What is counselling?
Counselling involves the development of a therapeutic relationship between a client and a mental health professional that focuses on the client’s concerns and problems. This involves a collaborative effort as the two parties work together to identify and work towards the client’s goals. Through this process, clients can develop a better understanding of themselves, including their patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, and the ways in which these may have been problematic in their lives. Counselling provides the opportunity to change some of these unhelpful patterns and to examine how to tap into the client’s existing resources - or to develop new ones - to allow for better, more satisfying emotional and social functioning.
Who can benefit from counselling?
Individuals seeking counselling usually face normal developmental and life concerns. Problems with managing stress, depression, anxiety, relationship/family problems, grief and loss, identity concerns, poor self-esteem, and loneliness are some of the reasons for which people choose to engage in the counselling process. University students seek counselling for the above reasons along with more population-specific concerns such as homesickness, adjustment to university, career indecision, test anxiety, academic pressures, and difficulties balancing school/work/home life.
How do I know if I should seek counselling?
It may be appropriate to seek counselling if you are experiencing any emotional, social, or behavioural problem - examples include:
- Personal problems that interfere with your academic performance, sleep, ability to concentrate, and/or relationships with others
- Feelings of helplessness or hopelessness
- Prolonged sadness or grieving
- Feeling depressed, lethargic, or apathetic
- Thoughts of suicide or wanting to harm yourself or other people
- Persistent worry or panic attacks
- Increased irritability or extreme mood swings
- Uncertainty about your choice of university program or future career
- Concern about the behaviour or psychological state of a friend, partner, peer, or family member, and wondering about how or even whether you should intervene
Who will know that I am coming in for counselling?
Unless you decide to inform others that you are seeking counselling, no one will know. For example, if a relative or professor contacts our office for information about you, including whether or not you have made or kept an appointment, we cannot and will not disclose this information. Of course, you may run into someone you know in the waiting room, but the chances of this are very small.
Mental health professionals maintain strict confidentiality regarding clients’ involvement in counselling. In the event that you do want your information to be shared with someone, your written consent must be provided. Keep in mind that there are exceptions to this rule; there are circumstances in which professionals are legally entitled to break confidentiality. These circumstances are:
- Serious risk of suicide or harm to you or others
- Ongoing abuse or neglect of a child or dependent adult
- Subpoena of your file or required testimony by a court of law
What are the differences between a counsellor, psychologist and psychiatrist?
The term “counsellor” is unregulated in Alberta and so anyone who provides counselling, regardless of training, can use this title. Mental health treatment providers can be psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, psychiatric nurses, or have other professional designations, so ask your provider about his/her credentials!
Psychologists, according to the occupational profile on the Alberta Learning Information Service website (www.alis.gov.ab.ca/occinfo), are “concerned with the study and management of human behaviour.” They usually specialize in one area, e.g., counselling/clinical practice, school psychology, or forensic work. In Alberta, psychologists require a minimum of a Master’s degree, and some also have a doctoral degree. Only individuals registered with the College of Alberta Psychologists (CAP) may use the title “psychologist.”
Psychiatrists, on the other hand, are physicians (medical doctors) who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness and emotional disorders. While they may provide counselling just like psychologists, their treatment approaches are usually more biologically based; for instance, they may prescribe medication.
What if I need medication?
Individuals who suffer from certain conditions (e.g., severe anxiety, depression) may benefit from taking medication – either on its own or in conjunction with counselling. If you are wondering whether you might need medication, please discuss this issue with your counsellor, and a referral to a physician or a psychiatrist may be made.
A referral to a physician for a medical “check-up” may also be made in order to ensure that your symptoms are not caused by a physical disorder. Several physical conditions (e.g., hypothyroidism or anemia) can produce changes in mood, energy level, concentration, etc., and require medical treatment rather than counselling.