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Counselling: an age-appropriate calling
There are rewards you wouldn’t get in any other kind of work
July 19, 2011 | By:
It does when you're a psychotherapist: if you've been around the block it helps you to understand people. Daniela Soave meets two women who successfully entered the profession in mid-life

Counselling_female psychiatrist_620 Corbis 42-43982166If, in our forties, we take stock of our lives so far; at 50 we look forward. We’ve got a lot of years ahead of us, and why shouldn’t they be the best? There is no more appropriate time to jettison life’s flotsam and jetsam: careers, partners, where we live, how we look, even what we think. Nothing is out of bounds.

Fifty is a powerful psychological turning point; a positive experience. So it’s unsurprising that many of us choose to consult a psychotherapist at this age, for the first time in our lives, to help us make sense of our thoughts and behaviours and to embrace the future.

Imagine, however, deconstructing your life with a therapist who is 20 years younger. It just doesn’t wash, does it?

That old adage about policemen and doctors getting younger is true, but while experience will improve their manner and skills, as newbies they are still able to carry out their jobs properly. But it’s not the same with therapists. They need to have lived a bit, to have been around the block, to understand where you’re coming from.

“The fact is, you can’t be a competent therapist at 19,” says Phillip Hodson, author, therapist and spokesman for the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP).

“Therapists start in middle age. It’s a positive move. They come from all walks of life. Some have even been famous. Sixties pop singer Sandy Shaw, for example, and Fawlty Towers actress and co-writer Connie Booth.”

What it takes to become a psychotherapist  

There are a host of reasons why people are drawn to psychotherapy as a mid-life career change, says Hodson. Some might have had therapy themselves and experienced its effectiveness. Others might want a different life, or be tired of banging their head against bureaucracy.

Some might want to do something that finally is serious and grown up. Their children, having reached adulthood, might no longer need them in the same way.

Whatever the reason, those who decide to do it properly and get a professional accreditation have a long, arduous and expensive time ahead.

Training can take up to five years, during which time they will need to be in therapy themselves, and then supervision (where counsellors discuss their work regularly with someone more experienced).

Not everyone has the financial wherewithal to fund themselves without running a job concurrently, which means virtually no free time and stretched finances.

Former TV exec: ‘I was determined’

“I found the training exhausting,” says former television executive Deborah Wearn. “I had to work full-time and study during the evenings and weekends.

“I didn’t have a life. I had to change it radically. I hardly went out because I was too tired and had no money.

“Eventually I had to stop working in television because as a producer you are either filming or preparing and you are always away. I realised I was going to have to change jobs so that I could complete my degree.

“My salary dropped to £17,000 and the only thing that kept me going was that I was absolutely determined. It was my vocation.”

Former barrister: ‘I trained at the weekend and evenings’

Former barrister and judge Charlotte Friedman agrees. Having been a family law barrister all her working life, she trained as a psychotherapist during evenings and weekends.

“When I look back, I don’t know how I did it,” she says. “You feel exhausted retrospectively. During the last year of my masters I was pregnant with my third child. But I was really passionate and motivated.”

Both women had reached a point where they had become disenchanted with their professions.

Wearn says: “One of the reasons I wanted to leave television was that I could see there was no real future for a woman as she gets older. Unless you are at the top of the industry, it is very difficult for women as they get into their forties and most especially their fifties if they work in production. It’s really a young person’s industry.

“I saw that psychotherapy was a profession that welcomes older people and where age can be an asset. Generally, I think clients prefer seeing someone who’s older; certainly who’s older than they are.

“I wonder if that’s another reason why older women train to be therapists. Lots of other professions are not age friendly, especially for women.”

During her tenure as a family law barrister, Charlotte had become fascinated by the dynamics of warring couples. Her desire to understand how, almost overnight, the act of separation ignited absolute polarity between two people led her to embark upon a psychotherapy degree.

Further disenchantment with the profession propelled her to create a new career.

“I didn’t want to be part of the process any more. People were desperate to win, whether they were fighting over assets or children. I’d done this for 25 years and it had become a dispiriting process.

“I felt so burnt out being part of a warring litigation process, even if I won. It was a pyrrhic victory. I wanted to be more creative and peaceful.

“I was 50 when I left the bar and started the only professional service of its kind.”

Friedman has married her experience as a family law barrister with her skills as a therapist to create a mediation service for divorcing partners. Her business, rolled out in 26 towns across the country, runs ten-week group therapy courses supervised by qualified psychotherapists where clients can share their emotional fears, anger and concerns for the future.

By the end of the carefully regulated programme people feel more empowered and in control. “The idea is akin to a National Childbirth Trust group: no matter where they are, they are all run to the same tenets,” she says.

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Wearn works in private practice from her home. She sees clients during the day but her busy time is from 4pm until 10pm. It suits her, she says, because she is not a morning person.

“Being a psychotherapist won’t make you rich. It’s hard work. But there are rewards you wouldn’t get in any other kind of work.

In terms of training for a new career, it’s much better to do it in mid-life. You don’t have the relevant life experience when you are young.

“You don’t get many thanks from clients, but you see their progress and know your part in it.

I love it. I love working from home. Although work can be very hard at times, it is fantastically rewarding when you work with someone and you see them making progress and becoming happier. ”