Finding the Right Type of Mental Health Professional

When it comes time to choosing a professional to help with a personal or family issue, sifting through all the different options can be confusing. Before entering graduate school to become a Licensed Professional Counselor, I had no idea the profession even existed, much less the difference between that license and any other.

For Medication, you want to find a Psychiatrist, who is a Medical Doctor with specialized training in menal health diagnoses and medication.

For Psychological Testing, you will generally seek services from a Clinical Psychologist. These professionals have a doctoral degree and more training than other mental health professionals in psychological testing.

For Individual, Couples, or Family Counseling, you will do well with a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), or Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). Most Clinical Psychologists also offer counseling services. Each of these licensed professionals are trained in counseling a wide range of issues, with a slight difference in their educational and licensure requirements. If you have a choice among an LPC, LMFT, or LCSW, I recommend reviewing the backgrounds and any specializations of each individual to help sort through who may best fit your needs.

You may also look at specializations or additional certifications for each professional that may fit your needs. For example, I have a certification as a Registered Play Therapist from the Association for Play Therapy. This just means I have completed the coursework and clinical experience requirements to implement the skills of play therapy into my practice with children. There are endless specializations that clinicians can obtain. If you see letters behind someone’s name that you don’t recognize, they are likely because they have a certification. Do your research to find out more about that training. has more detailed descriptions that may be helpful:

Psychiatrist – A psychiatrist is a medical doctor and the only professional that specializes in mental health care and can prescribe medications.

Psychologist – A psychologist is a professional who does psychotherapy and has a doctorate degree (such as a Ph.D. or Psy.D.). Psy.D. programs tend to focus on clinical practice and result in the professional having thousands of hours of clinical experience before they enter practice. Ph.D. programs can focus on either clinical or research work, and the amount of clinical experience a professional will gain varies from program to program. Psychologists receive specific training in diagnosis, psychological assessment, a wide variety of psychotherapies, research and more.

Clinical Social Workers – Typically a clinical social worker will have completed a Master’s degree in social work (M.S.W.) and carry the LCSW designation if they are doing psychotherapy (Licensed Counselor of Social Work). Most programs require the professional to go through thousands of hours of direct clinical experience, and the program focuses on teaching principles of psychotherapy and social work.

Marriage & Family Therapist – These therapists tend to have a Master’s degree (but can have as little as a Bachelor’s degree or less in some states) and typically have between hundreds to thousands of hours of direct clinical experience. Because this designation varies from state to state, the quality of the professional may also vary significantly from person to person.

Licensed Professional Counselor – The requirements for this designation, which can be in addition to the professional’s educational degrees, vary from state to state. Most are Master’s level professionals who have had thousands of hours of direct clinical experience.

Other – There are a wealth of other professional designations and initials that follow professionals’ names. Most of these designate a specialty certification or the like, not an educational degree.

You May Also Like:

Five Qualities of a Good Child Therapist

Boys and Aggression- When Is It Too Much?

A Simple Explanation of Play Therapy

Author: Kim Peterson, MA, LPC-S, RPT

Kim is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Clinical Supervisor, and Registered Play Therapist in Dallas, Texas.

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