Psychology. Image credit: Mohamed Hassan (Pixabay)

Self-proclaimed ‘psychologists’ may be taking advantage of vulnerable people

Vulnerable people may be paying hefty fees for substandard services because the title ‘psychologist’ is not protected in the UK.

There has been a longstanding campaign to make ‘psychologist’ a legally protected title.

The Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), which regulates health and care professions in the UK, regulates some titles including:

  1. Practitioner psychologist (general title)
  2. Registered psychologist (general title)
  3. Clinical psychologist
  4. Forensic psychologist
  5. Counselling psychologist
  6. Health psychologist
  7. Educational psychologist
  8. Occupational psychologist
  9. Sport and exercise psychologist

It is a criminal offence to use these titles without being on the register. But the standalone ‘psychologist’ title can be used by anyone.

Postgraduate qualifications and training are required to a doctoral level to become a practitioner psychologist. This usually takes between seven and nine years.

‘Psychologist’ has greater protection in countries including Australia, Canada and 17 other European nations.

A spokesperson for the British Psychological Society (BPS) said: “We agree that it is vital that members of the public can be assured that any psychologist providing services to them is competent to provide the services they are advertising.

“While the title ‘psychologist’ is not currently a protected title, this is in common with other healthcare titles such as ‘nurse’.

“In relation to psychologists, nine roles that offer services to patients and clients are required to be registered as ‘practitioner psychologists’ with the regulator, the Health and Care Professions Council. 

“We recommend that any person who is planning to use the services of someone advertising themselves as a psychologist, checks whether they are on the HCPC register where applicable, or has either Chartered membership of the BPS or is listed on our directories and registers.”

The BPS offer a platform for people to become ‘chartered psychologists’, which is different from the HCPC registered ‘practitioner psychologist’.

‘Chartered psychologists’ are those who have paid an annual fee to the BPS to be added to their directory. There is no requirement to be qualified and registered with the HCPC.

Dr Marianne Trent, who has worked as a clinical psychologist since 2011, said that the BPS’s ‘chartered psychologists’, alongside the HCPC’s ‘practitioner psychologists’ leads to much confusion.

She said: “I believe that it is really important to protect the title because in the most part, the general public are not aware that it isn’t protected.

“So, they believe, when they see someone referring to themselves as psychologists, that they are in safe, regulated and qualified hands.”

She explained how many practitioner psychologists register themselves as chartered psychologists with the BPS for greater recognition and media acknowledgement, but that it meant very little.

Trent added: “We’re probably waiting for a very big disaster to happen in order to realise the importance of highlighting qualifications.”

She also mentioned a school which had hired a so-called psychologist to upskill their staff but had concerns about the psychologist’s manner.

When it investigated, it found that they did not have the appropriate qualifications, reflected by the fact that they belittled members of staff, something Trent said you definitely wouldn’t expect to see in someone who was qualified.

When presented with the BPS’ comment about other healthcare titles such as nurse also being unprotected, she said: “Just because others are not doing the right thing doesn’t make it ok.

“In psychology, we try to be the difference that makes the difference.

“When we’re dealing with people’s mental health, we should be making sure that we are extra ethical and fair so that we avoid distress to others.”

Psychologists can be consulted in court hearings, particularly in family court, where they may advise on the outcome of a case involving a child’s welfare.

Last year, Sir Andrew McFarlane, England’s most senior family court judge, said that while the ‘psychologist’ title would not be protected, there was a “need for rigour” and “clarity”, noting that the current system was “confusing”.

He did, however, add that the decision to protect it was for the psychological profession and parliament to decide.

His comments followed heated conversations about whether the title needed protection after a mother appealed when her children were removed from her care, claiming that the expert was not qualified.

A petition to make ‘psychologist’ protected received 12,185 signatures before it closed early for the general election.

In its response, the government said: “A number of commonly used professional titles, such as ‘nurse’ or ‘doctor’ are not currently protected, as we recognise that they can be legitimately used outside of a healthcare environment.

“However, the Government keeps these titles under review and will be considering the titles protected in law as part of its regulatory reform programme.”

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