British Columbia

Therapists say 'now's the time' for professional regulation, make formal request to Adrian Dix

A group representing 6,000 B.C. counsellors and therapists submitted a formal application Monday morning to Health Minister Adrian Dix, calling on him to regulate their profession and protect vulnerable patients.

After nearly 3 decades of unsuccessful lobbying, group says the risk of serious harm is too high to wait

Literally anyone can call themselves a counsellor or therapist in B.C. right now. (Shutterstock / Tero Vesalainen)

A group representing 6,000 B.C. counsellors and therapists submitted a formal application Monday morning to Health Minister Adrian Dix, calling on him to regulate their profession and protect vulnerable patients.

The 38-page submission to Dix from the Federation of Associations for Counselling Therapists in B.C. (FACTBC) asks him to declare regulation to be in the public interest.

The application under the Health Professions Act comes after nearly three decades of unsuccessful campaigning for the creation of a college that would set standards and develop a disciplinary protocol for counsellors and therapists.

"It has been a long time and there has been frustration along the way," said Glen Grigg, chair of FACTBC.

"The counselling therapists are ready to go and, in our view, our government is ready to go. So now's the time to make this happen."

As it stands, literally anyone can call themselves a therapist and start advertising their services to British Columbians who genuinely need help with their mental and emotional health.

These people don't need any training and there's no official body with legal powers to hold them accountable for any damage they might cause.

"Suppose you had a problem with one of your teeth and you needed a dentist, and you went to the Internet to see if there was a dentist close by, and you realized that you couldn't tell which ones were well-trained, which ones were safe," Grigg said.

"When we have regulation, all those credentials and preparedness for practice has been done by an authority who makes sure that it's safe."

'People are at physical risk'

FACTBC's application relies on a section of the Health Professions Act that says when the health minister receives an application like this, he "must determine" if regulation is in the public interest.

"Counselling therapy has been the subject of thorough investigation and discussion; all the information necessary … is available and summarized in this application," the submission says.

The application comes while B.C. is in the midst of a massive reform of the system that regulates health professionals. It includes collapsing the number of regulatory colleges to six, creating a new oversight body and making the complaint and discipline process more transparent to the public.

Dix has said that regulating counsellors and therapists is one of the top priorities once the new system is in place.

But Grigg points out it's not clear how long that process will take, so FACTBC is asking for regulation of counselling therapy to happen in parallel with the reform process.

He said it's more important than ever to set standards and responsibilities for counsellors and therapists, with the dual emergencies of COVID-19 and the overdose crisis aggravating existing mental health problems and creating new ones.

Health Minister Adrian Dix has the power to determine that regulation of a health profession is in the public interest. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

At the same time, unqualified therapists can cause serious harm to vulnerable patients, including emotional trauma from inept treatment.

"Counselling requires a high level of confidentiality, and so people are at physical risk of sexual intrusions and other kinds of things that can be very, very damaging," Grigg said.

"People have had tremendous financial harm by just getting ineffective treatment by people who are insufficiently prepared to do this kind of work."

Issues with questionable credentials

As CBC has reported, there have also been issues with therapists beefing up their resumes with phony credentials.

Susannah-Joy Schuilenberg of Kelowna was recently the subject of a complaint over three allegedly fraudulent graduate degrees advertised on her website.

Schuilenberg is a member of the Canadian Professional Counsellors Association (CPCA), one of the 14 professional organizations that make up FACTBC. The association investigated and upheld the complaint against Schuilenberg, also finding she had lied about a fourth degree when she applied for membership.

The CPCA did take some disciplinary action, stripping Schuilenberg of some professional designations, but because it's a voluntary association without legal regulatory powers, Schuilenberg could have simply resigned her membership to end the investigation and escape consequences.

The FACTBC application points out that Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Alberta have all regulated the profession.

Grigg is feeling confident that B.C. will do the same.

"I don't anticipate that there's going to be any problem making this decision once all the information and all the history is in one place and it's been put together — as we have done with this application," he said.

About the Author

Bethany Lindsay

Journalist

Bethany Lindsay is a B.C. journalist with a focus on the courts, health, science and social justice issues. Questions or news tips? Get in touch at bethany.lindsay@cbc.ca or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.

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