Impostors are passing themselves off as psychologists and the government is doing nothing to stop them, advocates for the profession warn.
"Anyone can call themselves a counsellor or a psychologist in Hong Kong," said Dr Sammy Cheng Kin-wing, chairman of the Division of Clinical Psychology (DCP), part of the Hong Kong Psychological Society.
"We receive several complaints each year about people calling themselves clinical psychologists who do not have adequate training or even a bachelor's degree in psychology."
The DCP has been lobbying for statutory regulation for the industry for a decade, but the government has so far refused to regulate practitioners in the same way it monitors doctors, dentists or pharmacists.
A Department of Health spokesman said that in assessing whether a specific health care profession should have a registration system, "higher priority will be accorded to health care professions that provide direct clinical treatment".
Clinical psychologists are trained to diagnose and treat mental illness through psychological techniques, as opposed to psychiatrists, who treat disorders through medication.
The Health Department employs 30 clinical psychologists. But as demand for services blossoms, the DCP says private therapists are exaggerating their qualifications to attract clients.
DCP vice-chairman Tsui Cheish Chin-fun said: "Instead of seeing complete frauds, it is becoming more common to see people exaggerating their qualifications, such as by calling themselves 'doctors' when they do not have a doctorate, or saying that they are 'psychologists' when they only have counselling qualifications."
In the absence of statutory regulation, the DCP has been running a voluntary registration system since 1982.
To join the professional body, applicants must have either a master's or a doctorate in clinical psychology.
The DCP has 347 members, but it cannot provide an estimate of the number of clinical psychologists in the city who have not applied for membership.
"Psychologists can choose not to apply for membership and we can't control that," Tsui said. With only an informal system, the industry was left open to fraud and abuse, she said.
Mental health advocates, however, say non-professional services can be beneficial.
"Simply talking to someone can make the difference between life and death," said Elizabeth Chamberlain, director of The Samaritans Hong Kong.
The suicide prevention group runs a 24-hour, free hotline, whose volunteers talk to callers about their problems.
But Chamberlain said counsellors must be honest about their qualifications.
Private psychologists' rates are unaffordable for many people: a 50-minute session costs between HK$1,000 and HK$1,800 on average.
Those who opt for a government practitioner can face a wait of six weeks on average, the Hospital Authority says.
The department spokesman said the government had recently set up a committee to review manpower planning and professional development in health care.
The review would cover the regulatory system for health-care professions.