Why Are All Therapists and Counsellors often Lumped Under The Label “Psychologist”? (And Why It’s Damaging To Our Clients)
If you’ve been struggling with an area in your life and friends or family have suggested you see someone like a Psychologist, did you know there are a ton of other university qualified and professionally accredited Mental Health Professionals who are also able to provide Counselling?
Often, well-meaning friends and even your GP will default to a recommendation OF a Psychologist, unaware there are other options - perhaps better for you and your situation.
Accredited Mental Health Social Workers or Clinical Social Workers are still eligible for Medicare rebates and fully certified to help individuals. And are sometimes a better fit for what you’re looking for.
So, you might be doing yourself a disservice if you automatically jump on Google and search for “Psychologist in Fremantle or Cottesloe”.
Why are Psychologists the first thing we think of when we’re thinking about getting some help? It’s simply because they make up the majority of therapists in private practice in Australia.
A Clinical Social Worker in Private Practice is a rare bird compared to Psychologists in Private Practice. In fact there are just over 2000 of us!
Also, because the qualifications and skills of the majority of Accredited Mental Health Social Workers are largely misunderstood. Language is a powerful force, and in Australia, the overuse of the term Psychologist when referring to Counsellors/Therapists is detrimental to our community. It comes packed with assumptions. Assumptions that can be dangerous.
‘Psychology’ is the default term we use in Australia and often clients who are seeing clinicians with other qualifications such as a counselling or social work or Occupational Therapy will still automatically refer to their therapist as a Psychologist.
If I had a dollar for every time a client or GP incorrectly referred to me as their Psychologist, I would be able to retire right now!
When I correct my clients, they usually just nod their heads. It’s evident they don't care or understand the difference and I don’t make a big deal about being an Accredited Mental Health Social Worker instead of a Psychologist. Because that’s not really the point, is it?
The point is –I can help them.
The truth is, probably a big part of who I am as a therapist and what my clients love about working with me comes from my Social Work background.
It sometimes feels too hard to constantly explain this to clients and GP’s. But, I have started to wonder if I am doing my industry and myself a disservice by not drawing more attention to my passion for Clinical Social Work.
This obsession with the title Psychologist is weirdly only something that exists in private practice in Australia and is a systemic issue with lots of politics at play. In America, there are more Clinical Social Workers than Psychologists working in Private practice and Clinical Social Workers are very highly regarded.
In Australia, Accredited Mental Health Social Workers are constantly misunderstood and discriminated against.
I trained intensively as a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist in the UK. I was often supervising and informally training Clinical Psychologists.. Yet, in Australia, Accredited Mental Health Social Workers (Clinical Social Workers) are often viewed as the poor, less qualified, brother to Psychologists.
I'm calling bullshit in the way we glorify Psychologists as the be-all-and-end-all for therapy in Australia. The truth is: we’re different but equal.
Maybe it’s because Social Work is a young profession in Australia. We might just have a PR problem. We’ve been taught to advocate so well for our clients, yet we struggle to advocate for ourselves.
We need diversity and options in the mental health sector. We don’t need one profession dominating the way we view and treat mental health issues – even if they get to do so by an accidental default.
When you are looking for the right therapist, you need someone who has completed post-graduate training specialising in the area you need help with. You need someone with a lot of experience (with clients - not just in the classroom) and you need (most importantly) someone you click with - who you feel understands you. The fact is, academic snobbery and research skills do not make a better therapist and it is impossible for one qualification to cover all areas of human need.
Since graduating as a Social Worker, I have worked in a variety of settings for more than 15 years and have also completed 6 years of Postgraduate training (including a Post Graduate Certificate in CBT at Southampton University.) I’ve also completed a year of Family Therapy and Systems training at the Bouverie Centre and 4 years of Gestalt Psychotherapy Training with the Gestalt Training Institute of WA. Yet so many assumptions are made about my training because I am a Social Worker, not a Psychologist.
There is no evidence to show that Psychologists or Clinical Psychologists obtain better outcomes than Accredited Mental Health Social Workers or Mental Health OT's.
All the evidence shows that it is the therapeutic relationship that has the biggest indicator of if therapy will be effective.
Things you need to know about Accredited Mental Health Social Workers:
The majority of us have 10 + years’ experience and have gone on to study Postgraduate qualifications in Family Therapy, Systems Therapy, Couples Therapy, Psychotherapy or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. So, while some Clinical Psychologists claim that they are the most qualified and experienced professional to treat someone this is often simply not true.
We are not afraid to get our hands dirty! Most of us have worked in Hospitals, Child Protection, or Disability Services. We are not a profession that goes straight into the comfort of private practice and I believe this makes us stronger, more experienced, clinicians.
We are strengths-based and holistic. This means we work from a biopsychosocial, whole-of-person perspective and that, as a minimum, our training provides an appreciation of the impact that social, environmental and cultural factors have on total health and wellbeing. Because we have the approach of viewing the person in their environment, we are experts in dealing with complexity. (AASW)
We have completed at least 4 years of undergraduate training (a Bachelor of Social Work) as well as at least 2 years of post-graduate supervised experience working in Mental Health. And the majority of us have gone on to do additional psychotherapy training.
We are ethical and professional. What that means is; if a client contacts me wanting an assessment for a child with Autism I will refer on to someone else because it is beyond my scope of practice, just like hopefully if a psychologist with no couples counselling training is contacted and asked to do couples work, they will do the ethical thing and refer on to someone with couples training.
The misconception that Social Workers are the poor, less qualified cousins of Psychologists is simply untrue.
Being able to sit with someone and be present, to build a relationship, to be part of a support system that helps people work through what they’re struggling with. Those skills can’t be learned at University. It takes practice and a lot of professional supervision. This is a real strength of social work. We believe in regular supervision throughout our career and we believe in reflective practice.
You, as a client, deserve diversity. And choice.
I’m a proud Accredited Mental Health Social Worker. I can offer all the therapy a Psych can only view your struggles with a different lens. I am equally qualified, equally effective, and equally valuable as a Psychologist. To all my Social Work colleagues, let’s stop downplaying the skills we have because of our Social Work undergrad education and band together in pride for our Accredited Mental Health Social Worker status.
We need to stop glorifying and overusing the word Psychologist and start using inclusive language. A suggestion would be calling all of us “Allied Health Professional” or “Accredited Mental Health Professional” or “Psychological Therapists.” And that goes not just for your local GP, but for journalists and government copywriters, too. Lumping everyone into one label that’s incorrect for most of us is just the easy way out.
It’s time to stop glorifying the label of ‘Psychologist’ to the detriment of other, equally qualified, Mental Health Professionals. And our clients.
What’s the key point of importance for clients seeking mental health help?
Don’t assume that one profession is better than the other simply based on a title. Do your research. What was the latest postgraduate training they completed? How many years of experience actually sitting down face-to-face with clients (not sitting behind a desk researching) do they have? Have they worked outside of private practice and sat with clients in total crisis? Are they the best person to help you, regardless of their title?
Please note: no Psychologists were harmed in the writing of this article. I have many respected friends and colleagues who are Psychologists but this needed to be said.
Samantha Dhu is a Clinical Social Worker (AMHSW), Counsellor and Supervisor working in private practice in Fremantle and Cottesloe. Her work focuses on helping adults and teens live happier, more meaningful lives. She is passionate about self-compassion, confidence and overcoming anxiety and depression. When she’s not working on her counselling business, and doing the work she loves she’s busy running around after her fiercely headstrong and fun-loving toddler (teaching her to be assertive has clearly backfired.) You can read more about her work on her website www.samanthadhu.com.au