The credentials of mental health professionals can be very confusing. Be sure to do your research and get some understanding of the main types of mental health providers, their basic training and areas of expertise. Here are basic credentials to look out for:
Psychologist: To be a full member of the American Psychological Association, a psychologist usually must have a “PhD” or “PsyD” after their name. Psychologists have a high level of training in psychology and providing therapy. Psychologists do not prescribe medication. They almost always hold a doctorate in psychology and typically have between 4 to 8 years of graduate study. Graduate study usually includes at least two years and generally an average of 3,000 hours of supervised clinical training working under the supervision of a licensed psychologist, though this can vary by state.
Psychologists must be licensed by the state in which they practice and licensing guidelines are typically very strict. Most states have websites on which you can easily check to make sure a psychologist is licensed. A simple Google search of the name of the state and phrase “professional license verification” can help you find the appropriate site. Always check credentials and make sure your provider is licensed.
Psychiatrist: A psychiatrist will have an “MD” after his or her name. Psychiatrists are medical doctors that complete their general medical training and then go on to specialize in psychiatry. Many psychiatrists focus on prescribing and managing psychotropic medications (medications uses to treat mental health issues). Although some psychiatrists provide both therapy and medication management, others may focus mainly on medication management and work in collaboration with a psychologist who provides therapy.
Other Licensed Mental Health Professionals
Master’s level mental health professionals who can provide helpful services include:
Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC or LCPC): Licensed Professional Counselors are required to complete a master’s degree in counseling or clinical psychology (MA or MS) and two years of supervised post-degree experience, and pass a written professional counselor’s examination to be licensed.
Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW): Licensed Clinical Social Workers must complete a master’s degree in social work (MSW) and two years of supervised post-degree experience, and must pass a written social work examination to be licensed.
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT): Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists complete a two-year master’s degree (MA or MS) with emphasis in family therapy and approximately two years of supervised post-degree experience, and must pass a marriage and family therapist examination to be licensed.
Licensed Psychological Associate (LPA): Psychological Associates must complete a master’s degree in clinical or counseling psychology (MA or MS) and two years of supervised post-degree experience, and pass a psychological associate’s licensing examination.
It’s also important to understand that the titles “therapist,” “psychotherapist” and “counselor” are not legally regulated. This means that anyone can legally market themselves under those titles and they may not have any related credentials or experience. For example, a high school dropout can legally market themselves as a “psychotherapist.” Be very wary of anyone using any one of these titles only. Be sure to clarify his or her credentials, and only go to someone who has a verified license to practice.
Before you go to any appointment for therapy, you may want to ask about the provider’s specific training and experience in providing therapy to their patients. Here are some questions to ask:
How many therapy patients to you see?
How long have you been providing therapy?
What was your training in providing therapy?
What kind of therapies do you provide?
Be sure that you are clear and comfortable with your provider’s explanation of their experience and training in providing therapy.