Counsellor and psychotherapist Tom Bulpit shares how personal experience led him into his role, and considers how SCoPEd may impact the profession
This time, Counselling Directory member to Tom Bulpit, about how receiving counselling as a teenager inspired him to give back, how lack of funding can lead to clients falling through the cracks, and the impact that SCoPEd may have in the future.
Tom is a person-centred counsellor and psychotherapist working in his private practice, Talk2Tom Counselling. Based in Southampton, he works online and in person, and has a particular interest in working with men, issues of masculinity, and exploring mental health problems within the tabletop gaming community.
So, what’s his professional opinion?
Hi Tom! Why did you decide to join your profession?
Wow, that's a big question. I guess there's two areas of my life that converged to make it happen. I had a lot of therapy as a teenager which helped me overcome a certain amount of adversity I experienced at home, which included severe depression and anxiety.
I was lucky that my school was very good at supporting me, and they arranged for an outside counsellor to come in to school to see me for six weeks through a charity called It's Your Choice – sadly now closed due to having their funding pulled. The counsellor who saw me was a volunteer, and there was something awesomely powerful about having someone finally just listen to what I had been through. I think just by saying it out loud, without needing a filter, it allowed me to realise just how much it had been affecting me. I knew deep down that I wanted to "give back", and I always wanted to do something that provided a public service to people in need of care or protection.
I guess that leads to the second part. I went to work for HM Coastguard, and part of that journey was working as a front line investigator looking at fatal accidents at sea. I spent a lot of time working with bereaved families and vulnerable witnesses, and found, to my surprise, that I was good at working with emotionally challenging cases and helping people caught by tragedy navigate the sometimes inhuman criminal justice system. I went looking for CPD opportunities and found a six week Introduction to counselling course at my local technical college. The rest, as they say, is history.
Covid-19 hit during my clinical placement, and that's probably what made me decide to make the change 100%. I was working for a children's charity, No Limits, in a mental health crisis team during the height of it. Four late night shifts a week, very little resources or support, and a huge caseload of very troubled kids – it's some of the hardest work I've ever done, but there was no way I was going back to working behind a desk after that.
I always wanted to do something that provided a public service to people in need of care or protection
Since you began, what have you found to be the most surprising thing about the work you do?
I think, congruently, the most surprising thing is that there is always more that surprises you!
I remember every client I've worked with, and it's a privilege to meet all sorts of people – from very different backgrounds – and each one with a very different set of experiences. Working with people and having them place their trust in you and tell you their story is an incredible honour. No two people are alike and as a result I get a very diverse range in the work I do.
What do you like about your profession?
That's simple. It connects to the most human part of who I am. There's a sense of purpose and emotional connection there that gets ticked in a way no other job I've ever done can match.
What are some of the challenges that come with your line of work?
There are two big ones for me. The first is the dire state of mental health services in this country; yes there's huge amounts more funding and awareness now then there was even pre-Covid, but the demand is just incredible, even post-pandemic.
In my city, Southampton, the waiting list for NHS CAMHS for under 18s is two years. Even once clients get to the top of the waiting list, they get maybe six sessions and that's it. Six weeks is usually about the time for a client to even start trusting you, let alone get to the "real" counselling work. For people who might have experienced a lifetime of trauma, it's simply inadequate. It makes me very upset and my experience of working in the charity sector – even among fantastic and motivated colleagues – was sometimes powerlessness and despair.
That's what made me make the change to private practice. Whilst my clients have to self-pay, it gives them the freedom to choose the counsellor who is right for them and they can work with me for as long as they like, open-ended. That's how it should be, in my opinion. I just wish it was made free at the point of service for everyone. If the NHS starts doing that I'll jump back in immediately, no hesitation.
The other big challenge, as others have discussed in the Professional Opinions series, is regulation. Currently, anybody can call themselves a counsellor without any formal training. I choose to be a member of the BACP and they have strict requirements for me to be properly trained and experienced so that I can guarantee to clients that my work is ethical and safe.
SCoPEd will hopefully start to try and streamline voluntary regulation of our profession, but I also see an increasing number of therapists declare that they're choosing to go solo and eschew any formal oversight. That's really dangerous, in my opinion, and can lead to bad and unsafe therapy.
I just wish it was made free at the point of service for everyone. If the NHS starts doing that I'll jump back in immediately, no hesitation
How do you address some of the challenges that you face?
As I said, for me the right way to get a better work/life balance was to go independent, and it means my clients get full control over when and how often we work together. Being in private practice, I also make sure I'm fully in compliance with BACP requirements – and I'm proud to advertise that to my clients.
What do you think could be done to improve the profession for you and for others?
Currently, the UK counselling profession has a lot of freedom in how it operates, but as we expand and get more notice, so does scrutiny. SCoPEd, to me, looks like a step in the right direction, but I also note that there are still different clauses for members of different bodies, such as the UKCP, and that might lead to a still convoluted system. I'd like to see the BACP, UKCP, etc. do more to directly address member concerns and help us pull together as a single body, rather than all these different fragmented tribes.
My previous work in government policy for the Coastguard means I know just how difficult that is going to be to achieve. It's going to take a lot of leadership from people in our profession stepping up and achieving buy-in to make it work, and it will need cross-party backing in Parliament too to make any changes long-term.
What do you see being some of the major challenges your profession will face in the next 10 years? How do you think the way you will operate may change?
I think all bets are off whilst SCoPEd rolls on, but the big one will be how the NHS and third sector cope in delivering mental health services. I'd love to see the political impetus to totally reimagine mental health provision in the UK and create a national Mental Health Trust that could pull remote counsellors together to deliver a joined-up service UK-wide, but again that's going to take the kind of public leadership we only get once in a generation. That said, we did it before with the creation of the NHS and welfare state. I hope we can do it again.
What advice would you give to others in the profession?
There's a quote that meant a lot to me at a very specific time in my life, as I was battling my depression in my late teens. I still think about it sometimes, and especially during Covid working in that crisis team. Despite all the frustration and hopelessness, remember this:
"Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark in the hopeless swamps of the not-quite, the not-yet, and the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach. The world you desire can be won. It exists… It is real… It is possible… It's yours."
We're more in control of our destiny than we think we are. If you don't like the rules of the game; change the game. Don't stick it out in that dead-end job that gives you no meaning or fulfilment. Take the risk, take the hill. So long as you're prepared to live within your means and take personal responsibility, your life is yours to make of it however you want.
DipHE MBACP (Reg.)
Find out more, and start your journey with us.