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Advocates call on the Alberta government to regulate counsellors to protect clients

Advocates are heightening calls for the Alberta government to regulate counsellors, after the circulation of a website advertising the services of a former family doctor in Grande Prairie, Alta., as an addictions counsellor. Brianne Hudson had her practice permit cancelled after she was found to have committed sexual abuse when she admitted to being in a relationship with a patient. (Shutterstock / wavebreakmedia - image credit)

UPDATE: On Feb. 5, 2024, Brianne Hudson provided a statement to CBC News. In the statement, she disputes the CPSA's finding that she committed sexual abuse. Hudson said, "I am committed to practising addictions counselling competently, ethically, and responsibly." She said she has been under counselling supervision with a board-certified therapist since May 2023. She further cites training in addictions while in medical school and residency and during her time a family physician for nine years.

Advocates are heightening calls for the Alberta government to regulate counsellors after a former family doctor in northern Alberta, who was barred from practising in the province, is now taking appointments as an addictions counsellor.

Dr. Brianne Hudson had her medical practice permit cancelled 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 to being in a relationship with a patient in Grande Prairie.

The 37-year-old former patient became paraplegic after a workplace accident, experienced homelessness and incarceration and struggled with substance use, according to details from a hearing conducted by the CPSA.

Hudson said she had no contact with the patient from April 2021 onward.

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

An Alberta corporation registration search shows Brianne Hudson is the sole director and shareholder of Within Balance Inc. The registration shows the company's name changed on Jan. 25; it was previously named Brianne Hudson Professional Corporation. A searchable database of therapists and counsellors operated by Psychology Today also listed Hudson's credentials in mid-January, but is no longer available.

CBC requested comment from Hudson about in what capacity she is offering counselling services at her business, Within Balance, but did not hear back.
CBC requested comment from Hudson about in what capacity she is offering counselling services at her business, Within Balance, but did not hear back.

CBC requested comment from Hudson about in what capacity she is offering counselling services at her business, Within Balance, but did not hear back. (Within Balance)

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

"It's really quite sad that Albertans do not have basic health safety to ensure that their counsellor is trained, ethical and accountable," Hahn said in an interview.

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

The college would be a regulatory health body that would be granted the legislated authority to oversee the conduct of those required to register with the college, such as counselling therapists, addiction counsellors, and child and youth care counsellors.

The association says the main hurdle in having regulatory powers is the Alberta government's delay in proclaiming the bill.

Dr. Brianne Hudson was the first doctor to have her practice permit cancelled by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta under the provincial Act to Protect Patients. The decision was announced in December 2023.
Dr. Brianne Hudson was the first doctor to have her practice permit cancelled by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta under the provincial Act to Protect Patients. The decision was announced in December 2023.

Dr. Brianne Hudson was the first doctor to have her practice permit cancelled by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta under the provincial Act to Protect Patients. The decision was announced in December 2023. (Within Balance)

That proclamation was expected in the summer of 2021, but by September of that year, then-minister of health Tyler Shandro informed the association that creating the CCTA was no longer a priority for his government.

CBC requested an interview with Dan Williams, minister of mental health and addictions, on the progress of creating the college.

Williams's office said he was not available, but the minister's press secretary, Hunter Baril, said in a statement to CBC that the "government has heard significant concern regarding the engagement process conducted by ACTA."

Baril specified those concerns come from First Nations, charities, non-profits, employers and practitioners on how the proposal is currently structured.

"It is clear the proposal requires further engagement by Alberta's government with Albertans and organizations who provide counselling services to ensure the proposal does not reduce access to services or cause undue strain on the workforce," Baril said.

READ | Why counselling therapy professionals are calling for regulation

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

Indigenous people can't receive coverage under the First Nations and Inuit Non-Insured Health Benefits plan for sessions with Alberta counselling therapists because the federal program only covers fees for practitioners that a professional college regulates.

Sheldon noted hearing community concerns about how culturally competent and sensitive counselling therapy services would be should the proclamation proceed.

However, another significant issue has been the lack of communication and the jurisdictional passing of responsibility between the provincial and federal governments in ensuring resources and access.

"We have 900 people a month that are seeking counselling support, and we can't even open up our list. There's people that 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 counsellor and the owner of Holistic Healing Counselling, 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 called on the Alberta government to proclaim the CCTA.

Shaheen Alarakhia is an Edmonton counsellor who supports the regulation of counsellors.
Shaheen Alarakhia is an Edmonton counsellor who supports the regulation of counsellors.

Shaheen Alarakhia is an Edmonton counsellor who supports the regulation of counsellors. (Rick Bremness/CBC)

In Alberta, it is very much buyer-beware when it comes to counselling therapy, Alarakhia said in an interview.

"The general public doesn't always have the background knowledge to be able to decipher what would be a counsellor with appropriate training and adherence to adopt a standard of practice, distinct code of ethics versus maybe someone who's just calling themselves a counsellor without training," Alarakhia said.

"Someone like me with a master's degree, and a lot of training after my degree and supervision and consultation, and continuous upgrading, calls themself a counsellor. But so can someone straight out of high school; there's nothing that would stop them from doing that."

Patchwork across Canada

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

The association does offer an equivalent certification for professionals wanting to show they have suitable credentials in regulated provinces. But Thomson said the limitation is that certification is voluntary, not mandated.

"It creates a lot of confusion and it creates further divide within the mental health system on a national level," Thomson said.

"Because it doesn't create a certain set of standards across the board for the public."