What is a Therapist?

Many people who I see for treatment refer to me as their “therapist” and I’m fine with that. They also use the word interchangeably with “counselor” and “psychologist”, which I’m also fine with, especially since I am a psychologist. But, really, is there a difference? And if so, what is it?

Certain professions are regulated by the state in order to protect the public. That way, you know that if someone says they are a doctor, accountant or psychologist, for examples, you can trust that they have met the requirements set by the state to practice that profession.

In Pennsylvania, the title of “psychologist” is protected by law. In other words, only those people licensed as “psychologists” can refer to themselves as such. All psychologists are licensed (by the Department of State) as “psychologists” only – not “clinical psychologist” or “counseling psychologist”, but psychologists typically practice in the area in which they are trained and competent. This law, and others like it, is designed to protect the general public from untrained individuals presenting themselves as having the training and experience consistent with the services they provide. Unfortunately, unlicensed professionals can offer “psychological services” and still be within the law, since many things are psychological. While there is nothing wrong with that, it’s important that the general public understands that a person offering psychological services might not be a psychologist. Psychologists who entered into their training after 1993 are required to have a doctoral degree, one year of supervised experience after receiving their doctorate and pass national and state examinations.

School psychologists are not licensed psychologists (I know – It’s confusing!). Instead, they are certified as Educational Specialists by the PA Department of Education. Although school psychologists are not licensed, they are allowed to use the term “psychologist” in their title, as provided by an exemption in the licensing law. However, school psychologists are not licensed to practice outside of the schools, unless they limit their practice to activities related to school (emphasis added) psychology and are simultaneously employed as a school psychologist in an educational setting.

“Counselor” is not a protected title in Pennsylvania, but there are “Licensed Professional Counselors” who are licensed by the state to provide mental health services. Similarly, social workers are also licensed in Pennsylvania. Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW’s) are licensed to provide a wide range of counseling services. Both of these professions require a Master’s Degree as well as supervised training and a passing grade on the licensing examination.

In contrast, the title of “therapist” does not indicate any kind of professional training (although there might be some) and is not a title licensed by the state. Anyone – even if they have no mental health education, training or experience – can hang a sign outside of their office that says “therapist” or even “psychotherapist” and not be in violation of the law, because these titles are not regulated by law. In these situations, it is critical that the consumer be careful with whom they seek treatment.

In summary, it is perfectly appropriate and important for you to ask your “therapist” about their training, including licensure and/or certification. While most people don’t, I’m always happy when someone asks! You can also verify a license in Pennsylvania by going to the website, http://www.licensepa.state.pa.us and search for the person by name or profession. This site will tell you if a license is active, when it was first issued and if there are any disciplinary actions listed.

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