How Do I Find the Right Therapist?

The Difference Between Various Mental Health Providers

If you have been trying to find the right therapist for your needs, you have likely run into a lot of acronyms that look like a bunch of gibberish. Have you asked yourself, “What’s the difference between an LPCC, LCSW, LMFT, PsyD, PhD, MD, or PMHNP??” What you didn’t realize are those little letters behind someone’s name can tell you everything you need to know about the education a mental health professional has and what their specialty and training is in. Let me explain what those little letters mean, and why it is so important to be able to distinguish them in order to find the right mental health professional for you.

Key Providers

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What if they don’t have any letters behind their name?

You may have come across a lot of Instagram pages giving out amazing mental health advice from someone who calls themselves a “Mental Health Advocate” or a “Coach”. These accounts can be positive additions to your IG feed, but they shouldn’t be relied upon for professional mental health treatment. Mental health advocates and coaches have good intentions, but are not legally allowed to diagnose or treat any mental health conditions. If you are looking for someone who will provide direct advice and personal anecdotes about how to cope with stress in your life, these individuals may just be a good fit. However, if you want to have a professional assist with your mental health management and treatment, keep reading.

What’s the difference between Licensed Professionals like LPCCs, LCSWs, and LMFTs?

Each of these acronyms stand for a different licensed mental health provider with at least a Masters level education in their perspective fields. They also distinguish between those that have passed their perspective licensing board examinations and those who are still associates (AMFT, APCC, ASW, etc.). Counseling, Social Work, and Marriage & Family Therapy are all closely related fields with slight variances on how they approach treating clients’ needs.

A LPCC stands for a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor, and their education focuses on treating mental health illnesses in individuals. They often treat co-occuring substance use and mental health diagnoses, and focus their treatment around the individual and their unique needs. LPCCs often provide individual therapy or group therapy treatments.

LCSW is short for Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Licensed Clinical Social Workers can identify and implement a treatment plan that incorporates multiple community supports. These professionals can diagnose and treat individuals or families, and are great at navigating community systems and seeing how larger systems impact a family dynamic.

As a LMFT myself, I know a great deal about the treatment I can provide as a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist. LMFTs hold at least a Masters degree specializing in marriage & family therapy, and can recognize the impact family of origin and larger societal constructs can have on an individual. LMFTs do a great deal of studying how relationships form, interact, and influence each individual involved, and utilize this knowledge to assist in the treatment of both individual’s mental health and couple’s/family’s mental health needs. We work with individuals, couples, and families on navigating life’s stressors, childhood trauma, parent-child relationships, pre-marital or pre-natal counseling, and often specialize in couples counseling. LMFTs can diagnose using the DSM-5 and often times collaborate with other healthcare professionals to make sure you are getting the most well-rounded treatment for your unique needs.

What’s the difference between a PhD and PsyD?

This is a question that I hear a lot, and actually has a very important distinction between the two. A PhD stands for a Doctorate of Philosophy, while a PsyD stands for a Doctorate of Psychology. It is important to distinguish what the PhD is in (such as Psychology, Marriage & Family Therapy, Theology, etc.) due to the fact that one may have a PhD, but not be licensed to practice in a certain state. For example, someone may go through 4 years of additional schooling to get a Doctorate of Philosophy in Theology, but not be licensed as an LPCC or LMFT, and be unable to diagnose and treat mental health illnesses. So when you see “PhD” behind someone’s name, do some additional digging to decipher if they also have other credentials to meet your specific needs.

A PsyD distinction means someone has done the research and/or additional clinical work to attain a doctorate of psychology. They often have an extensive knowledge of mental health diagnoses and pharmacological needs of clients, and have studied in depth how the mind works. However, it is important to note that the presence of the acronym PsyD does not mean a practitioner can prescribe medication for mental health needs. Depending on the state you live in, a PsyD may or may not be able to write a prescription for your mental health needs.

What about PMHNP or MD?

These two distinctions address the professionals who have the medical knowledge to treat mental health diagnoses in more traditional healthcare settings. PMHNP stands for Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner. You may recognize the nurse practitioner designation as those medical professionals at your PCPs office or at a hospital that provide basically all the care that your primary care physician would. These individuals usually have Masters degrees and/or doctorate degrees in nursing practice, and can diagnose, prescribe, and treat mental health diagnoses.

A MD is a Medical Doctor, but doctors that specialize in diagnosing, researching, and treating mental health diagnoses are known as Psychiatrists (not psychologists). Psychiatrists can prescribe and treat mental health diagnoses using the latest research and medically backed practices. They often provide condensed forms of therapeutic interventions alongside medication management to help manage a client’s mental health needs, and refer out to other licensed mental health providers for ongoing therapy treatment.

So, who is the right therapist for me?

All these little groups of letters basically give you a snapshot of a professional’s resume. Making note of the type of professional that will be the right therapist for you can minimize your search time and maximize your time in therapy. Before running through the lists of profiles on the various directories out there, this can help narrow down your search and match you with the right therapist for you. Finding a good fit is one of the most important aspects of your mental health journey, so I’m glad I could help you navigate this important step.

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