When looking for a counselor, asking a few key questions can be important. In most cases, you will want to start with a qualified professional (See list at bottom). A licensed mental health professional with clinical training is usually the most qualified to help with your issue. Clinically qualified mental health professionals tend to fall into these categories: professional counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists, as well as social workers. Each may have different letters after their names for their credentials, but all hold a state-issued license and possess several fundamental skills: they must have been accepted in an academic program and have completed an advanced degree with a focus on psychology and/or counseling, worked internships as part of their degree, passed a qualifying exam, and met extensive requirements in training and supervision, even after graduation from at least a master’s degree, and many have done research as well as additional training for a specialty.
It is similar to the title of “attorney”, which requires not only a license to practice law, but includes adherence to ethical code(s), ongoing professional education that started with completion of a doctoral program, and “passing the bar exam”, among numerous other requirements. Similar to attorneys with specialties in certain areas, licensed mental health professionals may work primarily with specific groups, such as children and/or teens, while others may have extra training for couples and/or families, while still others focus on specific needs, like trauma, OCD, or ADD. Licensed professionals clarify their credentials and specialties. Licensed mental health professionals (counselors or psychologists) may offer coaching or conflict resolution (commonly called mediation), and may carry additional credentials or certifications, but it is secondary to the fact they hold a professional license and an advanced degree.
With the emergence of coaching, registered mediators, and other kinds of certified services, as well as religious, faith-based, or charitable options, choosing the right provider can be confusing. Coaching applies a plan for focused change in a clearly defined area, often related to occupational performance or specific goals (weight loss, learning to meditate, etc.). Mediation refers to formal conflict resolution (usually related to legal proceedings). Both coaching and mediation (among other services) may offer certification (short-term specific training) but do not require a state-issued license. Mediators can apply to be “neutrals” in a state registry, thus specifically approved to work in the court system (www.godr.gov). Mediators are often used, or even required, in divorce cases. For this reason, attorneys are often mediators, but an attorney’s training and education goes significantly beyond what is required to be a mediator.
Faith-based counseling does not require a state-issued license. Instead, it acknowledges the long history of humans seeking refuge in religious practices or guidance from a spiritual leader. Pastoral counselors provide spiritual or religious advice to parishioners, as well as refer people to clinically trained therapists when indicated. Large faith groups often fund ministries for specific problems, like addiction. These are run as charitable organizations with the intention of serving the greater good under the tenets of faith. These organizations may often hire or utilize licensed professionals in order to provide qualified services to those they are trying to help. Still other services may come in the form of self-help groups organized in a community and run by non-professional members of the group (like Alcoholics Anonymous). A brief summary of licensed mental health professionals in Georgia would include:
- Professional Counselors, Social Workers, Marriage & Family Therapists: must obtain at least a master’s degree. Each licensed professional group has a primary focus, while all work with clients regarding improved mental health. Licensed Marriage & Family Therapists (LMFT), and Licensed Professional Counselors (LPC) specialize in the application of clinical theory and interventions in a therapy setting. Marriage & Family Therapists must have specific training in the areas of marriage/couples and family, including theory, to attain their license, while LPCs may offer a range of specialties in general private practice and may opt to carry additional certifications or credentials. Social workers (LSW/LCSW) often focus on resources, life skills, and counseling, and work in a variety of settings, including hospitals. Many counselors attain a doctoral degree related to their field, but it is not required.
- Psychologists: must obtain a doctorate degree (Ph.D.) and specialize in extensive psychological testing, assessment, and evaluation. Write in-depth psychological reports that explain diagnoses and psychological test results. Reports often include recommendations. May also choose to conduct talk therapy sessions for their patients or pursue certain specialties.
- Psychiatrists: medical doctors with a psychiatric specialty. As M.D.’s, they prescribe medication. Must graduate from medical school with additional work in psychology. Specialize in the prescription of psychoactive medicine, which they understand to a greater degree than most other health professionals. Other licensed mental health professionals refer potential medication needs to a psychiatrist or medical doctor.
Because of their license and qualifications, the professionals above may apply to be on insurance panels, i.e. they “accept insurance” for reimbursement of approved treatment. They may, however, decline participation in managed care models and therefore be self-pay only (“private pay”). Many counselors or social workers offer sliding scale for financial hardship but are not required to do so.
*Information provided above is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal or medical advice, nor constitute any guarantees. Statements are illustrative and intended to emphasize the need for qualified care. Errors related to statements about specific profession(s) are unintentional.*