Alphabet Soup: Decoding Mental Health Credentials

Large book lies open on wooden table and letters fly up out of it against green backgroundTrying to find the right mental health professional for your needs can feel daunting. There are so many providers out there, and it’s important to find a good one.

Many choose to begin their search on the internet. That’s a good start! But looking through search results may feel confusing. Most of the names have letters behind them, but what do all those letters mean? How can a savvy consumer use them to choose a counselor or therapist?

Here’s a brief guide to some of the common credentials in mental health licensing in the United States. Some of these credentials relate to the state licensing and certification standards for practicing professionals.Thus, they may vary somewhat from state to state. But in most states there is some similarity in qualifications required for licensure. If you are interested in knowing the minimal level of qualification for practice in your state, you can often find this information from an Internet search for your state and the specific credential you are interested in. You can also contact your state’s licensing board directly for more information.

  • Registered psychotherapist: Some states have a database that lists people who provide services but do not have formal training in the field. This type of registry aims to provide some level of regulation for people who provide counseling services but do not have credentials. Among these people may be those who call themselves a “life coach” or simply a “therapist.”
  • CAC: A certified addictions counselor has some level of training in the specific dynamics of addiction. Credentials necessary to achieve this certification vary by state. But they are often minimal. For example, in Colorado, CAC I and CAC II require a high school diploma or GED. A CAC III (the highest level) requires a bachelor’s degree. 
  • MA: Master of arts is a fairly universal designation. It indicates the person has a master’s degree. If it is used to indicate professional competence in psychology, it should be in a field related to psychology. A master’s degree generally reflects two years of post-bachelor’s study.
  • MS: Master of science also indicates a degree held.
  • MEd: This stands for a master’s degree in education.
  • MC: This stands for a master’s degree in counseling.
  • LPC/LCPC/LPCC/LMHC: These acronyms stand for, respectively, licensed professional counselor, licensed clinical professional counselor, licensed professional clinical counselor, and licensed mental health counselor. These are all licensed by the state. Generally, a person must hold a master’s degree, complete a certain number of post-degree training hours under supervision, and pass a licensure exam.
  • LAC: In some states, a licensed addiction counselor has been licensed as an addictions counselor and has specialized training in this field. In some states, this certification requires a completed master’s degree.
  • NCC: A national certified counselor has completed a master’s degree, post-degree supervision, and the national counselor examination. This is a nationwide credential. It is consistent from state to state.
  • LMFT: This stands for licensed marriage and family therapist. 
  • LCSW: This stands for licensed clinical social worker. 
  • EMDR: Some (but not all) professionals who have completed training in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy and are qualified to offer it use this credential. To receive training, clinicians must be students or graduates of a psychology-related, graduate-level training program, as per The EMDR Institute, Inc.
  • EdD: This indicates that the holder holds a doctorate in education.
  • PsyD: This means the holder has completed a doctorate in psychology degree. The focus in a PsyD program generally emphasizes less research than in a PhD program and often requires less original research by the student.
  • PhD: A person with a PhD holds a doctorate of philosophy degree. For practicing mental health professionals, the degree should be in the field of psychology. In most cases, a doctoral degree reflects a minimum of four or five years of post-bachelor’s study. The national average is seven years of study.
  • MD: A person with an MD has completed medical school and holds a doctorate in medicine. People offering mental health services should have completed a residency in psychiatry and be a board-certified psychiatrist. Most psychiatrists prescribe medication as part of their practice. Some limit themselves to medication-related issues. But some do also offer therapy. Psychiatrists complete four years of post-bachelor’s study in medical school and a residency of at least four years.
  • LP: Some licensed psychologists use this credential to indicate their status. But it is not standard, so many others do not. Licensed psychologists must hold a doctoral degree and have completed at least one year of full-time internship in clinical practice. They must also have passed a licensure exam, completed extensive post-doctoral training under supervision, and be licensed by the state. In most states, the term “psychologist” is legally protected and reserved for those who have completed these requirements. In addition to counseling offered by other types of professionals, psychologists may offer psychological testing and assessment services.
  • ABPP: This means a person has been board certified to practice in a specialty by the American Board of Professional Psychology. To be certified, a professional must be a licensed psychologist, hold an accredited doctoral degree and have passed a licensure exam. The completion of post-doctoral training under supervision and additional specialty-specific practice and examinations are also required. Providers must also hold a state license. The ABPP is a national certifying body, so this credential is the same in every state.

Professionals who are licensed as counselors, physicians, or psychologists may be licensed in more than one state. States have different continuing education requirements. Licensed mental health professionals are required to maintain current knowledge and practice by completing a certain number of CE credits every year. This helps people seeking help know that potential providers have met the requirements for education and practice and are familiar with the standards for ethical practice. It also assures consumers that care providers are held to these standards to maintain licensure.

One red flag is when a clinician’s status does not match their education level. For example: John Doe, MA is listed as a “registered psychotherapist.” This does not reflect the licensure status for a master’s-level clinician. That certification would be LPC, LCPC, LPCC, or LMHC, depending on the state. Another example: John Doe, PhD is listed as an LPC. LPC reflects master’s-level study, not doctoral level study.

There could be many reasons for such a discrepancy. Many of these reasons pose no problem, but some do. A short-lived discrepancy may simply reflect the period of transition while a recent graduate completes post-degree hours under supervision. But it may reflect something more concerning. It may mean there is some reason the person is not eligible for the license that best reflects their  degree. Perhaps John Doe’s degree is actually in biology, but he decided to change careers. Since his degree is not relevant and does not reflect training in the field, it does not make him eligible to be licensed. Or perhaps John Doe received a PhD from a nonaccredited online university. Because this would prevent him from meeting minimum standards for licensure, he’s practicing under a license reflecting his master’s-level training. Again, this may be nothing to worry about. But some people may wish to ask potential providers about certifications before choosing to receive services from them.

Be aware that it’s perfectly reasonably to ask any potential providers about their training, clinical background, experience, and license. By doing so, you are being an informed and conscientious consumer of mental health services. Wise clinicians will encourage this type of consumer advocacy and gladly answer your questions. We want to help you find the best provider for your needs. We know a good fit is a critical element in successful therapy outcomes.

Best of luck in your search!

* Editor’s Note: The above list is not, nor is it meant to be, an exhaustive list of all mental health credentials and degrees. Credentials, degrees, and licensing requirements can vary from state to state and country to country. On September 17, 2014, the GoodTherapy.org editorial team edited the above list to include LCSW, which was not included in the author’s original list.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sunda Friedman TeBockhorst, PhD, therapist in Boulder, Colorado

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 11 comments
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  • Darlene

    Darlene

    September 16th, 2014 at 10:26 AM

    Whoa I had no idea that there were all of these different credentials that professionals in the mental health field could have. If it is this difficult to natrrow down who has what then how are lay people ever supposed to know what kind of pro they should even be looking for?

  • Carrie

    Carrie

    September 16th, 2014 at 4:13 PM

    Sooo confusing! Glad to have this list as a reference when needed.

  • alan

    alan

    September 17th, 2014 at 3:33 PM

    If we think that this is confusing from the outside I know that there must at times be a real struggle as a professional determining which field of study is going to be the best one for you that will help you centralize on the areas in which you most want to help patients. There are probably many people in the schools where most of you received your training that can help you make that decision about where you wish to specialize, but I do imagine that it would often seem tough to narrow that choice down to one area. I would think that there are a lot of people out there with dual certifications or who look for the one which will allow you to reach out to the most people.

  • Lisa

    Lisa

    September 17th, 2014 at 3:40 PM

    This is a great breakdown of what all the letters mean. One correction I would put in the “red flag to be aware of” section is your point about a PhD. only having an LPC status. Even a PhD in some form of psychology would still only have an LPC or LMFT license. There is not an advanced license for someone who has completed a PhD program.

  • Sunda Friedman T.

    Sunda Friedman T.

    September 17th, 2014 at 3:53 PM

    Thanks for all your great comments!

    One point of clarification: there is an advanced license for someone who has completed a PhD program; this person should — if the degree meets requirements — be eligible for a licensure as a psychologist, which is different from an LPC/LCPC/LPCC/LMFT, all of which reflect master’s-level licensure. See the note under “LP” in the list of letters. They may have both licenses (I do), but the doctoral-level clinician in psychology is a psychologist and most states protect that term to apply only to those individuals.

  • Sabrina M.

    Sabrina M.

    September 17th, 2014 at 4:28 PM

    This list does not include LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker). We use the letters “LCSW” in California: other states have other acronyms for social workers licensed as psychotherapists. I thought it was one if the more common degrees for therapists in the country.

  • Dustin

    Dustin

    September 17th, 2014 at 5:09 PM

    Why not indicate the minimum or average length of time for a PsyD as well?

  • Carl

    Carl

    September 18th, 2014 at 3:56 AM

    If I am reading these things correctly it sort of seems that it is not necessarily the degree that makes a difference but whether the person that you wish to work with holds some kind of advanced certification in the field that you will be delving into

  • Sunda Friedman T.

    Sunda Friedman T.

    September 18th, 2014 at 10:55 AM

    YES! Thank you Sabrina and editors for catching that rather egregious oversight. Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs) quite common. This reflects licensure by the state at the master’s level to practice social work. Typically these folks hold an MSW, master’s in social work.

  • Clara

    Clara

    September 19th, 2014 at 10:21 AM

    You mean to tell me that there is an addiction specialist who has to have no more than a hs diploma? Doesn’t that seems a little crazy to you?

  • Paul

    Paul

    September 23rd, 2014 at 3:50 AM

    I am pretty sure that this is a field that my daughter wants to go into when she graduates but I am not sure that she understands that there are also so many specialty areas in which she can focus and specialize. I guess that you have a lot more decisions to make in this venue that even I thought was possible, and it has to be difficult to know if you are making the right decision.

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