family counsellors, rehabilitation counsellors, veterans’ counsellors, financial counsellors, drug and alcohol counsellors.
”Counselling can be invaluable to assist with life’s ups and downs: when we are not clinically unwell but we are struggling, for example, with relationship problems, grief, illness in the family, or work issues,” says Dr Sarah Francis, psychologist and CEO of Melbourne Mindfulness Institute.
Psychology is a regulated profession (requiring registration with Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Authority) that requires qualification to Masters or PhD level. Psychologists are scientifically trained and have conducted research as part of their training. They are also trained in various types of assessment: intelligence, personality, psychological distress (e.g. depression, anxiety, stress). Psychologists may be specially trained in particular fields, for example neuropsychology, clinical psychology, forensic psychology, educational psychology, health psychology, sports psychology.
A psychologist may use counselling; in fact, some specialist counsellors are qualified psychologists. Those looking for help with difficulties can choose to find a counsellor or a psychologist – when choosing who to consult, speciality, availability and cost will be factors to consider.
Cost is often an important factor for clients. Medicare only provides a rebate for some counsellors, making private practice less viable than working for an employer. (Some private extras health insurance partially covers counsellors registered with peak professional organisations.)
Jobs for counsellors in Australia
Most counsellors work with clients short-term for a specific problem, using talk-based techniques, so clients can either reach their own resolutions or develop strategies to tackle their concerns.
Counsellors may specialise in counselling for relationships, crisis and trauma, drug and alcohol use, conflict resolution, stress management, or grief and loss; or specialise in specific age groups.
Some work environments for counsellors:
- Health care: employed by community health, private practice and public hospitals
- Aged care: working with patients and families
- Disability: counselling patients, carers and families
- Education: working for universities, and independent and government schools
As awareness of mental health grows, demand for counselling and its skills is keeping pace, with a 56% increase between 2020 and 2021 in job postings, according to Burning Glass. Many roles can benefit from the counselling skills of active and empathetic listening, relationship building, summing up, conflict resolution and nonverbal communication.
If you are a team leader, human resources manager or teacher, or a youth, social, aged-care or mental-health worker, acquiring a counselling qualification may boost your employability.
The salary for counsellor jobs in Australia in 2021–2022 averaged $106,000 (mean) or $94,000 (median) according to Burning Glass.
A day in the life of a counsellor
Alice Coyle is a part-time college counsellor and maintains a private counselling practice.
Alice trained as a nurse in Melbourne then moved to London, training and practising as a midwife for 19 years. Counselling skills became an integral part of her practice. She gained a bachelor’s in anthropology then left midwifery to obtain a master’s in therapeutic counselling and work as a full-time counsellor. Alice has always been inquisitive about what makes people tick.
“This was a natural progression,” she says. Returning to Australia, she worked with Marie Stopes Australia, providing unbiased, decision-based pregnancy-related counselling to women and their support people, while continuing to practise privately. Back in the UK, she began work as student counsellor at London’s Central Film School in 2021, splitting her time between face-to-face sessions at the college and online counselling from home.
Her high level of qualifications has given her the skills to deal with a range of issues much more complex than is normal for a counsellor, so in her general counselling she deals with depression and anxiety, bereavement, family and birth issues, making transitions, and careers.
Establishing trust is critically important: “Trust plus rapport is what we call the therapeutic alliance.” As an integrative counsellor, Alice is not only concerned with what works, but why it works, tailoring therapy to each client, rather than the client to the therapy. Other counsellors may use only one therapeutic method in their work.
Alice’s students are local and international, aged 18 to 32: “I deal with all the issues of young adults trying to find their place in this world.” Concerns range from interpersonal relationships to financial stressors and a particularly sensitive area: past trauma.
COVID-19 and lockdowns have caused a particularly difficult time for students. “The fallout continues: isolation, missing out on learning social skills, homesickness, no casual work available.”
Brexit has exacerbated problems by devastating work prospects in the film and arts sector. “The lack of screenwriting and filmmaking jobs and opportunities means many fear for their futures.” Alice begins by identifying and testing different strategies for each individual. ”I help students identify their core values and learn to set the boundaries necessary to protect these. I teach the importance of self-care.”
Challenges and solutions
Common challenges are last-minute cancellations and requests, and study timetable changes. “Also, the chaotic lifestyles common in this age group. When a student is distressed, it is important to get in touch with them as soon as possible. Some universities have a waiting list of six to 10 weeks for counselling. This can feel like a lifetime to a student.” Alice doesn’t set a rigid appointment schedule or limit the number of sessions. “I emphasise the collaborative nature of the work. This lessens the number of no-shows.”
Usually, Alice helps students get back on track. They learn to manage anxiety and depression and become more confident in setting their boundaries, leading to healthier relationships and social interactions.
One mature student was anxious about starting tertiary study. Throughout their first year, they worked with Alice through issues around social anxiety, fear of presenting to groups, struggling to find and set boundaries, and never experiencing recognition or praise for their work. By the end of the year, this student was one of the top students on their course. They now believe they would not have stayed on the course without the support of counselling.
In any workplace, counselling may be challenging. Hearing difficult experiences and dealing with clients reliving traumatic experiences can be emotionally demanding. It is important to set aside judgement and biases, know where responsibility ends, and maintain healthy boundaries with clients.
Using technology in counselling
Telehealth – the use of videoconferencing technologies – makes counselling much more accessible to vulnerable groups, as well as people in remote or small communities, and those isolated by COVID-19. Focusing on the client’s needs means using technologies that the client feels most comfortable with.
Alice’s college uses Google Suite. “Online sessions are via Google Meet. In collaboration with the individual client, we will have the camera on or off. Appointments are made via Google Calendar and alerts set up for 10 minutes, one hour and 24 hours. “I have a dedicated work mobile and SMS is available for last-minute messages, such as traffic holdups, reminders to students who have slept in, and also for sessions by phone as a back-up for internet glitches. “We have a Virtual Learning Environment (Google Classroom) with a Student Counselling section. Students can access the application form, which is emailed directly to me, and a collection of resources I have developed. “So I am able to be flexible in setting appointments, following up clients and being accessible to them. If I refer to a technique or strategy during a session, I can follow up afterwards via email.”
Alice now uses Feedback Informed Treatment, where each session starts with a client assessing how they have fared since the last session. At the end of the session they assess how well the counsellor and the session went for them.
How to become a counsellor
Registering as a qualified counsellor with Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia or Australian Counselling Association involves completing an accredited course of study, ranging from a diploma to a master’s, and achieving a minimum number of hours of work placement, as well as ongoing supervision.
“Supervision is what differentiates a qualified counsellor from a coach or a mentor,” says Dr Francis. This protects the client and ensures the counsellor is continuing to develop both professionally and personally, as well as gatekeeping for those entering the profession.
“Choose a course incredibly carefully,” Alice advises. “Look for ‘the three-legged stool’: personal development, clinical practice and solid theory.” With the average age of counsellors 45, counselling is a profession where life experience is valued. Many people, like teachers, nurses and HR managers, switch to counselling for more work–life balance, meaningful work, flexibility, strong job prospects or new challenges.
Have an impact on your community
If you have a desire to make a difference and help people through life’s challenges, counselling could be for you. All set to look into postgraduate study in counselling? Explore a range of counselling degrees from Australian Universities including graduate certificates, graduate diplomas and masters and speak to a Student Advisor to take the next step in your counselling career.