When I moved to Berlin, everything that happened to me seemed to happen by lucky chance. Unexpectedly, within a couple of months, I was my own boss, working as a counsellor in a private practice in Mitte. This is the story of how I went from sharing a counselling room to setting up a practice community and the project It’s Complicated.
The smooth start to my journey I have to thank the most helpful colleague, supervisor and friend for. Rebecca, a Danish psychologist who was a decade more experienced than me, took me under her wing and showed me how to get through the long list of practicalities necessary to set up a counselling practice. Since then I’ve wondered how I can give back to the pool of karma, since obviously not everyone will stumble upon a fairy godmother like mine, once they move to Berlin and want to make a career out of doing counselling.
And now I know how to give back just a little: In the following, I will try to share with you as much information about the general procedure of starting one’s own practice here in the city. This way, you won’t have to base your success in settling into Berlin as a counsellor on something as arbitrary as luck.
So, let’s take it step by step:
1. Do the things that all expat freelancers and self-employed, regardless their profession, must do.
This entails, first of all, getting your tax number from the local tax authorities (the so-called Finanzamt). You first of all have to either download and print the form called the “Fragebogen zur steuerlichen Erfassung” or if you live right by the Finanzamt you can go and pick up the form. The great people from All About Berlin wrote a complete guide in how to fill it in line by line (in English!).
Then you hand in or send the form, wait for some weeks, and your tax number will arrive in the mail.
It also means opening a bank account (everyone is raving about N26 as being the easiest and quickest way of opening an account, and it’s free. And then, of course, you might as well get it over with and find a tax accountant. This way, when you have someone to help you out in financial matters and when it’s time to submit your taxes, you have appropriate support.
For questions regarding specifically how your professional qualifications translate to German standards, this is the best source: https://www.bdp-verband.de/english/faq-recognition-of-professional-qualifications.
If you have a psychology degree it might even be worth to enter the association BDP (the Association of German Professional Psychologists) since they have the resources to consult and support you in professional and legal matters. They can also validate your qualifications for a fee.
2. Find a place to practice
As far as I’m concerned there are at least three different rental models as a private practitioner:
(1) One model is to find a secluded office space where you can fit two therapy chairs and what else you may need. You can start your search on ImmobilienScout24, Kleinanzeigen and WG-Gesucht. I would also recommend making a post in one of the many Facebook groups catering to the many different groups of professionals and nationalities living in Berlin. Often, when I find myself with a question regarding something specific to Berlin that confuses me — and neither Google nor friends can answer it — I reach out to the Facebook group “Danish People in Berlin” and if it’s something specific to my profession as a psychologist and counsellor, I ask in the group It’s Complicated — for therapists (this one we created for those interested in the It’s Complicated project and those interested in connecting with their fellow Berlin-based colleagues). So, try to make a call-out. Who knows? Maybe another counsellor lives close to you and is looking to share an office space.
This was, in fact, my way of working 5 years ago. With my fairy godmother I shared a little room in Mitte. We were each there two and a half days a week, and we split all of the costs and the maintenance of the space. We ran a normal WordPress website, through which clients found us. It worked well and gave me a lot of experience in how to be your own boss.
But with this option, it’s important to remember that you’re in charge of absolutely everything, from web presence and furnishing to cleaning and stocking up on tea and coffee. This can be at once empowering and stressful. The only truly all-negative aspect of this set-up is that you risk feeling isolated and lonely. In my case, since it was a one-room office that I shared with my friend and colleague, we actually never spent time together during work hours. I only saw her when I booked an appointment with her for supervision or drank a coffee with her outside of work. This leads me to the second type of setup.
(2) I’ll call the second model the “Ad-hoc model” and this is the second type of setup that I’ve worked in. In this set-up, the organization simply takes around 25% of the session fee, and then, in my case, I also paid a monthly flat rate (a kind of service fee) of 150 euro for being on their website and drinking their coffee, utilizing their open space, etc. The advantage to this type of model is that it’s easy, flexible, and somewhat social.
Usually you have a lot of counsellors working from one space. Also, the companies that offer this type of service tend to have a successful website that delivers clients. On the website, you have your individual profile where people can contact you and set up an appointment. Furthermore, you don’t have to hurry and get a lot of clients to be able to pay rent, and you can be more flexible with your time, and have other jobs on the side, and go on vacation without feeling like you’re just throwing rent out the window.
The downside, however, is that when you have a bunch of clients and add up the percentages you’re paying to the company, you’re suddenly paying them a really high amount. Say I work part-time and have 10 clients a week, and my session fee is 80 euro. That’s 800 euro I make a week, times four weeks in a month equals 3200 euro. Take 25% of that and you get 800 euro plus the 125 euro. That is 925 euro, which in other words was what I was paying for having only 10 clients a week. Probably because that’s a super high amount for being only 10–15 hours a week at a place, many therapy spaces chose a third solution, which is the last type of set-up I will explain.
(3) For lack of a better term, I’ll call the third option the Group Practice model. This is what Mittelweg 50 is — the practice that I help run and work from. Here the deal is that the counsellors share the expenses and responsibilities based on how much they use the practice. Usually the founders will already have set up a fully-furnished space, a website which delivers clients, monthly supervision groups, and all the other things that counsellors need to run their practice, and with a set monthly fee you gain access to a room part-time or full-time, depending on your needs and how much you want to pay. The advantage to this set-up is that it’s social and has a community feel, and the practice works to get you clients. The fee is also much more reasonable than the percentage-based model, usually ranging from 195 and upwards, depending on whether you have 5 sessions or 25 sessions a week. The disadvantage is that you don’t just stop paying rent if you go away for a month. In this regard, it’s similar to a gym membership.
3. Promote your service
Even if you’ve found a room through a Group Practice and have a profile through their website, you’ll get more clients quicker if you also put in some individual time and effort in promoting your services. In this day and age, web presence really is key.
You can build your own webpage easily through drag and drop website builders like Wix, Weebly or Squarespace, or get a developer to make you a WordPress site. You can also apply to become part of the It’s Complicated platform, which I recently helped launch with the help of my colleague and two savvy developers. The platform aims at simplifying your online practice and attracting clients, like other directories out there, for instance International Therapist Directory. It also helps to write a post about your therapeutic offerings in one of the abovementioned Facebook Groups, and if you don’t like to be self-promoting you could consider asking a friend to post a link to your webpage in a suitable Facebook Group.
A way to be seen without feeling like you’re relentlessly self-promoting, is also to write an article or blog post. Maybe your thesis is still lurking in the back of your mind, and you’d like to write a catchy and accessible synopsis about it, or maybe you just went to a conference and would like to distill all of the learnings you got into a blog post. If you don’t have your own blog, you can always get in contact with the It’s Complicated blog, and we can talk about publishing and promoting your post.
Something it took me years to learn, is that it’s worth being a bit picky about which clients you accept. In the beginning, my eagerness meant that I welcomed almost every new client request, unless it was obvious that the problem was too severe for my qualifications. But if you don’t allow yourself to be a bit mindful in who you chose to take on as a client, there’s a risk that the match won’t be great, and thus the risk of an early drop-out will be high, or even worse, you might feel that the strained process is stressing you out and causing compassion fatigue.
So try to spend time perfecting your profile text so that it clearly conveys your areas of expertise, interests, therapy style, languages you work in, personality etc. This way the right clients for you have a better chance of finding you, rather than those who’d maybe benefit more from seeing someone totally different.
4. Manage your practice
The average therapist spends as much time on administrative tasks as she does doing therapy. Answering emails, booking sessions, invoicing, it all takes up a lot of time, and can give rise to quite a headache. Fortunately, there are many offerings to help ease your admin load. There are free practice management tools like Health Kit and to take care of invoicing there’s a new free business account that helps with that called Holvi.
It’s Complicated aims to simplify the chaos it can be to manage your calendar and offers secure messaging with your clients. With the right practical setup you can hopefully spend a little less time on practical to-dos and more time on therapy.
5. Inform yourself about the legal matters of practicing
No matter which country you’re from in the world, regardless of whether it’s part of the EU, you can be sure that the legal and ethical intricacies are unique to Germany — and worth examining.
The main thing to know is that the only legally “safe” title that foreign practitioners can use all across the field of mental health care is “counsellor”.
And the best English source regarding whether your professional qualifications are recognized is to be found, like mentioned earlier, on BDP’s site. It was especially useful to learn that: “Academic degrees awarded in European Union countries, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway or Switzerland can be used in their original form without the need to cite the awarding university in the following states:
- North-Rhine Westphalia
But many colleagues feel like I do: Confused and disempowered upon realizing that the qualifications we hold in our home country or the country we studied and trained in are not worth as much in Germany. To demonstrate the confusion there is around appropriate titles and what we can call ourselves, I’ll put my own example to use:
In Denmark, the majority of those who want to do therapy take a Masters in clinical psychology. When the Masters is completed they call themselves psychologists and can immediately start practicing therapy. When people have problems, they get a referral from a doctor to see a psychologist who besides a Masters, also has a license which comes from two years of working fulltime clinically and getting supervision on the side. So here, psychologist is the protected title, whereas anyone can call themselves a psychotherapist.
Moving here I found out that while calling yourself a psychologist is also protected, I’m not allowed to say that I practice therapy unless I have the so-called “Approbation” or the “Heilpraktiker für Psychotherapie” license. And only with the Approbation or if you can prove that you have equivalent post-graduate training to what is required in Germany (minimum 3 years of school, supervision, work in the psychiatric unit, self-therapy, etc.), do you acquire the most highly esteemed and protected title “psychological psychotherapist.”
In my case, because I got the “Heilpraktiker für Psychotherapie” diploma, I can call myself a psychologist who practices psychotherapy but I cannot call myself a psychotherapist. Sounds murky? That’s because it is, and therefore you have to also consider how much time, energy and money you want to use pursuing the goal of having your qualifications recognized here in Germany.
6. Keep up the “good work”
When you’ve gotten to the point where you’ve settled in your work, remember that it’s not good to be too settled. You don’t want your ideas to become stale, your vision narrow, and your habits of thought tired and cyclical. Therefore, I would recommend you to connect with colleagues and get in touch with fellow professionals around the city, country, even world. If you have the money, go to conferences within your fields of interests, and if you want to do something a little more low-effort, join the monthly It’s Complicated meetups.
If you have a space where you can fit in a bunch of therapists and counsellors, you could even host a talk around a certain psychology- or therapy relevant theme, where you do a short presentation first. “While we teach, we learn,” said the Roman philosopher Seneca, and mutual learning would make the network of Berlin-based counsellors both more fun and strong.
In general, there seems to be a really good support network of English-speaking counsellors and therapists in Berlin. The vibe I get is that most people working here are glad to know others working in the field and are happy to meet up for group supervisions, casual meet-ups, and to refer clients on to people with different areas of expertise.