9 in 10 uni graduates are employed full time.1

Uni grads earn 15-20% more than those without a degree.2

Deakin postgraduates earn 36% more than undergraduates.3

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Listen up: how to pursue a career as a telephone counsellor

Are you that friend everyone turns to for advice? Who enjoys lending an ear to those around you who might be struggling?

If so, a career as a telephone counsellor – a role that’s become more important than ever during COVID-19 – could be the perfect fit for you.

With mental health problems intensifying during the global pandemic, the demand for both telecounselling and helplines such as Lifeline, which is on track to receive 1.2 million calls by the end of 2021, has skyrocketed.

Dr Tristan Snell, a senior lecturer in psychology at Deakin and a counselling psychologist, says that in Victoria in particular, most mental health professionals have had to adapt to online-only consults for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, the Australian government’s Job Outlook website also points to high demand for counsellors in general. ‘They talk about very strong job growth for counsellors over the next five, 10 years and it has been increasing,’ Dr Snell says. ‘It’s the same with psychologists of course, there’s more demand than there is supply.’

So if you’re interested in making a career change to help others, what should you consider?

Who’s suited to being a phone counsellor?

If you’re a good listener, that’s a great start, Dr Snell says.

‘It’s not about advice giving; it’s about listening really carefully, and being empathetic and caring,’ he says. ‘They can see the best in other people so they have a positive regard towards the client, and they can express something genuine to support other people.’

While you can definitely learn listening skills, Dr Snell says some people find it easier than others.

The different types of phone counselling

There are two distinct areas of phone counselling: helplines such as Beyond Blue and MensLine Australia (which are sometimes staffed by volunteers) and telecounselling, Dr Snell says.

Those working on helplines tend to deal with single calls, which can be anonymous and focus on a caller’s immediate needs rather than ongoing concerns.

Phone counselling, also known as telecounselling, tends to help clients during multiple sessions, where they are taught how to explore their thoughts, feeling and behaviours to focus on their past, present and future needs.

Telecounselling can be conducted by a range of professionals including psychologists, counsellors and psychotherapists. For others, such as social workers, occupational therapists and mental health nurses, it’s usually just one element of their job.

What’s the difference between a psychologist and a counsellor?

While many psychologists offer telephone counselling – especially in the current climate – Dr Snell says there are differences between the work psychologists and registered counsellors do.

‘Psychologists would do more diagnosis, assessment, and they talk about medication, while counsellors absolutely have to focus on interpersonal skills. For counsellors, there’s a bit of assessment, but it’s mostly effective listening.’

'It’s not about advice giving; it’s about listening really carefully, and being empathetic and caring'

Dr Tristan Snell,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

Phone counselling qualifications

The training required for different types of phone counselling also varies.

A volunteer at a helpline, for instance, might undergo a week’s training, depending on the organisation. Paid helpline workers who help clients over multiple sessions increasingly need some type of undergraduate training in the field of mental health.

Next up is counsellors or psychotherapists.

‘In Australia, anybody can call themselves a counsellor or a psychotherapist because it’s not a protected term, but there are two professional registration bodies now, which basically give authenticity to counsellors and psychotherapists,’ Dr Snell says. ‘In order to be registered, they would need to complete at least a graduate diploma of counselling or psychotherapy (on top of an undergraduate degree).’

Psychologists usually undertake a minimum of six years of education and training.

Will COVID-19 change counselling for good?

Dr Snell says many psychologists and counsellors – and their clients – have adapted well to counselling via phone or technology such as Zoom this year.

I think a lot of professionals have realised ‘look this is easy, sometimes I forget that I’m online’ and the clients find it really convenient so I definitely think this is a real shift.’

However he says there is still some resistance among practitioners.

‘But if you look at the research, there’s really no evidence that phone counselling is less effective than face-to-face counselling,’ he says. ‘It’s actually opening up mental health to people who would never see a mental health professional.’

However it remains to be seen whether the federal government will continue to allow the many Australians on its mental health care plan to access psychologists via phone or video conference – rather than in person – once the pandemic is over, he says.

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Dr Tristan Snell
Dr Tristan Snell

School of Psychology, Deakin University

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