PhD, PsyD, MFT … the list goes on. Here’s a rundown of what sets them apart to help you choose the professional that’s best for you.
So, you’re interested in therapy? Congratulations! I applaud your intrigue in something new that will help you gain tools to better understand yourself.
I sometimes compare therapy to going to the gym. It can seem intimidating and frustrating, and it can completely suck during the session. But after, you feel much better and much stronger.
Choosing to go to the gym — or to therapy — is the hardest part. Once you’re there, your body — and your mind! — will instinctively follow through.
Finding the right therapist for you can be a tricky and time-consuming process. There are various types of therapies, all of which are led by various therapists, all of whom have received various types of training.
Imagine a therapist as a personal trainer at the gym — their different backgrounds will influence the type of exercises they teach, the format of their classes, and their particular style. In other words, if you’re looking for a cardio class, you won’t want to sign up for weightlighting.
If you’re considering therapy and you’re curious as to what kind of therapist might be best for you, then consider this article your personal tour of the gym. Note that regardless of training, every therapist will have a different style of practice. The most essential part of therapy is finding someone you feel comfortable and connected with.
Mental health professionals with a doctorate degree are known as clinical psychologists. Traditionally, psychologists received a Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD) in psychology to certify their level of education. In the 1970s, a new doctoral degree, the Doctorate of Psychology (PsyD), emerged.
PsyD programs generally place greater emphasis on clinical training, while PhD programs tend to focus more on research.
While graduates of these programs — PhD or PsyD — are both licensed to conduct therapy, PsyD programs will usually prepare students for clinical therapy, testing, and working directly with patients, while PhD programs generally prepare students for clinical practice, academia, and scientific research.
Simply put? Regardless of their graduate program, clinical psychologists have extensive training that grants them an advanced understanding of the mind. Via psychotherapy (which is just a fancy word for talk therapy), psychologists can significantly help a patient’s mental health state.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors — meaning they have completed a degree at a medical school. As such, they can prescribe medications, which is something that psychologists and therapists cannot do.
If you’re interested in medication, your psychiatrist will help you come up with a plan that is best suited for your mental health symptoms.
Individuals who complete a Master of Social Work degree, and then obtain licensure in their respective states are licensed clinical social workers (LCSW).
Like clinical psychologists, social workers are trained to provide guidance for those in emotional or mental distress. Social workers generally have a wide range of working knowledge for societal issues, including addiction, child welfare, schools, elder care, health access, and welfare services.
Social workers are also trained to offer psychotherapy. Their training usually includes 2 years of coursework and practical experience working at community agencies. They typically focus on helping clients find necessary resources — such as financial or social support — in their community.
Clinical psychologists, on the other hand, focus on how a patient’s mental health impacts behavior.
A licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) is trained in providing psychotherapy through the lens of family and relationship dynamics. An LMFT may help their clients focus on communication, coping skills, constructive problem-solving, and finding and maintaining trust within a relationship.
You do not need to be married or coupled in order to see an LMFT. Think of this therapist as someone who is specifically trained to help you interpersonally.
LMFTs must obtain a master’s degree. From there, they are required to complete a specific amount of fieldwork hours and pursue licensure in their state.
Whereas a psychotherapist establishes long-term care, a mental health counselor usually focuses on something more short term.
Additionally, licensed mental health counselors tend to focus on the individual client versus on their relationships, like an LMFT. However, they both can diagnose and treat mental health conditions.
Typically, a mental health counselor looks at present-day concerns (like job troubles, grief, a breakup, etc.) and addresses how they may be impacting your current emotional well-being. They’re often goal-oriented in their style, meaning that they’ll work with you to reach your specific personal milestones — emotional, mental, or professional.
But every counselor is different, so if you’re considering working with a mental health counselor, be sure to inquire about their personal style and technique to see if it’s a good match for you.
I’ve worked with a psychologist for the past 5 years and have found it to be a life changing experience. She has helped me better understand my behaviors, my family dynamics, and my insecurities. I implicitly trust her guidance, experience, and training.
But therapy is not a one-size-fits-all mentality. We will, naturally, all respond differently to each other and to a mental health professional’s skills. What has worked for me may not work as well for someone else — and vice versa.
To go back to my good ole gym metaphor, I encourage you to try out a few different personal trainers to see who works best for you. You may try a few sessions with a psychologist and discover that you’re looking for something a bit more short-term and goal-oriented.
Or, maybe after trying a mental health counselor, you’ll consider working on your relationship skills with an LMFT. Give it a go and see what — and who — works best for you.
Just remember, regardless of a mental health professional’s training, these therapists have one very important trait in common: they’re determined to help you become the strongest — mentally — that you can be.
Medically reviewed on November 13, 2023
Have thoughts or suggestions about this article? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the author