Written by Callie Thompson, LPC
When it comes to selecting a mental health professional, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the alphabet soup of letters listed after his or her name. What do they mean? And why should you care? Finding an appropriate practitioner is an important first step in getting the right care. Here’s a quick breakdown of the main types of mental health professionals, and the minimum degree requirement for each, to help guide your choices!
Psychotherapy: Any type of professional talk therapy
Professional Counselor: Master’s degree
Professional counselors can be identified by many different titles in the US, including: Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC), Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC), Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor of Mental Health (LPCC), Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC), and Licensed Mental Health Practitioner (LMHP). Professional Counselors are trained to work with individuals, families, and groups. They have a wide range of specializations and theoretical approaches. They diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional problems and disorders. They can also perform testing and research. Most often, they work in private practice, though they are also in hospitals, agencies, and schools. A licensee that has the word Associate (or some variant, depending on state) is a post-graduate working to obtain full licensure under a licensed Supervisor.
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT): Master’s degree
They are trained to work with individuals, couples, families, and groups. LMFTs are specialized in the application of family systems theories and techniques. They diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional problems and disorders, as well as evaluate and remediate relational dysfunction or processes. LMFT Associates are post-graduates working to obtain full licensure under an LMFT Supervisor.
Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW): Master’s degree
Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW): Master’s degree
They are trained to provide mental and social health services to the public by performing agency work, case management, policy work, and counseling. LCSWs specialize in the use of a strength-based approach, assessing the situation in terms of both the client’s internal and external factors (such as economic, societal, home, and career). In addition to counseling, LCSWs also assist their clients with putting social services in place, such as employment assistance, housing programs, support groups, etc. LCSWs are commonly found in agencies, schools, hospitals, and private practices. An LCSW has the ability to independently provide these services. LMSWs, on the other hand, must operate under the supervision of a licensed psychologist, psychiatrist, or LCSW to provide clinical therapy or mental health services.
Licensed Psychologist: Doctoral degree
Licensed Psychological Associate: Master’s degree
They specialize in personality development, the history of psychological problems, and the science of psychological research. They are trained to understand the role of mental functions in individual and social behavior, focusing on the mind and emotions. They also conduct various psychological testing, which is critical for assessment. While most psychologists specialize in research, others specialize in clinical (client-focused) work. The majority of psychologists are involved in some kind of academic, research, or industrial and organizational setting, while many others work in a therapeutic role, practicing in a clinical (counseling) or school setting. In a few states, Licensed Psychologists are allowed to prescribe a limited number of psychiatric medications.
Psychiatrist: Doctoral degree (MD or DO)
They are medical doctors specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders; their focus is to identify if symptoms are possibly due to an underlying medical problem. As such, they are capable of prescribing medication. Though they are trained to conduct psychotherapy, they prioritize medication management and often work with another practitioner (any of the above) who conducts psychotherapy. They are generally the ones who treat severe mental illnesses.
It’s important to understand your mental health professional’s qualifications in order to get appropriate care. But perhaps even more important than qualifications or credentials is the relationship between you and your provider. You will be discussing private matters and your inner thoughts with this person; therefore, you need to feel comfortable and safe. A good provider will be nonjudgmental and listen with compassion and respect.
Therapy can seem daunting, but your relationship with your therapist shouldn’t be! Lots of providers offer free consultations, and many are willing to have a quick phone conversation to see if it’s an appropriate fit, or to answer any questions you might have for them. Finding the right mental health professional can make all the difference. Now that you know what type of services to seek out, you can begin your search to find the right professional for you!