Counsellor or Clinic: What’s Right For You?

Uncertain Times

When Covid first hit, I had no idea what would happen to the shape of my practice. Worryingly, would all my clients get sick? Would I get sick? Would people be too preoccupied to attend counselling? Would people lose their jobs and no longer be able to afford counselling? There was a lot of uncertainty about the counselling landscape back in 2020, at a time when counsellors were also trying to get their bearings as to how to cope personally with the pandemic, pivot their practices and dig deep to be present for their clients.

Despite all of my questions, I was actually very unprepared for the fact that I was about to embark on the busiest two years of my counselling career. And further, never have I seen such a proliferation of private counselling options available to the public. Aging myself, when I first launched Willow Tree Counselling in 2009, a good half of the counsellors working in Metro Vancouver did not have websites. It’s hard to imagine this past reality, today.

A Proliferation of Options

As private counselling options have increased to meet public demand, some of us wonder whether we should see a solo therapist or alternatively, choose a counselling clinic.

And with the growth in counselling options, it can get more than a little overwhelming when it comes to making a choice.

I’ll cut to the chase and say off the top that this choice is personal, and there is no right or wrong answer here. The key thing is that you find the choice that’s right for you.

In the spirit of transparency, most of you who read my articles, or have met with me for therapy, know that Willow Tree Counselling is a practice of one: just me. I’m a solo practitioner who has toyed with the idea over the years of expanding my practice but I’ve repeatedly returned to the conclusion that working without staff is the choice that allows me to practice most authentically. And despite my efforts to be neutral, in what I write, below, there will be unconscious bias, given my own choice.

Now, let’s dig in and look at some common client needs and whether counsellor or clinic might be better for you. I’ll lead with my suggestions but you may feel differently, and sometimes there may be no clear answer: either option might suit just fine.


I’m Ambivalent About Counselling

Maybe you’ve never done counselling and aren’t sure it’s for you. Maybe someone else has suggested it and you’re not sure you want to commit. Maybe you’ve tried therapy in the past and you’re toying with the idea of trying it again.

If these questions resonate, you may want to try a counselling clinic. Why?

  • Waiting lists are sometimes shorter, as there are more staff, allowing you to “strike while the iron’s hot”: attending when you’re ready but before you lose interest.
  • If the counsellor you choose at the clinic isn’t a match, there will be other counsellors working at the clinic who might be a better match. In-clinic transferring can be less effort than having to find a new clinic/counsellor and complete all new paperwork.

I Need An Appointment Soon!

Again, a counselling clinic may be your best option, as many solo practitioners have waiting lists because there is a cap on the amount of clients that solo counsellors can responsibly work with. Clinics with multiple staff—particularly those with larger amounts of available counsellors—may significantly increase the chances of an earlier appointment.

I’ve Seen Counsellors Before and I Know What I Want

One of the cool things about having had counselling before, is a cumulative sense of surety about what you want (or don’t want) in a future counsellor. Sometimes going the solo practitioner route, with its focus on the individual practitioner, allows you to gauge their vibe more quickly in your research, and more efficiently decide whether it meshes with what you’re looking for. For others, a counselling clinic might do just fine, particularly if the clinic has a particular focus or slant that really appeals to you.

I Want a Personalized Experience

While personalized counselling experiences have the potential to occur in either counselling setting, sometimes researching solo practitioners first is a good starting point. Why? As they’re the only one featured on their website, independent counsellors may have more well-developed bios, more extensive specialty areas listed, or may have an extensive collection of blog posts, all of which might give you a better preview about who they are as therapists, what their interests are and how they practice.

I Want a “Hands On” Experience

Related to the above point, some potential counselling clients want to be seen by a solo counsellor who is involved in all aspects of their counselling: from responding to their first email or phone call, to having a consultation, to booking a first appointment. For those who are seeking an in-person experience, sometimes it’s interesting to sit in an office that was personally decorated by your therapist, allowing you to learn a little bit more about their personal approach to creating a counselling space.

I’m Overwhelmed. I Don’t Know Who to Choose

It’s absolutely true that finding a therapist in Vancouver can be a nightmare. There are so many options, however, despite this, it can be a maze of trying to find out who is accepting new clients and who isn’t. And tack on already being distressed (hence the need for counselling) AND trying to find a therapist while in a distressed state… Further, Covid has only made things worse, contributing to waiting lists and for some therapists, burnout, which also reduces availability, as counsellors leave the field temporarily or permanently, to mentally heal.

When faced with factors like these, going to a larger clinic may be the ticket. Bigger and more established counselling clinics may have an intake coordinator who can help match you a therapist on staff who is both taking new clients and has experience in the areas you are seeking help with. If you think, however, that an attempt is being made to match you just for the sake of matching you and it doesn’t feel right to you, don’t hesitate to call another clinic or counsellor.

Others deal with overwhelm by consulting with a trusted friend, family member or health professional who may be able to refer you to a counsellor who is either working solo or who practices in a a larger clinic setting.

I Want a Counsellor With a Lot of Experience

It can be difficult to find out how much experience counsellors have! Not everyone lists when the graduated on their websites, or what their experience is. As you may be able to infer, this is a pet peeve of mine.

I consider solo private practice advanced practice, as the counselling work can be complex and there is no supervisor on-site. Hopefully this means that your solo counsellor has a decent amount of experience, but this is not a guarantee. Please ask the counsellor directly in a free preliminary consultation, if you are unable to get this information online.

Clinics may be more likely to hire new counselling grads but again, this is not always the case, because many counsellors prefer to work in a clinic setting where they don’t have to worry about attracting clients. Or, they have been recruited by a clinic director who knows their work well. More often than not, a clinic director, if they still provide counselling, likely has more counselling experience than the counsellors working under them. Again, it’s important to clarify this, if experience is important to you.

I Don’t Want to Work With Counselling Students

It’s important to remember that you have the right as a client to either refuse or alternatively, agree, to work with a counselling intern (see below, too).

The majority of placements for counselling students can be found in clinic settings, although more rarely, students may be being supervised by a solo practitioner. If you are concerned about this, ask.

I Can Only Afford To Work with a Counselling Student OR I Enjoy Working with Counselling Students

This can often be arranged by an intake coordinator working at a larger counselling clinic, or sometimes directly through private practitioners, particularly if a potential client reaches out and requests a lower-cost counselling option. If you’re in the Metro Vancouver area, I have created a list to help with this search.

I Want Help with a Specialized Issue

Depending on how specialized the issue is, there may be a small handful of people who help with it, either working independently or in a clinic. And some counselling clinics have a particular focus on the area you’re seeking help with, with multiple practitioners experienced in the area, allowing a little more “one stop” choice to the client.

I Want to See A Therapist In Person

I touched on this above, but if an in-person experience is important to you, you will be guided by a few factors:

  • Office location: is it convenient to work or home? Does a clinic or counsellor’s independent office fit this bill better for you?
  • Office space: do you feel more comfortable in an independent office which may or may not have a waiting room, or would you feel better being greeted by a receptionist and attending a clinic with multiple offices in use at the same time? Do you feel better in a very quiet space, or are you calmed by a little more activity around you? Do aesthetics matter to you? For example do you want a space personally decorated by your therapist or are you ok if the office is more generic?

And for some of us, the office environment—as long as it’s private—doesn’t make much difference. It’s not uncommon to get questions well into the course of therapy about decor that has been in my office for years, wondering if it is new.


And sometimes it just works out that a counsellor comes to you organically (via a referral, a waiting list you forgot you were on, a public talk given by the counsellor that inspired you) and a successful match is made.

And no matter how you find a counsellor, always start with a consultation first, so you can ask any clarifying questions before you sign up for sessions.