What do the letters after a therapist’s name mean?

By Marina Williams

What’s in a name?

One of the difficulties of finding a therapist is trying to understand what all those letters mean at the end of the person’s name, but knowing what those letters stand for can help you in this process.  Those letters let you know what a person’s credentials are and different letters mean different qualifications for what that therapist can treat.  I’m going to go through the most common ones found in Massachusetts.

PhD and PsyD

A professional with a PhD in psychology is the only mental health professional that can actually call themselves a psychologist or a doctor.  Psychologists are capable of seeing people with any insurances, including military and medicare.  Psychologists are able to provide academic testing and assessments, and work as a college professor.  A psychologist’s training is highly focused on research and theory, and only touches upon providing actual counseling.  Because “PhD” technically stands for “doctorate in philosophy”, some Psychologists are choosing to get a PsyD, which stands for “doctorate in psychology”.  A PsyD has more training in applied psychology, such as counselling, but is still very research intensive.

MA

MA usually stands for a masters degree in clinical psychology.  The difference between a MA and PhD program is that a MA candidate is not required to perform their own research, which makes their program about two years shorter.  Because psychology is a science, treatments and methodology is based on evidence and is not just making things up.  Thus, a person with a MA has been taught evidence-based treatments and theory, as well as how to interpret research data.  A MA also receives more training in applied psychology and counseling than a Psychologist does, with the emphasis on becoming a capable counselor.  A candidate with a MA is eligible to go on to become an LMHC or LMFT with further training.  I’ll explain that further below.  If you only have a MA you cannot be on insurance panels and so can only be in a cash-only private practice or work at a community clinic under the supervision of a licensed therapist.

MEd

People sometimes confuse MEd with MD (medical doctor).  A person with a MEd has a masters of education with a concentration in counseling psychology.  The primary difference between a MA and MEd is that a MA requires that the student write a thesis and a MEd does not.  A MEd could be considered to more suited as a school adjustment counselor than a MA.  A candidate with a MEd is eligible to go on to become an LMHC or LMFT with further training.  I’ll explain that further below.  If you only have a MEd you cannot be on insurance panels and so can only be in a cash-only private practice or work at a community clinic under the supervision of a licensed therapist.

MSW

A person with a MSW has a masters in social work.  A MSW places more influence on social justice and changing the circumstances around an individual’s life (housing, government assistance, welfare, education, etc).  MSW’s are trained in counseling, but this is only one of many roles.  A MSW program typically only takes two years and does not have an emphasis on research or theory.  A professional with a MSW is eligible to go on to become an LCSW or LICSW with further training.  I’ll explain that further below.  If you only have a MSW you cannot be on insurance panels and so can only be in a cash-only private practice or work at a community clinic under the supervision of a licensed social worker.

LMHC

LMHC stands for a licensed mental health counselor.  A person with a LMHC is a professional counselor with either a MA or MEd in counseling psychology and an additional two years of training.  A LMHC is certified through the NBCC (National Board of Certified Counselors) which requires that LMHCs continue to receive further education and training in order to keep their license.  A LMHC is board certified to treat children, adolescents, and adults suffering from adjustment issues, relationship conflicts, or mental illness.  However, a LMHC is not certified to prescribe medication, perform academic testing, or provide substance abuse counseling without further training.  The emphasis is on treating the individual, but LMHCs are also capable of providing marital and family therapy.  I am a licensed mental health counselor, so naturally I feel that LMHCs are the best.  We are also the most versatile and have the most training in counseling.  LMHCs are eligible for every insurance panel except military and medicare.  This is currently being challenged by the NBCC, so hopefully LMHC will be able to treat military families and people with medicare in the near future.

LMFT

LMFT stands for a licensed marriage and family therapist.  A person with a LMFT is a professional counselor with either a MA or MEd in counseling psychology and an additional two years of training.  A LMFT is certified through the BLPCT (Board of Licensed Professional Counselors and Therapists) which requires that LMFTs continue to receive further education and training in order to keep their license.  A LMFT is board certified to treat a variety of mental health concerns with the emphasis on family therapy, couples therapy and sex therapy.  LMFT is the least common of counseling credentials and because of this, they often have difficulties getting onto the insurance panels and are unable to take military insurance or medicare.

LICSW

A LICSW is a licensed independent clinical social worker.  A LICSW is a social worker with a MSW and an additional three years of training.  A LICSW can work either as a social worker or general therapist, but the emphasis is on community integration.  A LICSW is more knowledgeable about social services and how to take advantage of the system in order to maximise quality of life.  When working as a therapist, LICSWs often work at community clinics and hospitals.  When in private practice, LICSWs tend to specialize in family and marital counseling. A LICSW is certified through the BRSW (Board of Registration of Social Works) which requires that LICSWs continue to receive further education and training in order to keep their licensure.  The advantage of LICSWs is that they can be on any insurance panel in any state in the United States.  If you are elderly or disabled, a LICSW may be your best option given their ability to treat individuals with medicare and their knowledge of government services.

Additional Certifications

There are many many many certifications a therapist may obtain in addition to being a LMHC, LMFT, or LICSW.  Because these certifications often require expensive yearly membership fees, few professional counselors have them.  The requirements to receive these certifications range from taking a single college-level course to doing intensive course work followed by a difficult exam.  It is necessary to be a Certified Addictions Treatment Counselor in order to provide substance abuse counseling if substance abuse is the primary diagnosis.  Many mental illnesses have co-occurring substance abuse issues and a general therapist is qualified to provide treatment so long as the substance abuse is not the main issue.  It can be tricky to determine which issue is causing which (did the mental illness lead to substance abuse, or did the substance abuse lead to mental illness?) but therapists are trained to be able to determine the difference.  The problem is that CATCs are not as well trained to treat mental illness, and general therapists are not as well trained to treat substance abuse issues.  I provided some examples of certifications below, but this is only a small sampling.

CATC   (Certified Addictions Treatment Counselor)
CCC    (Certified Career Counselor)
CHC     (Certified Housing Counselor)
CGC    (Certified Grief Counselor)
CRC     (Certified Retirement Counselor)
CDVC  (Certified Domestic Violence Counselor)

I hope that you have found this article helpful in your search for a professional therapist

If you live in the Boston area and are considering participating in therapy, I ask that you please contact me for more information. I am a licensed mental health counselor with a private practice in Jamaica Plain and am accepting new clients. Unlike other private practices, I offer evening and weekend appointments.  Please contact me (Marina Williams, LMHC) for more information or to set up an appointment at 774-240-5550 or info@counselingwithmarina.com.  I also offer free 30 minute phone consultations.

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