Navigating the field of mental health providers, particularly if you have extended health benefits that apply only to specific designations, can be a dizzying if not frustrating exercise.

A question commonly asked by clients is, “What exactly is a counsellor??” Great question! Because yes, the field of mental health care is rife with similar-sounding, seemingly synonymous professional titles or designations. Knowing which professional to see and when can be challenging, so here defined are mental health professionals one may come across in British Columbia - I say British Columbia because mental health care in Canada is under provincial jurisdiction, so titles vary by province:

  • Registered Clinical Counsellors (RCC): Completed minimum of a master’s degree; recognized by BC Association of Clinical Counsellors as qualified to provide counselling services; cannot formally diagnose nor prescribe medication.

  • Canadian Certified Counsellors (CCC): Completed minimum of a master’s degree; recognized by Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association as qualified to provide counselling services; cannot formally diagnose nor prescribe medication.

  • Registered Social Workers (RSW): Have minimum of a bachelor’s degree; connect clients to resources, provide counselling and support services, mediate conflict, advocate for services; cannot formally diagnose nor prescribe medication.

  • Registered Psychologists (R.Psych): Completed a PhD; assess, diagnose and treat behavioural, emotional, cognitive and mental disorders; typically practice in specific areas such as clinical, counselling, forensic, health, rehabilitation or school psychology.

  • Psychiatrist: Medical doctor with specialized training in treating mental illness; can prescribe medication; may use talk therapy and medication therapy in tandem or exclusively; services covered by BC Medical Services Plan.

Not Just Any Rose

In addition to the above practitioners, prospective clients may come across other types of therapists in their search for mental health support. The therapists listed below have specialized training in verbal and/or non-verbal treatment modalities (methods) and can be accessed as primary or adjunct care. It is not uncommon to find practitioners with dual training in counselling psychology and in one of the following disciplines:

  • Addiction Counsellor

  • Art Therapist

  • Christian Counsellor or Psychotherapist

  • Clinical Hypnotherapist

  • Drama Therapist

  • Music Therapist

  • Marriage and Family Therapist

  • Play Therapist

  • Pastoral Counsellor

  • Sex Therapist

  • Somatic Therapist

  • Trauma Therapist or Professional

Tomayto, Tomahto

The Oxford Dictionary defines a counsellor as, "A person trained to give guidance on personal or psychological problems", and a therapist as, "A person who treats psychological problems; a psychotherapist." As defined, a subtle difference exists between the two - namely, that a counsellor guides clients through problem-solving while a therapist treats (diagnosable) problems - i.e. mental disorders. In practice, a clinical counsellor will typically wear both hats so to speak, depending on the presenting problem(s) and course of anticipated treatment. This is why in clinical counselling, the terms counsellor and therapist are often used interchangeably.

Psychotherapy, finally, is "The treatment of mental disorder by psychological rather than medical means." By this definition, save psychiatrists, all of us mental health practitioners are psychotherapists since we're essentially all using functions of the human mind (and body) to enhance mental, emotional, and physical well-being. (Ironic side note: English psychiatrist Walter Cooper Dendy coined the term “psycho-therapeia” in 1853. Walter Cooper, psychiatrist, a.k.a. medical doctor.)

So, if researching mental health providers and unsure of whether or not a practitioner's training and qualifications will meet your needs, best is to simply confirm with the practitioner. It's not only an ethical mandate we mental health practitioners adhere to, but a measure of good practice to set accurate expectations about how we can (and cannot) help individuals seeking care.


British Columbia Association of Clinical Counsellors:

British Columbia College of Social Workers:

British Columbia Psychiatric Association:

Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association:

College of Psychologist of British Columbia:

Oxford Dictionary of English:

Oxford Dictionary of English:

Oxford Dictionary of English:


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