Going On A Therapy Vacation?

It happens. You’ve been in counselling for a while and you find yourself taking a break from it. Maybe you planned the break after some thought. Maybe ‘life happened’ and you found yourself cancelling your counselling appointment and not rebooking. Maybe something inside of you was resisting counselling and you took a break based more on instinct rather than specific thoughts.

All of these scenarios are valid. And common. And you may have your own, not reflected here, which would be valid too.

What is a Therapy Vacation?

On one level, defining a therapy vacation may seem a little obvious, as in, it’s time away from therapy. Not rocket science. But when I ponder this question, I pick up on a number of elements that make this question more nuanced than it actually seems at first glance.

To Be Expected

As I’ve written previouslyit is expected that all counselling will come to an end; counsellors should be working themselves out of a job from the outset of counselling. In fact, we know that brief therapy is much more common than longer-term therapy and that the most common therapy session amount is actually 1! Counselling vacations can happen almost right from the get-go!

Planned vs Unplanned

Sometimes breaks from therapy are planned. Possible reasons for this include:

  • The client has completed their counselling or psychotherapy
  • The client/therapist fit was poor and the client researches and finds a new therapist
  • The client had a limited amount of counselling sessions they could attend because of cost or their coverage for counselling had run out
  • Client or therapist may recognize that the client’s therapy has not been effective

Sometimes counselling clients drift away and there has not been a conversation between client and counsellor around ending therapy; therapy takes a pause. Possible reasons for this include:

  • A life circumstance arises that demands all of the client’s attention and care such as a sudden loss or health crisis, or the counsellor experiences a crisis of their own and has to stop working for a period of time
  • The client or therapist moves to a different geographical area, which may not have been anticipated at the start of therapy
  • A loss in finances that would normally pay for counselling such as unexpected unemployment or mounting financial debt
  • There has been a therapeutic rupture in the relationship between client and counsellor
  • The client recognizes that counselling is not for them

Involuntary Breaks

Sharing some common ground with  unplanned breaks, discussed above, involuntary breaks are sometimes seen more in the public mental health system, in agencies that provide subsidized counselling or in employee assistance programs (EAPs). In these scenarios, service mandates may come to an end, before a client has completed their therapy. 

A common reason for this is service capstypically a maximum number of sessions or time clients are allowed to be in a counselling program. Some programs have short-term counselling mandates only; this may be related to funding restrictions, service/program philosophy or because of high demand on the program and a need to provide service to more clients, for example.

In such scenarios, clients should be informed before therapy starts about any service restrictions, ideally in the form of a written client service agreement, so that the client can decide whether they would like to proceed with therapy despite the restrictions.

Further, should the therapy be incomplete and the counsellor unable to proceed because of a service cap, ethical counsellors will advise the client other counselling options in the community, if such options exist. 

Self-Initiated vs. Other-Initiated

Clients may take an active stance about proposing a break from counselling; at other times this may come from the therapist.

Clients typically will either raise it with their counsellor, or if uncomfortable about doing so, may cancel an appointment  (or not) and don’t return. Cancelling is always recommended as missed appointments do not allow other clients to take the spot, who might need it.

It is my belief that counsellors who are helping clients with non-life threatening situations or situations where there are no significant safety issues, should almost never try to stop clients from taking a break from counselling. Clients often have very valid reasons for breaking from therapy; convincing clients otherwise borders dangerously on coercion.

Sometimes, a counsellor may even suggest to the client that a break may be in the client’s best interest such as when an issue that the client has been working on has been resolved or as a way to grow the client’s confidence/test out new skills. Counsellors may also refer the client to another therapist if they feels that clients have not made sufficient improvements under their care.

Temporary or Permanent?

The terms therapy break and therapy vacation imply something temporary, although the truth is that some clients never return to therapy (and this isn’t necessary a bad thing!) Breaks can become permanent when…

  • An original issue in therapy has remained resolved over time
  • Clients have diversified their coping repertoires and are coping well independently
  • Clients support networks have improved remarkably
  • Clients no longer feel the need for counselling
  • Counselling does not speak to particular clients
  • Life circumstances make counselling too stressful or financial circumstances have changed

I have written previously about temporary breaks in counselling, or counselling when you need it, and only as long as you need it—as a normal support to the ups and downs of life.

When Your Therapist Is Away

Like it or not, anyone in at least a medium-term therapy arrangement will have a counsellor who eventually goes on holidays (at least I hope so!). Counsellors, like their clients, need to take time away in order to look after their mental health, which in term helps them assist you with yours. Counsellors vary according to how much time they need to take off per year and how often. Sometimes this time is related to their self-care and other times it may be related to circumstances such as child or elder care demands.

In other words, most counselling clients will experience a break when their therapist goes away; ideally a counsellor will communicate upcoming holidays to their clients in advance and collaborate with their clients on an appropriate interim coping strategy, including relevant local mental health resources and numbers if needed.

And while a much larger topic than the scope of this article, therapists do die: some unexpectedly. At such times, clients may need support around such a loss: reaching out to friends and family for their support or requesting a referral to another counsellor or in other cases, a clergy member, may be preferred.

Maximizing Your Time Away

And for clients who find themselves on a therapy break, for whatever reason, this can be rich time to learn or try something new, cope differently or grow in unexpected ways. Be it lighthearted or deep, the possibilities are many!