Psychotherapists work with individuals, couples, families and groups to help them overcome a range of mental health and emotional issues

Psychotherapy is often called a 'talking therapy', and as a psychotherapist you'll help clients explore and express their thought processes, feelings and behaviour. Sessions with clients can cover a range of issues, including:

  • emotional issues, such as anger or grief
  • mental ill health, for example anxiety and depression
  • behavioural issues
  • eating disorders
  • addiction.

During sessions you'll help clients understand their inner conflicts and find new ways to alleviate and deal with distress. You'll also support them to make positive changes to the way they think and behave. Depending on their circumstances, you may see clients over a few sessions or for a longer period of two or three years.

As well as working with individuals, couples and groups, some psychotherapists focus on work with families, children and adolescents.

Types of psychotherapist

Psychotherapists can take a number of different approaches to their work, depending on the theoretical models they adopt and the therapy they practise.

Therapies include:

  • behavioural therapy
  • psychoanalytic and psychodynamic therapies
  • humanistic integrative psychotherapy
  • family and systemic therapies
  • hypno-psychotherapy.

For more information, see UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) - Common types of psychotherapy.

Responsibilities

As a psychotherapist, you'll need to:

  • conduct a series of sessions with a client - normally lasting 50 minutes for individuals and an hour for couples - to assess need, build trust and explore issues
  • encourage the client to talk about and explore their feelings, attitudes and behaviours
  • run group sessions with people undergoing therapy in a clinical setting
  • help clients to develop strategies for coping with issues and for making positive changes to the way they think and behave
  • evaluate therapy sessions and outcomes and write reports
  • conduct group sessions in a training capacity for other professionals, such as social workers, nurses and teachers, who are interested in learning more about how groups work and how they function within them
  • undergo supervision with a qualified supervisor in order to reflect on sessions, and to raise personal issues and professional concerns arising from work
  • keep abreast of developments in theory and research
  • network within the health professional community and other potential business areas to maintain continuity of work and client base
  • work to targets (in some cases, e.g. if working for the NHS)
  • (with appropriate training) supervise other psychotherapists.

Some work activities can overlap with the work of a counsellor, although the training route is different.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for trainee psychotherapists in the NHS usually start at around £30,401 (Band 6 of the Agenda for Change (AfC) pay rates).
  • Qualified NHS psychotherapists typically earn £37,570 to £43,772 (Band 7). Salaries for very experienced psychotherapists can rise to between £44,606 and £60,983 (Bands 8a and 8b).
  • There's no standard scale of fees for private practice work and rates vary considerably. Psychotherapists typically charge between £40 and £100 for a 50 minute session depending on a range of factors, including location and the client's circumstances.

Salaries outside the NHS may vary.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are typically Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm. However, you may work outside these hours, particularly in private practice when you may arrange sessions for clients either before or after working hours.

Part-time work is possible. Career breaks are possible, although if you work in private practice you will need to rebuild a client base on your return to work.

What to expect

  • If you're employed by the NHS you'll usually work as a member of a multidisciplinary team made up of psychiatrists, social workers, psychologists, family therapists, occupational therapists, mental health nurses and therapists.
  • Self-employment and freelance work is possible. However, it takes time to build up a client base and it's not always possible to achieve a full-time practice. You'll need to take into account issues such as overheads, insurance, supervision and support groups before considering self-employment or freelance work.
  • Self-employed practitioners work from home, in an office or from shared premises.
  • You'll need a good support framework, as the work can be emotionally demanding.
  • Travel within a working day, absence from home at night and overseas work or travel are uncommon, although there may be work available abroad in places such as war zones and disaster areas.

Qualifications

To practise as a psychotherapist, you should complete a postgraduate training course accredited by the UKCP - or the British Psychoanalytic Council (BPC) for psychoanalytic or psychodynamic psychotherapy.

Taught training usually takes four years part time and you'll also need evidence of 450 hours of practice, theory and skills to gain accreditation. Courses include a mix of written theory assignments, supervised clinical work and clinical seminars. You'll be required to undertake therapy yourself throughout the course.

Before choosing a course, consider which type of psychotherapy you want to work in as different training providers focus on particular psychotherapies. Contact the relevant professional organisation for the specialist area you're interested in to identify training and accreditation options. For a list of recognised courses, see UKCP - Where to train? and BPC Training.

To get a place on a postgraduate training course, you'll usually need a degree in a relevant subject such as:

  • psychology
  • nursing
  • medicine
  • social work
  • teaching.

You'll also need experience of working in a 'helping' profession, such as nursing, social work, mental health, probation work or teaching. Check with individual course providers for entry requirements.

There is currently no statutory registration for psychotherapists in the UK, but in practice you should have a UKCP or BPC-recognised qualification. This allows you entry onto their voluntary registers, which are accredited by the Professional Standards Authority. Registration shows employers and prospective clients that you have a certain standard of education and skills.

Find out more about training to become a child psychotherapist.

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • self-awareness, sensitivity and empathy
  • a broad-minded, non-judgemental attitude and a respect for others
  • the ability to work well and think clearly under pressure
  • good verbal and written communication and presentations skills
  • an ability to establish rapport with others
  • time management skills
  • the ability to work well as part of a multidisciplinary team
  • common sense
  • an understanding of the importance of confidentiality and also an awareness of its limitations
  • a belief in people's inherent ability to change and develop
  • a sense of humour and an energetic and positive approach
  • an understanding of equality and diversity issues
  • confidence to explore difficult and painful aspects of a patient's life.

Work experience

Pre-entry experience is required. Life experience is essential for prospective psychotherapists in order to cope with the extremes of human emotion, ambiguity and vulnerability that they're likely to encounter.

Psychotherapy is often a second career with many people coming from clinical psychology, psychiatry, mental health, education, nursing or social work backgrounds.

Employers

Psychotherapists work in a variety of environments, including:

  • community-based clinics
  • general practice surgeries
  • hospitals (within in-patient areas)
  • Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) services (England)
  • prisons
  • residential children's homes
  • special educational needs schools
  • student health services
  • social services departments.

Another option is to set up your own private practice. This can provide a greater degree of flexibility but it may take time for you to get established. Private practice psychotherapists may provide services to individuals, couples, families, groups, companies and private hospital referrals.

Employment is also possible with a university or training institution, where you could teach, conduct research, or facilitate training for groups of medical professionals and other health workers, for example nurses and social workers.

Look for job vacancies at:

Professional development

Once qualified, you can register as a full member of the UKCP at UKCP - Join. It's also possible to register with professional bodies such as the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) and BPC.

Registration provides assurance to clients that you've fulfilled the qualifying standards of training and experience. Being a member of a professional body will also help you to keep up to date with new developments in psychotherapy.

You'll need to undertake continuing professional development (CPD) throughout your career. Professional bodies provide a range of CPD activities, including events, member forums, seminars, courses and special interest groups to help increase your knowledge and build a network of contacts. Postgraduate training providers may also provide CPD courses.

You'll also undergo supervision to help enhance your practice, which involves presenting your client work to a supervisor in order to reflect on the psychotherapy process. With experience you can undergo training to become a supervisor.

Career prospects

Your career prospects will be determined to a certain extent by your interests and expertise. With experience, you could move into more senior psychotherapist or specialist roles and take on a greater amount of responsibility.

There are some opportunities to take up a managerial position within the NHS mental health services, where you would spend less time on clinical work and more on managing a particular service and team.

Within private practice you'll work on building your reputation and client base, expanding your business as you become more established.

Lecturing and clinical teaching in universities or training institutions is another career development route. Also, with extensive experience, it's possible to become a training therapist, where you'd train student psychotherapists, or act as a supervisor, providing support to other psychotherapists.

You may be able to undertake research in order to become a consultant to allied professional and community organisations, or to deepen your specialisation in a particular area of psychotherapy.