Consultations begin to regulate mental-health councillors

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The goal is to ensure basic standards for education, licensing and professionalism.

Consultations have begun to regulate thousands of mental-health counsellors practising in B.C. to ensure basic standards for education, licensing and professionalism.

The province is aiming to designate psychotherapy as a health profession under the Health Professions Act, and kicked off 30 days of consultations on Friday.

Once psychotherapy is designated a health profession, the province’s next step would be to regulate the 4,600 to 5,000 psychotherapists in B.C. under a regulatory college.

Psychologists and psychiatrists are already regulated under colleges.

But for psychotherapists calling themselves mental-health counsellors and therapists, there’s no place for patients to verify education and competency and nowhere to go to complain about abuses. Associations offer memberships to qualified candidates who commit to codes of conduct and standards of practice. But even if the associations investigate complaints, they can’t publish the results and have no recourse if a practitioner quits.

Colleges establish educational requirements, ensure registered members are qualified, competent and follow standards of practice and ethics, and oversee a complaint process that includes posting of disciplinary notices online so people know who is in violation of the rules.

British Columbia has 26 regulated health professions, of which 25 are governed by 15 regulatory colleges under the Health Professions Act. “Clearly this should be one of them,” said Health Minister Adrian Dix, adding it’s a move clinical counsellors have sought “for some time.” “If you practise psychotherapy, it means that you’re recognized as a health profession, just like doctors and nurses, but also massage therapists and those who practise traditional Chinese medicine.”

The B.C. Green Party has for years called for psychotherapists to be regulated as well as addictions counsellors and some unregulated social workers, proposals that will be considered as part of the 30-day consultation.

B.C. Green Leader Sonia Furstenau introduced a private member’s bill in June 2021 to amend the Health Professions Act to compel the minister to regulate professions when in the public interest.

She called the proposal to regulate psychotherapists “a long overdue step,” citing the need to protect the public. “Anyone can call themselves a therapist or counsellor and we don’t know what training or ethical guidelines they are operating under.” When someone is seeking mental-health care, they are in a “vulnerable place,” she said.

Many people don’t have access to preventive health care because they can’t afford it, she said. “So the reality in B.C. is it’s not until they are in a full-blown mental-health crisis that they are able to access mental-health care in the health-care system — it’s a backwards way to approach it.”

Currently, there’s nothing to show that many of these addictions-centre therapists run evidenced-based programs and there’s no requirement that treatment data be submitted to the government for evaluation, said Furstenau.

The failure to get in front of a growing industry accessing “hundreds of millions of dollars” in government funding is mystifying, said Furstenau. “Honestly, it is astonishing to me.”

Once mental-health counsellors are regulated under a college, the province can move to expand the Medical Services Plan to cover mental-health professionals, she said.

The Federation of Associations for Counselling Therapists, representing therapists and counsellors, has called for regulation of psychotherapists. The association says that setting educational requirements and regulations for psychotherapy will bring more credibility to the profession and possibly more funding.

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