Your mental health is too important to put in the hands of just anyone. Counselor and therapist credentials tell you a lot about who you’re entrusting with your wellbeing. Credential abbreviations communicate information about a therapist’s education, level of qualification, and even types of services you might expect. Here, we’ll crack the code of counselor and therapist credentials so you can make an informed decision regarding the type of therapist you want to work with.
Types of Mental Health Professionals
While there is an industrial size can brimming with the alphabet soup of counselor and therapist credentials, not all are designations you’ll encounter regularly. The following types of mental health professionals are the most common. Note that, with the exception of a psychiatrist and possibly a psychologist (depending on his or her personal preference), these professionals are all lumped under the generic umbrella term “therapist” or “counselor.”
A psychiatrist is a medical doctor and will have “MD” after his or her name. Psychiatrists primarily deal with the physical brain and what can go wrong with it medically. As such, they are the ones who diagnose mental illnesses and prescribe psychiatric medication. (Note that primary care physicians can and do prescribe medications, too, especially for things like depression and anxiety.) Some psychiatrists also provide talk therapy in addition to medication, but it’s not their specialty. It’s not uncommon for people to see a psychiatrist for medication and a different professional for therapy.
Psychologists are nestled in-between psychiatrists and therapists. Some psychologists have master’s degrees, while others have doctorate degrees (but not medical degrees).
Those psychologists with doctorate degrees carry the title “doctor.” They might have the designation PsyD (doctorate in psychology), EdD (doctorate in education, indicating that their psychology doctoral program was part of a university’s college of education), or PhD (doctorate of philosophy). Regarding their services to you, there is no practical difference between the doctoral designations; however, you might not see a PhD in practice as they are generally more focused on research.
Usually, a psychologist’s first step is to help you determine if you have a specific mental health condition. Through formal assessments (testing), they can diagnose mental illness or symptoms of a mental illness that are bothersome but fall short of the criteria for a formal diagnosis.
After determining what is wrong, a psychologist will work with you through one or more forms of talk therapy to help you thrive once again. Often, psychologists are more specialized than other counselors and therapists. If you have complex PTSD, for example, working with a psychologist who specializes in that disorder could be very helpful.
If you are in the military or live in Nevada, New Mexico, or Illinois, you might encounter a psychologist who prescribes medication. In these states and the armed services, psychologists can use medication in their treatment if they have extra education in psychopharmacology (psychiatric medication).
3. Social Worker
Social work is an incredibly broad field. A social worker might provide counseling to people in private practice, but they frequently work in places like schools, hospitals, detention centers, the courts, and many other systems and organizations. They advocate for children and underserved populations, and they help people navigate overwhelming systems. They support a wide range of people across settings. In much of their work, they are like other therapists and counselors in providing individual or group counseling services.
Social workers wear many hats, and they have a lot of different letter combinations behind their name to go with those hats. You might see these common social worker credentials: MSW (master in [or of] social work), LCSW (licensed clinical social worker), LCSW-C (licensed certified social worker-clinical), LISW (licensed independent social worker), LSW (licensed social worker), or other designations ending in SW.
4. Marriage and Family Therapist
This mental health professional specializes in couples/marriage counseling as well as family therapy. Their focus is on the couple or family as a unit, and they help them overcome dysfunction to work together as a cohesive whole in order to thrive. While they do help individuals within the couple or family, their ultimate focus is on how everyone is living and cooperating together.
The credentials marriage and family therapists carry include MFT (marriage and family therapist), MFCC (marriage, family, and child counselor),LMFT (licensed marriage and family counselor), and LCMFT (licensed clinical marriage and family therapist).
5. Counselors (LPC/LMHC/NCC)
This category includes counselors, hence the use of the letter “C.” While counselors are able to diagnose people, they typically focus more on working with individuals or groups and engage in various forms of talk therapy. Their goal is to help people overcome mental health challenges, life stress, and other obstacles that are interfering in their lives. Typically, the terms “counselor” and “therapist” are used interchangeably.
If your counselor’s name is followed by LPC, he or she is a licensed professional counselor. A very similar designation is LMHC, or licensed mental health counselor. If you work with someone credentialed as an NCC, he or she is a national certified counselor. All three have master’s degrees in counseling and have passed the required testing to earn their credentials. Like social workers and marriage and family therapists with the designation licensed, counselors who have the “L” in their title have completed a minimum number of supervised hours to receive a license to practice independently.
6. Pastoral Counseling
Pastoral counseling takes place in a spiritual context. Many religions have their unique equivalent of a pastoral counselor. Such mental health professionals have master’s degrees in counseling or social work and are also members of the clergy. They combine counseling techniques with religious beliefs and teachings to add a spiritual component to therapy.
Within each general category of psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, marriage and family therapist, counselor, and pastoral counselor, the services provided are quite similar. It’s the requirements behind the credentials that differ. Different designations have unique requirements, like a certain level of education, a minimum amount of continuing professional education, number of supervised hours required, and more depending on the state.
Complete List of Mental Health Professional Credentials
Now that you have a feel for the types of mental health professionals you’re likely to encounter, let’s check out the very long list of credentials a mental health professional may have. Rather than homing in on the letters behind the name, think first of which general type of mental health professional might be right for you.
Ultimately, you want to connect with someone who can help you overcome challenges and meet your life goals. Are you seeking a diagnosis and possibly medication? Do you want to work through a particularly stressful life situation with a professional? Knowing your goal will help you align with the best professional for you.
In most cases, the first requirement to becoming a mental health professional is to earn an advanced degree.
Such degrees denote the highest level of education in a field of study. It is possible, though, to continue one’s education in post-doctoral studies or earning additional degrees.
These doctoral degrees relate directly to the field of mental health:
DDiv: A Doctor of Divinity provides spiritual/pastoral counseling.
DMin: Similar to a DDiv, a Doctor of Ministry is another type of religious or spiritual doctorate degree.
DSW: A Doctor of Social Work degree is the most advanced degree preparing people for a career in clinical social work. The emphasis is on preparing people for work with people in communities rather than in a research setting.
EdD: Doctor of Education, typically earned by psychologists in a university where the college of psychology, counseling, and human services is housed within the school of education. Also, mental health professionals who work in a school setting, like school psychologists and counselors, typically earn an EdD rather than a PhD or a PsyD.
MD: This denotes a medical doctor and in the field of mental health applies to psychiatrists.
PhD: A Doctor of Philosophy in psychology prepares someone for a career in psychological research. However, someone with a PhD in psychology may also have clinical practices and work with individuals.
PsyaD: You might not see this designation, as it is uncommon. It denotes a Doctor of Psychoanalysis; psychoanalysis is a specialized type of therapy that delves deeply into someone’s background to explain and lessen current problems.
PsyD: a Doctor of Psychology is a psychologist who specializes in working clinically with people rather than in research.
EdM: A Master of Education is a degree for educators and mental health professionals working in a school setting. Not all school counselors and psychologists have an EdM, as they can also obtain an MA or MS degree.
MA: A Master of Arts degree is a master’s degree with an emphasis on liberal arts preparation. (Contrast this with a Master of Science, below).
MAHS: Someone with a Master of Arts in Human Services degree typically works in organizational settings. While this degree is often seen in administrators and managers, people with MAHS degrees can work therapeutically with individuals.
MAOP: A Master of Arts in Organizational Psychology is trained to work within businesses and organizations. Often, they are in human resource management and because of their special mental health training, they can provide counseling services within the organization.
MC: The Master of Counseling degree is a general master’s degree in the field of counseling and therapy.
MDiv: The Master of Divinity degree prepares someone for religious or spiritual work.
MEd: The Master of Education degree is an advanced degree for an education professional. Many school counselors have an MEd designation.
MHDL: Someone with a Master of Human Development and Learning degree specializes in human growth and development and how development affects life experience. In the mental health profession, social workers and other therapists may carry the MHDL designation.
MS or MSc: A Master of Science degree is a master’s degree that concentrates on the areas of math and science rather than the liberal arts. Therapists with MA and MS degrees are similar, but someone with a master’s of science will have completed more coursework in statistics, research, and assessment.
MSSW or MSW: A Master of Science and Social Work and a Master in Social Work are recognized as the same degree by the Council of Social Work Education (CSWE), the board that accredits university social work programs.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Once a mental health professional earns an advanced degree (a master’s or, later, a doctorate degree) he or she will take tests and undergo a required number of supervised hours (which varies by designation) in order to earn professional designations. Type of testing and required minimum hours of supervision vary greatly by state, even within a specialty.
All licensures require a minimum number of supervised hours (which vary by specialty and state) before receiving the license to practice independently. Certifications require the same education and testing but do not require supervision. A certified but unlicensed mental health professional provides the same types of services as his or her licensed counterpart but doesn’t practice independently and can’t accept insurance as an individual.
You might encounter a therapist with professional designations not on this list. Sometimes, a single state will be the only entity to recognize that credential, or a credential isn’t associated with an official board or association. Those have been omitted from this list.
Credentials vary by specialty and include the following:
APRN: An Advanced Practice Registered Nurse is licensed through a state board of nursing and can provide mental health services in various settings.
ATR: A registered art therapist has earned an advanced degree and has completed some supervised art therapy.
ATR-BC: This is a registered art therapist who has also passed a national exam demonstrating advanced knowledge in the theories and skills of art therapy.
BCD: This designation indicates Board Certified Diplomate in Clinical Social Work, an advanced general certification in social work that recognizes high standards in clinical education and experience.
Board Certifications in Traumatic Stress Specialties are granted by the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress® and include the following 14 special credentials:
- BCBT: A mental health professional Board Certified in Bereavement Trauma is recognized as a specialist in traumatic grief.
- BCCC: Board Certified Crisis Chaplain indicates a member of clergy who is also a mental health professional with expertise in crisis counseling.
- BCCT: This indicates Board Certification in Child Trauma and a professional who specializes in helping children in crisis.
- BCDT: This credential recognizes a mental health professional Board Certified in Disability Trauma.
- BCDV: A therapist Board Certified in Domestic Violence specializes in people who have been victims of any form of domestic abuse.
- BCFT: When a professional earns a Board Certification in Forensic Traumatology, he or she is recognized as a specialist in helping people cope with the psychological and behavioral aftermath of wounds and injuries from accidents or violence.
- BCIT: Board Certification in Illness Trauma means that a therapist is considered an expert in trauma that can result from dealing with chronic illness.
- BCMVT: A professional with a Board Certification in Motor Vehicle Trauma is designated as an expert in helping people in crisis from motor vehicle accidents.
- BCPM: A Board Certification in Pain Management recognizes someone’s expertise in the psychological aspects of living with and managing chronic pain.
- BCRT: Board Certification in Rape Trauma denotes someone who is an expert in helping victims of rape.
- BCSA: Receiving Board Certification in Sexual Abuse makes someone highly qualified to help people heal from sexual abuse.
- BCSM: When a mental health professional has a Board Certification in Stress Management, they are especially equipped to help people handle both acute and chronic life stress.
- BCWT: Board Certification in War Trauma recognizes a mental health professional who specializes in anyone suffering from war-related trauma and crisis.
CAC or CAP: The Certified Addictions Counselor or Certified Addictions Professional are professional designation for alcohol and drug counselors in the state of Florida. Some other states use the designation ADC, or Alcohol and Drugs Counselor.
CADC: A Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor specializes in helping people with substance use and addiction, including alcohol, illicit drugs, and addictions to prescription medication.
CAMS: Certified Anger Management Specialists are recognized by the National Anger Management Association as experts in helping people better deal with unhealthy emotional reactions.
CART: Someone with the designation Certified Anger Resolution Therapist is any mental health professional who has taken and passed special coursework with the Anger Management Training Institute.
CAS: A Certified Addiction Specialist receives this credential from the American Academy of Health Care Providers in the Addictive Disorders after completing an advanced degree and a minimum of 6,000 supervised hours in addictions counseling. The hours required for certification are more if someone has a bachelor’s degree.
CASAC: The credential of Certified Alcohol and Substance Abuse Counselor is a designation used in the state of New York.
CCDP: You will encounter Certified Chemical Dependency Professionals in the state of Washington, certified by that state.
CCHT: A mental health professional with this designation is a Certified Clinical Hypnotherapist as recognized by the National Board for Certified Hypnotherapists.
CCMHC: After earning the designation NCC (National Certified Counselor, see below), a professional can continue education and supervised counseling work to become a Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor by the National Board of Certified Counselors.
CCSW: A Certified Clinical Social Worker is credentialed by the national association of social workers.
CEAP: Certified Employee Assistance Professionals are recognized as qualified by the International Employee Assistance Professionals Association. CEAPs work for companies and other organizations to provide mental health services to employees.
CEDS: Someone who is a Certified Eating Disorders Specialist is credentialed by the International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals and recognized as a specialist in treating eating disorders.
CFLE: Certified Family Life Educators are endorsed by the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR) and specialize in working with families to help them function and thrive together.
CGP: A Certified Group Psychotherapist specializes in delivering group therapy, a special type of counseling provided to groups of individuals. (Note: Counseling groups are not the same as community-based support groups). These professionals are certified by the International Board for Certification of Group Psychotherapists.
CHT: Certified Hypnotherapists through the International Medical & Dental Hypnotherapy Association work with health and dental professionals to assist individuals with high stress and anxiety about procedures.
CICSW and CISW: Some states recognize the designations Certified Independent Clinical Social Worker and Certified Independent Social Worker, although these are not licenses to practice independently.
CMFT: A Certified Marriage and Family Therapist has completed the advanced education and testing necessary for this credential.
CP: A Certified Psychologist receives this credential from the American Board of Professional Psychology.
CP: A Clinical Psychologist has a career diagnosing and treating mental illness and/or helping people overcome other mental health challenges.
CRC: Certified Rehabilitation Counselor, credentialed by the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification, helps people with mental, emotional, developmental, or physical disabilities live independently.
C-SWHC: Certified Social Worker in Health Care is a credential granted by the National Association of Social Workers to qualified social workers in health care settings.
DAPA: Diplomate, American Psychotherapy Association is a prestigious designation given by the American Psychotherapy Association to psychotherapists who have achieved criteria indicating education, knowledge, experience, skill, and training.
LAC (LPCA): A Licensed Associate Counselor (Licensed Professional Counselor Associate) is a designation for certified counselors working toward licensure. They have not yet completed all licensing requirements of their state and must be supervised.
LCCMH: The American Mental Health Counselors Association recognizes Licensed Clinical Counselors in Mental Health as those mental health counselors who have completed an advanced degree and completed clinical supervision work, as well as passed their national certification exam.
LCSW: A Licensed Clinical Social Worker has completed education and supervision to obtain a license to practice independently in the clinical setting. (See also LICSW, below).
LGSW: The Licensed Graduate Social Worker has completed his or her master’s degree and passed the required professional exam but has not yet completed supervised work hours.
LICSW (LISW-CP): This designation refers to a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (or Licensed Independent Social Worker-Clinical Practice). These professionals work independently in clinical settings providing therapy and addressing issues like domestic violence, chronic illness, and family problems.
LISW: A Licensed Independent Social Worker works independently in non-clinical settings such as public or private organizations, providing case management, or administering programs.
LLP: A Limited Licensed Psychologist is typically one who holds a master’s degree and is in the process of earning a doctoral degree. LLPs can practice but must be supervised by a fully licensed psychologist.
LMFT: Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists meet licensure requirements of their state. States follow guidelines set by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
LMFTA: A Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist is in the process of becoming fully licensed to practice independently.
LMHC: Licensed Mental Health Counselor is an alternate designation to the LPC (see below).
LMSW: A Licensed Master Social Worker works independently, without supervision, and provides counseling services to those seeking to overcome mental health obstacles.
LP: A Licensed Psychologist has a doctorate degree, passed the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP), and met the minimum hours for supervision set by his or her state.
LPA: This designation is for a Licensed Psychological Associate, a professional psychologist with a master’s degree rather than a doctorate degree.
LPC: Licensed Professional Counselors provide mental health services in a variety of settings. They can do so independently, without supervision.
LSW: This credential is a general designation indicating that a social worker is licensed in his or her state.
MAC: A Master Addiction Counselor is the third and highest tier of certification, after NCAC I and NCAC II (see below), offered by the National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals (NCC AP).
MFT: A Marriage and Family Therapist provides counseling to families and individuals within families (as part of the family therapy process). They address a wide range of problems to help the family function well.
MT-BC: The Certification Board for Music Therapists grants the credential of Music Therapist-Board Certified to professional therapists meeting the qualifications for music therapy.
NBCCH: A National Board Certified Clinical Hypnotherapist has met the training and practice requirements set forth by the National Board for Certified Clinical Hypnotherapists.
NBCDCH: Someone achieving the National Board Certified Diplomate in Clinical Hypnotherapy status has had additional training and practice hours beyond the NBCCH.
NCAAC: A National Certified Adolescent Addiction Counselor is credentialed by the National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals (NCC AP)
NCAC I: This indicates that someone is a Level I National Certified Addiction Counselor designated by the NCC AP.
NCAC II: A professional who has completed additional education and/or supervision requirements in addictions counseling can earn the next level of certification, the National Certified Addiction Counselor, Level II from the NCC AP.
NCC: A National Certified Counselor is a Board-Certified counselor recognized by the National Board of Certified Counselors.
NCSC: The National Board for Certified Counselors has a special designation for school counselors, the National Certified School Counselor.
NCSP: Nationally Certified School Psychologists are accredited by the National Association for School Psychologists and have completed an advanced degree and passed required testing.
NDS: A Nicotine Dependence Specialist has expertise in helping people break nicotine addictions and is credentialed by the National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals (NCC AP).
PA: A Psychological Associate is a professional psychologist with a master’s degree rather than a doctorate degree.
PLPC: This Provisional Licensed Professional Counselor has fulfilled partial requirements for licensing but has not yet met the criteria for full licensing for independent practice.
PMHNP: This credential denotes a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner who is a licensed and independent nurse specializing in mental health and psychiatric services.
RAS: Most states allow substance abuse and addiction specialists to register and be designated as a Registered Addiction Specialist.
RDT: A Registered Drama Therapist is a mental health professional who specializes in using the theatre arts for therapeutic purposes and is recognized by the North American Drama Therapy Association.
REAT: Recognized by the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association, a Registered Expressive Arts Therapist uses movement, dance, painting, music, and/or writing as they help people work through mental health challenges.
R-DMT: This is a Registered Dance and Music Therapist recognized by the American Dance Therapy Association.
RPT: A mental health professional who has required training as a play therapist can register with the Association for Play Therapy to be designated as a Registered Play Therapist.
SAP: This refers to a Substance Abuse Professional with the US Department of Transportation. These professionals evaluate and make recommendations regarding government employees who have violated DUI laws.
Working with a mental health professional who is licensed, certified, registered, or otherwise credentialed is important, as you can be confident that they have the necessary education, training, experience, and, in the case of licensing, supervision to serve as your therapist or psychologist. Your next step in choosing a therapist is to find someone who is compatible with your personality and life goals.