Healthcare is filled with acronyms, some of them familiar, but many of them unfamiliar to the layperson. When an individual begins seeking out a mental health professional because they are in need, many people are immediately off-put by the presence of all the letters that follow a mental health professional’s name. They might wonder if those letters have any meaning at all, and if so, what those meanings are and how might they influence whatever services are provided by that person.
This article is meant to help the layperson sort through the alphabet soup of mental health professionals’ titles. Because new acronyms are being invented regularly and because the same type of professional might hold a different title from one state to another, this list cannot be exhaustive, but it certainly can point you in the right direction.
Here is a great place to start, particularly because the acronym nomenclature rules usually place the educational acronym before anything else that might be listed. There are really only 3 levels of education in the mental health world: bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and doctorate degrees.
In Michigan - which will be my reference point throughout - there is only one mental health profession that licenses individuals with bachelor’s degrees, and that profession is social work. You will see BSW (Bachelor of Social Work) at the end of this professional’s name. Mental health technicians might also be individuals with bachelor’s degrees or even associate’s degrees, but it would be unusual for them to advertise their services because they are unlicensed individuals who require a licensed professional to give them direction as to the treatment to be provided to any given client/patient.
At the master’s degree level, the professional’s educational acronym will start with a capital M: M.S. (Master of Science), M.A. (Master of Arts), or M.S.W. (Master of Social Work), typically. There might be more detail to the degree, such as Master of Arts in Counseling, or Master of Science in Psychology, but these details are not included in the acronym. In the psychotherapy world, the type of master’s degree is crucial in determining what kind of license under which they become able to practice, so the remainder of the letters following this will likely be an indicator of licensure, not of what type of master’s degree was obtained.. We will get into licensure acronyms further down.
At the doctoral degree level, it would be unusual to see anything other than Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) or Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology), or possibly Ed.D. (Doctor of Education). The doctorate will also have detail - just as the master’s degree - that is not included in the acronym. For instance, a mental health professional with an Ed.D. might be a Doctor of Education in Educational Psychology or a Doctor of Education in School Counseling. It would be difficult to know this without access to a bio of some sort that gives this detail.
It might be said that there are as many licensure acronyms as there are letters in the alphabet, but that simply isn’t the case. There are several, but once you pick up on the patterns they can be a little easier to translate.
First, the professions themselves:
Professional Counseling (PC), Mental Health Counseling (MHC), Social Work (SW), Psychology (P), and Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT). These are the main mental health professions generally recognized. There can be variations on these, but for the most part knowing these will help you translate the acronym in front of you.
In front of these acronyms you will find the level of licensure: Fully Licensed (L), Limited Licensed (LL), Temporary Licensed (T), or Registered (R). Registration is no longer a category of licensure in Michigan among the professions who offer psychotherapy, but if for instance you’re attending your psychotherapy appointment at a psychiatrist’s practice (a psychiatrist will be an MD or DO, and they are a licensed physician who specializes in psychiatry) you might encounter Registered Nurses who can run educational groups and the like. For the most part, though, in Michigan, you will encounter L, LL, or T.
What this means is that you may encounter LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor), or you might encounter LLPC (Limited Licensed Professional Counselor). The difference is that the limited license is granted where the professional is required to have supervision by a fully licensed professional. The T (Temporary) license is a training-level license for a brand-new professional who requires a higher level of supervision than the LL. There is no uniformity to the point at which a mental health professional must pass a licensure exam, but for the most part you can assume that a fully licensed professional has passed their licensure exam and a limited licensed professional has not - with the exception of the LLP, who has to pass a licensure exam to complete the requirements of their temporary license (TLLP).
This is the place where the acronym really means something to what the professional is allowed to do. Only psychologists, for example, can offer psychological testing as a service. Each professional is required to be knowledgeable about the limits to their license, but those listed above can offer psychotherapy as a service to anyone in the state where they are licensed. Knowing that a particular professional requires supervision might give some clients pause in choosing them as a therapist for themselves, while others might prefer to see a therapist who regularly consults with another professional. Just because a fully licensed therapist is not required to be supervised, many of them do still engage in case consultation with other professionals.
At this level, it is impossible to delineate the acronyms applied to certifications. For instance, I am a certified cognitive-behavioral therapist, so I sometimes include CCBT in my title in an academic setting. This is usually pretty meaningless because of the vast array of certifications that exist. Acronyms for types of therapy are abundant, from EMDR and DBT to ACT and CBT to IFS and EFT. It is generally enough to know that, beyond the educational and licensure acronyms, what you are likely encountering is some additional training that is specific to a type of therapy that may or may not fit your needs.
What is Relevant to the Public?
It is important that, as a mental health services consumer, you are informed as to the therapist’s education and licensure. You want to know that they are trained and legally allowed to do what they are offering to do for you. If you are seeing a title that includes the word “coach” and carefully avoids the word “therapist” or any of the above-listed licensure terms, you can be certain that you will not be receiving any form of psychotherapy. While coaching services (life coaching, business coaching, etc.) can be invaluable to many people, they are not covered by your health insurance nor is the individual required to receive any form of training to provide the service. One might call coaching services an “unregulated” profession, despite the availability of very valuable certification programs. That said, many licensed psychotherapists also offer coaching services because they can still work with people who do not meet the criteria for a mental health need and are willing to pay out of pocket for the service.
As I mentioned above, only psychologists can offer psychological testing. Within this specific array of services there are subcategories, and you might see the term neuropsychologist as a person who offers the kind of testing and treatment for neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism and ADHD, or neurodegenerative disorders, such as dementia. Other fully licensed psychologists may include psychological testing in their practice, but many do not, and if it is testing services that you need, it is better to ask the psychologist right away if this is part of what they offer.
In terms of psychotherapy, though, there is very little in terms of therapeutic outcomes or client satisfaction that differs among the various mental health professions. The differences in outcome and satisfaction are usually specific to the individual therapist as a good or poor fit for the individual client. Many therapists have subspecialties with which they are most effective, and the ethical standards of all the mental health professions commit therapists to informing the public of their subspecialty and working with the populations they have been trained to work with. I, for instance, do not work with children under age 14, and I significantly limit my caseload for adolescents to specific problems to which I am most effective: anxiety, intimate relationship distress, and LGBTQ+ issues.
If you meet with a therapist and you don’t feel like they are a good fit for you, you are not obligated (unless a court order is in place) to continue with that therapist. You aren’t necessarily going to feel “comfortable” with the therapist, but if you feel you have developed a rapport with them, they seem to be able to empathize with your experience, and you overall feel “heard” by them, it’s likely that things are going the right direction. If therapy has been ongoing and you don’t feel you are making progress toward your goals, I encourage clients to address that within the therapy, but if you have addressed it and still failing to see improvement, then a change in therapist can be helpful in pushing through plateaus in wellness.