Insider Insight: What Are Those Letters Behind Your Name?
By Jordan Johnson, MA, LPC(WI), LPCC(MN)
I don’t know how many times I've had someone ask me what I do for a living. It should be an easy answer, but it’s not. Do I state that my official credentialing with the MN Board of Behavioral Health and Therapy is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor, or that with the WI Department of Safety and Professional Services I’m a Licensed Professional Counselor? That seems like a mouthful. It’s not very helpful either. What if I share that I am a therapist? Well, then people wonder if you’re a physical therapist, speech therapist, occupational therapist, etc. If I say I’m a Mental Health Professional, which is what the insurance companies call me, that’s getting pretty close, but it still doesn’t describe what I do, or what sets me apart from any other therapist in the Hudson, WI area.
Today I want to share some insider insight into the world of mental health therapy. Let’s say that you’ve never been to a therapy session before and you’re searching for counselors in your area. One of the things you’ll likely notice is that each therapist has a picture where you see their name and some assortment of letters following afterwards. It’s kind of a mystery what those letters mean unless you do some additional investigating. I’m here to make it easy to understand. Here are some of the differences between different types of therapists and different licenses that they have.
If you meet with a counselor that has a BS or BA behind their name, they are likely in the process of completing their master’s degree in counseling, marriage and family therapy, or social work. They are likely to be supervised both by a professor at their university and by someone at the clinic. They are usually less experienced at therapy, but can often have good ideas that they are learning about in class and trying out for the first time with their clients. Generally, these counselors either charge a cash fee or are considered a clinical trainee and can bill insurance companies under their supervisor’s license.
Master’s Level Counselors
All therapists have to be trained in at least a master’s level program in either Marriage and Family Therapy, Counseling, or Social Work. Some go on from their master’s program to get a doctorate and become a psychologist, but we’ll get to them in a minute. When a therapist graduates from their master’s degree they can become a clinical trainee. They are typically recognized by the governing board in their state as an individual practicing psychotherapy under the supervision of a licensed therapist. They are not granted an official license to practice on their own, but are recognized as competent counselors when receiving clinical supervision. Here are some examples of credentials you may see:
- LAMFT (MN Associate of Marriage and Family Therapy)
- LPC-IT (WI Professional Counselor In-Training)
- LMFT-IT (WI Marriage and Family Therapist In-Training)
- CAPSW (WI Certified Advanced Practice Social Worker)
- CISW (WI Certified Independent Social Worker)
- LISW (MN Licensed Independent Social Worker)
All of these credentials mean that a counselor is under supervision from an experienced therapist and is competent to provide psychotherapy. One extra credential that is often confusing is the MN LPC, or Licensed Professional Counselor. It is considered a credential held by a master’s level therapist that is not yet licensed as a professional. The confusing thing is that in WI, an LPC is considered a professional, so it indicates a counselor that is not practicing under clinical supervision.
Licensed Mental Health Professionals
The next category is Licensed Mental Health Professionals. That’s a mouthful too, but it simply means that the counselor has a master’s level of education and has completed the required clinical supervision and experience hours (and likely an additional test) to practice therapy independently. Here are those credentials for MN and WI:
- LPCC (MN Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor)
- LPC (WI Licensed Professional Counselor)
- LMFT (MN and WI Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist)
- LCSW (WI Licensed Clinical Social Worker)
- LICSW (MN Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker)
The majority of seasoned therapists you will find on a therapy clinic website will have one of these credentials. It’s a good way to quickly identify that that therapist has more experience and has proven themselves as a counselor through testing and supervised practice.
The Doctors - Psychologists and Psychiatrists
This is where it can become confusing. If you go to counseling, aren’t you seeing a doctor? No, probably not. When a therapist gets a doctorate, they typically become a specialist in assessments, such as ADHD, intelligence, parenting, forensics, and personality. They could also choose to take the path to become a professor at a university. Generally if they practice counseling or provide assessments, they will carry the credentials of Licensed Psychologist or LP.
The other doctoral level mental health professional is a psychiatrist. They are medical doctors that have chosen a speciality of prescribing psychological medication. While they may provide some general advice about taking the medications they prescribe, their appointments are limited to the treatment of mental health conditions via prescription drugs. You generally should not expect them to ask you deep questions about your feelings or about your childhood, but rather will ask you physical health symptom-related questions as well as mental health symptom questions to best treat your symptoms with prescription medications.
Since they went through medical school, psychiatrists get to use M.D. after their name. Nurse practitioners under the supervision of a psychiatrist are also allowed to prescribe medications for mental health conditions. They will likely have the credential of a PMHNP, or Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner. If you are seeking help with mental health prescriptions, you will likely find that a PMHNP is going to be who you are able to schedule with as a new patient.
In short, the letters behind a name can tell a story about the education and the governing board that your counselor or doctor has. While those letters can’t tell you whether they’ll be a good fit when working with you, they can inform you as to what their role is in the field of mental health treatment.
At Hudson Counseling Services, our counselors have all gone through master’s programs, had supervised experience, passed a state or national exam and are either Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists or Licensed Professional Counselors. Additionally, our therapists have years of experience and are specially trained to work with difficult cases, such as trauma and abuse. Come and find balance in your life.