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Careers in counselling

Australian Counselling Association CEO Philip Arms
Photo: Australian Counselling Association CEO Philip Armstrong
Want to help others through life’s challenges? If the answer’s yes, a career in counselling may be the career path for you.

It’s estimated more than 20,000 counsellors are employed in a diverse range of jobs across Australia - working with children and teenagers right through to older people.

Counselling offers a rewarding career covering a wide range of areas, from counselling in relationships to grief and loss, trauma, mental health problems and abuse through to counselling for alcohol and other drugs.

Counsellors are also employed in a range of settings. They work in community health centres, schools and universities, as well as for not-for-profit organisations, commercial organisations, government departments and in private practice.
Counselling is also an industry on the rise. Community services, which includes counselling, is one of the nation’s highest growth sectors.

What is a counsellor?

Counsellors provide confidential support, information and therapy to people struggling with personal difficulties or with mental health problems.

Counsellors help people with a range of issues spanning parenting, family relationships, stress, anxiety and depression, intimate partner violence, trauma, grief, addiction, abuse, and career concerns.

Counsellors are different to psychotherapists, psychologists and psychiatrists. Counsellors talk and work through issues and emotions while developing strategies to assist people to improve their wellbeing.

Australia’s counselling sector is self-regulated. Many reputable counsellors are members of voluntary peak professional organisations, such as the Australian Counselling Association (ACA) or the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA). These organisations require minimum standards for membership, comprising compliance with a code of ethics and ongoing professional development.

To ensure the public has access to appropriately trained counsellors who meet self-regulating industry standards, ACA and PACFA accredit counselling courses, which are assessed as meeting standards for quality counselling education.

Graduates who complete accredited courses are recognised as qualified, registered counsellors, and are eligible to be listed on the organisations’ national registers.

To become a counsellor, you can study courses at a diploma level, bachelor degree, graduate diploma or masters degree in counselling.

A counsellor’s level of qualifications and experience determines which level counsellors can work at within the sector.

ACA has a professional scope of practice that defines the role and practice of counsellors. Level one and two counsellors work in early intervention and primary care, level three counsellors can also work in secondary care, while level four counsellors can work across the entire continuum of mental health, including tertiary care.

A career in counselling opens the doors to a wide range of job opportunities. Counsellors work for service organisations such as The Salvation Army, not-for-profit organisations such as Relationships Australia, in public and private schools, and in health centres.

Counsellors can work in private practice, especially in the area of relationship counselling, in drug and alcohol services, or with gambling help services. Counsellors also provide contract services for Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and the National Disability and Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

If you’re considering a career as a counsellor, you can enter into the profession as a young graduate or as a mature age person. While many counsellors are mature age and often pursue a career in counselling after switching from other careers, counselling is a profession that also appeals to young people wanting to make a difference in other people’s lives.


The counselling graduate

Ashleigh Kinsela always wanted to work in a career that focused on supporting others.

At the age of 21, Ashleigh is already helping young people after a placement through her University of Southern Queensland Bachelor of Human Services (Counselling) degree led to a full-time position with headspace, the national youth mental health foundation.

Ashleigh, who graduates in 2017, has completed the units of her ACA accredited degree, and is now working as an access and engagement clinician at the Hervey Bay-based clinical service that supports people aged 12 to 25 years in areas such as mental health, physical health, work/study, and alcohol and other drug services.

“The role involves doing intake assessments for young people who present to the service, so asking a lot of different questions and getting a feel about what’s been happening for them,” she says.

“From there, we allocate them to a counsellor or a private provider, like a psychologist or social worker, or perhaps a referral to another service if we can’t meet those needs.

“I also have a small caseload of counselling clients that I see for brief intervention.”

While people can enter counselling through either vocational education and training or university qualifications, Ashleigh says studying at university and meeting potential employers through placements, is an advantage when it comes to kickstarting your career.

“A lot of people do online diplomas and while that’s really helpful it can be quite difficult to gain employment from that,” she says.

“It’s an industry that, to stand out, you really need that bachelor’s degree as a minimum at the moment.”


Ashleigh says a career in counselling offers an incredibly diverse range of career paths and, most importantly, an opportunity to elevate people’s wellbeing.

“When I first started, I was all about fixing people’s problems and changing people’s lives but sometimes that’s just not possible,” she says.

“If you’re the type of person that is patient, honest and offers integrity and empowerment to people then that would be perfect for being a counsellor.”

Entering counselling at a mature age

Philip Armstrong left school at the age of 15 before joining the Australian Army in his late teenage years. After 15 years in the Army, he was medically discharged.

With his extensive military experience, Philip realised there was a pressing need for trained counsellors to work with Army veterans.

Philip was in his late 30s when he began a 12-month Diploma of Counselling before beginning work with the RSL, where he counselled veterans living in aged care.

It was during this time he decided to advance his qualifications, completing a Bachelor of Counselling at the University of New England while aged in his 40s, before forging ahead to complete his PhD aged in his 50s.

Philip says there’s ample opportunity for counsellors to work in aged care.

“Just because people are old doesn’t mean that they don’t have needs. A lot of these people, they still want to discuss issues from their youth or issues later in their life - divorce, children, work and losses that they’ve had along the way,” he says.

“They want to talk about these issues, flesh them out, and to at least be able to leave this world having understood what’s happened to them and accept it in some way, shape or form.”

After deciding to begin his own private practice, Philip worked mostly in relationship counselling before moving to work behind the scenes, helping to establish counselling as a career with a professional framework of standards.

For the last seven years, Philip has been working at the helm of the sector as the chief executive officer of the Australian Counselling Association.

Philip says counselling is primarily a mature age profession, with the large majority of counsellors entering the industry in their second or third career choice.

While many people may believe they have the listening skills to become a counsellor, Philip says counselling is more than being attentive to people’s problems.

“Listening is a very important skill as a counsellor but knowing what to say when they’re finished is more important.”

Mature age counsellors with life experience often have the advantage of being able to bring more empathy and understanding to their work, Philip adds.

“As a counsellor and through your life experience you can understand the emotions - you may have been through the ups and downs of life.

“So when you have a client sitting in front of you, saying it’s really kicked them in the guts losing their job or being made redundant, you can’t say - I know what you’re talking about - because your experience isn’t their experience,” he says.

“But you can say - I understand the feeling. And that means a lot to people to know that you truly do understand that feeling.

“You don’t understand what they are thinking or going through because their situation will always be different, but you understand that kick in the guts. That can make a big difference.”


Jobs in counselling - the statistics

The workforce: 20,700 people were working as counsellors in November, 2015, with only 48.5 per cent of counsellors working full-time hours.
Where the work is: Counsellors are mainly employed in health care, social assistance, education and training, public administration and safety.
Pay: Weekly earnings for full-time workers, before tax, is $1153.
Employment projections: Employment for counsellors is expected to grow very strongly - about 25,000 counsellors are predicting to be working in 2020, up from 15,000 in 2005.
Source: Job Outlook, Australian Government.

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Karen Keast

Karen Keast is a freelance health journalist who writes news and feature articles for HealthTimes.

Karen regularly writes for some of Australia’s leading health news websites and magazines.  In a media career spanning 20 years, Karen has worked as a senior journalist in newspapers and television. She has covered the grind of daily news and worked as a politics reporter at countless state and federal elections.

Since venturing into freelance writing five years ago, Karen has found her niche in writing about the health sector for editors, businesses and corporations.

Karen has interviewed the heads of peak health organisations in Australia and overseas, and written hundreds of news and feature articles covering the dedicated work of health professionals who tread the corridors of hospitals and health services, universities, aged care facilities and practices, day in and day out.

Follow Karen Keast on Twitter @stylemywords