What is Counselling Psychology?


Counselling psychology is a psychological specialty that encompasses research and applied work in several broad domains: counselling process and outcome; supervision and training; career development and counselling; and prevention and health. Some unifying themes among counselling psychologists include a focus on assets and strengths, person-environment interactions, educational and career development, brief interactions, and a focus on intact personalities.

Brief History

The term “counselling” is of American origin, coined by Carl Rogers, who, lacking a medical qualification was prevented from calling his work psychotherapy. In the US, counselling psychology, like many modern psychology specialties, started as a result of World War II. During the war, the US military had a strong need for vocational placement and training. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Veterans Administration created a specialty called “counselling psychology”, and Division 17 (now known as the Society for Counselling Psychology) of the APA was formed. The Society of Counselling Psychology unites psychologists, students and professionals who are dedicated to promote education and training, practice, scientific investigation, diversity and public interest in the field of professional psychology. This fostered interest in counsellor training, and the creation of the first few counselling psychology PhD programmes. The first counselling psychology PhD programmes were at the University of Minnesota; Ohio State University; University of Maryland, College Park; University of Missouri; Teachers College, Columbia University; and University of Texas at Austin.

In recent decades, counselling psychology as a profession has expanded and is now represented in numerous countries around the world. Books describing the present international state of the field include the Handbook of Counselling and Psychotherapy in an International Context; the International Handbook of Cross-Cultural Counselling; and Counselling Around the World: An International Handbook. Taken together these volumes trace the global history of the field, explore divergent philosophical assumptions, counselling theories, processes, and trends in different countries, and review a variety of global counsellor education programmes. Moreover, traditional and indigenous treatment and healing methods that may predate modern counselling methods by hundreds of years remain of significance in many non-Western and Western countries.

Employment and Salary

Counselling psychologists are employed in a variety of settings depending on the services they provide and the client populations they serve. Some are employed in colleges and universities as teachers, supervisors, researchers, and service providers. Others are employed in independent practice providing counselling, psychotherapy, assessment, and consultation services to individuals, couples/families, groups, and organisations. Additional settings in which counselling psychologists practice include community mental health centres, Veterans Administration medical centres and other facilities, family services, health maintenance organisations, rehabilitation agencies, business and industrial organisations and consulting within firms.

The amount of training required for psychologists differs based on the country in which they are practicing. Typically, a psychologist completes an Undergraduate Degree followed by 5-6 years of further study and/or training, leading to the Ph.D. While both psychologists and psychiatrists offer counselling, psychiatrists must possess a medical degree and thus are able to prescribe medication where psychologists are not.

Process and Outcome

Counselling psychologists are interested in answering a variety of research questions about counselling process and outcome. Counselling process refers to how or why counselling happens and progresses. Counselling outcome addresses whether or not counselling is effective, under what conditions it is effective, and what outcomes are considered effective – such as symptom reduction, behaviour change, or quality of life improvement. Topics commonly explored in the study of counselling process and outcome include therapist variables, client variables, the counselling or therapeutic relationship, cultural variables, process and outcome measurement, mechanisms of change, and process and outcome research methods. Classic approaches appeared early in the US in the field of humanistic psychology by Carl Rogers who identified the mission of counselling interview as “to permit deeper expression that the client would ordinarily allow himself”

Therapist Variables

Therapist variables include characteristics of a counsellor or psychotherapist, as well as therapist technique, behaviour, theoretical orientation and training. In terms of therapist behaviour, technique and theoretical orientation, research on adherence to therapy models has found that adherence to a particular model of therapy can be helpful, detrimental, or neutral in terms of impact on outcome.

A recent meta-analysis of research on training and experience suggests that experience level is only slightly related to accuracy in clinical judgement, Higher therapist experience has been found to be related to less anxiety, but also less focus. This suggests that there is still work to be done in terms of training clinicians and measuring successful training.

Client Variables

Client characteristics such as help-seeking attitudes and attachment style have been found to be related to client use of counselling, as well as expectations and outcome. Stigma against mental illness can keep people from acknowledging problems and seeking help. Public stigma has been found to be related to self-stigma, attitudes towards counselling, and willingness to seek help.

In terms of attachment style, clients with avoidance styles have been found to perceive greater risks and fewer benefits to counselling, and are less likely to seek professional help, than securely attached clients. Those with anxious attachment styles perceive greater benefits as well as risks to counselling. Educating clients about expectations of counselling can improve client satisfaction, treatment duration and outcomes, and is an efficient and cost-effective intervention.

Counselling Relationship

The relationship between a counsellor and client is the feelings and attitudes that a client and therapist have towards one another, and the manner in which those feelings and attitudes are expressed. Some theorists have suggested that the relationship may be thought of in three parts: transference and countertransference, working alliance, and the real – or personal – relationship. Other theorists argue that the concepts of transference and countertransference are outdated and inadequate.

Transference can be described as the client’s distorted perceptions of the therapist. This can have a great effect on the therapeutic relationship. For instance, the therapist may have a facial feature that reminds the client of their parent. Because of this association, if the client has significant negative or positive feelings toward their parent, they may project these feelings onto the therapist. This can affect the therapeutic relationship in a few ways. For example, if the client has a very strong bond with their parent, they may see the therapist as a father or mother figure and have a strong connection with the therapist. This can be problematic because as a therapist, it is not ethical to have a more than “professional” relationship with a client. It can also be a good thing, because the client may open up greatly to the therapist. In another way, if the client has a very negative relationship with their parent, the client may feel negative feelings toward the therapist. This can then affect the therapeutic relationship as well. For example, the client may have trouble opening up to the therapist because they lack trust in their parent (projecting these feelings of distrust onto the therapist).

Another theory about the function of the counselling relationship is known as the secure-base hypothesis, which is related to attachment theory. This hypothesis proposes that the counsellor acts as a secure base from which clients can explore and then check in with. Secure attachment to one’s counsellor and secure attachment in general have been found to be related to client exploration. Insecure attachment styles have been found to be related to less session depth than securely attached clients.

Cultural Variables

Counselling psychologists are interested in how culture relates to help-seeking and counselling process and outcome. Standard surveys exploring the nature of counselling across cultures and various ethnic groups include Counselling Across Cultures by Paul B. Pedersen, Juris G. Draguns, Walter J. Lonner and Joseph E. Trimble, Handbook of Multicultural Counseling by Joseph G. Ponterotto, J. Manueal Casas, Lisa A. Suzuki and Charlene M. Alexander and Handbook of Culture, Therapy, and Healing by Uwe P. Gielen, Jefferson M. Fish and Juris G. Draguns. Janet E. Helms’ racial identity model can be useful for understanding how the relationship and counselling process might be affected by the client’s and counsellor’s racial identity. Recent research suggests that clients who are Black are at risk for experiencing racial micro-aggression from counsellors who are White.

Efficacy for working with clients who are lesbians, gay men, or bisexual might be related to therapist demographics, gender, sexual identity development, sexual orientation, and professional experience. Clients who have multiple oppressed identities might be especially at-risk for experiencing unhelpful situations with counsellors, so counsellors might need help with gaining expertise for working with clients who are transgender, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender people of colour, and other oppressed populations.

Gender role socialisation can also present issues for clients and counsellors. Implications for practice include being aware of stereotypes and biases about male and female identity, roles and behaviour such as emotional expression. The APA guidelines for multicultural competence outline expectations for taking culture into account in practice and research.

Counselling Ethics and Regulation

Perceptions on ethical behaviours vary depending upon geographical location, but ethical mandates are similar throughout the global community. Ethical standards are created to help practitioners, clients and the community avoid any possible harm or potential for harm. The standard ethical behaviours are centred on “doing no harm” and preventing harm.

Counsellors cannot share any confidential information that is obtained through the counselling process without specific written consent by the client or legal guardian except to prevent clear, imminent danger to the client or others, or when required to do so by a court order. Insurance companies or government programmes will also be notified of certain information about your diagnosis and treatment to determine if your care is covered. Those companies and government programmes are bound by HIPAA to keep that information strictly confidential.

Counsellors are held to a higher standard than most professionals because of the intimacy of their therapeutic delivery. Counsellors are not only to avoid fraternising with their clients. They should avoid dual relationships, and never engage in sexual relationships.

Counsellors are to avoid receiving gifts, favours, or trade for therapy. In some communities, it may be avoidable given the economic standing of that community. In cases of children, children and the mentally handicapped, they may feel personally rejected if an offering is something such as a “cookie”. As counsellors, a judgement call must be made, but in a majority of cases, avoiding gifts, favours, and trade can be maintained.

The National Board for Certified Counsellors states that counsellors “shall discuss important considerations to avoid exploitation before entering into a non-counselling relationship with a former client. Important considerations to be discussed include amount of time since counselling service termination, duration of counselling, nature and circumstances of client’s counselling, the likelihood that the client will want to resume counselling at some time in the future; circumstances of service termination and possible negative effects or outcomes.”

Outcome Measurement

Counselling outcome measures might look at a general overview of symptoms, symptoms of specific disorders, or positive outcomes, such as subjective well-being or quality of life. The Outcome Questionnaire-45 is a 45-item self-report measure of psychological distress. An example of disorder-specific measure is the Beck Depression Inventory. The Quality of Life Inventory is a 17-item self-report life satisfaction measure.

Process and Outcome Research Methods

Research about the counselling process and outcome uses a variety of research methodologies to answer questions about if, how, and why counselling works. Quantitative methods include randomly controlled clinical trials, correlation studies over the course of counselling, or laboratory studies about specific counselling process and outcome variables. Qualitative research methods can involve conducting, transcribing and coding interviews; transcribing and/or coding therapy sessions; or fine-grain analysis of single counselling sessions or counselling cases.

Training and Supervision

Professional Training Process

Counselling psychologists are trained in graduate programmes. Almost all programmes grant a PhD, but a few grant a Psy.D. or Ed.D. Most doctoral programmes take 5-6 years to complete. Graduate work in counselling psychology includes coursework in general psychology and statistics, counselling practice, and research. Students must complete an original dissertation at the end of their graduate training. Students must also complete a one-year full-time internship at an accredited site before earning their doctorate. In order to be licensed to practice, counselling psychologists must gain clinical experience under supervision, and pass a standardised exam.


In Australia, counselling psychology programmes are accredited by the Australian Psychology Accreditation Council (APAC). To become registered as a counselling psychologist, one must meet the criteria for the area of practice endorsement. This includes an undergraduate degree in the science of psychology, an Honours degree or Postgraduate Diploma in Psychology, and a Master’s or Doctorate degree in counselling psychology. Graduates must then complete a registrar programme to obtain an area of practice endorsement and use the title counselling psychologist. A substantial component of this master’s degree is dedicated to individual psychotherapy, family and couples therapy, group therapy, developmental theory and psychopathology.

Training Models and Research

Counselling psychology includes the study and practice of counsellor training and counsellor supervision. As researchers, counselling psychologists may investigate what makes training and supervision effective. As practitioners, counselling psychologists may supervise and train a variety of clinicians. Counsellor training tends to occur in formal classes and training programmes. Part of counsellor training may involve counselling clients under the supervision of a licensed clinician. Supervision can also occur between licensed clinicians, as a way to improve clinicians’ quality of work and competence with various types of counselling clients.

As the field of counselling psychology formed in the mid-20th century, initial training models included Robert Carkuff’s human relations training model, Norman Kagan’s Interpersonal Process Recall, and Allen Ivey’s micro-counselling skills. Modern training models include Gerard Egan’s skilled helper model, and Clara E. Hill’s three-stage model (exploration, insight, and action). A recent analysis of studies on counsellor training found that modelling, instruction, and feedback are common to most training models, and seem to have medium to large effects on trainees.

Supervision Models and Research

Like the models of how clients and therapists interact, there are also models of the interactions between therapists and their supervisors. Edward S. Bordin proposed a model of supervision working alliance similar to his model of therapeutic working alliance. The Integrated Development Model considers the level of a client’s motivation/anxiety, autonomy, and self and other awareness. The Systems Approach to Supervision views the relationship between supervisor and supervised as most important, in addition to characteristics of the supervisor’s personal characteristics, counselling clients, training setting, as well as the tasks and functions of supervision. The Critical Events in Supervision model focuses on important moments that occur between the supervisor and supervised.

Problems can arise in supervision and training. First, supervisors are liable for malpractice. Also, questions have arisen as far as a supervisor’s need for formal training to be a competent supervisor. Recent research suggests that conflicting, multiple relationships can occur between supervisors and clients, such as that of the client, instructor, and clinical supervisor. The occurrence of racial micro-aggression against Black clients suggests potential problems with racial bias in supervision. In general, conflicts between a counsellor and his or her own supervisor can arise when supervisors demonstrate disrespect, lack of support, and blaming.

Vocational Development and Career Counselling

Vocational Theories

There are several types of theories of vocational choice and development. These types include trait and factor theories, social cognitive theories, and developmental theories. Two examples of trait and factor theories, also known as person-environment fit, are Holland’s theory and the Theory of Work Adjustment.

John Holland hypothesized six vocational personality/interest types and six work environment types:

  • Realistic;
  • Investigative;
  • Artistic;
  • Social;
  • Enterprising; and
  • Conventional.

When a person’s vocational interests match his or her work environment types, this is considered congruence. Congruence has been found to predict occupation and college major.

The Theory of Work Adjustment (TWA), as developed by René Dawis and Lloyd Lofquist, hypothesizes that the correspondence between a worker’s needs and the reinforced systems predicts job satisfaction, and that the correspondence between a worker’s skills and a job’s skill requirements predicts job satisfaction. Job satisfaction and personal satisfaction together should determine how long one remains at a job. When there is a discrepancy between a worker’s needs or skills and the job’s needs or skills, then change needs to occur either in the worker or the job environment.

Social Cognitive Career Theory (SCCT) has been proposed by Robert D. Lent, Steven D. Brown and Gail Hackett. The theory takes Albert Bandura’s work on self-efficacy and expands it to interest development, choice making, and performance. Person variables in SCCT include self-efficacy beliefs, outcome expectations and personal goals. The model also includes demographics, ability, values, and environment. Efficacy and outcome expectations are theorised to interrelate and influence interest development, which in turn influences choice of goals, and then actions. Environmental supports and barriers also affect goals and actions. Actions lead to performance and choice stability over time.

Career development theories propose vocational models that include changes throughout the lifespan. Donald Super’s model proposes a lifelong five-stage career development process. The stages are growth, exploration, establishment, maintenance, and disengagement. Throughout life, people have many roles that may differ in terms of importance and meaning. Super also theorised that career development is an implementation of self-concept. Gottfredson also proposed a cognitive career decision-making process that develops through the lifespan. The initial stage of career development is hypothesized to be the development of self-image in childhood, as the range of possible roles narrows using criteria such as sex-type, social class, and prestige. During and after adolescence, people take abstract concepts into consideration, such as interests.

Career Counselling

Career counselling may include provision of occupational information, modelling skills, written exercises, and exploration of career goals and plans. Career counselling can also involve the use of personality or career interest assessments, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which is based on Carl Jung’s theory of psychological type, or the Strong Interest Inventory, which makes use of Holland’s theory. Assessments of skills, abilities, and values are also commonly assessed in career counselling.

Professional Journals

In the United States, the premier scholarly journals of the profession are the Journal of Counselling Psychology and The Counselling Psychologist.

In Australia, counselling psychology articles are published in the counselling psychology section of the Australian Psychologist.

In Europe, the scholarly journals of the profession include the European Journal of Counselling Psychology (under the auspices of the European Association of Counselling Psychology) and the Counselling Psychology Review (under the auspices of the British Psychological Society). Counselling Psychology Quarterly is an international interdisciplinary publication of Routledge (part of the Taylor & Francis Group).

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