PSYCHOLOGIST vs THERAPIST vs PSYCHIATRIST: Choosing Your Mental Health Professional

When you don’t know the differences between mental health professionals, it can make deciding which professional will best suit your needs difficult. Many people, at some point in their lives, seek help from a mental health professional. I like to think that each profession has its specialty contribution to helping clients. In some cases, a collaboration between these professionals can also be helpful in maximizing a client’s progress towards their goals of mental health and wellbeing. In order to know where to start your search for the right mental health professional for you, it’s helpful to more fully understand the role that each professional plays in this field.

This article is written based on the professional services available in British Columbia, Canada, though the educational and registration/licensing expectations are similar Canada-wide.

Counsellors

The words “counsellor” or “therapist” are unregulated terms in Canada, though in the most professional sense they often refer to mental health professionals that hold both a four-year undergraduate degree and a two-three year Master of Arts, Master of Education or Master Counselling degree.

Counsellors are trained in a variety of areas to be able to help a wide-array of clients with varying concerns. Many counsellors choose to focus their practice on a few specific areas, such as couples counselling, depression, and anxiety, trauma or eating disorders, to give a few examples. Counsellors can be found working in a variety of settings from private practice to government-funded community and hospital programs. The simplified general perspective of counsellors is a shift from the more traditional medical model, viewing clients as the expert in their lives. As a result, counsellors often with clients on issues beyond what is considered a mental health issue, such as making decisions about life transitions, developing a greater understanding of themselves, and creating stronger relationships with others.

In British Columbia, masters-level counsellors can be registered with either the British Columbia Association of Clinical Counsellors (BCACC) or the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association (CCPA). Both are highly regarded – the CCPA is a Canada-wide organization, though the BCACC tends to be more commonly known. Myself and my associates are Registered Clinical Counsellors with the BCACC. If you’re interested in finding a counsellor, below are the links to their search pages.

Registered Clinical Counsellor – BCACC

Canadian Certified Counsellor – CCPA

Psychologists

If you thought the minimum six years of education a counsellor receives was a lot, Psychologists take their education to the next level by receiving a doctoral degree, also known as a Ph.D. Some professionals choose to reach this level of education so they can pursue an academic career as a researcher or professor. Others, go on to register as a psychologist with the BC Psychological Association, receiving the title of Registered Psychologist. These professionals are able to complete comprehensive assessments of clients and provide diagnostic information that may better inform you about your mental health issue. If you receive extended health benefits your plan may require you to see a psychologist. These professionals are required to complete an intense examination prior to becoming registered with the BC Psychological Association, in addition to completing continuous training throughout their careers.

School Psychologists are a specialized type of psychologist who have focused their master’s degree education on learning about the psychology of learning and developmental psychology. When children or youth experience challenges in the learning environment, School Psychologists are available to provide assessments of their functioning. From here, recommendations can be made to improve the student’s chances of performing at their personal best. You may come across these professionals working in the elementary or secondary school setting. They also sometimes work in private practice to provide assessment services to students.

Counselling Psychologists Versus Clinical Psychologists

In Canada, psychologists are trained in one of two ways – either through a counselling psychology program or a clinical psychology Ph.D. Program. Both types of psychologists can be found working with a wide range of client levels of functioning from private practice to hospital settings. However, generally speaking, Clinical Psychologists tend to follow the traditional medical model of client diagnosis and work with clients with greater psychiatric concerns. Both types of psychologists may specialize in different areas of treatment and must remain competent in their chosen specialty to receive BC Psychological Association registration.

If you’re looking to work with a Registered Psychologist, the BC Psychological Association search page is a good place to start.

 

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Psychiatrists

Psychiatrists are medical physicians who have specialized in mental health. They first complete a four-year undergraduate degree, followed by four years of medical school and five years of residency in psychiatry. Psychiatrists are unique, as they are the only mental health professional that is able to prescribe medication to clients. They possess specialized knowledge in how psychotropic medications interact with the body and mind. For this reason, your GP may prefer to refer you to see a psychiatrist if medication becomes a part of your individual treatment plan.

Following the traditional medical model of treatment, psychiatrists often work in hospital settings or require a referral from a medical physician. Psychiatrists differ in their approaches to client treatment. Some provide therapy in addition to monitoring medications, whereas others work in collaboration with a counsellor or psychologist who provides the talk therapy.

You are able to learn more about psychiatrists from the BC Psychiatric Association website. Since psychiatrists are medical physicians first, they are regulated by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of BC. Though you are able to search for a psychiatrist on their search page, a referral from your GP is necessary. On a positive note, the services provided by a psychiatrist are often covered by MSP and do not require additional payments.

Social Workers

Social workers are another group of mental health professionals that vary in the types of services that they provide. At the undergraduate level, social workers often work for government or community organizations to assist clients in managing various aspects of their lives that they are experiencing challenges with, such as acquiring housing. Social workers who complete either a one or two year Masters of Social Work (MSW) degree, choose a focus during their training. Some choose to work in child protection, family preservation, and other activities that promote client well-being in a more practical sense. Some social workers, however, choose to focus on developing themselves as therapists. These social workers are able to register at Registered Clinical Counsellors with the BCACC and may be covered by your extended health benefits.

To find a Registered Social Worker, you are able to search the BC College of Social Workers website. They can also be found via the BCACC website if your benefits require you to see a Registered Clinical Counsellor.

Beware: Unregistered/Unlicensed Mental Health Professionals

Being able to help others is an attractive career aspiration for many. Unfortunately, not everyone who claims to provide mental health, counselling or therapy services is qualified or ethically capable of doing so. The professions and regulatory bodies described above have been put in place to protect clients who often seek out professional help when they are already in a vulnerable position.

I’d like to believe that many of these unregulated/unregistered/unqualified individuals who provide services to the unknowing public do so with good intentions. However as described above, a great deal of time, education and investment goes into learning to provide mental health services. Without this training and professional regulation, both clients and mental health providers are at risk. Recently, the Vancouver Sun published an article¬†detailing the negative consequences a British Columbia resident experienced after working with someone claiming to be an art therapist, without possessing the necessary qualifications.

Because the words “counsellor” and “therapist” are unregulated, anyone can post a nice website and claim to provide counselling or therapy services. When researching mental health professionals to work with, it is important to look for information about both the education that they received and the registration or license they hold that permits them to provide services in their provinces or state. This information is available by either calling or checking the website of their registering/licensing body (listed above). Beyond this, I always recommend that clients request a consultation appointment with a professional that they are considering working with. Choosing a mental health professional is a personal and important decision. Choosing someone that fits well with you is something that cannot always be determined from reading a website alone.

Hopefully, you’ve found this article informative, and your decision will be an empowered one!

Hey there!!

I'm Meredith MacKenzie, the founder of Parallel Wellness and a Registered Clinical Counsellor. Simply put, I love to talk about psychology, emotions and all the things that make us human. My goal for this blog is to share information, resources and a fresh perspective on what brings clients to our practice.

So you want to know more??

download free guide

Hey there!!

I'm Meredith MacKenzie, the founder of Parallel Wellness and a Registered Clinical Counsellor. Simply put, I love to talk about psychology, emotions and all the things that make us human. My goal for this blog is to share information, resources and a fresh perspective on what brings clients to our practice.

So you want to know more??

download free guide