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What’s the Difference?

Understanding the Difference

What’s the difference between mental health professionals?

What’s the difference between their titles and training?

With all of the different mental health practitioners and their techniques it can get confusing!  You should know and understand the difference before seeking help from anyone so that you can know whether that person is qualified to assist you.

Although many practitioners have some type of credential that indicates that they can reduce the impact of your psychological distress, they have vastly different training and abilities to assist you. 

In the State of Florida there are basically 5 licenses that allow someone to be considered a licensed mental health professional who can provide services to the public.  

Licensed Psychiatrist (doctoral-level practitioner): a psychiatrist is basically a physician who has specialized in the field of mental health (as opposed to family medicine, for example) and who typically seeks to relieve distress by providing medications (prescription drugs) which may assist. These days, most psychiatrists do not provide therapy services, but will often have a therapist in their practice to whom they will refer or will refer out to a known qualified professional therapist.

Licensed Psychologist (doctoral-level practitioner): of all the therapists in the field of mental health, a psychologist has the highest level of education and training available.  In order to become a psychologist, one must first have earned a doctorate in clinical psychology (the formal study of human behavior and thought and various disorders of these) and have received extensive training in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental health issues by providing a variety of psychotherapeutic approaches.    

The practitioners listed below are master’s-level clinicians, which means that their highest level of education is a master’s degree.  In some cases, you may find a practitioner who possesses a doctorate and has one of the below licenses.   

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) (master’s-level practitioner): an LCSW usually has a Master’s degree in Clinical Social Work and is trained in some forms of counseling and psychotherapies. 

Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) (master’s-level practitioner): an LMHC typically has a Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling or a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology and has received training in counseling and psychotherapy techniques. 

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) (master’s-level practitioner): an LMFT has completed a Master’s Degree with course work that emphasizes marriage and family dynamics and counseling. 

Here are some commonly used terms in the mental health field that one might wish to better understand: 

Life Coach: Life coaching is a future-focused practice with the aim of helping clients determine and achieve personal goals. Although life coaching techniques may be helpful, you should know that the field of life coaching is not regulated at this time.  So there are no minimum education and training restrictions, oversight or regulation by any board that requires licensure.  You are therefore advised to thoroughly investigate the credentials and training of anyone who claims to have the ability to assist you through life coaching.  You might also wish to know that many highly trained mental health practitioners are now adding life coaching to their list of specializations, simply because some people are turned off by the mention of the words “psychotherapy” or “counseling” in that they perceive them as negative. 

Counselor: is a generic term for someone who assists people with personal, family, educational, mental health, and career decisions and problems. Their duties depend on the individuals they serve and on the settings in which they work. Counselors can be trained individuals such as psychologists and social workers, or a person with some counseling training credentialed by a hospital or clinic (e.g., an RN who has taken a few courses in counseling and is able to counsel people within the setting of the hospital). 

Psychotherapist:  is a term that describes someone who is trained in using a range of techniques that focus on talking (dialogue and communication) that are designed to improve the mental health of a client or patient, or to improve group relationships (such as in a family therapy). Most forms of psychotherapy use only spoken conversation, though some also use various other forms of communication such as art work, for example. Commonly, psychotherapy involves a therapist and a client (or clients such as is the case when doing family therapy) who discuss their issues in an effort to discover underlying problems and to find constructive solutions. 

 When considering the difference between a “counselor” or a “psychotherapist” think of the degree of education and training that one holds.  A psychotherapist is typically someone with a master’s degree (LMFT, LMHC, LCSW) or higher in education (such as a psychologist) who has undergone long-term training to learn more sophisticated techniques in helping people deal with life’s issues and conflicts.