Extended health benefits for counselling: Why? How? Where do I start?

Different paths to mental health support

If you’re a UBC grad student or postdoc, there are a few different ways you can access free short-term counselling. Grad students can call UBC Counselling Services or Empower Me; many postdocs have access to an Employee & Family Assistance Program (check pages 24-25 of the Guide for Postdoctoral Fellows for eligibility information). These free-to-you services can be excellent and straightforward ways to access the support you need.

An alternative route for receiving counselling is from a practitioner in private practice – that is, fee-for-service – in the community. You can use your extended health benefits (also called extended medical benefits: Studentcare, Pacific Blue Cross, SunLife, etc.) to reimburse you for their fees, up to the dollar amount covered by your plan.

Why might someone want to use extended health benefits instead of a UBC-affiliated service?

People have various reasons for going this route, but a major factor is the higher level of control/choice over which counsellor you can work with. Some people might want to choose a counsellor who specializes in working with a certain problem or issue. Others might want to pick someone who shares their background, or speaks their first language. Some might want the flexibility of continuing to see the counsellor longer-term after their benefits run out or after they move on from UBC, if they can afford to pay the fees (or transition to a new benefits program covered by a new job).

Many mental health practitioners already provided online/phone counselling prior to COVID-19, and others have now shifted to online/phone practice.


Grad students enrolled in the UBC GSS Student Health & Dental Plan (Studentcare) have up to $1000 per academic year toward psychological/counselling services (this change was implemented in February 2021, retroactive to September 1, 2020). The Studentcare website is slightly confusing, because in some places it indicates that this $1000 is for “psychologists” – however, it can actually be applied to a broader range of practitioners including registered psychologists, social workers, and/or Registered Clinical Counsellors. If you have coverage through a different plan (e.g., a parent’s or spouse’s plan), I would recommend double-checking 1) the dollar amount and 2) the type of practitioner(s) covered.

Postdocs who are eligible for UBC extended health benefits may have substantially higher coverage. Check pages 24-25 of the Guide for Postdoctoral Fellows for eligibility info and links to benefit details (where psychological/counselling services are often listed under “Paramedical Services”).

All the information in this post is intended to be helpful, but I can’t guarantee its accuracy. If in doubt, please ask questions of your chosen practitioner and/or contact Studentcare.


The number of sessions covered will depend on how much your practitioner charges per session. For instance, if you have $1000 of coverage and your counsellor charges $150/session plus GST, you can get about 6 sessions covered per benefit year; after that, you would need to pay out-of-pocket to continue working with that counsellor (unless you have an additional extended medical plan, e.g., through a spouse). I recognize that’s not a lot, especially for people facing complex or intersecting challenges. That said, sometimes people are surprised by how helpful even a few sessions with a skillful practitioner can be (ask your chosen counsellor if they have experience using short-term models of therapy), especially if benefits are used in concert with other free supports available to UBC students. Some practitioners will offer a “sliding scale,” that is, charge a lower fee to clients with lower incomes; usually you will need to ask them about this.

  • Registered Psychologists typically have a PhD or PsyD (e.g., in clinical or counselling psychology). Their fees tend to be highest (e.g., $225 per 50-minute session, plus GST).
  • Registered Clinical Counsellors have a Master’s degree (e.g, in counselling psychology, art therapy, etc.). They tend to charge $120-160 per 50-minute session, plus GST.
  • Registered Social Workers (or Registered Clinical Social Workers) have a Master’s degree in Social Work. Their fees vary, but may be similar to a Registered Clinical Counsellor (~$120-160 per 50-minute session, plus GST).

You will probably have to pay for your session when it happens, and then submit a claim for reimbursement.

What’s the difference between these practitioners?

Honestly, while I could make some claims about the differences between Registered Psychologists, Registered Clinical Counsellors, and Registered Social Workers, there is a ton of variation within the professions. Some practitioners will specialize in specific approaches like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), or Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT); others will help their clients in less structured, more conversational ways. In general, Registered Psychologists tend to work with more severe mental health difficulties – and may be able to diagnose mental health issues – but this is not always the case. Most practitioners offer some information online about their style, approach, and/or specializations. Many will be willing to have a brief consultation chat before booking an initial session, so you can get a feel for whether you “click” with them.

I want to use my Extended Health Benefits. How do I find/choose a mental health practitioner?

If you’re a grad student covered by Studentcare, you have the option of using the PsyVitalitï network of practitioners affiliated with Studentcare. Students can access individual online/phone sessions at a “preferential rate” of $130 (as of April 3, 2020; regular rate is $160).

Alternatively, anyone can choose a practitioner in community private practice, aided by the following directories:

  • Search for a Registered Clinical Counsellor (you can narrow search by specialization, region, and whether they offer online/telephone counselling)
  • Search for a Registered Psychologist (unfortunately this directory doesn’t allow you to search specifically for psychologists who offer phone/online services)
  • Search for a Social Worker (also doesn’t allow filtering by phone/online service)
  • The CounsellingBC directory allows you to search for practitioners (including Registered Clinical Counsellors, social workers, and psychologists) who offer online/virtual counselling, telephone counselling, or video counselling (note: this directory is a paid advertising service)

If you have any questions about finding a practitioner or using your benefits, you could contact your benefits provider (students), HR (postdocs), or chat with me!

Cover photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash