I want to be a counsellor, should I study counselling or social work?

In I want to be a counsellor, should I study counselling or social work? I explore one of the most common questions in Australian Counselling Facebook groups, “I want to be a counsellor; should I study counselling or social work?” The answer might seem straightforward, but due to the political climate surrounding social work and psychology’s inclusion in the government Better Access Initiative (Medicare), while counselling and psychotherapy are excluded, the decision is trickier than it initially appears.

Examining job offerings in Australia reveals that counselling roles are open to psychologists, social workers, and even occupational therapists, while individuals specifically trained in counselling may struggle to secure an interview. Having undergone training in psychology, social work, therapeutic counselling, and psychotherapy, it is the latter that fully equipped me to be a counsellor and later a psychotherapist.

Until recently, counsellors and psychotherapists were not recognised as full allied health professionals. PACFA CEO, Johanna de Wever, identified the missing key to our limited recognition. All other mentioned disciplines above adhere to a minimum training standard, while in 2020, the government recommended that AQF7 would be the expected minimum standard. PACFA is now a full member of Allied Health Professions Australia (AHPA), given that the majority of its members hold AQF7 and above qualifications.

Many individuals torn between social work and counselling have been influenced by the factors mentioned above. Nevertheless, here are the two degrees and their course components to help you decide which course is right for you.

Bachelor of Social Work

The Australian Association of Social Workers write that social work, a university-qualified profession dedicated to enhancing individuals’ lives, focuses on personal and social well-being. Social workers operate in diverse roles across government agencies, hospitals, schools, and community organisations, cultivating meaningful relationships with clients. A comprehensive understanding of clients involves considering strengths, needs, and preferences, allowing social workers to provide tailored solutions, supports, and pathways to address a wide range of challenges.

The demand for social workers is high, with the profession ranking among the nation’s top high-growth industries. Social workers typically pursue either a 4-year Bachelor of Social Work or a 2-year Master of Social Work qualifying degree, including practical components and AASW membership for professional recognition. The AASW, as the regulatory body, establishes standards for practice, ethics, and education within the profession.

Social work transcends being merely a profession; it is a commitment to advocating for fairness, social justice, and human rights. Rooted in a shared vision of “wellbeing and social justice for all,” social workers strive for a world where everyone has equitable access to essential resources, agency in their lives, poverty is eradicated, and inclusion fosters positive social outcomes. Social workers passionately address the social landscape, actively working to fix social systems and contribute to positive social change.

It’s important to note that while direct practice is a component of social work, it includes support counselling, but it is not the primary focus of the degree as it is in a counselling-specific program. Social workers, through their training, gain a broad set of skills and knowledge to address various aspects of individuals’ lives, with the primary goal of promoting social justice and enhancing overall well-being.

A social work degree does not qualify individuals to join PACFA as a counsellor or psychotherapist, as these are specific training paths in their own right. However, a social work degree encompasses a diverse range of topics, reflecting the profession’s comprehensive approach to addressing societal challenges and there is the opportunity to become a Mental Health Social Worker.

Here are some of the topics you will study as part of a social work degree:

  • Activism and Social Change
  • Child and Adolescent Psychology
  • Communication and Human Services
  • Community Analysis & Development
  • Developing Cross Cultural Competencies
  • Direct Practice
  • Ethics and Social Work Practice
  • Fields of Practice
  • First Nations Foundations: Knowing, Relating and Understanding Country
  • Foundations in Social Policy
  • Foundations of Psychology for Health and Human Services (Research, Biological Bases of Behaviour, Learning & Behaviour)
  • Health, Ageing & Disability
  • Human Services Organisations
  • Indigenous Australian Practice for Human Service Workers
  • Introduction to Australian Society
  • Introduction to Human Services
  • Intro to Social Research
  • Law for the Human Services
  • Mental Health
  • Rural, Regional and Remote Community Development
  • Social Inclusion
  • Social Inequality
  • Social Work and Human Rights
  • Social Work and Social Policy Practice
  • Social Work Theory and Practice 1 – Foundations of Practice
  • Transformative Eco Social Change in Human Services
  • Understanding the Social World
  • Welfare Practice with Children, Young People and their Carers
  • Working with Families
  • Working with Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Migrants

A Bachelor of Counselling

Counsellors look inwards, exploring the inner world and the intricacies of the inner landscape. Counselling, as a collaborative process, involves meeting with a counsellor to address problematic behaviours, beliefs, feelings, and related physical symptoms. This approach intricately focuses on the relationship with oneself, promoting inner exploration through interpersonal connections. The goal is to enhance the client’s self-understanding and instigate transformative changes in their life.

PACFA members, who are Registered Clinical Counsellors, are dedicated to fostering therapeutic relationships with clients to address diverse challenges. These counsellors employ various modalities, drawing upon a spectrum of resources, philosophical approaches, and advanced training in a collaborative and confidential process.

Professional counselling, as defined by PACFA’s College of Counselling, is a secure and confidential collaboration between qualified counsellors and clients. The objective is to promote mental health and wellbeing, enhance self-understanding, and address identified concerns. Clients actively engage in the counselling process, partnering with counsellors who are fully present, employing empathy and deep listening to foster positive relationships. Counselling, adaptable to short-term, long-term, or lifelong needs, involves trained counsellors exploring diverse aspects, including identity, spirituality, relationships, past experiences, parenting, grief, trauma, and more.

Counselling goes beyond immediate issue resolution; it aspires to bring about profound personal transformation, influencing thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. PACFA Registered Clinical Counsellors, equipped with AQF7 and above qualifications, participate in ongoing professional development and supervision while adhering to ethical practices. The paramount importance of confidentiality is upheld, with exceptions only when there are risks to the safety of the client or others.

This transformative process in counselling extends beyond individual benefits, creating a positive societal ripple effect. Improved inner relationships and self-perception positively impact families, friends, colleagues, and communities. The essence for clients seeking support lies in the personal connection with the therapist, forming the foundation for assessments and interventions aimed at fostering positive change and empowerment.

Counsellors are encouraged to participate in their own personal counselling as a means of being able to hold their clients effectively. Recognising that counsellors can only guide their clients as deeply as they have delved into their own experiences, this practice enhances their capacity to provide meaningful support.

Registered Clinical Counsellors typically pursue either a 4-year Bachelor of Counselling or a 2-year Master of Counselling qualifying degree, including practical components and PACFA membership for professional recognition. PACFA, as a regulatory body, establishes standards for practice, ethics, and education within the profession.

Here are some of the topics you will study as part of a counselling degree:

  • Attachment Theory & Practice
  • Counselling & Diversity
  • Counselling & Mental Health
  • Counselling & Neuroscience
  • Counselling Therapies
  • Crisis of Identity
  • Developmental Psychology: Adulthood & Aging
  • Developmental Psychology: Childhood & Adolescence
  • Emotions, Embodiment and Connection
  • Ethics, Law & Counselling
  • Family & Couple Counselling
  • Group Skills
  • Grief & Loss Counselling
  • Humanistic Models of Counselling
  • Integrated practice: Self & Story
  • Micro Counselling Skills
  • Person-Centred Counselling
  • Psychodynamic Practice in Counselling
  • Reflective Practice
  • Self & Relationships
  • Self-Development
  • Sexuality and Therapeutic Practice
  • Social Frameworks
  • Strategies and Process of Change
  • The Counselling Process
  • The Parts & the Whole
  • Transference & Countertransference
  • Trauma-Informed Counselling
  • Working with Children and Adolescents

In deciding between studying social work or counselling, it boils down to your passion and career goals

Pursuing a Bachelor of Social Work equips you for a profession dedicated to enhancing personal and social well-being, addressing challenges across various settings with a focus on social justice. On the other hand, a Bachelor of Counselling delves into the intricacies of the inner world, promoting self-understanding and personal transformation. While both fields contribute to positive societal change, it’s crucial to note that a social work degree doesn’t qualify individuals to join PACFA as Certified Practising or Registered Clinical Counsellors. PACFA College of Counselling members, educated at AQF7 or above, bring a high standard of training and expertise, ensuring a transformative approach to counselling. Job security currently favours social work, but with national standards for counselling on the horizon, the counselling industry is poised to gain credibility, potentially leading to increased demand for counsellors in various job sectors. Ultimately, align your values with the distinct paths offered by social work and counselling to make an informed choice that resonates with your aspirations for making a meaningful impact.

If you are enrolled in a counselling course or fully qualified, come on in and join your counselling colleagues at Opening the Door on Private Practice Facebook Group.

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Jodie Gale

Jodie Gale MA. is the founder of The Psychosynthesis Centre, Trauma Warriors TM, The Soul Sessions with Jodie Gale Podcast and Jodie Gale Soul Centred-Therapy for Women. She is a on the College of Psychotherapy Leadership Team at PACFA, is a Clinical Supervisor, Private Practice Business Coach, Trainer, Facilitator & an Eco-Psycho-Spiritual Registered Clinical Psychotherapist® on the Northern Beaches of Sydney & online. Jodie has 20+ years of experience in private pay, private practice and has built 2 thriving practices - in London and then home in Sydney, Australia. Jodie is passionate about putting the soul back in to therapy!

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