By Nathan Beel, August 2022 pre-print version.
Imagine the profession of counselling has come of age. The date is 2030. Counselling in Australia has acquired social and governmental recognition as a profession within the health and social wellbeing landscapes. Counsellors have access to Medicare Better Access, are recognised within the government mental health departments across Australia and are, by default, listed alongside psychologists and social workers in job adverts advertising for counselling positions. Employers who hire a registered counsellor have a broad expectation of what skills, knowledge, and values will be demonstrated, just as they can expect when hiring psychologists or social workers. Counsellors are recognised by other allied health professions and have increased membership on interdisciplinary teams. They have a protected title ‘Registered Counsellor’ that helps safeguard the profession’s reputation and identity. The profession has ensured that the leadership, training, and socialisation of counselling trainees is primarily conducted by qualified counsellor educators who were prepared, inducted, and registered in the same profession they are preparing their students for. Newer counsellors no longer feel inferior and uncertain in the presence of other helping professionals, but are proud and confident in their training and professional identity. There is now greater clarity inside and outside of the profession as to how counsellors differ from other professions who counsel, and there is clarity about who we are and how we are unique.
Before exploring in more depth my speculation of one potential future, it’s useful to identify where we are now. In my view, the counselling profession has made tremendous progress in its 20+ years since nationalising. We have approximately forty institutions in Australia offering training in counselling, with most of these having professional recognition, thus flagging the meeting of minimum training standards. We have two peak bodies, the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA), and the Australian Counselling Association (ACA), both of which have growing memberships with thousands of members, have codes of ethics (Australian Counselling Association, 2022; Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia, 2017), training standards (Australian Counselling Association, 2012; Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia, 2022), scopes of practice (Australian Counselling Association, 2020; Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia, 2018), private health insurance recognition by several providers, and NDIS access. The uptake of counselling education is offered in a range of various sized training providers, colleges, and most universities. Many job adverts for counselling related roles recognise those trained in counselling, and/or registered with the counselling profession. While counselling has some ways to go to catch up with more established professions, it is on the professional map as never before.
At this point of writing, we still have some goals to achieve. While the social need for, and availability of counsellors is evident (Bloch-Atefi et al., 2021), counsellors are still discriminated against. Counsellors are unable to access Medicare’s Better Access program and are still excluded from being considered for roles that are essentially counselling positions.
In my view, we still have not reached full professionalisation. One article discussing national counselling association professionalisation noted several steps that, in the authors’ views, may strengthen national and institutional recognition (Montgomery et al., 2018). These included a strong sense of shared identity that is well known and understood, standardisation, a commitment to the good of clients as a primary motivation for decisions, research engagement and support, viability, and strategic engagement with key stakeholders (Montgomery et al., 2018). The Australian counselling profession is already, in my view, well on the way to what might be full recognition. It has two peak bodies to develop regulated communities of practitioners, brought together a diversity of practitioners and associations into two main bodies, defined training and entry into the professional peak bodies rules, engaged with allied professions, advocated to industry and government, sought vocational opportunities for counsellors and psychotherapists, and others not listed. The inconsistent recognition within mental health services and systems, schools, and other contexts highlights that there is still a way to go.
This article aims to stimulate consideration of how we might press forward, and perhaps help us take stock, and maybe introduce some fresh ideas. It will do this by working backwards from a future vision where the profession is fully recognised. What follows hints at a formula that I think may partly contribute towards full acceptance and recognition socially and professionally (besides the other strategic efforts currently undertaken by the existing professional bodies and members). I am not an insider in PACFA, or the ACA, so admit my areas of ignorance about historical and contemporary strategies they have undertaken, or are undertaking. Parts of my vision may be provocative for some, and I apologise for this in advance. I offer merely one registered counsellor / counselling educator’s vision of what the counselling profession could look like if we are successful in gaining broad acceptance at all levels of society. Embedded in such an exercise are implied roadmaps of how we got there. So, in my vision of future success, how did we get complete recognition and what does the profession look like now?
Strategic planning for recognition
The counselling profession carefully developed a literature-informed, well-researched plan on how to gain social and governmental recognition, and while it continued to take advantage of ad hoc opportunities, it also developed a clear strategic five-year plan. It compared the evolutionary recognition of international counselling associations and similar Australian professions that had gained recognition and determined the key components that appeared to contribute the most. Planning was done collaboratively with both peak bodies (PACFA and ACA). Both consciously addressed their own conflicts of interests (i.e., desire for profession recognition vs desire to protect their own association’s interests) and discourses that promoted themselves when advocating for the profession to avoid undermining the larger goal of profession recognition. Both bodies committed to prioritising decisions that were in the best interests of the profession, and this decision pervaded their communication, their operations, and their strategies. They determinedly sought to identify and strategically address internal and external barriers and leveraged the strengths of each association.
One profession, one identity
The counselling profession in Australia historically struggled to find a cohesive, unified identity (Moir-Bussey et al., 2016) and the existence of two peak bodies had been recognised as problematic (O’Hara & O’Hara, 2015). As part of its own internal reviews, including careful consultation and research with internal and external stakeholders, several issues and solutions were discovered. The profession’s leadership recognised that although they had endeavoured to present a united front through the Australian Register of Counsellors and Psychotherapists (ARCAP), they were still operating in practice and discourse as a divided profession. As a result of a meticulous review, both peak bodies decided to clearly demarcate the profession from the peak bodies, including key functions. An example of a change was that in 2024, the ACA removed the misleading bi-line that positioned itself singularly as “The [singular] peak body for counsellors and psychotherapists in Australia” [emphasis added] (Australian Counselling Association, 2022, p. 1).
The formerly known ARCAP was supported to, and granted special autonomy from the ACA and PACFA, and changed its name to the Australian Board of Counsellors (ABC) and expanded its scope and purpose. The ABC is now responsible for registering counsellors, accrediting training courses, managing complaints, and advocating for the profession in a non-partisan way. There is one code of ethics, scope of practice, and training standards for all registered counsellors. Membership of the profession through ABC is clearly demarcated from membership in professional associations. The ABC removed membership level descriptors that were meaningless to the public (e.g., numbers) or that were misleading (i.e., clinical), and now uses recognised levels such as Student Member, Affiliate Member (i.e., financial only member), Associate Member (i.e., for practicing members who did not meet contemporary training standards such as sub-degree holders, and provisional members), Academic Members (i.e., counselling educators), Members (i.e. full practicing members), and Fellows (i.e. senior members).
The two peak bodies and other associations continue as associations that registered counsellors and affiliates can join. They are complimentary and supportive of the ABC and have redefined their scope and function to maintain their operations as mainstream professional counselling and psychotherapy bodies, but have their own distinctive membership requirements and processes into their respective associations. They continue playing an important supportive role for members of the profession within their scope.
The titles of Psychotherapist and Indigenous Healing Practitioner no longer form alternative identities from counsellors, but are recognised as additional specialist identities, like clinical psychologists who are specialist psychologists. Some have additional endorsements in specialist areas such as Psychotherapist, Clinical Supervisor, Indigenous Healing Practitioner, Counselling Educator, or Mental Health Counsellor; but all have a primary and registered identity as a Registered Counsellor. This decision was made to simplify recognition of one profession, one identity, whilst allowing for select specialisations within the identity. Additionally, this reduced the previous infighting and territory marking between the two distinct identities of Counsellors and Psychotherapists. PACFA is now the Counselling Federation of Australia or CFA.
Registered Counsellors have a small number of essential values distilled through lengthy consultations with registered members. This enabled the ability to identify and clearly articulate its core values, which mirrors a similar approach in social work (with its emphasis on social justice), and psychology (with its scientist practitioner commitment). Counselling has developed and articulated its core driving values across the profession and successfully communicate and reinforce these within the training, the profession, and externally to society and other key stakeholders. Counsellors can clearly and positively delineate themselves from similar professionals who counsel and do so consistently. These values can be summarised as client-centred practice; a concept that privileges clients’ voices and preferences, implies egalitarian, collaborative, and relational practice, and can be adapted to a wide range of modalities, contexts and settings.
The counselling profession recognises and values its own distinct identity and values, and thus no longer treats other similar professionals who counsel as automatically being qualified to teach counselling students. Qualified counsellor educators are no longer treated as optional in the preparation and socialisation of counselling students, but are now recognised as essential to maintaining the distinctiveness of counselling student socialisation. Once counsellor training standards required a minimum of 50% counsellor qualified educators to teach and lead counselling courses, there was an increase in the consolidation of the counsellor identity, and a reduction in the perception that non-counsellor outsiders could determine who was qualified to teach counsellors.
The ABC listened to stakeholders including industry, governments, counsellor educators, private practitioners, and consulted with international standards (e.g., CACREP’s standards) and contemporary counselling education and broader education research, to determine its training standards that form the basis for registration as a counsellor. The training standards provide specific and detailed expectations and explanations to enhance the consistency of graduate knowledge and skills across institutions, and hence consistency of foundation knowledge and skills across registered counsellors. It guarded against being influenced by sectarianism of individual counselling and psychotherapy modalities, and viewpoints that contradict contemporary research and the realities of contemporary practice. Rather, its focus was both on how best to prepare counsellors to work in the contemporary world, and ensure their practice was effective, ethical, and adaptable; and enables the acquisition of transferable skills and knowledge into other related roles. While it maintains a respect for the diversity of both mainstream and less known therapies, its counselling graduates all possess predictable core skills and knowledge to give employers and funders certainty about what counsellors are trained in. The ABC has an entry test as part of applying for membership, which includes standardised tests and hurdles for entry as a further mechanism for ensuring quality across training providers.
Counsellors have developed a clear, informed, and cooperative commitment to evidence-informed practice and integrate neatly within the medical model, recognising it as a culturally dominant and meaningful framework from which many clients receive mental health treatment, and from which many industry and government stakeholders ascribe to. Counsellors recognise the medical model as one model among many other explanatory models for human distress and wellbeing, and counsellors have knowledge of alternative forms of cultural and professional explanations. Counsellors are socialised to learn, respectfully engage with, operate in (and appropriately critique) the dominant and non-dominant cultural health discourses and practices. They have become increasingly competent and comfortable to participate cooperatively in interprofessional groups, and no longer experience professional exclusion from roles or teams from which they are qualified to be. They are mindful that their credibility as a recognised and legitimate helping profession partially comes from being able to work constructively, knowledgeably, and effectively within a range of systems and paradigms, including the dominant contemporary internationally paradigms such as the medical model, without compromising their core values as counsellors.
As part of a recognition that counsellors could effectively operate within the medical model context, that emphasises the use of specific Evidence-Based Treatments (EBTs), all counsellors were trained in at least one of the mainstream EBTs as required by Medicare’s Better Access. Governments, insurance companies and various employers are confident that all registered counsellors can competently deliver at least one of the widely recognised and utilised EBTs. While many training providers may also offer specialist training in non-widely used approaches, these are over and above the competencies required for the mainstream approach learned.
Counsellors provide value to contemporary need
The training of counsellors prepares them with the foundations for diverse practice, across client groups, issues, and formats of delivery. Training for entry into the profession is not primarily designed to teach students to be specialists in any area, but to prepare them as a well-rounded counselling professional. In addition, the registered counsellor has been trained and assessed in competencies that are expected of many counsellors in the modern workforce including case management, risk management, telehealth, group work, psychoeducation, administration, and record keeping, prevention and early intervention, collaboration, interprofessional, referrals, research skills, and many more. The training standards incorporate knowledge from targeted semi-regular research and consultation into employer needs, social trends, government requirements, national and international trends in counsellor education and education more broadly, to ensure that the graduates are sufficiently prepared for the roles contemporary counsellors undertake. The process of updating and proposing standards are done in a transparent manner, enabling debate and challenge by all key stakeholders before becoming finalised and introduced.
Counselling, like other practice-based professions, previously struggled to gain an identity with research. This meant that academics in public universities were often forced to publish in journals outside of counselling’s own journals to have their research counted against their performance measures, thus diverting away their contributions to building the counselling profession’s own research credibility. The profession of counselling recognised the importance of strategically developing a comprehensive research strategy as a means of using research to gain and maintain professional credibility with the public and other professions. It is also recognised as important for establishing, socialising, and equipping its students and members with greater research skills and knowledge; and ensure it had sufficient numbers of counsellor-trained academics.
Meaningful research training is not an optional extra in counsellor training but viewed as essential. Counsellors can read, interpret, and critically evaluate research, and recognise its value in helping to further their knowledge.
The proportion of counsellors progressing to do doctorates has significantly increased because of the ABC training standards requiring a minimum of 50% of academic staff being registered counsellors. This incentivised the university sector to proactively encourage academically driven students towards higher research degrees to prepare the pipeline of future counsellor trained academics. There now exist doctorates in counsellor education, which are specifically designed to prepare the next generations of counselling academics. Universities are now not limited to choosing between hiring published doctorate holding Psychologists, or master’s qualified Registered Counsellors without a meaningful publication track record, but now Counsellor doctorate holders, with research publications, are prepared to succeed in the university system and be an equal status peer among academic staff in other disciplines. This equality of status in higher education helped enhance the reputation of the counselling profession from lesser qualified to equally qualified professionals.
The counselling profession’s research committee was not satisfied with unranked counselling journals that could not count toward university academic publication requirements. Rather, it strategically developed a strategy to increase the profile of its journals and had them indexed by reputable databases where they would be found and have their impact improved. As a result of enhancing the emphasis of research in the training standards and developing its own strategic research agenda, the counselling profession now has a well-ranked counselling journal in Australia that is indexed by the major research databases and attracts Australian and international contributions.
In my vision of the future of a socially and governmentally endorsed profession of counselling, I believe it will be a unified profession in its structure. Its skill-sets, and knowledge will be predictable; it will be complementary to, and offer what is valued by mainstream services and related professions; and it will maintain its diversity in additional specialisations without compromising its core. Its counsellors will have a clear sense of their own identity as counsellors, will be agile and adaptable to a wide range of contexts, and have a contemporary skill, knowledge and attitude base that will set them up to succeed in whatever contexts they work in. The counselling profession will give a higher priority to research and its value, and while not all will become researchers or aspire to be, they will be able to intelligently interpret and utilise research to remain current. Counselling educators will increase in numbers and be equally highly educated and performing peers with colleagues from other disciplines with more extensive research histories. Counselling will be seen as an equally credible profession at all levels. Its future of recognition will require not only more of what it has already been advocating for but also ensure that the counsellors themselves have been trained and operate at the level that warrants the level of recognition sought. In my vision, our profession moved from diversity as strength to recognise that diversity can lead to confusion and diffusion if it undermines developing a clearly formed singular identity. It needs indivisible unity, consistency, and to meet the metrics that other professions have achieved as a means to gain wide credibility. I recognise this document overly simplifies the complexity and issues we face as a profession. If anything, I hope this article will stimulate ideas and enhance efforts towards a common goal and a single shared identity.
Australian Counselling Association. (2012). Accreditation of counsellor higher education courses. https://www.theaca.net.au/documents/ACA%20Accreditation%20of%20Counsellor%20Higher%20Education%20Programs%202013.pdf
Australian Counselling Association. (2020). Scope of practice for registered counsellors (2nd ed.). Author. https://www.theaca.net.au/documents/Scope_of_Practice_2nd_Edition.pdf
Australian Counselling Association. (2022). Code of ethics and practice of the Australian Counselling Association (16th ed.). Author. https://www.theaca.net.au/documents/ACA-Code-of-Ethics-and-Practice-Ver16.pdf
Bloch-Atefi, A., Day, E., Snell, T., & O’Neill, G. (2021). A snapshot of the counselling and psychotherapy workforce in Australia in 2020: Underutilised and poorly remunerated, yet highly qualified and desperately needed. Psychotherapy & Counselling Journal of Australia, 9(2). https://pacja.org.au/2021/10/a-snapshot-of-the-counselling-and-psychotherapy-workforce-in-australia-in-2020-underutilised-and-poorly-remunerated-yet-highly-qualified-and-desperately-needed/
Moir-Bussey, A., Andrews, K., & Smith, T. (2016). Toward a unified vision of professional counselling identity: A preliminary Australian perspective. Australian Counselling Research Journal, 10(2).
Montgomery, M. L. T., Shepard, B., Mokgolodi, H., Qian, M., & Tang, M. (2018). Professionalization of counseling: Perspectives from different international regions. International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling, 40(4), 343-364. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10447-018-9330-6
O’Hara, D. J., & O’Hara, E. F. (2015). Counselling and psychotherapy: Professionalisation in the Australian context. Psychotherapy and Counselling Journal of Australia, 3(1). http://pacja.org.au/?p=2736
Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia. (2017). PACFA code of ethics. Author. https://pacfa.org.au/common/Uploaded%20files/PCFA/Documents/Documents%20and%20Forms/PACFA-Code-of-Ethics-2017.pdf
Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia. (2018). Scope of practice for registered counsellors. Author. https://www.pacfa.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Scope-of-Practice-for-Registered-Counsellors-2018.pdf
Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia. (2019). Evidence-informed practice statement. Author. https://portal.pacfa.org.au/common/Uploaded%20files/PCFA/Documents/Evidence-Informed-Practice-Statement-May2019.pdf
Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia. (2022). PACFA training standards. Author.
 Labelling counsellors as Clinical Members based on additional time and specific experience alone is misleading to the public. The word ‘clinical’ has connotations of working within the medical model and treating diagnosed mental disorders, implying additional endorsement in specialist clinical training. Many counsellors are not aligned, or are only partially aligned, with the medical model so the terminology does not make sense as representing senior members of the counselling profession.
 as distinguished from evidence-based practice. For more information, see Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia. (2019). Evidence-informed practice statement. Author. https://portal.pacfa.org.au/common/Uploaded%20files/PCFA/Documents/Evidence-Informed-Practice-Statement-May2019.pdf