Some years ago, I met a very charming Ph.D. who told me he was an "interpersonal therapist." It's a respected school of thought in the field of psychology, but I noticed a few odd things about this man right away. He described going into a sweaty-palmed panic upon learning that a client was suicidal (not the best time for the therapist to panic!). He was ignorant of the most basic theories and techniques about counseling. He belonged to no professional societies.
Naturally, I got curious. I asked him what school he had gone to. It was a reputable university, but his degree was in communication, and he had only one psychology class! When I asked how he became a licensed psychologist, he explained that he wasn't. He simply read a book - ONE BOOK - on interpersonal therapy, found it interesting, and opened an office.
Along with unqualified practitioners, there are also companies selling false "certifications" in certain specialties, like stress management or anger management. Genuine certifications should be offered by accredited schools. The CADC, which means Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor, is a legitimate certificate -- although only for addictions counseling -- that is offered through colleges and universities. Beware, also, of "coaches" and other euphemisms for counseling. Was this person credentialed by a school or state agency? There are now respected training programs for people involved in coaching, but some coaches are still untrained and self-appointed.
There are several reasons for using a licensed counselor. First, they have specialized skills for helping a client deal effectively with the presenting issue. Remember my "friend" with the suicidal client? A licensed counselor would have known how to assess for risk, contract for safety, set up a suicide watch, or arrange immediate hospitalization, all depending upon the outcome of the assessment.
Second, federal law protects your health information. A licensed counselor is bound by this law, and carries malpractice insurance. If your privacy is abused, you have recourse to licensing boards or malpractice suits. Non-licensed individuals may not be bound by this, or even be informed of the proper use of your information.
Third, only certain types of licensed professionals can accept insurance. For many people, insurance is the most realistic way to pay for counseling.
Here's a handy checklist to use when shopping for a counselor or therapist:
___ What license does he or she carry?
___ Does the clinician's specialty area match your needs? (Avoid "generalists" with no specialty. No matter how hard you try, you can't be an expert in everything.)
___ Is there a payment plan that meets your needs?
___ Does the clinician respect federal HIPPA laws regarding confidentiality?
___ If everything else is in place, do you feel comfortable with his person?
___ It's ok to prefer a therapist of your gender, race, or religion. You
might also prefer that they have experience with your sexual orientation or speak a certain language.
___ No good counselor or therapist will ever have "dual relationships." You should not share friendship, business interests, and definitely not sexual relationships. Nor will they agree to be fixed up with your brother, invest in your newest start-up, lend you money, or go out to eat after the session. This person is your therapist and only your therapist.
You don't want just anyone off the street as a therapist or counselor, dealing with your most personal problems and privy to your most private information. You don't even want just anyone who managed to squeak through graduate school. You want someone trustworthy, totally discreet, willing to be held accountable, and respected by their colleagues. Not just one of the many "anybodies" who claims to be what they are not.