In Treatment

One of the most common questions that gets asked by people who are considering mental health treatment is about the distinction between all the different provider options. It can be a bit confusing and at times intimidating as there are many different acronyms, titles, and names that get thrown out there. Additionally, different states have different regulations, standards, and acronyms for what is ultimately the same thing – so this can add a lot to the confusion. The following blog seeks to simplify it as much as possible for the patient, family member or loved one who is looking to get a general idea.

The first distinction in regards to treatment providers is the different degrees that lead to different licenses within the behavioral health field.

These degrees and corresponding licenses generally are:

Ph.D. – Clinical Psychologist


A provider who holds a Ph.D. in clinical or counseling psychology is considered to be a clinical psychologist. A clinical psychologist can provide psychotherapy, diagnose mental health disorders, administer psychological and personality tests and in some cases (very dependent on state and training) prescribe medication. While you may hear people say that Ph.D. programs are only for people who do research, this is more often not the case. Ph.D. programs in clinical psychology vary tremendously in focus but will always provide extensive training in psychotherapy.

Psy.D – Clinical Psychologist

A provider who holds a Psy.D in clinical or counseling psychology is almost identical to the above Ph.D. Like a Ph.D. in Psychology, the Doctor of Psychology degree (Psy.D) prepares students to practice psychology in a wide range of clinical settings. A Psy.D, however, focuses more on clinical practice and less on research.

MSW – Clinical Social Worker

A provider who holds an MSW (Master of Social Work degree), can provide psychotherapy, diagnose mental health disorders and perform assessments. Where they differ from clinical psychologists is that clinical social workers are not trained to administer psychological and personality tests. Social workers are however taught the 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, and ethics. An MSW degree can lead to many different career paths in the public health and the medical field, nonprofit organizations or government programs that address public needs. Social workers are also taught the skills and theories to challenge social injustice and change systems of care. There are different levels to the social work licensure process but somebody who has obtained the highest level of licensure will usually have the acronyms “LCSW” (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) after their name.

MA/MS Counseling – Licensed Professional Counselor

A provider who holds a Masters Degree in Counseling can provide psychotherapy, diagnose mental health disorders, and perform assessments. A Master in Counseling prepares an individual for a variety of counseling options including marriage and family therapy, rehabilitation counseling, vocational counseling, mental health counseling, and substance abuse counseling. Students in Master in Counseling degree programs study counseling theories and techniques, psychological testing, ethics, research, cultural perspectives and psychological development. There are different levels to the professional counselor license process but somebody who has obtained the highest level of licensure will usually have the acronyms “LCPC” (Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor) after their name.

MA/MS – Clinical Counseling Psychology

A Professional Counselor is a provider who holds a Masters in Degree in Clinical Psychology and can in some states do the same as what was mentioned for the Clinical Psychologist. However, in most states, they perform the same functions as the other masters level clinicians listed above and will have the Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor title.

MFT – Marriage and Family Therapist

A provider who holds a Masters Degree in Marriage and Family Counseling can once again, do the same things as the other Masters level Clinicians listed above. There are a lot of similarities between Marriage and Family Therapists and Clinical or Mental Health Counselors – so many, in fact, that the Bureau of Labor Statistics groups the two together. The distinction between the other Master’s degrees is that this degree places a larger focus on providing treatment to couples and families. It should be noted that despite the name of this degree, Marriage and Family Therapists are trained to work with individuals as well.

MD – Psychiatrist

A Psychiatrist is a Medical Doctor who completed medical school and is trained to diagnose mental health disorders, as well as prescribe medication. Psychiatrists usually focus on prescribing psychiatric medication, although some provide psychotherapy as well.

CADC – Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor

Sometimes referred to as a Substance Abuse Counselor, an individual who holds a CADC specializes in the treatment of alcohol and drug use disorders. Many of the individuals who hold a Master’s degree as described above, will get a second certification to hold a CADC. Individuals with this certification are required to accumulate a specific amount of time working under supervision within a drug and alcohol treatment environment. The CADC is the first certification someone can get, there’s a handful of further certifications an individual can seek as they advance through their career.

It should once again be noted that a lot can vary from state to state when it comes to these different providers including what they are called and their scope of practice.

When it comes to the more general terms of therapist, counselor, psychotherapist etc. you may find that some try to make a distinction between them, but most mental health professionals in the field will use these terms interchangeably. All of the mental health providers listed above generally have the ability to use any of these titles and it usually will come down to personal preference.

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 is perhaps much more difficult to know if you’ve found the right one. It’s important to consider individuals education, licensure and experience; however, this is just the beginning and we don’t encourage you to get too hung up on it. What is perhaps even more important is giving yourself the time to find the right therapist for you. Ask questions: ‘ Do you have experience dealing with the issues I’m experiencing?’, ‘What type of theoretical approach do you use?’, ‘What’s your treatment planning process like?’. Once you choose a provider give yourself more than one session to get comfortable. Remember that choosing any type of provider is a very personal matter. There is no one therapist that is good for everyone. It is important that you feel a sense of trust, level of comfort and that this person can indeed help you.

You can learn about Footprints to Recovery’s Providers Here.

Author: Noam Dinovitz, LCSW – Footprints to Recovery – Psychotherapist


Leave a Comment