Cracking the Code: A Guide to Understanding Counselling Credentials (Or, What Do All Those Letters Behind Their Names Mean, Anyway?)

I have a huge amount of empathy for anyone trying to find a counsellor in the Vancouver area.  Vancouver’s most notable counselling directory, Counselling BC  boasts that they have over 500 therapists listed on their site.  While Vancouver is resource-rich when it comes to counseling and psychotherapy, how does one narrow down one’s search?  Making a decision can feel overwhelming, with so much choice available.

I’m passionate about the importance of finding a counsellor who is right for you.  Making that choice, however can get extra-confusing when we’re trying to decipher what all the letters behind counsellors’ names mean.

I thus present a humble guide to helping you crack the code and better understand a counsellor’s credentials.  I welcome corrections from mental health professionals if  anything is in error.  I also note that in this article I’ll be referring to the most common credentials seen in Vancouver, British Columbia, the city I’m from and where I have my counselling and psychotherapy practice.  This is by no means an exhaustive list.

A Note About Counselling and Psychotherapy

Many people don’t realize that the terms “counsellor”, “therapist” and “psychotherapist” are not regulated in British Columbia.  This means that anyone can refer to themselves this way, even if they have no credentials.  It really is a situation of buyer beware.

The Degree

In most (but not all) cases the first letters you see will refer to the counsellor’s degree.  In many instances the therapist will have a minimum of a master’s degree in counselling psychology or social work with a minority of folks possessing a bachelor’s degree.  Some will have no degree at all, but may (or may not) have a counselling-related diploma.  Psychologists in British Columbia typically have a doctoral degree in psychology. Reputable counsellors will list where they have received their degree from which will then allow you to investigate whether the university is accredited and legitimate. This article speaks to options for academic pathways in British Columbia.

PhDDoctor of Philosophy.   As noted, psychologists typcially have a PhD in psychology.  A smaller number of social workers also have PhDs (usually university instructors). Unless they are a registered psychologist, it’s important to ask the counselling professional what their PhD is in as it could vary from Anthropology to Zoology!  Just because it sounds impressive, doesn’t guarantee that their PhD is relevant to what you need.

MSWMaster of Social Work– A master’s program which varies from 1-2 years in duration following the completion of a bachelor’s degree.  MSW students have the option of concentrating their studies in counselling and psychotherapy although not all do.  It’s good to ask!

MAMaster of Arts – This is a common master’s degree for clinical counsellors in Vancouver.  Many have an MA in Counselling Psychology.  Still, it’s important to ask “what is your MA in?”

M.EdMaster of Education – Some counsellors have chosen to pursue their counselling psychology training in the faculty of education.  Like the MA, this is a very reputable degree.

MCMaster of Counselling, offered by some Canadian and international universities.

M.Sc – Master of Science – This degree has research and thesis requirements. Again, it’s important to ask what the person has their M.Sc. in. Some universities offer M.Sc degrees in psychology or counselling psychology.

BA Bachelor of Arts. Many counsellors will have a bachelor’s degree but have often pursued Master’s level training following their BA.

BSc – Bachelor of Science – a smaller number of therapists have pursued a BSc in psychology; such degrees may have more emphasis on science and math coursework.  University programs vary.  Again, it’s good to ask the counsellor what their BSc is in.

BSWBachelor of Social Work – This degree is known for its practical, skills-based component, typically including one or several practicum placements.

A number of community and private colleges also offer diplomas in counselling, usually 1-2 years in duration.

Professional Designations

R.PsychRegistered Psychologist. Psychologists must pass a rigorous examination as well as meeting other educational and procedural requirements. See the BC College of Psychologists for further details.

RSWRegistered Social Worker. A designation available to social workers with Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctoral degrees in social work, providing they also meet other professional standards. All RSWs are members of the BC College of Social Workers.

RCSWRegistered Clinical Social Worker (In the US, this designation is known as Licensed Clinical Social Worker, or LCSW).  This is a separate class of Registered Social Worker which also requires the social worker to have extensive clinical experience and coursework and to pass a national board exam. RCSWs are also members of the BC College of Social Workers.

RCC Registered Clinical Counsellor. This is a common counselling designation in BC. Open to practitioners with counselling-related master’s degrees and meeting other clinical standards. RCCs are members of the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors.

CCCCanadian Certified Counsellor. A Canada-wide designation that counsellors with varied counselling education backgrounds may be eligible for. Its voluntary professional organization also requires the counsellor to meet other professional standards.

RPCRegistered Professional Counsellor. The RPC’s member organization, describe the RPC designation as competency-based, which they define as “a combination of verified education and validated experience,” which meets certain criteria. Some RPCs are referred to as master practitioners of counselling; this term is not the same as a master’s degree, but is a separate class of membership.

RMFTRegistered Marriage and Family Therapist.   These therapists have extensive experience and training in couples and family therapy.

Other Questions

What is the difference between counsellors who belong to a college vs. an association?

When your health professional is a member of a college, the college’s mandate is to serve and protect the public interest by regulating the practice of the profession and governing its members.  Colleges also have particular legislation, defining their member’s scope of practice, that members are required to abide by. The mandate of an association is typically to represent the “voice” of a profession.

Which designations will my extended health plan cover?

Some workplace extended health plans will provide coverage for counselling benefits, while others will not.  For those who do, Registered Psychologists are the most commonly covered counselling professionals, while other plans cover Registered Social Workers or Registered Clinical Counsellors (usually not both) and a minority of other credentials.  It’s always very important to check with your HR department which counselling providers you are covered for, as plans differ so widely depending on what your employer has paid for / the plan they have selected.  It is also important to check your yearly maximum so you can decide how many sessions will actually be covered. I have written a separate article on this topic if you want to learn more.