What is counseling?

Two weeks ago I tried to demystify psychiatry by clarifying what we do and how we’re trained. Even more common than psychiatrists are counselors – and there is a lot of misinformation floating around about exactly what training these people have and what they actually do with their clients.

A counselor is defined as someone who provides advice, support, education or guidance about problems in living. Unfortunately, this term is not very specific about what kinds of problems a counselor will deal with or what training is involved.

No regulations exist to govern who can and cannot refer to themselves as counselor. In our community we have people advertising as counselors in a wide range of fields including finances, religion, mental health, career, dietary, exercise, psychic or almost anything else you an imagine.

In addition to the lack of regulation surrounding the word counselor, there are also no regulations dealing with the training a person must have in order to be a counselor.

Some go through vigorous training at accredited institutions and are licensed by a professional body while others may simply be individuals who have an interest in a particular area and consider themselves experts in their field.

As a result, it is important to ask about training and credentials when you consider visiting a counselor. Assume nothing. Even if an individual works for an established institution you would expect to require appropriate training, you should not assume this is the case.

Your potential counselor might be a trained and registered counselor, but he or she could also be a nurse, social worker, teacher, dietician, doctor, pastor, someone who has taken a course at a local community college or someone who has experienced the condition for which he or she is providing counsel.

Just because the counselor has a nice office, pleasant demeanor and the title of counselor, does not mean he or she has appropriate training or experience.

A counselor’s success often depends a lot on personality. Simply providing support and an ear to listen can be helpful to someone in distress. All therapists – whether they have credentials or not – can have that effect on their clients and it is useful to a degree.

However, in a counseling session you should expect to get some advice and guidance based on more than simply a willingness to listen.

Do not be fooled into equating cost with quality. Counselors may be paid by your employer, an insurance company, a government institution such as a hospital, mental health center or school or they may charge you directly for their time.

You might assume if you are paying a large fee you are seeing a well trained, competent person. There is not necessarily any connection between cost and qualifications. A counselor working alone can charge whatever the market will bear.

In situations where there is a union in place, jobs may be awarded based on seniority rather than qualifications. If a well-qualified individual is competing for a position against someone less qualified but with more seniority, the person with the most seniority will usually get the position.

In my experience, people are often ready to accept a counselor is competent if the individual works for an established institution or has a good word of mouth recommendation. Unfortunately, this is not always the case and what may feel good in counseling is not necessarily good – especially when the issues at stake in the area of mental illness are often very significant.

Incompetent treatment can lead to serious consequences for marriage, job, disability payments or life itself. I regularly see people who have been getting therapy for years with a treatable mental illness that has never been properly diagnosed or treated.

We are fortunate to have many very good counselors in our community who have completed excellent training programs. I strongly recommend you find out if the person you are about to see is really the most competent individual for what you need.

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About the Author

Paul Latimer has over 25 years experience in clinical practice, research, and administration.

After obtaining his medical degree from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, he did psychiatric training at Queen's, Oxford and Temple Universities. After his residency he did a doctorate in medical science at McMaster University where he was also a Medical Research Council of Canada Scholar.

Since 1983 he has been practicing psychiatry in Kelowna, BC, where he has held many administrative positions and conducted numerous clinical trials.

He has published many scientific papers and one book on the psychophysiology of the functional bowel disorders.

He is an avid photographer, skier and outdoorsman.

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The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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