What you can expect from counselling at UCL

29 October 2021

Putting yourself forward for counselling may be a scary thought, and it's okay to feel that way. Liane Thakur, a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist in Student Psychological and Counselling Services, explains what you can expect throughout the process, and why therapy could help you.

Two people sitting opposite each other holding cups of coffee

Signing up for counselling can be kind of scary. Those of us who work at Student Psychological and Counselling Services know this because we’ve all been through therapy ourselves, either to get our degree and/or because we needed help in the past. A lot of the fear can come from not knowing what to expect, so I thought it would be good to write a bit about the process.

A note: the majority of sessions we deliver are still online. We only have a few rooms that we can use for in-person sessions, and if you have to see someone in person, you may have a longer wait for those sessions and you will need to wear a mask the whole time (unless exempt).

So, first you sign up for therapy on the UCL website. We have a registration form that helps us understand a bit about your struggles. We know it can feel overwhelming at times to put all that info into it, but it’s truly very helpful. Every day, we triage the forms: we read each and every one. If we are concerned about either an academic or a suicidal risk, we will likely give you a call that day. If we can’t reach you, we’ll send a text and possibly an email to try to reach you as soon as we can. We hope to talk to those at risk within 24 hours. We try to determine if students are best suited to our short-term/non-emergency therapy or if we should signpost them to another service.

After triage, registrations will go to our administrator, who will set students up with an initial consultation. The current wait time between registration and your assessment appointment is 2-3 weeks. In this assessment, we’re trying to find out more information about your struggles to enable us to assign you to the most appropriate therapy path for you - so we may ask you some questions which feel quite intrusive, or hard to answer, to enable us to do this. We will keep your information confidential, unless we feel you are at harm to yourself or other people. In an instance where we have those concerns, we will talk you through what is going to happen, be it speaking to your GP, to someone else in UCL or at home. If your mental health is impacting your ability to do your work, we would strongly encourage you to talk to your personal tutor or someone else in your department. 

In your assessment, we’ll determine what form of therapy would be best suited to your issue. We’ll ask you questions about your background, family history and anything else that might help us understand you better. We are able to offer either Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or Psychodynamic Therapy (PD), to work with one of our psychiatrists, or we may signpost you to other services.

If we feel you would be best served by our service, you will be taken on by the appropriate therapy/psychiatrist.  There is a waiting list for counselling sessions, which changes over time, so I can’t tell you what your wait will be. We wish we didn’t have waiting lists and it’s frustrating for us as well. The counselling team really want to be able to see everyone as soon as we can.

What’s therapy like? It depends on whether you are doing CBT or PD. As a CBT therapist, my focus is going to be on the way you think, feel and behave. In our first session, I want to get to know you better and how your struggles are currently impacting you, so I’ll ask you some more questions. I’ll talk a bit about the brain and why it may be impacting you. We’ll come up with a tentative plan for future sessions and I’ll give you an understanding of my expectations of you. Finally, I’ll give you a few things to work on between sessions, which I hope will be helpful. I always like to get constructive feedback from my clients as it helps me tailor the sessions to you and your needs.

According to my PD colleagues, in a psychodynamic therapy session the counsellor aims to build a relationship within which you [the student] can articulate what you feel, before you begin to explore why you feel this particular way.  The counsellor of course listens to the face value of what you say but is also attuned to meanings, which are implicit. In particular the counsellor tries to help you to identify any recurring affective or interpersonal themes (the ways in which you relate to others or deal with issues in your life) which cause you difficulties and their possible developmental origins. Attention is paid not only the external world but also to your internal world – your assumptions, perhaps partly unconscious, about how things are or how you should be.  We hope that this process can help you deal better with the difficulties you are encountering.

Therapy is basically about exploring and learning about yourself and where you find yourself in this world. You can learn coping mechanisms, have someone to just talk things through, all with someone who is “outside you”, so there can be some safety in it.

Liane Thakur, Cognitive Behavioural Therapist, Student Psychological and Counselling Services