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Just because people are titled “counselor” doesn’t necessarily mean they’re properly trained. Look for counselors who are licensed by the state in which they practice. There are a number of different licenses, degrees, levels of training, and certifications represented among the ranks of the hundreds of thousands of mental health professionals practicing across the country. Here’s a quick rundown of the most common variations on the theme:

Psychiatrist: A medical doctor (MD) who specializes in diagnosing physiologically based mental health problems and prescribing appropriate medications.

Psychologist: A clinician who holds either a PhD, PsyD or EdD degree in the field of psychology or education (four or more years of post-graduate study). Licensed psychologists assess mental health issues, diagnose specific problems, and devise treatments designed to meet the client’s need. Most are not qualified to prescribe medications, but a few states allow psychologists with special training to prescribe a limited number of psychiatric medications.

Master’s Level Therapists: There are at least three groups of practitioners that fall under this heading: licensed professional counselors (LPC), licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFT), and licensed clinical social workers (LCSW). Licensing requirements and procedures as well as exact titles may vary from state to state.

School Psychologist: A special category of Master’s Level Therapist associated exclusively with the educational system, school psychologists tend to specialize in the assessment and treatment of learning disabilities and other issues related to a child’s performance in the classroom.

Certified Addictions Counselor (CAC) Level I, II, and III: These are counselors who specialize in the treatment of substance abuse (three different levels of certification).

Pastoral Counselor: Clergy members who advise individuals concerning specific psychological, emotional, or spiritual needs, pastoral counselors may or may not have any formal training, credentials, or licensing in the field of psychology.

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