Different Types of Counselling Providers
Can you explain the different types of counselling support that a person can access? I hear about psychiatrists and psychologists and therapists. And I don’t understand the differences between them all.
Signed: So Many Choices
Dear So Many Choices,
You are so right – there are many different types of counselling providers to choose from. Many people get confused and use terms interchangeably, when they are really trying to find something that is quite specific to a certain need. In Beaumont, we have Tacit Knowledge (therapists/psychotherapists/certified counsellors); Level Up Psychology (psychologists/certified counsellors/MSW’s); and a few other agencies that offer a variety of options. Lots of therapists also offer virtual counselling options now too, so you can access mental health support from a professional who lives anywhere in Alberta (sometimes even across Canada).
Counsellors, clinical social workers, therapists, psychotherapists, psychologists and psychiatrists are the most common terms that are used to describe the types of professional psychological (or mental health/emotional) support providers in Alberta. Each role is differentiated by the types of education and specialized training that the professional has achieved; and by the specific type of services that each person is legally allowed to provide. To complicate matters even more, each province has their own regulations and legal definitions governing the credentials that those in the mental health (MH) profession use, so the rules in Alberta may not be exactly the same in other regions. But there is a great deal of overlap in these roles too.
A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who has obtained additional training exclusively in the area of mental health. He/She works within the medical model of wellness (which often relates to a study of the biology of the brain) and focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders after they have already developed. Psychiatrists are able to prescribe medication to help with symptoms related to various mental health issues – no other type of MH therapist is able to do this. Not all psychiatrists provide therapy directly to patients (and if they do, it is often very brief and infrequent). Instead, they expect their patients to also access the support of other MH providers (like psychologists/therapists).
Social workers, therapists, counsellors, psychologists and psychotherapists are not medical doctors. Their education/training is specialized solely in the field of mental health, and they work within a model of mental wellness (which relates to patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviours that influence a person’s emotional state). These professionals are able to diagnose (depending upon their level of training and education) and treat mental health problems with both an intervention and a prevention focus. This means they can work with clients both before and after the mental health issues become disorders.
These professionals help clients address both past and current emotional issues; and make suggestions to help clients change how they think, process emotion and live their life, so a more stable connection within self can be created. These professionals tend to work with clients as a whole person. As such, they often work in collaboration with family drs and psychiatrists (the medical treatment model) as well as with many other types of health providers (OT’s, massage therapists, ministerial workers, nutritionists, naturopaths, fitness coaches, yoga instructors, etc), in order to provide the best, well-rounded assistance to their clients in every way.
Although similar in some ways with the approach they use to support their clients, there are some key differences between all of these types of MH professionals. Let’s give an analogy to help explain – think of the very broad term “athlete”, for example. There are many different kinds of athletes (hockey players, golfers, weight lifters, marathon runners, etc). Each one might have a similar base level of physical fitness, but all specialize in a way that is unique to their own interests and daily training regimes. They are not interchangeable when they perform. And neither are MH professionals.
All MH professionals have an obligation (legally and ethically) to provide evidence-based interventions to their clients, based on their initial level of education and the years of experience/additional training that they have achieved. They choose a path of specialization (areas of competency), and they are required to ensure that their skills in these areas stay relevant and appropriate. These competency aspects are regulated and monitored by specific governing bodies in the mental health field (if the person you are seeing is not registered with a MH governing body, they are NOT a MH professional). MH professionals are not allowed to provide services to clients for which they are not appropriately trained/certified. And a person seeking support needs to be sure that the professional they are seeing is able to meet their needs, based on both of these considerations (education and years of experience/training).
So how do you know if the MH professional you might want to work with can actually meet your needs? The best way is to have a conversation with your potential therapist. Talk to them and ask questions about their training and background. Confirm that they are properly registered with a governing body. Find out about their style/approach to therapy (do they sit and listen – will they provide you with suggestions and insights – will they give homework or do they want you to do most of the work in the sessions?). And ask them what they cannot do. If a MH professional is unwilling to share information about their limitations with you, then they may not be certain about their own skills and abilities. Most MH providers will offer a free consultation by phone (or you may prefer to do this by email). This is the perfect chance to get a sense of who the therapist is and what they can offer you (if they don’t offer this option, perhaps this is telling you something).
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