Good news! Standards are rising. Don't hold your breath though . . . despite more rules and regulations . . . it's a 'buyer-beware' jungle out there.
Here's why. . .
First of all, the terms counselor, therapist and psychotherapist are not regulated by law. This means anyone can put out a shingle and advertise with these terms. As far as I know this is allowed in most provinces and states.
Nonetheless, standards for the provision of health care are rising and counseling is no exception. This is reflected in the growing number of professional titles.
For example, when I was researching this article I came across several organizations in the process of changing their qualifications. This must be terribly confusing for the average consumer--it sure was for me.
I could see a neurofeedback therapist or a behaviour therapist. One could have a B.A. in psychology with a certificate course, and the other a doctorate in psychology registered with a Board of Examiners.
Only the letters after the name define which therapist is more qualified. (Keep in mind that a "qualified" practitioner may have the appropriate credentials but whether or not he or she has the requisite experience or expertise is another manner.)
Most counselors use professional designations conferred by an organization or association of their peers to indicate their level of education, experience and/or specialization.
Some of these organizations have stringent membership requirements while others do not. Typically, the educational designations are listed immediately after the counselor's name, followed by the professional credentials.
e.g. Dr. Susan LaCombe, Ed.D., R. Psych.
I have a doctorate in education (Ed.D.) and I am registered with the College of Psychologists of BC (R.Psych.).
e.g. Steve Milner M.A., L.M.F.T., N.C.C.
Steve has a Master's in Psychology (M.A.), a license in Marriage and Family Therapy (L.M.F.T.) and is a National Certified Counselor (N.C.C.).
e.g. Ms. Mariola Matcher M.S.W., R.S.W.
Mariola has a Master's in Social Work degree (M.S.W.) and is registered as a social worker (R.S.W.)
It's been my impression that most doctoral level therapists prefer the term psychotherapist or therapist to the term counselor in reference to their profession. But even here there is no consistency.
For instance, the term counselor is most often used by Master's level practitioners. But in any listing of therapists you could find a doctorate level counselor, or a Master's level psychologist. It's enough to make your head spin!1
Several titles in the USA are regulated by law. For example the Marriage and Family Therapist, several social worker licenses and licensed psychologist are all designations processed under legal statute.
The term psychologist is a designation regulated by law in both the USA and Canada; it's use depends on the specific laws of the province, state or country you reside in. In the USA psychologists who obtain and meet the criteria for licensure are referred to as Licensed Psychologists. In Canada, they're referred to as Registered Psychologists.
As I understand it, in some U.S.states (e.g. Virginia, Pennsylvania) practitioners who have a doctoral degree in psychology (or counseling or a related field) can use the term Psychologist to refer to their profession. However in other states, only psychologists who obtain licensure can refer to themselves as Psychologists (e.g. California).
Pretty much everywhere in Canada (as far as I know) has similar legislation as California. That is, doctoral level individuals with a degree in psychology can refer to themselves as a psychologist only when they are registered (i.e. licensed) with a regulatory body.
It will vary from state to state or province to province...you can call yourself a School Psychologist if you possess a Master's in School Psychology.
In Canada, there's an interesting anomaly. If you teach at a school of higher education can you can call yourself a psychologist even if you're not registered. You just can't say you're a registered psychologist.
Other professions that are regulated by law in Canada are psychiatric nurses and social workers. And in some states along with these two professions, mental health workers, certified counselors are also governed by statute.
Many full-time psychotherapists have not formally studied beyond the Master's level (i.e. went on to obtain credentials from a school of higher education.) Those who obtain a Doctorate degree often do so in order to have the option of supplementing their practice with research, teaching, writing or administrative work.
The exception is the Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology), a degree that focuses heavily on clinical practice. Most people who obtain a Psy.D. intend to do psychotherapy full-time.
Most practitioners first get a Master's degree which requires at least two years after the Bachelor's. Most Doctorate degrees then require at least four years after the Master's, and at least a one year internship or residency.
The following are the most common educational degrees held by psychotherapists:
M.D. - Doctor of Medicine This is the degree most common for psychiatrists (some have a Doctor of Osteopath or D.O.'s). However in some states and provinces M.D.'s are doing long-term counseling without obtaining a specialty in psychiatry.
Ph.D - Doctor of Philosophy This is the most common degree among psychologists. A Ph.D. can be in many areas but for those working as psychotherapists they usually specialize in Clinical Psychology.
Psy.D. - Doctor of Psychology This degree emphasizes clinical practice rather than research and operates under a "practitioner-scholar" rather than a "scientist-practitioner" model. Like other doctoral degrees, it requires completion of an original piece of research.
Ed.D. – Doctor of Education Schools of Eduation offer this degree. Counseling, School Psychology and Rehabilitation Counseling are the most common types.
D.Th. - Doctor of Theology (pastoral counseling)
D.Min. - Doctor of Ministry (pastoral counseling)
D.Div. - Doctor of Divinity (pastoral counseling)
D.S.W. - Doctor of Social Work
M.S.W. - Master of Social Work
D.Sc. - Doctor of Science
Only the Psy.D. designation refers specifically to psychology, but a Ph.D. or an Ed.D. can be acquired in several different fields e.g an Ed.D. in Administrative Studies.
One can get a Ph.D. in Physiology (something very far removed from psychology) yet still promote oneself as an "expert" in behaviour and relationships. Dr. Laura is probably perceived as a "real doctor" for example, yet she only has a Ph.D in physiology!
One can get a doctorate from an obscure school that has minimal standards. However, if a school is “Accredited” this means they have passed government standards. (It also means one can generally deduct the tuition.)
A Doctor of Education does not necessarily mean the holder knows about learning disabilities. I personally have an Ed.D. but I didn't take specialized courses so I know little about learning problems.
Just so you know:
M.A. – Master's Degree
M.Sc. - Master of Science
M.S.W. – Master of Social Work
M.Ed. – Master of Education
M.Div. – Master of Divinity
B.A. - Bachelor of Arts
B.Ed. - Bachelor of Education
B.S.W. - Bachelor of Social Work
B.Sc. - Bachelor of Science
LMFT - Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
LCSW - Licensed Clinical Social Worker
LCSW-R - Licensed Clinical Social Worker
LMSW - Licensed Master Social Worker
ACSW - Academy of Certified Social Workers
LIS - Licensed Independent Social Worker
LCS - Licensed Clinical Social Worker
LICSW - Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
LMA - Licensed Master's in Social Work - Advanced Clinical Practitioner
CSW - Clinical Social Worker
APRN - Advanced Practice Registered Nurses
RPN - Registered Psychiatric Nurse
LMHC - Licensed Mental Health Counselor
LPC - Licensed Professional Counselor
LPCC - Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor
RPC - Registered Professional Counsellor (Canadian)
NCC - National Certified Counselor
CCC – Canadian Certified Counsellor
RCC – Registered Clinical Counsellor (B.C.)
CGP - Certified Group Psychotherapist
CHT - Certified Hypnotherapist
ATR - Registered Art Therapist
CAC - Certified Addictions Counselor
CAP - Certified Addictions Professional
LAC - Licensed Addiction Counselor
CADC - Certified Alcholol and Drug Counselor
CATC - Certified Addiction Treatment Counselor
CCDC - Certified Chemical Dependency Counselor
SAP - Substance Abuse Professional
CRC - Certified Rehabilitation Counselor
CCRC - Canadian Certified Rehabilitation Counselor
RRP – Registered Rehabilitation Professional (Canadian)
R. Psych or C. Psych – Registered Psychologist (the 'C' stands for Certificate of Registration)
BCD - Board Certified Diplomate
DCSW - Diplomate in Clinical Social Work
FAACP - Fellow of the American Academy of Clinical Psychology
For Related Health Care Counselors please check our supplementary page.
As mentioned above, Psychologist is a legal designation and is regulated by the College of Psychologists in each province in Canada and in each State in the USA.
A counselor does not need credentials to have a listing in the Yellow Pages. Anyone can list their name under ‘Counselors’, ‘Marriage Counselors,’ and ‘Psychologists’ even if they lack appropriate training.
Super Pages (at least in Canada) won’t object if someone lists without actually being a registered psychologist. However the College of Psychologists will, and they will certainly send the legal beagles out if someone does!
1 As I understand it, all USA states require a minimum of a doctorate in order to become a licensed psychologist. However there are few Canadian provinces that still allow a Master's level candidate to apply for registration enabling them to use the term psychologist.
There are literally hundreds in both countries who have been grandfathered in i.e. they were licensed or registered when the requirements were lower. These practitioners offer years of experience to their clients.