Frequently Asked Questions

How do I know if I would benefit from seeing a psychologist? How can counselling help me?

There are times in all of our lives where we may feel overwhelmed with a particular situation, or just with life in general. People pursue counselling for a variety of reasons: some are confronted with a critical incident that needs immediate attention while some have ongoing issues, or issues from the past, that they feel they are ready to face. Some people may feel an overall disatisfaction or despondence across various areas of their lives,while others have a specific area that they are concerned about. People may have issues with a relationship, with an external person or situation, in their family, or within themselves. Some people are seeking direction with regards to a very specific problem, while others are coping with a more general malaise. Counselling can be beneficial for all of these reasons, as it provides a safe, comfortable, non-judgemental environment where the client has uninterrupted time to express their feelings or concerns, explore new possibilities, and try new thoughts or behaviors. The counsellor is one who does not know the client in his/her outside life, which allows the client to have an unbiased, uninvolved point of view. In many cases, the client is too close to his or her issues to see new possibilities, which allows the counsellor the opportunity to point out different or novel ways of thinking about a situation, or different ways to cope. Counselling can be beneficial for working through feelings, changing destructive thoughts and behaviors, enhancing relationships, building self-esteem, learning new skills, and developing a different, more positive viewpoint on life. Counselling often serves as a foundation upon which the client can continue to build a healthier outlook, make more positive life choices, have healthier relationships, and develop a stronger sense of self. This is the case with both individual and family/couples therapy, as well as for play therapy with children.

What is the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?

A "psychologist" is a protected title, meaning that in order to call oneself a psychologist, he or she must be registered with their provincial psychological association, which requires many strict criteria. In Alberta, one can only be registered as a psychologist if they hold a minimum of a masters' degree in psychology, have passed a comprehensive written exam, passed an oral exam regarding ethics and professional practice, and have completed a full year internship. Most provinces require that a psychologist have a doctoral degree (or PhD, which allows them to use the "Dr." title). This means that the individual has completed many years of graduate school (typically an average of 7 years), including a major piece of research and several practicums in the counselling and/or assessment field. After being registered, psychologists must adhere to a strict ethical code and engage in continuing professional development in order to maintain areas of competency and continue to be registered as a psychologist. They are primarily involved with mental health and/or life stressors, and can address a variety of issues in multiple settings. In contrast, psychiatrists attend medical school, and then specialize in psychiatry. Psychiatrists are able to prescribe medication, which a psychologist is not able to do. Psychiatrists tend to work from more of a medical model, and often work in medical settings, such as hospitals or medical clinics, but they can provide psychotherapy to their patients if that is a part of their practice.

Can a psychologist prescribe medication?


At present, only those who possess a medical degree can prescribe medication. Thus, a psychologist is not able to prescribe, as he/she is trained through graduate school, as opposed to medical school. This is the case even when a psychologist is a "doctor", which means that he or she holds a doctoral, or PhD, degree (see "What is the difference between psychologists and psychiatrists?" above) . In contrast, a psychiatrist is able to prescribe medications, as he/she has completed a medical doctor degree, followed by a specialization in psychiatry. Psychologists can still work with clients who require a prescription, and frequently make referrals to psychiatrists or general practitioners in order to have the client receive any needed medications, while they are still engaging in therapeutic work with the psychologist.


How many sessions does counselling typically take? Do I need to come every week?

The number of sessions required can vary widely from client to client, due to differences in the presenting issue, the client's personality, and other issues that may arise as counselling continues. For some people, a few sessions will be sufficient, while for others they may need to come for several months. Although this can be difficult to predict, this is something that can be discussed at your initial session, in order to give you a general idea. While it is not necessary to come every week, it is recommended that sessions are booked at least once every two weeks, as too much time between sessions can impact one's progress. It is also helpful to see the psychologist on a regular basis so that ideas are kept fresh in your mind, progress is being tracked, and new life events are incorporated into the work that is being done.

How can "play" therapy be considered helpful for children? Aren't they just playing?

This is a common misconception with regards to play therapy, as many people believe that children who are "just playing" are not really addressing their issues. To the contrary, play is a natural mode of expression for children, and aids them in expressing their feelings, fears, and memories of difficult events. Many children lack the ability to express themselves effectively using words, and play offers them an alternate route for this expression. By using play, the child can communicate in his/her own way and at his/her own pace, without feeling threatened, judged, or interrogated. The toys that are used in play therapy are not the typical toys found at the toy store; they are specifically designed with a therapeutic use in mind. For example, art supplies, sand tray materials, dolls & puppets, and books & games are used in a therapeutic manner, where the psychologist assists the child to focus on difficult feelings or experiences and "play them out" or use the materials to symbolically express how they are feeling or thinking about their world. By doing this, the child eventually works through these feelings, gaining a sense of mastery and control over events that have occurred in their lives. Once the child has expressed his/her feelings and areas of difficulty, the psychologist can also work on these directly, by asking them to create scenes, act out scenarios, draw pictures, etc. of the event in question, which can elicit further conversation, play activities, problem solving, and identification of strategies between the psychologist and child. 


What is the difference between counselling and psychotherapy?

Both counselling and psychotherapy refer to similar activities, particularly with regards to sitting down with one's client and working on his/her issues through "talk therapy". Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, there are some subtle differences between the two. Typically, counselling refers to shorter term therapy with one particular behavior or issue, and can be conducted by anyone who calls themselves a "counsellor." "Counsellor" and "Therapist" are not protected titles and can be adopted by anyone who is interested in working in the mental health field, including those who are not psychologists or psychiatrists. In contrast, psychotherapy is often more long-term, and is used to work on deeper, more chronic issues. Psychotherapy is conducted by professionals who have been trained in its use, such as psychologists, psychiatrists, and clinical social workers. Thus, while a psychologist is trained to do both counselling and psychotherapy, a counsellor may not possess the skills necessary to engage in psychotherapy. For a psychologist, there is considerable overlap between the two processes, as a shorter term counselling issue can become or evolve into more longer term psychotherapy. Thus, the lines between the two are often blurry and tend to shift throughout the therapeutic relationship.