Funder by the Department of Human Services Auspiced by Our Community

A CONSUMER'S GUIDE TO COUNSELLORS

'Mental illness' is a hard slog. Many people diagnosed with 'mental illness' have life issues stemming from the social, psychological and pragmatic impact of chronic illness. This is the realm of the counsellor.

Counsellors come from a number of professions and specialise in a myriad of fields that crisscross the paths of many people, not just those of us who have been diagnosed with a 'mental illness'. Some of the specialist areas include: dietary, drought, infertility, family, offender, grief, rehabilitation, financial, victims of crime, relationships, suicide, children's health, abuse, trauma, veterans and veteran's family, gay and lesbian, positive (HIV and Hep C), carers, and adoption.

Some counselling services are provided free of charge, or for a small fee, by charitable organisations, local government, neighbourhood houses, disability organisations and employment services. However, generally, these services are means tested or provided free only for those who are on a disability support and/or aged pension, unemployment benefits, or some other benefit.

It can be hard to find services. You can try doing an internet search, or approach some of the organisations that may be involved in providing such services. These include local government agencies, not-for-profit agencies such as Anglicare, Wesley City Mission, Centrecare, and many smaller organisations. Most of the church organisations try to provide support for people in need regardless of their religious affiliation. Note, though, that these services are usually in demand, short term and goal oriented.

Outside of those speciality areas, the best way to find a counsellor is through word of mouth or by contacting one of the professional organisations that oversee counsellors; they should be able to give you the names of counsellors in your area.

The Australian Counsellors Association (ACA) has a National Public Register of Counsellors - visit http://www.theaca.net.au/, phone 1300 784 333 or email aca@theaca.net.au - but sometimes it is more efficient to look up on the internet the professional body for the particular group of counsellors you are seeking. For example, financial counsellors in Victoria have a free call number (1300 558 181). Not all groups will have a central registry.


Specialists in their own discipline

Some people think of counsellors as the least qualified and the least skilled arm of the personal intervention professions, perhaps detecting a lowlier status than, say, psychiatrists. But it's important to understand that counsellors' relatively poor status in the clinicians' pecking order does not translate into practical skills.

The reality is that the different professional groups do different things. Many counsellors are very successful at helping us with specific problems.

On the other hand, we may have a longer, more global, intense relationship with a clinical psychologist (depending on their approach) and psychiatrists serve a different purpose again, placing an emphasis on biology and the brain. These are different roles rather than more or less important ones.


Counselling psychologists

Counselling psychologists are different from clinical psychologists in that their qualifications set them up to provide support/advice/testing/skills improvement in many areas.

They are not primarily pathology focussed.


General practitioners

There is a core group of GPs in Victoria comprising people who have post graduate qualifications in counselling or family counselling. This allows them not only to practice as a counsellor but also to receive rebates through Medicare. This is one avenue through which the cost of counselling can be dramatically reduced.

Every procedure a doctor performs, whether it is a consultation or anaesthesia, is monitored by Medicare with an 'item number'. The item number dictates which type of clinician is permitted to perform/claim and the scheduled fee.

In the case of GPs running a counselling practice or doing some counselling work, the only item number they can use is for a long consultation. Unfortunately, the way Medicare is geared there are financial incentives to spend 10 minutes with each patient and charge the standard fee rather than the 40 minutes required for counselling.

Because of this, GPs with counselling practices are difficult to find. One place to try would be the Royal Australian College of General Practice, or you could investigate a Medicare Local if there is one in your vicinity.


Registration of counsellors

As with other professions, there are registration procedures which enable us to clarify the qualifications of counsellors (see the Accreditation & Registration help sheet).

One of the historical criticisms of counselling has been that that the diversity contained within the counselling profession has made it difficult to have a unified registration system. Stories abounded of 'Every man and his dog being able to put up a billboard and set himself up as a counsellor'.

These days, we have state and territory boards throughout Australia which make it harder for 'shonky counsellors' to get a foothold. Nonetheless it still makes sense to check a potential counsellor's qualifications.

At a minimum, it's usually in our interests to use a counsellor who is registered with a recognised professional body such as the Australian Counselling Association (ACA)or the Psychotherapist and Counsellors Federation of Australia (PACFA).

Remember, though, that registration does not guarantee an ethical approach from a client's perspective, or a nice person. For this reason, it can be useful to also seek word-of-mouth recommendations from your peers.