What Are the Different Types of Therapists?

6 minutes Written by Mental Health Match & Reviewed by C. Adamo, PhD

There are many different types of therapists. These differences include the degree or letters by their name as well as the different specialties they develop. 

The education of therapists is influenced by many things, not simply by the type of degree they get. Even within the same type of degree, a therapist’s education might vary by the classes they might have taken while getting a degree, by the guiding theories of the schools they attended, or even by the training and approaches of their mentors or supervisors.

The most important thing to remember is that all types of therapists can help you. Specific degrees are much less important than the connection and trust you develop with your therapist. Additionally, therapists must engage in continuing education throughout their career to help them learn new skills and specializations, which can be much more relevant to your needs than the letters beside their name. 

The list below should be considered as a brief introduction to the difference in training or professional focus. Rarely is the type of degree itself enough to determine whether or not a therapist is a fit. Research has shown that your connection to your therapist is one of the strongest predictors of progress in therapy

Psychologists

Psychologists have a PhD (or a clinically-focused degree called a PsyD), that requires around 5 years of advanced academic experience. 

Psychologists often spend their academic career focusing on specific symptoms or populations, and thus often have a lot of knowledge about a specialty. Psychologists also get a lot of training to test and assess for various types of mental health disorders. 

A psychologist could be a good fit for you if you have complex needs (like PTSD from military service or an eating disorder) that would benefit from a therapist with advanced training, or if you want to test for a specific disorder such as Autism. However, psychologists are often more expensive than other types of therapists and their extra education may not be necessary for your needs. 

Psychiatrists 

It is easy to confuse psychiatrists and psychologists because the words are so similar, but they are very different from each other. 

Where psychologists use talk therapy and assessments to help improve your mental health, psychiatrists prescribe medication. That is because psychiatrists have an MD degree from medical school. Psychiatrists thus focus more on the biochemical interactions that happen in your brain, and how medications affect your mood. 

Psychiatrists can be a good place to start if you know you have a mental health disorder that can benefit from medication, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or persistent depression. You may find that other mental health concerns may benefit from trying talk therapy before medication, or doing talk therapy in conjunction with seeing a psychiatrist. 

Note psychiatric nurses also prescribe medication.

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs)

LMFTs are therapists with a masters degree. LMFTs can help a broad range of clients and concerns. They study a range of counseling modalities, often with a focus on specific techniques. Often, their training often involves using 2-way mirrors and the recording of sessions. This means they typically get a lot of feedback from supervisors, which helps them to be very self-aware and effective in session.

LMFTs can particularly help couples, families, and people experiencing distressing relationships. So an LMFT might be right for you if your mental health concerns stem from the way you relate to other people in your life or if you want to go to therapy with another person to discuss your relationship.

LMFTs and LPCs (below) can often have similar training, and often take specific courses to help them specialize in different treatment approaches or life experiences.  

Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs) & Licensed Mental Health Counselors (LMHC)

Licensed Counselors have masters degrees to help a wide variety of people and struggles. They can be a great resource for individuals experiencing common struggles such as anxiety, self-doubt, uncertainty, or stress. 

Licensed Counselors are often trained to help people solve specific problems, such as how to change careers or accept grief and loss. However, many counselors practice long-term therapy and can also guide you through deeper exploration. 

Often counselors have extra training and credentials in specific areas such as:

  • Alcohol, Drug or Addiction Counseling
  • Grief counseling
  • Career counseling
  • College counseling

Thus, counselors can build on their broad training with advanced specializations.

A counselor could be a good fit for you if you have broad concerns you want to address or if you are seeking a solution for something specific in your life.

Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs)

LCSWs are also therapists with a master degree who have broad training to help a variety of people and concerns. LCSWs use a person-in-environment approach to help individuals understand how their surrounding home, community, political, and cultural environments have affected them and how they relate to the world.

Given their perspective of society, LCSWs can be a great fit if you want to explore how you relate to, and navigate, the culture, society, and institutions around you. However, just like counselors and other therapists, LCSWs can and do treat a variety of people. 

Coaches are unlicensed, unregulated, and not therapists

In the past few years, a whole category of coaches have emerged who offer to help with mental health concerns. However, coaches have no formal training to be therapists. Anyone can call themselves a coach without any education or experience. Even if a coach does have some training around certain mental health conditions, their training does not qualify them to provide mental health care. Coaches may help you build skills such as practicing social skills, increasing leadership skills, or executing identified goals (i.e. business, physical health. Coaches should never be used to treat trauma or mental health.

Most people can benefit from any type of therapist

While a therapist’s education influences their approach, the most important factor in therapy is usually the relationship you have with your therapist. You may find you make more progress with an LCSW who you trust and feel comfortable with instead of a psychologist who spent years studying the issue you struggle with. 

If you have a very specific need (such as figuring out if you have Bipolar Disorder), you may indeed want to go to a psychologist with a lot of experience in such assessments. Or if you know you want to talk about a specific topic for just a few sessions, you may benefit from seeing a counselor with that specialization (such as a grief counselor). 

If you are newer to therapy, have a number of things you want to talk about, or want ongoing exploration and learning, it is most important to find a therapist you connect with. If you doubt a therapist meets your needs, asking questions about your therapist’s skills, training, and abilities is a great starting point.

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C. Adamo, PhD

Written by Mental Health Match & Reviewed by C. Adamo, PhD

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