What’s in a Name Counsellor?

A blog from one of our Counsellors.

A while ago I saw a trailer for a film called The Counsellor.  Apparently the counsellor in question is a hotshot lawyer, smart, ambitious and morally flexible, working for the drug-trafficking industry.  Not much like any of us at SBC, then.  As we already know from American TV shows, “counsellor” is an honorary title used in some countries for a courtroom lawyer, meaning, like the Godfather’s “consigliere”, someone who gives advice, or counsel.  This meaning persists in other uses of the word:  a counsellor can be an officer in the diplomatic service or someone who advises on debt and other problems.  The Queen has about 600 Privy Counsellors to advise her, mostly senior politicians.  People who sit on other types of council are councillors; known for debate and opinion, as well as advice.

As one of the counsellors at SBC, I worry sometimes that if I don’t fully identify with my title, neither will the people who come to us for help.  However clearly we explain that we do not give advice, or offer judgment or opinion, these ideas linger, implicitly, in the semantics.  Our professional body echoes this confusion.  We belong to the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) which acknowledges a large overlap between the terms “counsellor” and “psychotherapist” and, in practice, treats the titles as interchangeable.   Couldn’t we all be one, or the other?  Part of the difficulty may stem from outdated generalizations that counsellors work for shorter periods and at less depth than psychotherapists, or have less training.

Currently, the Health & Care Professions Council regulates many other health-related roles like dietician and physiotherapist but anyone can style himself as a counsellor or a psychotherapist, whether trained or not.  The hybrid term “psychotherapeutic counselling” is defined by another professional body, the UK Council for Psychotherapy, by a detailed list of competencies that closely matches the way we work at SBC (Professional Occupational Standards, downloaded from www.psychotherapy.org.uk/ukcp_professional_occupational_standards ).

If “counsellor” can be ambiguous, “psychotherapist” is liable to be confused with similar sounding professions but, whereas “counselling” derives from a Latin root meaning advice, the origins of “psychotherapy” are in Greek words for healing and the soul.  The latter concept is much closer to what we counsellors aim for.

So, with all this confusion, what should we call ourselves and does it matter?  Anything that sets up uncertainty, or skews expectations, can be a barrier to trust in the all-important relationship we aim to establish with our clients.  Things being as they are, the safest approach is to be clear about what we do, and what we don’t do.  What we do is to offer a particular form of psychotherapy, which needs to be explained.  What we don’t do is to offer counsel or make life easy for gangsters.