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What’s the Difference Between Counselor and Psychologist? What About MSW, LPC, More?

6 minute read

Many who are considering mental health treatment wonder about the letters behind people’s names. They can be a bit confusing and even intimidating. There are many different job titles, licenses, and jargon in the mental health and addiction treatment spaces. And different states have different names and regulations for essentially the same roles. This can add to the confusion, but we’re here to break it down for you.

The Difference Between Counselor and Psychologist

There are a few major roles that are important to understand right off the bat. Counselor and psychologist are two of them. A counselor and a psychologist perform two different job functions, meaning they do different things for their clients.

A counselor has a master’s degree in either counseling, social work, or psychology. They perform individual, group, and family therapy. Techniques they may use are cognitive behavioral therapy, EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), biopsychosocial assessments, and many more. They specialize in treating a wide variety of mental health conditions and addictions.

A psychologist tends to do more assessments. They hold a doctoral degree in psychology. This means they have extensive knowledge of the scientific research underlying mental health disorders. They often perform comprehensive psychological evaluations. These differ from the biopsychosocial assessments that counselors do. Psychological evaluations usually include several tests, like IQ tests, ADHD assessments, record collection, and interviews. Psychologists often perform therapy as well.

Finally, it’s important not to get either of these titles confused with psychiatrists. Psychiatrists focus primarily on medication. They have the same level of education and training as doctors and nurse practitioners, but they specialize in how brain chemistry produces mental illness and/or addiction. They may perform assessments and diagnose people as well. Their role then shifts to medication management rather than counseling.

What Do All These Licenses Mean?

PhD – Clinical Psychologist

A clinical psychologist holds a PhD in clinical or counseling psychology. A clinical psychologist can administer psychological and personality tests. They can also diagnose mental illness and provide therapy. In some cases (dependent on their state and their training), they may prescribe medication.

You might have heard that PhD programs are only for people who do research, but this is not usually the case. PhD programs in clinical psychology vary in focus. They will always provide extensive training in psychotherapy.

If you’re referred for a psychological evaluation, you’ll likely see a clinical psychologist. There’s a good chance you’ll see one for therapy as well.

PsyD – Clinical Psychologist

A provider who holds a PsyD in psychology is almost identical to the above PhD. Like a PhD, the Doctor of Psychology degree (PsyD) prepares people to practice psychology in many clinical settings. They may provide therapy as well.  But someone with a PsyD focuses more on clinical practice and less on research.

A PsyD will perform the same services for clients as someone with a PhD.

MSW – Clinical Social Worker

A provider who holds an MSW (Master of Social Work degree) can provide mental health services. They include psychotherapy, diagnosing mental health conditions, and performing biopsychosocial assessments. Clinical social workers are not trained to administer psychological and personality tests. Social workers have skills and theories to challenge social injustice and change systems of care.

The Master of Social Work offers coursework in:

  • Clinical practice
  • Social administration
  • Public policy
  • Research
  • Ethics

An MSW degree can lead to many different career paths in the public health and medical fields. There are different levels to the social work licensure process. Somebody who has obtained the highest level of license usually has the acronyms “LCSW” after their name. This stands for “licensed clinical social worker.”

An MSW may perform any number of services for you, like:

  • Counseling
  • Case management
  • Community organizing

If the provider you’re seeing has any acronyms with a “C” for “clinical,” this indicates they most likely practice in behavioral health. Other non-clinical MSWs often don’t get extra licensure.

MA/MS Counseling – Licensed Professional Counselor

A provider who holds a master’s degree in counseling can provide many mental health services. These include psychotherapy, diagnosing mental health disorders, and performing biopsychosocial assessments. A master’s in counseling prepares an individual for a variety of counseling options, like:

  • Marriage and family therapy
  • Rehabilitation counseling
  • Vocational counseling
  • Mental health counseling

Students in Master’s in Counseling degree programs study counseling theories and techniques. They may also study psychological testing, ethics, research, cultural perspectives, and psychological development. There are different levels to the professional counselor license process. Somebody who has obtained the highest level of license to practice will usually have the acronyms “LCPC” after their name. This stands for “licensed clinical professional counselor.”

An LPC can do everything an MSW can do within behavioral health. They may have extra training in a wider variety of counseling approaches. They may also have deeper knowledge of histories and theories. Unlike MSWs, they don’t have training in systemic injustice and community organization.

MA/MS – Clinical Counseling Psychology

A professional counselor is a provider who holds a master’s in clinical psychology. In some states, they can do the same as a clinical psychologist can. In most states, they perform the same functions as the other master’s-level clinicians. They will have the “Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor” title.

MFT – Marriage and Family Therapist

A provider who holds a master’s in marriage and family counseling can do the same things as the other master’s-level clinicians listed above. There are a lot of similarities between this role and clinical counselors—so many, in fact, that the Bureau of Labor Statistics groups the two together. However, an MFT places a focus on treating couples and families. Marriage and family therapists can work with individuals as well.

MD or APRN – Psychiatrist

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who completed medical school. They are trained to diagnose mental health disorders and prescribe medication. Psychiatrists usually focus on prescribing psychiatric medication. In rare cases, they may perform therapy as well. Psychiatrists can also be APRNs, or “advanced practice registered nurses.” These professionals need to get specialized training in mental health while in school. Psychiatric APRNs need at least a master’s degree, while psychiatrists have an MD (medical degree).

You would be referred to a psychiatrist by your doctor or counselor if you have a need for medication or suspect medication may be helpful.

CADC – Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor

Someone who holds a CADC specializes in the treatment of alcohol and drug use disorders. Many of these individuals hold a master’s degree and get a second certification in the form of a CADC. To get this certification, they must spend a certain amount of time working in an addiction treatment center. There are strict supervision requirements. The qualifications to get a CADC vary widely by state. In some states, you only need a high school diploma (and the required hours of training) to become a CADC. In other states, you may need an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

You’ll encounter CADCs in various functions within an addiction setting. They may be counselors, technicians, or case managers. They don’t have the qualifications or training to treat mental health disorders, but they do have specialized knowledge in addiction.


What About the Difference Between Counselor and Therapist?

The terms therapist, counselor, psychotherapist, etc. are generally interchangeable. It’s often a matter of personal preference. For example, someone who has a master’s in counseling may wish to be called a counselor rather than a therapist.

It’s not uncommon to feel worried or anxious when seeking or starting out with a provider. While it may be easy to find a treatment provider, it’s harder to know if you’ve found the right one. What should you consider about a potential provider? Their:

  • Education
  • Licensure
  • Experience

But the thing that’s most important of all is finding a good fit for you. So give yourself time! Ask questions like, “Do you have experience dealing with the issues I’m experiencing?” and “What type of theoretical approach do you use?” Once you choose a provider, try them out for a few sessions. Remember that choosing any type of provider is personal. It’s important you feel a sense of trust that this person can help you.


At Footprints to Recovery, our team is staffed with mental health professionals who have a wide range of education, experience, and professional expertise. Learn more about us here.


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