The practice of counseling, therapy, psychotherapy and other related terms is restricted to those with proper licensing in most, if not all, US states. Makes sense on most levels, right? You wouldn’t want to go to an unlicensed doctor for your appendectomy. In opposition to Holiday Inn’s ads, you wouldn’t want just anybody doing professional work on you. License control is supposed to protect the public from harm. Bad docs and bad therapists should lose their license and not be allowed to practice.
But with counseling and therapy, it gets a bit sticky. Lots of different professions do similar activities. Unlike surgeons, you have people from widely divergent schools of thought and training doing very similar things. LCSWs, LSWs, LMFTs, Psychologists, Psychiatrists, LPCs all do talk therapy. They all diagnose and intervene per their view of what is wrong and what needs to change (thoughts, behaviors. feelings, etc.).
And it gets stickier. Pastors, clergy, and religiously trained individuals do many of these as well. While they may not give DSM or ICD9 diagnoses and bill insurance companies, they do talk therapy with people who are depressed, anxious, angry, on the verge of divorce–just like all of those licensed people above. In my world, there are pastoral counselors, biblical counselors, pastors who counsel, christian counselors, etc. Most of these in PA are not licensed by any body. (In PA we don’t have a pastoral counselor license as some states do.)
In an effort to tighten controls, there is a state effort underfoot (HB 1250) to tighten who can practice as a counselor. There were already controls but now the new bill would disallow someone like myself to hire or supervise an unlicensed (but in my opinion competent) person UNLESS they were actively in the process of becoming licensed.
Why does this matter?
1. There are many competent people doing counseling related work that are not licensed (nor could they be since their training is of a religious or pastoral nature). Should the state control these individuals? Right now they haven’t been actively going after these folk. The law will continue to remain vague: Here’s the restriction for LPC practice:
Only individuals who have received licenses as licensed professional counselors under this act may style themselves as licensed professional counselors and use the letters “L.P.C.” in connection with their names. It shall be unlawful for an individual to style oneself as a licensed professional counselor, advertise or offer to engage in the practice of professional counselor or use any words or symbols indicating or tending to indicate that the individual is a licensed professional counselor without holding a license in good standing under this act. [underline indicates new change in this paragraph]
Who decides what “engage in the practice of…or use any words…” constitutes? Obviously, one cannot intentionally lie but does the term therapy indicate a license?
2. There are many who provide pastoral care who are not ordained clergy. They have graduated from seminary-based programs that are not professional counseling programs. Yes, the current standard makes clear that it does not seek to limit the work of those acting under the legal auspices of a religious institution (i.e., are ordained by the church). But, should the state regulate those who provide biblical counsel but are not ordained? As long as these individuals make clear (informed consent) what it is they do and what they do not do, shouldn’t they be able to make a living? Research indicates that lay people can have tremendous success in helping those with depression and anxiety.
I’m all for protecting the public. But while licenses limit who gets to perform certain duties, it does not eliminate unethical or harmful practice. Further, much of psychotherapy is art as well as science. Artists can learn their trade in a variety of locations. What we need to do is to make sure the public can clearly identify the kind of counseling (and limits of) each counselor does. Second, those who provide biblical counseling ought to have some authoritative body. It would be great if they were recognized and “licensed” by denominations or organizations (e.g. the AACC who is trying to do this).
But I would hate to see the many seasoned, unlicensed counselors lose their ability to ply their trade.
That raises a question of analogy. Can anyone make a legal living cutting hair for a fee without a license?