When it comes to choosing a counselor, it can get really confusing when you start to look at the different letters behind their name. Not only are their different license types, but they vary by state as well as to what that license is called. There are also different certifications a counselor/therapist can receive that they can then put as letters behind their name. This endless list of letters can get overwhelming!
There are really only a few letters you really need to pay attention to in a license, unless you are looking for something very specific. Those are usually the first ones that a clinician puts behind their name. These letters will probably be something along the lines of an LPC, LMHC, LMHCA, LMFT, LMFTA, LICSWA, LICSW, LASW, LASWA, or perhaps something similar depending on what state you are in. Okay, feeling that overwhelmed feeling again with all those letters? No need to fear, these letters all indicate that that individual holds a license to practice counseling in their state. The main difference between them is their focus and frame work they come from during treatment, which is mainly what we will be covering in this post.
LPC stands for Licensed Professional Counselor, and is the most standard license for practice across most states. However, in some states, such as Washington, they use the title LMHC (Licensed Mental Health Counselor) instead. There is really no difference between these two license types, it is just a different name given between states. This license gives a counselor the ability to practice basic counseling. So, treating standard mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, grief, adjustment disorder, along with many other conditions that are pretty common across the population. Those who study for this license type generally studied from the perspective of looking at that individual and how to help the individual through the various circumstances going on in their life that are preventing them from obtaining the goals they would like to reach.
LMFT stands for Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. This license is pretty standard across the states. There may be a state or two that call it something different, but overall this license title seems to be pretty consistent across the states. There has been improvement in this area, but this license can sometimes have a hard time getting insurance reimbursement, not because of the work they do, but because of a misperception by insurance companies of the work they do. LMFT’s specialize in working with families and couples with their license and studies. Most insurance companies do not reimburse for couples or family counseling (at the time of the writing of this post) and push a little harder back on LMFT’s work because of that assumption that they are probably just doing work not covered by the insurance company. LMFT’s also work with individuals and the standard issues that LPC/LMHC’s can work on you with. The basic difference with them is in their studies they come from a family perspective instead of individual. So, how to you fit in to your current family and what of those dynamics made you are who you are today? Or something along those lines.
LICSW (Licensed Independent Social Worker) or LASW (Licensed Advanced Social Worker) is the last basic license of fully licensed counselors, at least across majority of states. This is the license that a person who studied social work will receive if they would like to practice individual or family counseling. They also have been trained to address the basic issues that the previous licenses can address. The only main difference in their schooling is it covers a broader range of topics and is not centralized around counseling. It also pertains to other career areas you are likely to find a social worker: foster care systems, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and the many other areas they can be found helping people. Specialization into counseling does not usually come until they start working for their license, and to help make up for that training difference they have at least a year longer than the previous licenses before they can obtain fully licensure—at least in Washington State. When they work in the field of counseling they tend to come through the perspective of systems. So, looking at how the individual fits in to the various systems they are in and how those systems have developed that individual into who they are.
All the above licensed types have completed at least a master’s degree in a counseling related field of study—the degree being specific to their license type. They have also completed taking a test for licensure and other licensure requirements that allowed them to become fully licensed. There are some other license types for other degree levels and training levels that will also be briefly mentioned to cover some other things you may come across.
You may have noticed that I have not specifically mentioned any of the ones that end with an “A” in the explanation of the license types. That is because those license types that end with “A” merely indicate that the counselor is an associate. This means that they are working towards becoming fully licensed as an LMHC, LMFT, LICSW, or LASW. They have completed their training, such as receiving a masters and coursework on how to be a counselor, but just need to complete the requirements of experience in the field and their test for licensure to gain the fully licensed status. Typically, this means they have been practicing counseling for 2 years or less, or for the social work license 3 years or less. You have no need to fear with a counselor with this license type still. While they might still be working to gain experience, they are under the supervision of someone who is fully licensed and seasoned in the field. This means they consult on their cases with their supervisor to make sure they are taking the appropriate steps to best serve their clients on a regular basis.
Some states also have a couple other license types, such as in Washington there is the Agency Affiliated counselor, and Licensed Certified Counselor. Both of these license types are for those who are practicing counseling who only have up to a bachelor’s level degree, in a counseling related field, completed. They are required to be supervised by their agency or with an approved supervisor to practice, and follow a similar supervision requirement that those with and Associates license do. A Licensed Certified Counselor also has to pass a test in order to practice as they are able to be a little more independent than and agency affiliated counselor (as in they can have their own private practice while still being supervised by a supervisor outside of the practice).
There are lots of other letters that can fall behind a name of a counselor or therapist, but these are the main ones to pay attention too. Future posts will try and address at least some of the other common letters and how they are obtained.