Trying to find the best therapist to fit your needs can seem like a very daunting task. Even just the first step of deciding that you want to work on yourself can be very difficult and deserves recognition. The search for the right therapist can be so overwhelming that you may be tempted to give up, but this blog post will discuss the differences between therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and life coaches in an attempt to clear up any questions you may have and put you more at ease during your search. This post can also help psychology students who know they want to provide therapy determine which degree and path might be right for them.
While all mental health professionals listed above work with you to improve your mental health, they do so in different ways and have different types of training. First, psychiatrists are the only clinicians who can prescribe medication. Psychiatrists attend medical school in order to prescribe medication to their patients. While both psychiatrists and psychologists are doctors, psychologists do not provide medication. Some psychiatrists also provide therapy in addition to medication. You will see the letters DO or MD after a psychiatrist’s name if they are someone that prescribes medicine.
The next biggest difference to distinguish is between therapists and psychologists. These terms are often used interchangeably. The term “therapist” is used as an umbrella term that can refer to psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, and life coaches. So, while all psychologists are therapists, not all therapists are psychologists. Psychologists either provide therapy to clients or conduct research in their chosen field of work. Psychologists can provide their clients with a diagnosis of a mental health disorder but cannot prescribe medication, so they will oftentimes work closely with a psychiatrist who they refer the client to if they believe medication would be helpful.
Psychologists must receive their doctoral degree which can be either a PhD or PsyD. It takes a minimum of 5 years of graduate school to become a psychologist. They also need to complete a doctoral internship, which is similar to residency in medical school. Most psychologists also complete a postdoctoral fellowship, which is a year-long placement at a site like a hospital, counseling center, or private practice. After graduate school, psychologists must complete a national licensing exam. They then have to get licensed in the state they wish to practice. In Atlanta, Georgia the psychologists are required to pass a written and oral exam. In researching the best therapist for you, if years of graduate school education is important to you, then you want to look for someone who has a doctorate. The reason you see Dr. in front of a psychologist’s name is because of the doctorate degree.
Social Workers, Professional Counselors, Marriage and Family Therapists
You do not need to have a doctorate or a Dr. in front of your name to be a therapist. You can become a therapist with a master’s degree. There are several different master’s programs that give rise to a wide variety of different types of therapists. For example, there are marriage and family therapists, social workers, and licensed professional counselors. Some common acronyms you may have seen in your search for the best therapist for you are LPC, LAC, LMFT, and LCSW. LPC stands for licensed professional counselor. Alternative acronyms for this include LCPC, LPCC, and LMHC. This credential verifies whether someone is licensed to practice therapy in their given state. LAC means licensed addiction counselor, LMFT means licensed marriage and family therapist, and LCSW means licensed clinical social worker. These licenses are issued by the state and verify that the clinician is qualified to see clients within the respective field.
An important distinction is between a LMFT (licensed marriage and family therapist) and a LCSW (licensed clinical social worker) as these professions overlap greatly. Both marriage and family therapists and social workers are a type of counselor, however they can differ as to their type of clientele and how they provide help to them. Generally, most types of counselors and therapists tend to work with individuals in many different aspects of their mental health. However, marriage and family counselors most often work with couples and families. Their specialty tends to lie in working through relationship problems. On the other hand, social workers can work with a variety of people including individuals, families, and at social service or government agencies.
Associate Professional Counselors
Another abbreviation you may come across is APC, which means associate professional counselor. An APC refers to someone who has graduated with their master’s degree in counseling, passed an exam to become an APC, and is currently working towards their clinical counseling hours under supervision in order to be a LPC. Another acronym for APC is LAPC, and both are used depending on the state. If you see APC, this means they are likely under supervision of someone who is licensed. So, your therapy sessions may be discussed with their supervisor. If this is the case, the therapist will need to let you know this.
National Certified Counselors
There is one other abbreviation you may run into which is NCC, national certified counselor. A NCC is a fully licensed clinician who has passed a national exam to show they meet certain standards for the practice of counseling. For example, completing a certain number of hours under supervision. In regards to education requirements, you typically need two years of graduate school to be eligible to apply as a NCC.
Other professionals who work with clients to improve their well-being include coaches. A significant difference between therapists and coaches is the education requirements. Therapists must go through many years of school to be permitted to practice, while there are no education requirements to become a coach, including life coach or heath coach. If you wanted to call yourself a coach today, you theoretically probably could. There are programs that allow coaches to receive a certification, which is encouraged within the industry, to bolster their credentials to clients. These certifications can take days, weeks, or months. There are no legal requirements to become a coach.
Therapists can diagnose and are trained to treat certain diagnoses, while coaches cannot. Coaches tend to be more focused on a specific area. For example, there are career coaches focused on helping you find a career path. It can feel complicated because therapists also can be focused on a certain area, like helping someone find a career path. If you went to a therapist and while on your search for the best job for you a lot of anxiety showed up, a qualified therapist would be trained to help you with this. A coach may need to refer you to a therapist for anxiety. A life coach’s training tends to be focused on just a couple of areas. Another example of types of coaches are recovery coaches who eat lunch with clients and provide support services that other therapists tend to not do. Licensed therapists are also different from coaches in that they are upheld to strict ethical standards and have rules of confidentiality. For example, if you accidentally ran into your therapist at a store with a friend, they wouldn’t go up to you and say, “hi I’m Sara’s therapist what’s your name.” A coach would be able to do this. Some people think of coaches more as a supporter or more qualified friend.
Difference In Degrees Of Therapists
We understand that picking the best therapist for you can be confusing. The chart below breaks down the different types of therapists.
- MD or DO
- 8 years of graduate school and residency
- Prescribes medication and can do therapy
- PhD or PsyD
- 6 years of graduate school typically (including doctoral internship/ residency; can take longer but not less than 5 years)
- LBSW, LMSW, or LCSW
- 2 years of graduate school typically (LBSW does not need to attend graduate school)
- Differences of acronyms refers to differences in level of education and licensure
- LBSW is a Bachelor’s, LMSW is a master’s, and LCSW is after passing a clinical licensing examination. “An LMSW must operate under the supervision of a licensed psychologist, psychiatrist or LCSW to provide clinical therapy or mental health services. An LCSW can independently provide these services”https://socialworklicensemap.com/become-a-social-worker/lmsw-vs-lcsw/
- LPC, LCPC, LPCC, and LMHC
- 2-3 years of graduate school typically
- Acronyms refer to differences in licensure from state to state. LPC is the most broad term, while the other abbreviations refer specifically to counseling in mental health.
Associate professional counselor
- 2 years of graduate school typically
- Need to be under supervision of someone who is licensed to see clients, you can use this title before becoming a LPC
- Health coach, life coach, or coach. There may be letters after their name but focus on the title coach to know if they are providing coaching services.
- States do not have legal requirements for this title
- No schooling requirement
How to find the best therapist for you
There are so many different degrees out there it can be confusing to figure out the best therapist for you. It can also be confusing if you want to be a therapist and are not sure the right path to take. While we can explain the differences between professions, it is not easy to advise you on who to see. This is a very individualized matter. Deciding what type of mental health professional to see very much depends upon what and how you want to improve your well-being. As a general rule of thumb, if you are seeking medication for any conditions, then you would choose a psychiatrist over a psychologist. If you would like someone who has a license and went to graduate school for therapy then look for a licensed social worker, psychologist, or licensed counselor. If you are looking for very specific support and someone who does not have the rules of a therapist a coach could be a good fit.
Sometimes it takes a while to find the best clinician for you, but do not be discouraged because there are many mental health professionals and one of them will be the right fit. It is very important to work with someone you are comfortable with and whose approach fits with your goals. It is highly encouraged that you ask questions before starting therapy. Some examples are, “tell me about your experience working with people similar to me?” “are you licensed, and if not are you under supervision of someone who is licensed?” “What is it like working with you?” You want to make sure the person that you see specializes in what you are looking for therapy for. For example, some psychologists at Best Within You Therapy & Wellness specialize in insomnia and have specific training in treating sleep concerns, while others do not.
If you decide that you’d like to begin therapy with a licensed psychologist we are here. You can schedule a free consultation today at https://bestwithinyou.com/. Our team of licensed psychologists have years of experience in the field and specialize in eating disorders, body image issues, sleep problems, anxiety, depression, relationship difficulties, and issues pertaining to athletes, college students, and the LGBTQ+ population. We know that taking the first step to begin therapy can be overwhelming, but you do not have to go through it alone.
-Written by Dr. Rebecca Leslie, Atlanta psychologist, and Marcella Peach, psychology major and Best Within You intern.