Who could forget the tragic story of Rebekah Lawrence, the Sydney woman who jumped to her death during a psychotic episode triggered by her participation in a self-development course run by unqualified people. While this is an extreme example of bad therapy, you have to wonder how many vulnerable people are being emotionally and psychologically damaged each day in Australia because health ministers are continuing to drag their feet on the issue of regulation. At present, anyone can hang out a shingle and start practicing as a counsellor or psychotherapist in Australia and isn’t that a scary thought?
At the coronial inquest into Rebekah’s death, NSW Deputy State Coroner, Malcolm MacPherson, recommended restricting the provision of counselling and psychotherapy services to those with recognised, relevant tertiary qualifications. Mr MacPherson also recommended that a system be introduced to register and accredit counselling and psychotherapy services¹.
Shortly after the Deputy State Coroner handed down his findings into the death of Rebekah Lawrence, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission obtained enforceable undertakings against Mercy Ministries², after the Sydney Christian Group linked to the Hillsong Church, misled mentally ill women seeking help for eating disorders, self harm, abuse, depression, unplanned pregnancies and other issues.
Three former patients of Mercy Ministries alleged its programs involved “emotionally cruel and medically unproven techniques”, such as exorcisms and “separation contracts” between friends. The girls also said they left the Mercy centre suicidal after being told they were possessed by demons³.
Those who represent counselling and psychotherapy services in Australia say they would welcome any regulations that will ensure the safety of consumers and lead to professional recognition of their industry. So if this is the case, why are federal, state and territory health ministers dragging their feet on this issue?
Margaret Ploskodniak, Clinical Placement Coordinator at the Jansen Newman Institute (JNI), says the recommendations by the Deputy State Coroner to the NSW Health Minister, has put some pressure on those providing counselling and psychotherapy services to have recognised and relevant tertiary qualifications.
But while many counsellors and psychotherapists do have a recognised tertiary qualification, only regulation of the industry in each state and territory can make it a compulsory requirement for every counsellor and psychotherapist in Australia. As it stands now, qualifications are desirable but not essential to practice.
JNI counselling and psychotherapy graduate, Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar works as a counsellor and psychotherapist in private practice and co-facilitates telephone support groups at the Cancer Council NSW.
“It’s such a privilege to sit in a room with people and share these really intimate moments with them as they’re explaining how things are in their lives, or in their thought processes,” said Gabrielle. “So the fact that anyone can practice as a counsellor or psychotherapist, disturbs me greatly and it feels like it’s high time the whole industry was regulated.”
“The organisation I belong to, the Counsellors and Psychotherapists Association of NSW is one of a number of associations that have their own regulation processes and I think it’s so important to have every counsellor right across the nation to be accountable in this way. It is the very least we can do for people who are sometimes in very vulnerable positions,” she said.
Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar is a member of one of 37 member associations of the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federal of Australia (PACFA), a self-regulatory body set up to establish professional standards for counsellors and psychotherapists.
Dr Colin Benjamin from PACFA told Australian Women Online, “In the last census 16,000 Australians identified themselves as counsellors. Between our organisation and the Australian Counselling Association (ACA), we have about 5,000 members, which means there are 11,000 counsellors out there who are not accountable to anyone.”
ACA has had a public education program in place for several years to alert consumers to the fact that it is a self-regulated industry.
CEO of the Australian Counselling Association, Philip Armstrong, explains, “We have a series of questions that a consumer should ask a counsellor or therapist before engaging in therapy and those questions are about qualifications, registration, insurance, professional supervision – all the things you would expect that a professional would be doing.”
“Each state government has some protection, but the problem is you can only use it after the fact which is not a good situation when you’re talking about people who are vulnerable. There’s no point in them being able to make complaints and get accountability after they’ve been damaged. It’s much more important to try and educate the public before you engage in the counselling process, to ensure that the person you engage is accountable and meets professional standards,” he said.
While Philip Armstrong supports regulation of counselling and psychotherapy services, he also wants us to be aware that regulation cannot replace consumer education.
“There are far more complaints made about psychologists, which are a regulated profession, than counsellors, which is a self-regulated industry. So when you look at it from that prospective, regulation does not protect the consumer, it never has and it never will. Regulation simply means that when you engage somebody there is accountability.”
“I think registration with a professional body is more important. Psychology is regulated but membership of the APS probably ensures that the psychologist you’re seeing is far better trained and meets higher standards, than a psychologist who is simply registered with the psychology registration board.”
Philip Armstrong added that the current requirements for membership of ACA are actually higher and more stringent than they are for any of the regulated industries, including psychologists.
“While I do find it frustrating that anyone can call themselves a counsellor. What I find more frustrating is the total lack of support our industry receives from federal and state government to help educate consumers about what does constitute a registered counsellor and what they should look for when contracting to a counselling service.”
“This annoys me more than anything else as the government has a responsibility through COAG and through Nicola Roxon to put money into this industry so that we can help organisations such as yours, to educate the consumer.”
For more information including how to find a qualified counsellor or psychotherapist close to you, visit the Australian Counselling Association at theaca.net.au or the Psychotherapy & Counselling Federation of Australia at pacfa.org.au
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Contact the Minister for Health in your state or territory and/or the Federal Minister for Health and Aging, The Hon Nicola Roxon MP
1. Death plunge: Rebekah put ‘through a psychological wringer’ by Kim Arlington, Sydney Morning Herald (smh.com.au), 8 December 2009: accessed via the Internet on 4 February 2010.
2. Undertakings remedy Mercy Ministries misleading conduct, Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (accc.gov.au), 16 December 2009: accessed via the Internet on 4 February 2010.
3. Mercy Ministries referred to ACCC, ABC News (abc.net.au), 16 April 2009: accessed via the Internet on 4 February 2010.