by Annabelle Parr
Choosing a therapist can be overwhelming. If you search Google or Psychology Today, you will likely find a long list of different therapists including licensed marriage and family therapists, licensed professional clinical counselors, licensed clinical social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists. How do you know what kind of therapist will be the best for you? And what is the difference between all those different licenses?
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFT):
An LMFT holds a Master’s degree in counseling, which typically involves between two and three years of school. LMFTs are trained to view individuals from a family systems perspective, meaning that they learn to see individuals in the context of their relationships. Relationships include family, friends, significant others, and even your relationship to yourself. Despite what their license seems to imply, LMFTs also work with individual clients; they do not exclusively offer marriage and family therapy. Their license speaks to the lens through which they view clients and the various presenting problems they may bring into therapy. LMFT’s must complete at least 3,000 hours of supervised experience before becoming licensed, and this experience must include working with children, families, and/or couples.
An Associate Marriage and Family Therapist has completed their Master’s but is still working on their 3,000 hours of supervised experience.
Licensed Professional Clinical Counselors (LPCC):
An LPCC also holds a Master’s degree in counseling. Many Master’s programs qualify students to sit for both the LMFT and LPCC licensing exams. However, LPCCs tend to work more generally, with a focus on mental health issues as opposed to relational issues, and tend to focus on the individual rather than the individual in the context of their relationships. LPCCs also must complete 3,000 hours of supervised experience prior to licensure, and a portion of their experience must be in either a hospital or community based mental health setting.
An Associate Professional Clinical Counselor has completed the Master’s degree requirements but is still working toward the 3,000 hours of supervised experience.
Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW):
An LCSW holds a Master’s degree in social work. Their training teaches them to help connect clients with resources, both externally (like community resources, support groups, etc.) and internally (like coping skills). An LCSW must complete 3,200 hours of supervised experience in order to get licensed, and they must be supervised specifically by another LCSW for a portion of their hours. They may also provide individual, family, or couples therapy, but the lens through which they have been trained focuses on ensuring clients have access to all the resources they need to thrive.
An Associate Clinical Social Worker has completed the Master’s degree requirements but is still working toward the 3,200 hours of supervised experience.
A licensed psychologist holds a doctorate degree, either a Ph.D. (doctor of philosophy in psychology, focused on both research and clinical work) or a Psy.D. (doctor of psychology, more clinically focused than research focused), which can take between four and seven years to complete. Licensed psychologists also require 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience for licensure. Psychologists typically have more training in psychometric assessment and test administration than an LMFT, LPCC, or LCSW. A psychologist with a Ph.D. is prepared to practice clinical work, conduct research, and/or teach, whereas a Psy.D. is typically primarily focused on clinical work.
Registered Psychological Assistant or Postdoctoral Fellow: A registered psych assistant is still working toward the doctoral degree and receiving supervised clinical experience. A postdoc has already completed the doctorate, but is completing the supervised clinical experience hours toward licensure.
A psychiatrist holds a medical degree, and has completed a period of residency, and fellowship. Psychiatrists are medical doctors and are able to prescribe medications. A psychologist, LMFT, LPCC, and LCSW are not able to prescribe medication. Psychiatrists are also able to provide psychotherapy services, but their training is more medically focused.
What’s the takeaway?
Ultimately, there can be a lot of overlap in the services provided by the above practitioners. They are all qualified to assess, diagnose, and treat the full range of mental and emotional disorders found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). The specific license under which a therapist operates speaks to the lens through which they have been educated, and the duration of education.
However, the provider’s area of expertise and scope of practice tends to depend upon the clinical experience that they have gained. So when looking for a therapist, it can help to understand what their license means, but it is perhaps more important to understand the specific supervised and licensed experience that the therapist has. Do they have experience working with anxiety, panic, trauma/PTSD, depression, identity issues, couple’s therapy, child therapy, family therapy? What modalities are they trained in? Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Psychodynamic Therapy, EMDR, Emotion Focused Therapy, Somatic Therapy? Do their areas of expertise and treatment modalities align with your needs and goals?
Research consistently shows that the therapeutic relationship is the most important factor in whether therapy is successful. So it’s key that the therapist you choose feels like the right fit for you personally. But it can be hard to try to figure out who might be a good match based on credentials and website information alone. A good place to start in narrowing your search is looking at the therapist’s areas of expertise and preferred treatment modalities. Once you have found someone whose specialties line up with your goals, you can reach out to the provider and ask any questions that may not have been addressed on the practice website. (If they won’t take the time to respond to your questions, they might not be the best fit!) If you feel comfortable with the therapist during the initial contact, you can schedule your first session. You will want to meet with the therapist 2-3 times to evaluate how safe and comfortable you feel working with this person. Choosing a therapist is a process, and it can feel overwhelming at first. But once you know how to narrow your search and find a provider that feels like a good fit, it can be incredibly rewarding.