People offering psychotherapy and counseling services to the public identify themselves by a confusingly wide array of titles, including psychologist, licensed clinical social worker, marriage and family therapist, psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, counselor, hypnotist, hypnotherapist and psychotherapist. How can you make sense out of all of these confusing choices?
First, it helps to have some knowledge about the state laws governing the use of these titles. In California, as in most states, anyone can call themselves a psychoanalyst, a counselor, a hypnotist a hypnotherapist or a psychotherapist without any kind of training or education. These titles are not regulated, licensed or controlled in any way.
The following information is based upon standards in the State of California. Some of the rules and regulations are the same in other states, but you can check with the state board for each profession in your own state. Any professional person in your own state should be able and willing to give you the phone number, address or web page of their particular profession in that state. You will find information about resources to check on the qualifications of mental health professionals both in California and in other states at how to check qualifications.
Some of the professional designations listed above do involve state requirements and standards for licensing. Here is some information which will be useful in general.
To represent oneself as a psychologist to the public in California it is necessary to hold a doctorate degree in psychology (Ph.D.), which is a post-graduate degree, to have completed an approved course of study at an accredited college or university and to have completed a supervised training program in the field of clinical psychology. Both the undergraduate and graduate training of a licensed psychologist is focused in the field of clinical psychology, including normal and abnormal psychology, learning theory, social psychology, psychotherapy, psychodiagnosis, psychological testing and research. In addition it is necessary to pass a state board of psychology sanctioned licensing examination in California as is true in most states.
To represent oneself as a psychiatrist to the public it is necessary to hold a doctorate degree in medicine (M.D.), which is an undergraduate degree. Any physician can practice psychiatry once he has completed medical school, passed the state board examination in general medicine and obtained a medical license. If you consult a psychiatrist, it is important to make sure that he is Board Certified in psychiatry, which means that he has had training in psychiatry as well as medicine, and that he has passed an examination in the field of psychiatry. For a further discussion of the differences between the education and training of a psychologist and psychiatrist, see "A commonly asked question" on my page about psychologists.
A licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) in California has a masterís degree in social work (MSW) and has completed a training program and passed an examination in clinical social work.
A marriage and family therapist (MFT) is the new designation for what was previously known as a marriage and family counselor (MFC) in California. An MFT has a masterís degree in marriage and family therapy and has completed a training program and passed a state sanctioned examination in this field.
Many people who look for help with personal or emotional problems consult a psychologist or psychiatrist because of their more extensive training. However, managed care insurance programs are moving in the direction of using more marriage and family therapists and licensed clinical social workers than psychologists and psychiatrists for treatment. Some of them do not authorize psychiatrists to provide psychotherapy, but restrict them to providing medication only.
If someone identifies themselves only as a psychoanalyst, a counselor, a hypnotist a hypnotherapist or a psychotherapist, with no other professional designation listed above, be sure to inquire carefully about their training and qualifications. The use of these terms is generally unregulated and may be used by anyone. Such a person may not meet the standards of training, education and experience that you would want in the professional person whom you consult on important personal issues. Some of them have no training, or may have taken a weekend or mail correspondence course only.
For further information about how to evaluate the qualifications of a professional therapist, see Check Qualifications.
Your choice of the type of professional person you consult will determine a lot about the type of treatment or counseling which you get.
For more information right here about why you might prefer to choose a clinical psychologist for professional help rather than another type of professional, see my copy of the Orange County Psychological Association's Web Page entitled "What is a Psychologist?"