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Fact Sheet

Counselors, therapists, and psychologists


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Counselors, therapists, and psychologists can help you feel better

Counselors, therapists, and psychologists are different kinds of trained mental health professionals. These professionals will work with you to identify your strengths and the things that cause you distress, and can help you find solutions and make changes. Here are some of the differences between these types of mental health professionals.

Counselors

Counselors often work in schools, at community health centers, on university or college campuses, and family planning clinics. Some may also work privately, having an office alone or with a group of other professionals. Counselors usually have a master's degree or higher, have completed many supervised training hours, and are licensed by the state they practice in. They are usually called Licensed Professional Counselor, or LPC, althought some states have different licensing rules and so counselors may have slightly different initials after their names, like LPCC or LCPC. You can get more information on Counselors from the American Counseling Association.  

Another kind of counselor is a drug and alcohol counselor or a residential treatment counselor. These professionals usually have bachelor's degrees and are not necessarily licensed by the state. State standards for credentialing drug and alcohol counselors vary from state to state.

Therapists

Therapists, or psychotherapists, often work in private practices, alone or with a group of other professionals. Some work in hospitals, schools, or in community mental health clinics as well. Therapists have a master's degree or higher, have completed many supervised training hours, and are usually licensed as Marriage and Family Therapists (MFT) or a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). You can find out more from the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists and the National Association of Social Workers

Psychologists

Psychologists have doctorates in psychology (PhDs or PsyDs), have completed many supervised training hours, and are licensed by the state. Both clinical psychologists and counseling psychologists and are trained to diagnose and treat a wide variety of mental health problems, but typically, clinical psychologists work with people who have more severe problems (such as phobias, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia) while counseling psychologists work with people suffering from less severe disorders (including depression, anxiety, everyday stresses, and relationship and family difficulties). Psychologists can work in agencies, hospitals, clinics, or private practice offices. The American Psychological Association has more information on licensed psychologists. 

School psychologists are another type of psychologist; they usually work in a K-12 school setting. Generally they focus on learning and behavior problems, diagnose learning difficulties, and work with teachers and family members to suggest ways to improve classroom climate and parenting skills. Get more information from the National Association of School Psychologists.

Psychiatrists

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who can prescribe psychiatric medications. Some also provide therapy. For more information, see the Psychiatrists fact sheet. 

What mental health professional is right for me?

When you are looking for a mental health professional, it is imporant to look for someone who is licensed or credentialed in some way, so you are protected by ethical and legal rules governing all health professionals. What kind of license she holds is usually less important than if she is a good fit in terms of training, specialty, personality, and availability. If you need to find someone who works at a sliding scale clinic or accepts your insurance, then that is a more important factor for you than which license he holds. Similarly, you want to look for someone with training and experience in your particular area of concern, because the most skilled eating disorder therapist might not know the first thing about bipolar disorder. And just as importantly, you want to find someone who you feel comfortable with, someone you trust. All of that is usually more imporant than what initials someone has after his or her name!

Different approaches to counseling

Not all mental health professionals are the same — each has his or her own personality, theoretical orientation or approach to counseling and general style. For more information on some common types of therapy, check out the What kind of counseling is right for me? fact sheet.  Finding someone to suit you is important. It’s helpful to remember that this can take time, and the first counselor or therapist you see might not be the right one for you. Try not to give up. If you don’t feel comfortable with the first counselor you see, or if you think the person isn’t listening to you, it’s OK to find a different counselor.

Ask about your privacy

It’s a good idea to talk to the counselor you see about keeping your information private. This is generally something that your counselor will bring up in your first session, but if they don’t, it’s OK for you to ask. In most situations, unless you ask the counselor to share information, your counselor will keep what you tell him or her confidential. If you would tell your counselor something that suggests you are in serious danger to yourself or another person the counselor would be ethically bound to share that information so that you or the other person could be safe. Counselors are also required by law to report instances of abuse and there may be circumstances where they would be compelled to testify in a court case. The parameters for when a mental health professional can be required to testify vary by state. For more information check out the Confidentiality fact sheet.

Other options

If you are unable to see a counselor or not ready to start seeing a therapist, there are other options available for getting help. The Your Life Your Voice Hotline (1-800-448-3000) can provide counseling on the phone, email or text. They can also help you find a counselor in your area when you are ready, and low-fee or free therapy options near you. If you are feeling suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with a trained crisis volunteer.

More information

Theravive: an international directory that can help you find a qualified therapist in your local area

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