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Here is an all too frequent scenario: A patient or other health care professional tells me someone has been seen by a Psychologist. I check out their credentials. It turns out the person is not, in fact, a real Psychologist.

But does it really matter? As with most jurisdictions around the world, Ontario has laws that regulate certain activities and professions, including the profession of Psychology. These laws exist to protect the public. In particular, they do so in two ways: (1) by ensuring that only qualified individuals practice the profession; and (2) by creating a means of holding licensed individuals accountable to specific, high standards. This is similar to reasons for government regulation of driver's licenses in that it protects us by keeping unqualified drivers off the road and by setting rules and standards for licensed drivers.

It gets even more important. Health law specifies who is and is not permitted to perform certain risky activities. In Ontario, these high risk activities are known as controlled acts and giving someone a diagnosis is one of these. Because of the risks from being given a wrong diagnosis, many people who offer counselling or psychotherapy are not permitted to give you a diagnosis. In fact, not even all regulated or licensed health professions in Ontario are legally allowed to give you a diagnosis. Psychologists are one of the very few professions that are able to do so.

What does Ontario law actually say to prevent an unqualified person from impersonating or being mistaken for a Psychologist? The Psychology Act states that:

  • “8.1 No person other than a member [of the College of Psychologists of Ontario] shall use the title 'psychologist' or 'psychological associate', a variation or abbreviation or an equivalent in another language.”

  • “8.2 No person other than a member shall hold himself or herself out as a person who is qualified to practise in Ontario as a psychologist or psychological associate or in a specialty of psychology.”

  • “8.3 A person who is not a member contravenes subsection (2) if he or she uses the word 'psychology' or 'psychological', an abbreviation or an equivalent in another language in any title or designation or in any description of services offered or provided.”

Here are six ways people try to find out if someone is a real Psychologist. Unfortunately, only one way can be trusted.

They List Psychology in Describing Their Services. You might think that you could just look at how a person represents themselves, such as on a business card or web site, to see if they list psychology in describing their services. After all, the law is very specific about unlicensed individuals not being permitted to use the title “psychologist” or the word “psychology” or “psychological” or an abbreviation in any description of services. Unfortunately, this is not a reliable way to know for sure if someone is a real Psychologist because, knowing the law or not, there are counsellors and therapists who use these terms in describing their services.

They Display Psychology Credentials. By law, the official credential abbreviation for a Psychologist in Ontario is “C.Psych.” You might think that this is a guaranteed way to tell if someone is a real Psychologist. Not so. I have seen this used by someone who is not a real Psychologist. Similarly, many times I have seen a business a card of a person who is not a Psychologist listing a degree in “Psych” as part of their credentials. While this may seem quite innocent, the law is quite clear about use of “the word 'psychology' or 'psychological', [or] an abbreviation ... in any title or designation” because of the risk that an unqualified person would be mistaken for a real Psychologist.

They Are Identified by Somebody Else. Taking someone else's word for it is not reliable either. Because there is so much misleading information out there, other people are sometimes mistaken. Being told by a friend or even a medical professional that someone is a Psychologist is not a guaranteed way to know for sure if that person is a real Psychologist.

They Are Found by a Trusted Search Engine. If you search for “psychologist” with a trusted search engine like Bing or Google you won't just get hits on real Psychologists. You will, in fact, get thousands of hits that are not Psychologists. There are several reasons for this. For one, there are paid listing sites that group several types of providers together such that if you search for “psychologist” you will get a listing of all their psychologists, coaches, and counsellors and it may not be clear who on the list is a real Psychologist.

They Are a Member of a Psychological Association. It seems safe to assume that someone is a real Psychologist if they are a member of a professional psychology association. No so. In order to be a member of the Ontario Psychological Association, for example, you have to agree with the principles of the association but you don't have to be a registered or licensed Psychologist. I have seen membership in a professional psychology association listed as a part of someone's credentials in a way (e.g. directly under their name) that could easily lead others to assume they are a real Psychologist when they are not.

They Are on the College of Psychologists Register. The College of Psychologists of Ontario is required by law to maintain a publicly available register of all certified or licensed Psychologists and Psychological Associates in the province. In fact, this is the only reliable way to find out for sure if someone is a real Psychologist and this is how I check. The College's web site has an easy way to see who is a real psychologist at this location.