ANXIOUS? Bereaved? Addicted to shopping? Worried about the future of your marriage? Stressed out? The solution to any of these problems is the same, nowadays: get yourself a counsellor.

As life becomes ever more demanding, the chance to sit quietly and indulge in talking of nothing but one's own problems and feelings is a temptation many find hard to resist. But if counselling is the solution, it is harder to find it than you think. Although the last 10 years have seen a huge increase in counselling organisations you still can't just pick up the phone and request a counsellor. People in the most difficult of circumstances are having to wait, for several weeks, or even months, for help.

Jenny, whose mother died last year, handled the bereavement well at first but then became increasingly depressed and anxious. "I always told myself that I would get counselling if I felt I needed it," she says, "and as I began to find it difficult to cope it seemed like a helping hand. Until I began to try to make an appointment. There are no branches of Cruse [the National Bereavement counselling charity] in central London, and the bereavement organisation I did find couldn't offer me an appointment for four weeks. The state I was in, four weeks seemed like a lifetime."

Jenny finally got an appointment with the counsellor attached to her local GP's practice, but even that wasn't easy. "I had to see a GP who made the referral, but then I didn't hear from the counsellor for over a week. When she did offer me an appointment it was three weeks away. I got more and more panicky because I felt that no-one would help me. Eventually I got a cancellation and saw her after ten days - but it was only due to my efforts."

John Dilley of Cruse admits the delay between making the call and actually seeing a counsellor can cause problems. "Many of our branches have no waiting lists, but there are some that find it difficult to cope with the demand," he says. "We simply don't have enough counsellors."

Lynn Walsh of the British Association for Counselling believes that there is a common misconception about the numbers of counsellors available. "There seems to be a general media perception that there are thousands of counsellors, available when anyone wants them. The fact is that there are waiting lists - particularly in more rural areas - and the demand for counsellors is far greater than the services provided.

"We are encouraging GPs to take on counsellors - even if it's one for a whole practice. Patients then have access to counselling and some mental health problems can be nipped in the bud by getting fairly immediate attention."

Although GPs can find the funds to employ counsellors, charities do not always have the resources. "We are constantly underfunded," John Dilley says, "and Cruse is a fairly low profile charity. Dying and grief are still considered taboo for many people and they don't want to be associated with a charity that deals exclusively with bereavement."

Organisations offering counselling for other problems have similar delays in offering sessions. London Marriage Guidance, for instance, offers 200 appointments a week - and those are just in the evening - but there are still waiting-lists. "The public attitude to counselling has changed enormously," says Judy Cunnington, its director. "It is no longer seen as a sign of some sort of disorder and there is no stigma."

But Ms Cunnington believes a delay might also be helpful in some circumstances. There is a difference, she says, between crisis counselling, which needs immediate help, and relationship counselling. "People have to come to terms with the idea of counselling and it's better to let them adjust rather than rush them straight in to see someone," she says.

But for people in crisis such as Jenny, admitting they need help and then finding there is none immediately available can be a huge problem. "Once I realised I needed to talk to someone I felt panicky when I couldn't," she says. "When I told my friends about my experience of trying to get counselling they were amazed. They all thought the same as me, that getting an appointment was as easy as making a phone call. It's a shock when you find out that it's not that simple - at a time when the last thing you need is any kind of shock at all."