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There are no counsellor graduate training programs on offer in Ecuador. Guidance counsellors are trained at the three main Ecuadorian universities. Smith and Valarezo (2013) also state that master’s-level counsellor education programs do not exist in Ecuador and that psychology doctorates are also unavailable.
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The Ecuadorian people contain a rich mixture of ethnic identities and have a long and complicated legacy resulting from their indigenous and colonial past. Early in the 1800’s Ecuador won independence from Spain and then underwent rapid changes in the 20th century – moving from being a traditional farming country to having booming industry following the discovery of oil. More recently, Ecuador has been severely impacted by natural disasters, including coastal earthquakes in 2010 and 2016, with thousands losing their lives.
Counselling as a profession is not widely recognised or utilised. However, school counselling is structured and supported. According to the World Health Organization (WHO, 2011) an officially approved mental health policy does not exist, but, mental health is given specific mention in the Ecuadorian general health policy in the form of a plan including the movement of services from mental hospitals to community mental health facilities and the integration, into primary care services, of mental health services.
Traditional healing practices play a strong role in the mental health of the population. According to Smith and Valarezo (2013), a significant segment of the population, especially in rural areas, seek out and have strong faith in the healing services of the curandero. The curandero or shaman is a folk healer found in many Latin American countries and is sought out to treat physical and spiritual problems. Smith and Valarezo (2013) further describes the folk healing practice as being passed down through the generations by word of mouth.
In 2014 the Ministry of Education in Ecuador embarked on a project to enhance student wellbeing. According to UNICEF (2017), the Ministry of Education partnered with UNICEF to reach 1.2 million students by training 2,900 student counsellors on a number of themes relating to social issues. These included prevention of violence, drug abuse, diversity issues, gender, sexuality, and prevention of teenage pregnancy. This outreach was led by the Department of Student Counselling (DECE). The counsellors received six days of training during a two-to-three month process and covered between 450 to 900 students.
Guidance counselling within the school system is also in use in Ecuador. Smith and Valarezo (2013) point out that the exact number of guidance counsellors cannot be known as there can be multiple overlapping roles for those posts including teachers, social workers, and psychologists. Smith and Valarezo (2013) also report that the Regulations of Vocational Guidance Education and the Welfare of Students (Falta de orientadores limita la atención a problemas juveniles, 2011) estimated the guidance counsellor-to-student ratio in Ecuadorian public schools to be as high as 1 guidance counsellor for every 1,500 students.
Counselling is not recognised as an autonomous profession in Ecuador. Most mental health and psychosocial counselling is delivered by psychologists rather than counsellors. Smith and Valarezo (2013) indicate the term consejero [counsellor] is not in use in Ecuador, either by the public or by mental health professionals working in private practice settings or hospitals. This is despite that much of what is being practiced in the area of mental health is very similar to the same functions being carried out by licensed professional counsellors in the United States. As described, both counselling (referred to as orientation) and guidance counselling are practiced in high school settings and incorporate psychometric testing and career counselling.
According to Smith and Valarezo (2013) the practice of counselling outside of schools includes everything from the indigenous healing practices to humanistic and constructive counselling approaches. Importantly, they also point out that Individuals living in rural areas can often not afford professional counselling services, and the problems that beset the population, such as substance abuse, depression, and family violence, are often only treated by psychologists in private agencies. This means that many people do not receive any assistance due to affordability. This research has shown that the following are the most common settings for counsellors to practice:
- Elementary schools, secondary schools, and high schools
- Non-profit organisations like charities offering counselling for child labourers
- Faith based organisations and via pastoral counsellors
- Private practice (e.g., psychologists practicing counselling)
- HIV/Aids counselling and testing
- Disaster Relief via Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams offering psycho-social support and counselling along with the distribution of medicine in affected areas
- Mental Health agencies (Smith and Valarezo, 2013).
Given the importance of traditional healing practices and the curandero [folk healers] to the Ecuadorian people and culture, consideration must be given to how openness to collaboration might be approached. Smith and Valarezo (2013) point out that folk healing and spiritual beliefs are particularly strong in rural areas and that priests and curranderos are called upon to resolve mental and physical problems. Both those practicing counselling and the traditional healers can engage in promoting best practice. Opportunities exist for appropriate integration and communication between the two sectors so that the Ecuadorian people benefit from safe and appropriate practices.
Like many of the countries in Latin America, Ecuador experiences a high level of poverty. The resulting social issues alone are reason enough for more wider availability of counselling and psycho-social services. Economic conditions will strongly influence the development of the profession and the allocation of resources into education programs.
Although the recognition of counselling is a slow process in Ecuador, it is clear that the government recognises the importance of tackling mental health issues. The benefits of the large investment in school counselling are perhaps starting to be seen and those involved in those programs may well be the next advocates for continued action. An opportunity exists for Ecuador to avail of assistance in the development of its counselling structures. Assistance is available in the form of advice from counselling bodies in countries in the region, such as Argentina, and further afield from entities such as IAC and U.S. groups offering support to the development of counselling internationally. Future development for counselling in Ecuador would be greatly aided by addressing the challenges and consideration of the available supports.