Counsellor, Psychiatrist, Psychologist, or Accredited Mental Health Social Worker?

Is Atlas Counselling the Right Service For You?

From the beginning, it is important that you understand some of the fundamental differences between some of the more common ‘helping’ professions before deciding whether Atlas Counselling is likely to provide you with the service that is appropriate for your needs.  What is appropriate is determined by your individual situation/circumstances/expectations.  It is possible that you might benefit from more than one of these services.  If you remain unclear or uncertain as to whether or not Atlas Counselling may be a good fit for you, you are encouraged to phone or email to discuss your needs and expectations and clarify your understanding.

Many people consider that Counsellors, Psychiatrists, and Psychologists provide much the same kinds of services, or incorrectly, use the terms interchangeably.  Many may not be aware of the distinction of an Accredited Mental Health Social Worker (AMHSW) but it is worth defining here none-the-less, as you may find the information useful as you try to determine the best practitioner for you need.

Confusingly, with the exception of a Psychiatrist (at least, not that I have seen), Counsellors, psychologists, and AMHSW all market that they provide “counselling services”, even though psychologist provide psychological services, and AMHSW provide social work services.  Furthermore, despite their associations fighting to protect their titles, some psychologists and AMHSW persist in referring to themselves as counsellors – the justification being that they “provide counselling” and that the title Counsellor is not a protected title.

The reality is that psychology and social work training and qualifications do not actual cover Counselling.  Frustratingly for the Counselling profession, the term ‘counselling’ is used in the dictionary sense as a verb, a “doing word”, not as a noun, as a name for a group of people specifically trained in providing Counselling services and using Counselling skills.  Perhaps erroneously or arrogantly, you may note my persistent use of the capital ‘C’ when referring to the Counselling profession, or to a Counsellor – it is my protest against Counselling being co-opted by people and sectors that are not trained to provide that specific service.  Other times, because they say they provide counselling, you could be forgiven for assuming that they are a Counsellor.  It is another thing to consider when seeking your ‘fit’ for therapy.

To further add to the confusion, your GP may recommend Counselling, but will then provide a referral to see a psychologist or an AMHSW – this is due to registered psychologists and registered AMHSW services currently being eligible to be claimed (in part) through Medicare.  On the other hand, Counsellors are not currently eligible for the Medicare rebate.  There is more information about this here.  The point is that not all ‘counsellors’ are Counsellors, and the qualification/s the individual practitioner holds will determine whether they are providing actual Counselling services or not, so it is worth considering asking the question.

What is a Psychiatrist?

Put simply, a psychiatrist is a medical doctor who has specialised in the study of the brain.  As a result of medical training and authority, a psychiatrist is able to provide a diagnosis of mental illness or disorder, where it is appropriate or necessary to do so, and is also able to prescribe medications.

What is a Psychologist?

The Australian Psychological Society website explains that “Psychologists study individuals and groups to better understand how people, communities and societies function… [And] …do this through our understanding of mental and biological functions that drive behaviour”.   Essentially, the focus of psychology is the behaviour and/or behavioural outcomes for clients.  A psychologist can perform assessments for mental illness or disorder/neurological diagnosis as may be appropriate or necessary, but they are not authorised to prescribe medications, as a formal diagnosis is required from a medical doctor.

In addition to assessment toward diagnosis, a psychologist may provide reports, progress reports and/or clearances for things such as court mandates or workers compensation claims.  The latter are not reserved for psychologists, but it is often psychologists that perform this function.  Psychology finds itself embedded in, and thus influenced by, the medical model of care as it applies to mental health.

What is an Accredited Mental Health Social Worker (AMHSW)?

AMHSW are like psychologists, in that they are considered an assessing authority for mental illness and/or disorder.  They differ slightly from psychologists in that they apply a more macro lens to an individual and consider the many systems and influences that combine to create complex interrelationships.  You will find that there is a stronger social advocacy that is found with the parameters of social work.

The Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) defines an AMHSW as having “…a breadth of experience in assessing and treating people who have mental health disorders… [And] … They help individuals to resolve presenting psychological problems, the associated social and other environmental problems, and improve their quality of life.”

Like psychologists, an AMHSW may also provide reports, progress reports and/or clearances for things such as court mandates or workers compensation claims.

What is a Counsellor?

A Counsellor’s focus is on the person as a whole – not as a brain, nor as a set of behaviours, or as a part of a system.  An individual is someone that is a sum of all those things, plus a great deal more that is uniquely them.  For instance, their own experiences, challenges, triumphs and tragedies.  A Counsellor works less with a diagnosis and more with the person who may have been given a diagnosis.

A Counsellor is a qualified professional who works with a client to help them develop strategies for managing the challenges they may face, not “treating” them.  These challenges may be complex and warrant work over a period of months or indeed years, or they may be relatively short-lived and you may find work can be achieved within a few short sessions.  This is completely in the client’s hands to determine.

Put simplistically, a Counsellor works with ‘what has happened to you’, as opposed to trying to ‘identify and fix what’s wrong with you’.

Who Can Benefit From Counselling?

It is important to understand that in order to improve your mental health, you do not first have to have a mental illness.  Sometimes people believe that seeking Counselling support means that you first have to consider that you have “something wrong” with you – this is inherited from the medical model from within which the psychology profession has come.  This is certainly not the case; one does not have to follow the other.

Maybe you just have a lot going on at the moment?  Perhaps you have not got a support network around you?  Possibly the things that you have going on are bringing up thoughts and feelings that you do not feel comfortable discussing with the friends or family that you may have?  Sometimes it is easier having someone who is not “involved” in the struggles that you are experiencing, to talk to.  Perhaps you feel stuck and simply don’t know how to get ‘unstuck’.  There are probably as many “reasons” for seeking Counselling support as there are people – that is to say, no two people experience a struggle, problem, experience or interaction in the same way.

Reaching out for impartial, private and professional support demonstrates a willingness to reflect, process, and where appropriate, make change.  As such, it is an effort in achieving or improving upon personal success, not an admission of inability, weakness or failure – you’re here, you’ve not given up trying to live your truth; to achieve your success, and Atlas Counselling may be able to help support you on your path.

What can Counselling Help With?

Some areas where counselling may help are with respect to:

  • Relationships and communication,
  • Work,
  • Stress,
  • Anxiety,
  • Depression,
  • Anger/Anger Management
  • Periods of life transition,
  • Self-esteem,
  • Addiction,
  • Trauma and abuse,
  • Loss and grief, and
  • Parenting, to mention just a few.

What Don’t Counsellors Do?

It is important to remember that Counsellors DO NOT make mental health diagnosis, and Counsellors do not “treat” previously diagnosed mental illnesses.    However, a Counsellor may still be able to work with you, and your specialist mental health practitioner (psychiatrist or psychologist, AMHSW, or otherwise), with your express consent, and where it is deemed appropriate.

Counsellors DO NOT prescribe medications, nor do Counsellors intervene with previously prescribed medication schedules or dosages.  In the event that you require specialist mental health care and/or medication, Atlas Counselling may be able refer you to a professional that may be able to assist you, in the event that you do not have a current specialist.

It is important that you understand the difference between Counselling services, psychology services, AMHSW services, and psychiatric services.  Atlas Counselling provides Counselling services.  Therefore, our services may not be appropriate for your individual circumstances.  If this is the case, Atlas Counselling will refer you to other services that may be more appropriate to your needs, however, if you are in an emergency or crisis situation, or if your safety or the safety of someone else is at risk, you are advised to phone the most appropriate of the Emergency/Crisis numbers listed at the bottom of each page of this website.  These numbers can also be found on the Emergency/Crisis Contacts page.

Similarly, if you are suffering with a physical condition that requires specific and specialised medical attention and/or treatment, counselling is not an appropriate solution.  You are advised to contact your medical practitioner/specialist.  In the case of an emergency, dial 000 and request the appropriate emergency service(s).

Emergency Contact List

Kids Help Line:                                        1800 55 1800

Lifeline:                                                      13 11 14

Domestic Violence Crisis Line:         1800 65 64 63

Australian Emergency Services:       000
(Police, Fire, Ambulance)

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