At different times in our lives we may need the assistance of a professional to help us resolve difficulties. We all encounter stressful and challenging life events such as relationship breakdown, family and work-related problems, illness or bereavement, to name a few. We may wish to review childhood events, to foster our self-esteem, or to develop skills to assist in daily living. If we want to seek help, how do we decide what is best for us?
During my years as a therapist I have noticed that many people are confused by the differences between the professions, the services they offer and their training and expertise.To assist you in making an informed decision, I have outlined the professional skills and services offered by psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists and counsellors.
A counsellor can assist with a range of general problems such as stress, conflict, relationship difficulties, and work-related issues. A counsellor may also be of benefit in providing strategies and skills for daily living. Counselling is generally considered to be a shorter term treatment designed to manage a specific problem, situation or life change. The majority of counsellors are experienced and qualified professionals who have undertaken a recognised course of training. Counselling training is offered by a wide variety of private organisations and universities in Australia.
The counselling profession is not regulated by law and anyone may call themselves a counsellor. It is recommended therefore that you choose a counsellor who can clearly demonstrate their training and experience and who is a member of a professional association. In Australia, PACFA (Psychotherapists and Counsellors Federation of Australia) is regarded as the peak regulatory body for counsellors and psychotherapists. PACFA requires their member associations to meet minimum standards in training and ongoing professional development. You may check whether your chosen counsellor is affiliated with one of their member associations at www.pacfa.org.au.
Psychotherapists can help individuals to explore problems of a deep-rooted nature that consistently disrupt their lives. Difficulties such as recurring depression, destructive relationship patterns, and the effects of childhood traumatic events may result in feelings of worthlessness, despair, or addictive behaviours. Psychotherapists support change and healing at a deep level.
Psychotherapy training is regarded as more in depth and is generally of longer duration than training for counselling. As well as extensive theoretical and experiential training, practitioners are required to undertake their own personal growth and therapeutic work. Psychotherapy training is offered by private organisations and some universities. A wide range of psychotherapeutic modalities are taught in Australia. Some examples are Gestalt therapy, Hakomi Experiential psychotherapy, Psychoanalytic psychotherapy, Family therapy, Transpersonal psychotherapy, Somatic therapy and Psychodrama.
As with counselling, the psychotherapeutic profession is not regulated by law and anyone may call themselves a psychotherapist. The recommendations given for choosing a counsellor also apply to choosing a psychotherapist.
In order to practice as a psychologist a minimum of a four year university degree is required, followed by two years of supervision by a qualified and experienced psychologist to obtain full registration with the Psychology Board of Australia. Registration with the Psychologists Board is a legal requirement. Psychologists may also complete a further two years training at Masters level for specialisation in areas such as Clinical, Counselling, Forensic, Educational and Developmental, Community, Organisational, Health, and Sports psychology.
Psychologists have a rigorous background in the scientific study of human behaviour and their training reflects a strong emphasis on validity of measures and reliable evidence of effective interventions. A degree in psychology has a strong experimental and research basis with a focus on statistical analysis, assessment and reporting, psychopathology and systems of counselling and psychotherapy. Cognitive behaviour therapy is a preferred, evidence-based, psychological treatment method of the profession. Psychologists are trained in the treatment of a range of problem areas including anxiety, depression, panic and phobias, self esteem, eating and weight control problems, relationship difficulties, and work and career related issues. Some psychologists undertake additional training in counselling and psychotherapy. Further information about psychologists may be found at www.psychology.org.au.
A psychiatrist is a qualified medical doctor who has studied six years of general medicine and then has not less than five years of training in psychiatric practice. Training for accreditation as a psychiatrist includes working under supervision in hospitals, community clinics and mental health services. During this time, trainee psychiatrists are supervised by experienced, qualified psychiatrists and are required to undergo a series of examinations to test competence. Upon completion of supervised training and examination, trainee psychiatrists can be elected as fellows of the Royal Australian College of Psychiatrists.
Psychiatrists tend to treat the more severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, and are trained and experienced in the prescribing of medications. Treatment methods may be a combination of the physical and psychological and include prescription of medications and hospital admission where deemed appropriate for investigation and treatment. Some psychiatrists undertake additional specialisations in child and adolescent psychiatry, forensic psychiatry, gerontology, psychoanalysis or other psychotherapeutic methods. Further information about psychiatrists may be obtained at www.ranzcp.org.
In order to be a competent therapist, a sound knowledge of theory and technique, extensive supervised practice, personal therapy, and ongoing professional development and training are required.
It is also true that the most consistent research finding in relation to the effectiveness of therapy is the therapeutic alliance or relationship. The quality of the relationship between the therapist and client continues to be the most effective aspect of therapy, regardless of the type of training or therapeutic model of the therapist. It is therefore important that you find a ‘fit’ with your chosen therapist so that you are confident that you may resolve difficulties and increase your capacity for personal growth and fulfilling relationships.
If you would like to learn more about Choosing a Therapist or would like to make an appointment please contact us