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  • Anita Harder

Professional Designations: What's The Difference?


Typically, the words counselling and therapy/psychotherapy are used interchangeably to describe the relational process where the counsellor (or therapist) utilizes specific professional skills to help you make changes in your life.


In Alberta, as in most jurisdictions in Canada, the words ‘counsellor’ and ‘therapist’ are unregulated. What this means is that anyone can call themselves a counsellor or a therapist, so a title alone may not be enough to ensure that the person you access has a minimum level of experience or education. There are some other things you can look for (which I will speak to below) to help you choose who you want to see.


What is the difference between all the professionals who work in the mental health field?


There are numerous professions that overlap and provide counselling services. You can receive exceptional support from a member of any of these professions, but there are some differences in their training and regulation.


Psychologist – Psychologists can assess, diagnose, and treat mental health concerns . In Alberta, a psychologist will have a masters or doctorate (PhD or PsyD) degree. A psychologist will also meet a number of educational and experiential requirements including 1600 hours of supervised practice and the completion of licensing exams. In Alberta, only people who have met the criteria laid out by the College of Alberta Psychologists may call themselves psychologists.

Provisional Psychologist – A provisional psychologist is a person in-training to become a psychologist. A provisional psychologist will have completed the formal training required for registration as a psychologist; however, they are required to practice under the supervision of a senior member of the profession. Once the provisional psychologist has completed 1600 hours of supervised practice and passed the licensing exams, they become a registered psychologist. Only individuals who have been approved by the College of Alberta Psychologists may use the title ‘Provisional Psychologist’.


Certified Counsellor – There are a number of professional bodies in Canada that certify counsellors. The certification process requires the individual to meet the qualifications laid out by the professional body in order to use a specified title. Typically, certification as a counsellor requires the completion of a graduate degree in a counselling field with associated practical experience.


Social WorkerSocial work is a regulated profession, so only those registered with the Alberta College of Social Workers may call themselves a social worker. A social worker may have a diploma, a bachelors degree, a masters degree, or a doctoral degree. Social workers may function in a variety of professional capacities. Social workers providing counselling/therapy should be designated as "Clinical Social Worker" or have received authorization to perform restricted activities.


Psychiatrist – Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have specialized in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions. Psychiatrists can prescribe medication. In some cases, psychiatrists provide talk-therapy to their patients, though this may depend on the context in which they work. In Alberta, one typically requires a referral from their family doctor in order to see a psychiatrist.


What credentials should I look for when finding a counsellor?


The letters behind a professionals name can tell you a lot if you know how to decode them. If you are not sure what the letters mean, feel free to ask.


1) Education


As a rule, I recommend looking for a professional who has a masters or doctoral degree in a field related to counselling (such as psychology, social work, and counselling). The letters most commonly conferring a masters or doctoral degree in a counselling field include: MC (Master of Counselling); MSc (Master of Science); MA (Master of Arts); MEd (Master of Education); MSW (Master of Social Work); PhD (Doctor of Philosophy); PsyD (Psychology Doctor).


2) Certification or Registration


A professional who is registered or certified with a professional body will have been required to meet a set of standards. This will have included demonstrating that they have sufficient competence and experience in providing counselling services. Professionals who are certified or registered are also required to follow standards of practice for their profession. Standards of practice are the rules they have to follow to ensure you are protected. On that note, if a certified or registered professional does something that is unethical or cringeworthy, you can make a complaint to their professional body.


Certification or registration is often represented by letters noted after those connected to the counsellor's education. The most common in the counselling field are RPsych (Registered Psychologist); CCC (Certified Canadian Counsellor); RSW (Registered Social Worker).


3) Training and/or Experience in the Area You Are Seeking Help In


Counselling professionals typically engage in ongoing professional development. Don’t be scared to ask your prospective counsellor about their training and experience. This will help you decide if they are the right fit for you.


In some cases, a professional's additional training may lead to certification in a specific type of therapy or skill. In this case, additional training may be represented by additional letters behind their name, education, and registration/certification. For example, in addition to having a masters degree (MC) and being registered as a psychologist (RPsych), I am a Certified Clinical Telemental Health Provider (CTMH).

Finding the right counsellor can be a daunting task! Stay tuned for my next blog where I will talk more about how to find the right counsellor.