Advocates call on Alberta government to regulate advisors to protect clients

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Advocates are increasing calls for the Alberta government to regulate counselors after a former northern Alberta family doctor, who was barred from practicing in the province, has now accepted a Substance abuse counselor position.

Dr. Brianne Hudson had her medical license revoked in December 2023 by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta (CPSA) after she was found to have committed sexual abuse when she admitted have a relationship with a patient from Grande Prairie.

The 37-year-old former patient became paraplegic after a workplace accident, was homeless and incarcerated and struggled with substance use, according to details of a hearing conducted by the CPSA.

Hudson said she had no contact with the patient as of April 2021.

The former patient died of a drug overdose in his apartment in August 2022.

CBC News requested comment from Hudson by phone and email on the capacity in which she offers consulting services at her Grande Prairie business, Within Balance, but did not receive a response.

An Alberta corporate registration search shows that Brianne Hudson is the sole director and shareholder of Within Balance Inc. The registration shows that the company name changed on January 25; it was previously called Brianne Hudson Professional Corporation. A searchable database of therapists and counselors maintained by Psychology Today also listed Hudson’s credentials as of mid-January, but is no longer available.

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CBC asked Hudson for comment in what capacity she provides consulting services through her business, Within Balance, but did not receive a response. (Within balance)

Laura Hahn, interim CEO and registrar of the Association Of Counseling Therapy of Alberta (ACTA), said the situation demonstrates why regulation is needed to protect the public.

“It’s really sad that Albertans don’t have basic health security to ensure their counselor is trained, ethical and responsible,” Hahn said in an interview.

ACTA was created after the previous NDP government passed Bill 30, the Mental Health Services Protection Act, in December 2018. ACTA aims to lay the foundation to become the College of Counseling Therapy of Alberta (CCTA).

The College would be a health regulatory body with legal authority to supervise the conduct of individuals required to register with the College, such as counseling therapists, addictions counselors and care counselors to childhood and youth.

The association says the main obstacle to obtaining regulatory powers is the Alberta government’s delay in enacting the bill.

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Dr. Brianne Hudson was the first physician to have her license revoked by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta under the province’s Protecting Patients Act. The decision was announced in December 2023. (Within balance)

This proclamation was expected in the summer of 2021, but in September of that year, then-Minister of Health Tyler Shandro informed the association that the creation of the CCTA was no longer a priority for his government .

CBC requested an interview with Dan Williams, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, about the progress of creating the college.

Williams’ office said he was unavailable, but the minister’s press secretary, Hunter Baril, said in a statement to CBC that “the government has heard significant concerns about the engagement process led by ACTA”.

Baril said these concerns come from First Nations, charities, non-profits, employers and practitioners about how the proposal is currently structured.

“It is clear that the proposal requires increased engagement from the Government of Alberta with Albertans and organizations that provide counseling services to ensure that the proposal does not reduce access to services or result in undue pressure on the workforce,” Baril said.

READ | Why counseling therapy professionals are calling for regulation

Leigh Sheldon, CEO of Indigenous Psychological Services and a member of Swan River First Nation near Slave Lake, supports the regulations because it would increase the pool of practitioners who could become eligible providers for Indigenous clients.

Indigenous people cannot receive coverage under the First Nations and Inuit Non-Insured Health Benefits Plan for sessions with Alberta counselor therapists because the federal program only covers the fees of practitioners regulated by a professional order.

Sheldon noted community concerns about the competence and cultural sensitivity of counseling therapy services if the proclamation were adopted.

However, another significant problem is the lack of communication and devolution of responsibilities between the provincial and federal governments to ensure resources and access.

“We have 900 people a month looking for psychological support, and we can’t even open our list. Some people have been on lists to see a new provider for up to two years.”

Consequences of not having a formal college

Shaheen Alarakhia, an Edmonton counselor and owner of Holistic Healing Counseling, is part of the growing industry cohort trying to push the government to regulate the province.

Alarakhia was part of a group of 85 employers who asked the Alberta government to proclaim the CCTA.

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Shaheen Alarakhia is an Edmonton counselor who supports counselor regulation. (Rick Bremness/CBC)

In Alberta, buyer beware when it comes to counseling therapy, Alarakhia said in an interview.

“The general public does not always have the basic knowledge necessary to be able to decipher what a counselor would be with appropriate training and adhering to a standard of practice, a district code of ethics, as opposed to someone one who considers himself simply an untrained counselor,” Alarakhia said.

“Someone like me, with a master’s degree, and a lot of post-grad training, supervision, consulting and continuing development, calls themselves a counselor. But someone just out of high school can do that too; nothing would stop him from doing it.”

Patchwork across Canada

Lindsey Thomson, director of public affairs for the Canadian Counseling and Psychotherapy Association, said there is an inconsistent approach to how provincial governments choose to regulate the profession.

The association offers equivalent certification to professionals wishing to demonstrate that they have appropriate credentials in regulated provinces. But Thomson said the limitation is that certification is voluntary, not mandatory.

“It creates a lot of confusion and creates more divisions within the mental health system nationally,” Thomson said.

“Because it doesn’t create a certain set of general standards for the public.”

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