It’s tough being a professional certification organization inadvertently competing against counseling courses and certifications that may cost as little as $9.99.

The American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) was incorporated in 1947, before licensing was even available to psychologists. It offers certification for doctoral-level licensed psychologists in 15 specialty areas – but grief is not one of them.

Only 5% of clinical psychologists are board-certified in the United States, compared to 90% of physicians, according to the ABPP. “Our profession is probably about 60 years behind medicine, in terms of the culture of people getting board-certified,” said Dr. David Cox, ABPP’s executive director. He said the board’s hope was that the letters ABPP on its existing certifications would indicate a minimum standard of care.

Another professional organization, the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC), does have a certification that involves grief. ADEC is an association for mental health clinicians, educators, researchers, hospice personnel, clergy, and volunteers working with death, dying and bereavement. The organization provides training in thanatology, the scientific study of death and bereavement.

From ADEC’s online website

Jolene Formaini has been volunteering as a credentialing council member at ADEC for a decade. She said that while the number of people applying for ADEC certification had decreased during the first two years of COVID, 95 people applied in 2022. “We have the highest number of applicants we have had over the past 6 years!” she wrote in an email. 

That said, Formaini feels people don’t have enough time or money to invest in these courses – something that propels many toward cheaper, less exacting options. Requirements for the certification program include one to three years of experience in the field of thanatology, 90 hours of previous thanatology education and two to three letters of recommendation from supervisors and colleagues. The cost for certification is $380 for association members and $599 for nonmembers. 

The association also offers a fellowship in thanatology (member fee, $520; nonmember fee $739) that requires five years of experience and “additional proof of achievements/accomplishments in their thanatology role,” according to Formaini. 

The two professional societies, ADEC and ABPP, are struggling to adapt to market demand for training. It takes several years for ABPP to offer a new specialty certification, and ADEC only provides two certification programs. Both are nonprofit and use volunteers to supervise written and oral exams. 

The two groups also operate on a tight budget. In 2019, ADEC, which organizes conferences, provides training and carries on other activities, reported a loss of $72,090 in tax filings. ABPP, which solely provides certifications,  recorded earnings of $74,682 in 2017 and ran a deficit of  $146,087 in 2019 due to “major technology expenses,” according to Cox.  

By contrast, the net income for continuing education organization PESI for 2019 reached almost $20 million.

Type of work:

Astrid Landon is an audio reporter, editor and producer working in Paris, Madrid and the United States. She is also an investigative journalist specializing in health care and the mental health system...