Want to use your acting skills to help people? Then consider drama therapy, says Caroline Roberts

There can't be many jobs where making a drama out of a crisis is a good thing. But drama therapists use techniques such as role play and improvisation to help clients work through their problems or come to terms with traumatic events. "It encourages people to use their imagination to get in touch with their inner resources and help them process their feelings," says Becky Hasnip, who works with a range of client groups including children with special needs, adults suffering psychiatric illnesses and elderly people with dementia.

Rather than asking people to confront their problems head on, drama therapy uses an indirect approach. "Sessions may start with a story relating to the issues you want to explore – it could be about overcoming a difficulty or facing your fears. We then work with the story, perhaps by encouraging clients to explore different characters' roles through enactment," says Hasnip. It may also involve projecting feelings on to objects such as puppets – this works particularly well with children.

Hasnip decided as a teenager that she wanted a career that would combine her love of theatre and performing with helping people with special needs, and felt that a performing arts degree would give her the right foundation.

"I wanted to develop my skills to be as creative, imaginative and spontaneous as I could when working with clients," she says. She then spent two years volunteering in psychiatric hospitals and working with children before studying for a postgraduate diploma in drama therapy at London's Central School of Speech and Drama.

But a performing arts background isn't strictly necessary, says Madeline Andersen-Warren, chair of the British Association of Drama Therapists. For most trainees, it's a second career, with many coming from occupations such as teaching or social work. "As well as a strong interest in drama, you need patience, empathy and good communication skills," says Andersen-Warren. "Those considering training should first take a short course in drama therapy, theatre or acting before applying – experience of improvisation is particularly useful."

The postgraduate course, which is now set at MA level and validated by the Health Professions Council, is also offered on a part-time basis at the Universities of Derby, Plymouth and Roehampton. As with most psychotherapy training, students are required to undergo therapy themselves while studying for the qualification and this can add to the costs. However, Hasnip believes it's a vital part of learning to be a good therapist. "How can you take people on a journey of self-discovery if you haven't done that for yourself?"

If you're looking for a stable, nine-to-five job, drama therapy probably isn't for you. Although there are opportunities for full-time employment, mainly with the NHS, most drama therapists earn their living through a mix of part-time and freelance work in settings such as special schools, psychiatric hospitals, prisons and day centres.

"It's a career you have to go out and make for yourself," says Hasnip. "It can be hard selling the idea of drama therapy to people who aren't familiar with its benefits. They tend to think it's a complementary therapy rather than a core one."

A newly qualified practitioner lucky enough to land a full-time role would be likely to earn at least £20,000 a year, rising to over £30,000 after a few years. Hourly rates for freelancers start at £30 but highly experienced and skilled therapists can charge as much as £60-£90, says Andersen-Warren.

"The rates may sound good," warns Hasnip, "but the reality is that you rarely work for the whole day in one place so you can end up spending a lot of time in the car travelling between jobs."

But the rewards make it worthwhile. "Every day is different," she says, "and you're constantly learning from your clients. It's very satisfying when someone makes a breakthrough and discovers something about themselves, or accepts something they found difficult. I recently finished a series of sessions with children who have Asperger's syndrome, so find it very hard to express their feelings. At the end, they spontaneously got up and made little speeches saying how sad they were that I was leaving. Moments like that are what the job is all about."

For more information, see the British Association of Drama Therapy website, www.badth.org.uk; for details on drama therapy at the Central School of Speech and Drama, go to www.sesame-institute.org