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Choosing a Therapist

Some points to keep in mind:

*It is important to choose a therapist who is a good match with you. This is a very personal decision. Even the most professionally respected therapist in the world will not be a good match for everyone.

*Check with your insurance company to see which providers are covered under your plan; also check with therapists and local mental health agencies about reduced or sliding scale fees

*make sure your therapist or mental health care provider is licensed to practice in your state or country. If you are seeing a psychiatrist, you may want to make sure that they are board certified in Psychiatry. Please remember that anyone can call themselves a counselor, but it does not mean that they are necessarily qualified.

*ask about areas of expertise or additional training or certification past their initial degree- this is especially important for those practitioners with a Master's degree or lower

*other things to consider: personal qualities of the person (such as age and sex, years of experience, etc.) and his or her practice, such as office hours, session length (45 min.-1 hr. are standard), and location (in an office building or at the practitioner's home)

It is generally a good idea to interview more than one therapist or counselor on the phone or in person before making a final decision. Many will offer a free initial consultation. Go into the consultation with a list of questions you would like to ask.

Alphabet soup defined:

MA/MS - Master of Art/Science- usually 1 to 3 years of post-graduate (after a Bachelor's degree) study, including an internship if the degree is in a counseling area, and the therapist or counselor is aiming for licensure.  Once licensed, the letters LPC (licensed professional counselor) may also appear after their name in some U.S. states.

Ph.D. literally stands for "Doctor of Philosophy", although it may apply to many different fields of study. Those who have attained a Ph.D. in Psychology (in counseling areas) have undertaken 5 or more years of post-graduate study. They are generally prepared for careers as researchers, professors, and therapists (clinicians). As a graduate student, they either devote equal amounts of time developing skills in these three areas, or focus more on research and teaching with minimal clinical training.

Psy.D. stands for "Doctor of Psychology" and is a professional psychology degree requiring about 5 or more years of full-time post-graduate study. In contrast to the Ph.D., the main focus of the Psy.D. is on developing clinical skills, with Psy.D. candidates often logging more hours of clinical training than any of the other clinical/counseling degrees. Psy.D. programs mainly train their candidates for careers as doctoral-level therapists (clinicians), with research and teaching taking secondary roles. 

The degrees above may be earned in the following areas:

Clinical Psychology - focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders, though clinical psychologists have a wide range of training

Counseling Psychology - similar to Clinical, but usually deals with healthier individuals, and counseling psychologists may be more involved in community, minority, or vocational issues

School Psychology (Ph.D., Psy.D. or Ed.D. at the doctoral level) - focuses on aiding teachers, parents and students with learning, behaviorial, or emotional problems in educational settings

Marriage and Family Counselor (MFC) or Marriage, Family and Child Counselor (MFCC) - usually a Master's level degree with state specific licensure; counselors are mainly trained in dealing
with family, marital and parent-child conflicts and problems

Please note that in the therapeutic world, the term "Psychologist" is a legally licensed title usually limited to those with a doctoral degree in Psychology. Psychologists are the most qualified to conduct psychological testing and assessment. All other practitioners can be legally licensed as counselors.

Other Practitioners and Degrees

MD stands for "medical doctor". These practitioners have attended medical school, exactly like family physicians or any other medical doctor. After medical school and internship, they receive training in Psychiatry for an average of 3 years. This training is focused on understanding the biological components and medical management of Psychiatric or Mental Disorders. They may work in hospitals or in private practice. For most people, they do not provide therapy, but rather work in conjunction with a therapist to determine appropriate diagnosis and medication. Other health professionals (such as a family physician) can also dispense psychiatric medication, but have not received the same level of training as Psychiatrists.

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners (PNP or PNPMH) have received a Master's Degree and can also prescribe most psychiatric medications and deliver counseling services.

Social Workers (LCSW, CSW, MSW) - Their focus is usually on helping healthy individuals cope with current, time-limited problems. Traditionally, they are not concerned about the cause of a current problem, but that there IS a problem. An LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker and has received some training in helping people with emotional or mental difficulties. A CSW or MSW has not necessarily received training in therapeutic techniques, and it is usually a good idea to specifically ask about their training, licensure as a counselor, or area of expertise if they are offering counseling services.

CADC (Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor) or CAC (Certified Alcohol Counselor) - These counselors have received basic counseling skills focused on aiding people with alcohol and/or drug problems. They may also help in efforts to educate communities and schools about substance abuse.

CPC (Certified Pastoral Counselor) - These men have received a traditional Masters or Doctoral level education in a counseling area, and have also attended three years of seminary.  Counselors can also be Certified Christian Counselors. Both types of counselors incorporate their religious (Christian) beliefs into the therapy process, and have met certain criteria for certification. They may work in private practice, for Churches, or for community centers.

Different Approaches

Therapists differ in their approach to therapy. Here are a few very simplified definitions of the most popular orientations.  A therapist's approach is considered eclectic if they implement more than one approach.

psychoanalytic - deals with bringing unconscious feelings and conflicts to a conscious level; often involves understanding and identifying issues in one's past as a way to understand one's present problems

cognitive-behavioral - focuses on identifying and changing one's thoughts and feelings to positively affect behavior

behavioral - focuses on current issues affecting behavior; words and techniques such as modeling, reinforcement, and behavioral modification are associated with this approach

humanistic - focuses on the present, and believes in a client's developed self-acceptance as the path through which he or she becomes able to solve his or her own problems