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Confused About Credentials? What to Know About Mental Health Providers

Updated: Feb 23, 2023


Counselor, Psych Practitioner, Therapist, Psychologist, Psychiatrist, Psychotherapist… what does it all mean?!?!

Have you ever gotten a referral for a mental health provider but you were not quite sure what each credential meant? The mental health service field is saturated with multiple different specialties. Each providing something a little different and each with distinct letters after their names. It can be confusing and may leave you wondering, "Where do I start?"

Hopefully I am able to clear things up for you a bit. Before I do, I think it is important to note that mental health has gained incredible traction over the past few years. It has become the highlight of many important conversations and social media posts. Celebrities are coming forward and disclosing their own struggles with various mental health symptoms and disorders in hopes to shine a spotlight on something that was often pushed under the rug. This has helped normalize the need to get help when you are struggling internally. However, when describing the help they are getting, they use different titles and descriptions of who they went to in order to receive that help.

So let's break it down.

Which Credentials Mean What?

Individuals working in the mental health field can have anything from no formal education, all the way to a medical degree (and everything in between).

*Special note: Every country describes providers in our field a little bit differently. The credentials and titles below are specific to the United States culture and terminology. Also, there may be slight variations in titles and terminology by state. The terms clients/patients/consumers are used interchangeably throughout the text.

Life Coach

Required education: None (I'm not kidding)

Credentials: Not required but may include ACC, PCC, or MCC

Title(s): Most often includes the term "Coach"

Take away: Literally ANYONE can call themselves a "coach". The term is usually preceded by the focus. For example, "Family Coach", "Life Coach", "Leadership Coach", "Relationship Coach" etc. That being said, don't be fooled by the fact that you don't need an education to be a coach. Many scholars and highly educated individuals in the mental health field choose to become a coach after years of licensed practice to reduce some of the stress that goes along with the mental health field (while also expanding their geographical reach). Licensed providers generally can only provide services to clients/patients within their own physical state. There are some exceptions to this rule, but for the most part providers can only practice in the state of which they are licensed (this includes virtual appointments). A coach can provide a service across state lines (and across international waters) without license jurisdiction restrictions. That being said, coaching is NOT therapy. It should not include a detailed or comprehensive history, nor should it include processing past experiences or therapeutic interventions in any way. If you want to hire a coach that you know has training and certifications by a governing board, look for the credentials listed above. Click "here" to learn more about coaching.

Behavioral Health Technician

Required Education/Training: High school diploma or GED (some states require training and certification)

Credentials: BHT

Title(s): Behavioral Health Tech

Take away: BHTs generally have the equivalent of a high school degree. Although some states require additional education, training, or certification, the majority do not. That being said, in my line of work even when states do not require a bachelors degree, the hiring facility will. Many times individuals will work as a BHT in order to gain knowledge and experience in the field of mental health before moving forward with their education. BHTs are also great for running support groups (non-therapeutic and does not include processing). They cannot diagnose or provide individual therapy but serve more as provider and client support. Click "here" to learn more about BHTs.


Social Worker

Required Education/Training: Bachelors Degree

Credentials: B.S., B.A., or LBSW

Title(s): Social Worker

Take away: Social Workers with a B.S. or B.A. tend to hold a more logistical position. They are great at patient advocacy and getting their consumers set up with the necessary referrals and support to help the patient achieve overall treatment. Sometimes they assist with other things like making sure their patients have transportation, housing, and resources necessary. They are unable to provide therapy of any kind but serve an important purpose on the care team. You can learn more about Social Workers "here".


Masters Level Mental Health Clinicians

  • Licensed Associate Counselor & Licensed Professional Counselor

    • Credentials: LAC & LPC

  • Associate Marriage and Family, Therapist Licensed Marriage, and Family Therapist

    • Credentials: LAMFT & LMFT

  • Licensed Master Social Worker, Licensed Clinical Social Worker

    • Credentials: LMSW & LCSW

Required Education/Training: Bachelors Degree, Masters Degree, internship and supervised training

Title(s): Counselor/Therapist and sometimes Psychotherapist

Take away: LACs, LAMFTs, and LMSWs are all masters level clinicians who have completed the necessary coursework and licensing exam, but are working toward their supervised hours. In Arizona, they are able to own and operate a private practice but this rule varies state by state. Even with a private practice, they are required to hire an outside licensed clinician to supervise their private caseloads. They must tell all of their clients that they are supervised and provide the client with their supervisors name and contact information. Once they meet the required number of direct and indirect supervised hours they are able to apply to practice independently. You will see this reflected in a change of credential following their names. LPCs, LMFTs, and LCSWs are qualified to practice independently. They can all provide individual, couples, and group therapy; though their focuses or expertise may vary. You may find any of these specialties in private practice, treatment facilities, or government agencies. Each can supervise their associate level counterparts. Some master's level clinicians may also work as *Psychometrist but in Arizona they are not able to interpret the results of the tests or write comprehensive psychological assessments without the supervision of a Licensed Psychologist. You can learn more about LACs and LPCs "here", LAMFTs and LMFTs "here", and LMSWs and LCSWs "here".

*Psychometrist: Have a minimum of a bachelor's degree. They administer and score various psychological assessments.

Psychiatric Mental Health or Family Nurse Practitioner

Required Education/Training: Bachelors Degree, Masters Degree, and Clinical Rotations

Credentials: PMHNP or FNP (can specialize in other areas as well)

Title(s): Nurse Practitioner

Take away: Psychiatric or Family Nurse Practitioners can prescribe psychotropic medication to patients. In Arizona, they are not required to have a doctor sign off on their orders (though this varies state to state). PMHNPs are likely more comfortable prescribing a wider range of psychotropics, as they have been specially trained in managing and medicating mental health disorders. PMHNPs may also provide therapy. Outside of general mental health screeners, special training they could potentially conduct extensive psychological assessments, but this is not a role a PMHNP will generally fill. They can work in multiple treatment settings and also own and operate independent practices. Read more about PMHNPs "here".

Psychologist

Required Education/Training: Bachelors Degree, Masters Degree, Doctorate Degree, Practicum, Internship, and Postdoctoral Residency

Credentials: Psy.D., Ph.D., Ed.D.

Title(s): Psychologist or Doctor of Psychology

Take away: Psychologists are able to provide individual, group, and couples therapy. They can specialize in multiple different treatment modalities and services outside of therapy. They are able administer, score, and interpret psychological evaluations. They can be hired by large corporations to consult on the functionality of the business as well as the intraoffice workings. Psychologists are often brought in to Forensic cases as experts either to report on specific test findings or provide information on the mental health field in general. In many states, as well as when working for the federal government, Psychologists can prescribe psychotropics; though this requires additional education and training. They can work for sports teams and/or colleges in various capacities. You can learn more about psychologists "here".

Psychiatrist

Required Education/Training: Bachelors Degree with Pre-Med focus, Doctorate Degree, Rotations, Internship, and Postdoctoral Residency

Credentials: D.O. or M.D.

Title(s): Psychiatrist or Doctor of Psychiatry


Take away: Psychiatrists are able to provide individual therapy, couples, or group therapy. Psychiatrist work in various settings including private practice, hospitals, and emergency rooms. Psychiatrist primarily prescribe medication but can also serve multiple roles outside of traditional medication management. They obtain a medical degree and have to complete at least 4 years in residency to specialize in psychiatry. If they would like to specialize in a specific area of psychiatry, it may require additional training. Psychiatrist can administer, score, and interpret psychological tests and are also active in forensic cases. They are able to provide more medically focused interventions such as Electric Convulsive Treatment (ECT) and Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS). You can Learn more about Psychiatrist "here".

OK, so what is a "Psychotherapist"?

Realistically any licensed mental health practitioner can call themselves a "Psychotherapist". However, this may be a bit confusing, especially if you have been referred for a certain service but do not know the differences in credentials. For example, if you have been referred for testing but just look for a provider with "psych" you may not end up in the right place. A general rule of thumb you can use when you are looking for certain services or provider types is Psychiatrist and Psychologist tend to use these terms (Psychiatrist and Psychologist) as titles, and are less likely to use "psychotherapist" as a title. This does not always apply, but it can help reduce your search time.

One of the great things about all of these specialties is they all work together to help you get the services and treatment that you need! They all consult, collaborate, and in some facilities, will even serve on the same treatment team!

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