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  • Dr. Lauren Fontenot

What’s in a Name? The Difference in Mental Health Care Providers

Updated: Sep 24, 2020

“So, you prescribe meds, right?” I usually get some version of this question upon introducing myself as a psychologist. And for good reason. There is overlap in titles, similar sounding names, and, really, providers aren’t always the best at marketing the meaning behind our titles. So, before you step into someone’s office – it’s helpful to know what their title means for you. There are many titles, so I will just touch on the four major titles I’m asked about most frequently. Deep breath, here we go.

Psychiatrist. Psychiatrists are medical doctors and have either an M.D. or a D.O. depending on where they went to medical school. To become a psychiatrist, a doctor completes a three-year residency program and may also complete a fellowship to specialize further. Psychiatrists prescribe medication and can provide some therapy, although their experience in providing psychotherapy can vary by doctor – depending on where they completed their residency.

Psychologist. Psychologists have a doctorate from universities (Ph.D.) or professional psychology schools (Psy.D) and provide psychotherapy. Did you know that the title of psychologist is actually a legally regulated title? There is stringent list of state-specific requirements one must meet to become a licensed psychologist.

To become a psychologist, a person enters graduate school after completing a bachelor’s degree and completes both a Master’s degree and a Doctoral degree with some nail biting tests and application processes in the mix. Towards the end of the process, a doctoral student must complete a year-long clinical internship supervised by licensed psychologists gaining a minimum 1500 hours of supervised therapy. This is a 5 to 7-year process (typically, 6 years). This is what gets you the Ph.D. or Psy.D. To become a licensed psychologist, you must then pass a national licensing exam called the EPPP (the “E Triple P”) and complete a 1 to 2-year supervised post-doctoral fellowship. Hours required in fellowship also vary by state, but it’s safe to say at the beginning of their career, a licensed psychologist has between 2,000 and 3,500 hours of treatment experience.

Licensed Professional Counselors (LPC), Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW). When someone uses the term counselor or therapist – they are most often referring to someone who have completed a master’s degree. LPCs and LCSWs have terminal master’s degrees. Hours requirements during training and clinical internship vary by state, so it’s important to be informed. To be licensed in South Carolina a provider must take and pass a national licensing exam. They must also complete 150 hours of supervised clinical work (not necessarily all therapy) during graduate study and 600 hours in their clinical internship. While it is not a hard rule, providers with master’s degrees tend to provide more supportive therapy than focused treatment.

Life Coach. Life coach is a controversial term in the world of mental health – just ask any licensed provider. The main reason life coaches are “controversial” is that anyone can call themselves a life coach - certification or not, in person schooling or online certification. This isn’t to say that you can’t benefit from working with a life coach. The purpose of a life coach is to coach – like a sports coach or a business coach. They are just not necessarily trained to treat emotional difficulties or mental disorders. When you choose a licensed provider for therapy, you’re choosing someone to, in essence, coach you – and you also have some certainty that they have had accredited training and are regulated by a state board. When you work with someone unlicensed, you have little assurance as to their ethical standards or legal requirements.

So now that we’ve defined the terms… who is right for you? That is a much harder question (and one I’ll address in future blogs, so stay tuned!). Licensing and schooling do not automatically dictate who is the right provider for you. There are great psychologists and bad therapists. There are great therapists and bad psychologists. The key is to be informed about the credentials and background you want your provider to have and to be sure to ask questions about your providers training before you begin.

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