The history of counselling

Written by Katherine Nicholls
Katherine Nicholls
Counselling Directory Content Team

Last updated 8th February 2024 | Next update due 7th February 2027

The history of treating mental health concerns can be traced all the way back to the ancient Greeks, who were the first to identify mental illness as a medical condition, rather than a sign of disgruntled deities. And while their understanding of mental health treatment wasn’t always spot on (bloodletting for psychosis anyone?), they did recognise the value of encouraging words.

Most people however trace modern-day psychotherapy back to Sigmund Freud in the 1800s. While working as a neurologist with ‘neurotic’ patients, he came to the conclusion that mental illness was the result of keeping thoughts or memories in the unconscious. He developed methods which involved listening and providing interpretations that would bring these memories and thoughts to the surface.

Freud’s work, alongside apprentices such as Alfred Adler, Otto Rank, Karl Abraham, Snador Ferenczi and Carl Jung, led to the development of psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapy.

Carl Jung was a close colleague of Freud’s, but left to pursue his own theories and methods. Jung’s work drew on both Adler and Freud’s theories with many of his ideas still largely recognised today, such as archetypes, persona, collective unconsciousness and introvert/extrovert personality types.

During the 1950s, another approach was developed - person-centred therapy. Carl Rogers (influenced by Adler and Rank’s work) looked into the transmission of warmth, genuineness and acceptance from therapist to client.

Originally called ‘client-centred’, this approach avoids some of the more complicated constructs of psychodynamic therapy and is at the core of many current counselling practices. Other approaches also started developing under what became a new branch of psychotherapy, ‘humanistic’.

Also in the 50s - and then in the 60s - came some more developments in the psychotherapy world, predominantly in cognitive and behavioural approaches. Albert Ellis developed rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT) in the 50s and Aaron T. Beck developed cognitive therapy in the 60s. The combination of cognitive and behavioural approaches led to the development of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), an approach that is now widely valued.

Counselling today

Today there is a range of therapeutic approaches available. Many sit under these three umbrellas:

On our types of therapies page, we have outlined several of the most commonly used therapies, from psychoanalysis to the more recent mindfulness. If you’re not sure which type is right for you, that’s perfectly OK. For many people, it’s more a case of finding a therapist that resonates with you and who you trust.

If you’re interested in figuring out which therapy may be right for you however, do take a look at our ‘Which approach is right for me?’ article.

And finally, don’t be afraid to ask the counsellor you’re thinking of seeing to explain a little more about the way they work and any specific approaches you’re interested in.

The history of counselling
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