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Exploring mental health and counselling

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This module locates counselling within the broader field of mental health and provides a comprehensive and engaging introduction to the often controversial debates around mental health/illness and the main theories and practices in counselling. The module will critically examine the definitions and understandings of mental health issues and the ways they are treated in the related fields of practice, especially in counselling and psychotherapy. You'll be presented with recent theoretical debates and contemporary international research to inform and help you develop a critical understanding of the themes and issues related to mental health and counselling.

What you will study

This module provides a comprehensive introduction to the controversial debates around mental health/illness and the main theories and practices in counselling. You'll learn about the main themes that are central to the understanding of the intersection of mental health and counselling, and the role that mental health services play in society. These are taught in five blocks, and you'll study a new topic each week.

Block 1: Understanding mental health
You'll begin with an introduction to the fundamental debates around the contested nature of mental ‘illness’ and the changing ways people with mental health problems are perceived, categorised and treated today and in the past. You'll learn about the history of psychiatry and how psychological treatments and ‘talking cures’ have developed. You'll take a critical look at systems of diagnosis and categorisation of mental health problems and the forces that have shaped them. This block will also introduce the difficulties that have often faced those people who have been subject to various forms of diagnosis and treatment – including the stigma of labelling as well as confinement and cruel and coercive treatments.

Block 2: Presenting problems
In this block, you'll explore the main issues that cause people to seek counselling or other forms of help and the way they are experienced and diagnosed or formulated in practice. You'll take a critical look at depression and anxiety, which are commonly understood to be the most common presenting issues, and the feelings of ‘sadness’ and ‘worry’ are labelled as mental health difficulties. You'll learn what is meant by trauma and crisis, as well as some of the presenting issues most commonly associated with the trauma response, including self-injury and suicide risk. The block will then turn from a focus on the individual to look at relationships and intimacy and how they influence our mental health and vice versa. At the end of this block, you'll be introduced to formulation, which is presented as an alternative to diagnostic classification.

Block 3: Models of working
This block presents an overview of the most common approaches that inform counsellors and psychotherapists, allowing therapy practitioners to make sense of and work with the issues presented to them by clients. You will learn about psychodynamic approaches and their notion of the dynamic unconscious and its impact on our feelings and behaviour. You'll examine how concepts and techniques from cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) can be employed to work with mental health difficulties. You’ll study humanistic approaches and their focus on the therapeutic relationship between client-counsellor in providing conditions for growth. You’ll also explore pluralistic and integrative approaches and the efforts to put different orientations to mental health and counselling in dialogue with each other.

Block 4: Counselling in practice
You'll be introduced to the ways in which counselling and psychotherapy are practised, and mental health problems are treated in different practice settings, including settings beyond the individual client and the traditional face-to-face encounter. You will learn about the role and importance of the therapeutic relationship between client and therapist and the ways it is understood and employed in different therapeutic traditions. You'll be introduced to counselling approaches ‘beyond the individual’ especially systemic and group therapy - and how they are applied in family, group and community settings. You'll take a critical look at different forms of technology-based counselling and the ways these are employed as alternatives and/or supplements to face-to-face services. The block will also introduce specific professional and ethical issues and challenges in counselling in practice, including the way contracts and boundaries are negotiated.

Block 5: Contemporary issues: mental health and society
The final block looks at the social, political and economic forces that inform and shape contemporary understandings of mental health and practices in the field, including the ways the current ‘therapeutic culture’ might impact the way we see and experience mental health issues and treatment. You'll critically examine how research agendas and practices in mental health and counselling are often informed and shaped by social, political and economic influences. You’ll explore the fascinating and contested relationship between ideas about mental health difficulties and criminal justice. You'll also be invited to consider mental distress not from an individual (biological or psychological) perspective but how particular difficulties may be caused by social factors and related to the socio-political environment.

Throughout the module, there will be a focus on client/service user voices and experiences, and discussions on research evidence and diversity issues. You'll also be introduced to three fictional service-user/client narratives that will unfold across the module (e.g. through videos and podcasts) to illustrate the module content.

Some of the real-world topics covered in the module involve issues that some people may find personally emotive or currently sensitive. Individual content warnings will be given before such material is presented, outlining the issues to be covered and suggesting ways in which you might engage with it if it is personally relevant to you. Before signing up, we invite you to look through the topics covered (as described above) and to consider whether this is the right time to undertake this module.

Entry requirements

This is an OU level 2 module. Prior to studying this module, you should have obtained the necessary study skills to study at OU level 2, for example by completing relevant OU level 1 study, but you are not expected to have any special knowledge of psychology or counselling and mental health.

Due to some aspects of the module content and activities, entry is only open to students over the age of 18 at the module start date.

Please note, this module gives underpinning knowledge on counselling and mental health but does not qualify you to work as a counsellor.

Although we support students in the learning of this subject, please note that your tutor is not there to help with your own life or personal difficulties. This is not a function that this module can fulfil.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.

What's included

You’ll be provided with a module textbook, which will also be available electronically through VitalSource. To view the ebook, you will need to download the free VitalSource Bookshelf desktop app. You’ll also have access to the module website, which includes audio-visual material and a study guide.

Computing requirements

You’ll need broadband internet access and a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of Windows (10 or 11) or macOS Ventura or higher.

Any additional software will be provided or is generally freely available.

To join in spoken conversations in tutorials, we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).

Our module websites comply with web standards, and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.

Our OU Study mobile app will operate on all current, supported versions of Android and iOS. It’s not available on Kindle.

It’s also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook. However, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you’ll also require a desktop or laptop, as described above.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will be assigned a tutor who will give you advice and guidance throughout the module. They will help you with the study materials, as well as mark and comment on your written assignments. Your tutor will offer online group tutorials in which you are encouraged to participate.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying D241 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

Future availability

Exploring mental health and counselling (D241) starts once a year – in October. This page describes the module that will start in October 2024. We expect it to start for the last time in October 2027.

Course work includes:

4 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment

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