Are therapists regulated?

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Big question and and important one.

The one-word answer is: no. Why?

Lack of regulation can expand choice. But what about quality?

Some mental health professionals, such as doctors (GPs) and psychiatrists must have a GMC number to practice in the UK. This means that the General Medical Council has assessed their medical training and validated their professional standing to practise medicine. Phew. Good to know, before taking medication they might prescribe for you. Don’t be afraid of asking for their GMC number or you can look up their online registration.

Other mental health professionals such as psychologists must be registered with HCPC, the Health and Care Professional Council. So far, so good.

Most other counsellors or psychotherapists do not have to be trained or members of a professional body before practising with clients. Shocking?

Well, ever since Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung started the new profession of psychoanalysis in Vienna in the late 1900s, this has been a fascinating field of exploring the human psyche. It also generated a proliferation of opinions and methods. And in this article, I’m confining myself to a documented origin of psychotherapy professionals over 100 years ago, whom I admit were white-skinned men in European practice. Other peoples and places have also generated much wisdom and succour in the thousands of years since humans emerged, which I also respect.

But back to the UK, where we now have many styles of therapy. Here are but a few: psychoanalytic, humanistic integrative, person-centred, Gestalt, Transactional Analysis, existential, transpersonal, psychodynamic, CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), psycho-traumatology, schema therapy, sex & relationship therapy, services for children and young people, bereavement counselling. The list goes on.

Unlike doctors and the GMC, in therapy there is no unitary body which regulates mental health professionals and gives them a licence to practice. There are many professional bodies in this area. This is not an exhaustive list, but here are some well-known ones: BACP, UKCP, BPS, NCS, NCP, COSRT, Addiction Professionals.

My own view is that there is huge benefit in this range of approaches. It gives clients a choice, although a drawback is that it could perhaps be bewildering for anyone seeking therapy. I’ve given it a lot of thought. On balance, I’d prefer to be a member of professional bodies, to enhance my credentials and give confidence to anyone thinking of buying my services. No professional body is perfect; no therapist is perfect.

Over 10 years ago in the UK, the Department of Health ran a consultation when considering whether to regulate mental health services such as counselling and psychotherapy. In the end, with a change of government, these plans were dropped.

It was pointed out that clients still have recourse to the police and the law, for example around fraud or sexual crimes. Trading standards offices can also lend their weight in a dispute, as can the small claims court process for financial matters.

But the consultation generated loads of debate around protecting the public, ensuring standards of care and training, and access to a complaints process. Across the intervening years into the 2020s, many membership organisations have picked up the pace on professionalisation. Some have achieved recognition for their membership register by the Professional Standards Authority; other organisations are pursuing this step. Training standards have received attention, such as the ScopEd project among several membership organisations to compare and standardise training levels in the profession. This can generate more heat than light. But at least there’s energy going into this endeavour.

Ten years ago, I was against regulation into narrow categories of mental health provision. Nowadays I might be more open to the idea if it balances standards with choice of approach.

Right now, my advice is to check the credentials of any professional you might choose. Have a quick conversation with them to see if they might suit you. Check how they work and what outcomes they believe are possible. There’s more on this process here.

I offer a free 15-minute phone call as part of the intake process. I ask for proper background information to support client care. I collect baseline measures to track progress. I’m accountable to my client and the wider profession, monitored by my professional accreditation organisations. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than nothing – for the sake of everyone involved.

Please remember that my intention here is to express an opinion. Other opinions are valid. This is merely my point of view about what informs my practice and I hope this article is of benefit for my clients, supervisees, and trainees.

Choose what will suit you, because you matter.