Decoding the Mental Health Credential Alphabet Soup

alphabet soup

Trying to find a therapist who will be a good fit for you can be a daunting process!

I wrote a blog post to help make this process a little less scary — The Beginner’s Guide to Finding the Right Therapist.

In it, I promised to dedicate an entire separate blog post decoding the alphabet soup that is mental health professionals’ many, many credentials! (Because there are quite a lot.) So what exactly do all those letters mean? How can you use these letters in choosing your future therapist? I’m here to HELP! 

I’ve split up the different alphabet soups into 3 different “bowls”:

  • Education
  • Licensure
  • Certifications & Specializations


alphabet soup1

MA – “Master of Arts” degree, typically reflecting at least 2-3 years of post-bachelor’s degree study.

MS – “Master of Science” degree

MEd – “Master of Education” degree

MC – “Master of Counseling” degree

MSW – “Master of Social Work” degree

It’s important to note that it doesn’t necessarily matter which type of master’s degree is held by the therapist, as long as they have some sort of post-bachelor’s degree (master’s or doctoral) in a helping field (e.g., counseling, mental health, marriage & family therapy, counselor education, psychology, social work). Some of the degrees involve more clinical training and different types of coursework than others. Don’t be afraid to ask them about their coursework and training experiences!

PhD – “Doctorate of Philosophy” degree, typically reflecting at least 3-7 years of post-bachelor’s study with an emphasis on research.

EdD – “Doctorate of Education” degree

PsyD – “Doctorate of Psychology” degree (less emphasis on research)

MD – “Doctorate of Medicine” degree, meaning the person has completed 4 years of medical school after receiving a bachelor’s degree. If being advertised as a mental health professional, the MD should have completed a residency in psychiatry (additional 4 years), and be a board-certified psychiatrist. Most psychiatrists prescribe medication, and some also offer therapy.

If a therapist is advertising a doctorate degree, it is an ethical obligation that the degrees earned be from mental health or related fields. For example, a therapist could have an MA degree in counselor education and a PhD in religious studies. This therapist is ethically only allowed to “advertise” the MA degree with regard to therapy, since the PhD degree is not of a mental health profession.

Again, it doesn’t necessarily matter which type of doctorate degree is held, as long as it is related to MH. Also, a doctorate degree is not necessary in order to conduct therapy; it demonstrates further dedication to research in the MH field, training of future mental health professionals, and advanced knowledge. However, there are plenty of competent and qualified MH professionals who hold master’s degrees.


alphabet soup2

Therapists are able to legally practice counseling with just a master’s degree, but most clinicians take the extra step towards licensure, which is a way to show competency and legitimacy as a MH professional (and typically earn higher pay). Licensure denotes post-master’s degree training under the supervision of a seasoned clinician, and the passing of an extensive licensure exam. 

LPC/LMHC/LCPC – “Licensed Professional Counselor” / “Licensed Mental Health Counselor” / Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor”. These basically mean the same thing — licensure as a professional mental health counselor — but the specific lettering and names differ by the state the therapist is licensed in. For example, Florida utilizes the LMHC credential while Georgia utilizes the LPC credential.

LMFT – “Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist”. LMFTs are also trained & qualified to treat individuals!

LP – “Licensed Psychologist”. Requires a doctorate in psychology, testing, and supervised clinical hours.

LCSW – “Licensed Clinical Social Worker”

With the exception of licensed psychologists, the licensure process typically takes at least 2 years of training. During these 2 years, therapists will note that they are working towards licensure and are an “intern” of the state by using the following credentials:

APC/RMHCI – “Associate Professional Counselor” / “Registered Mental Health Counselor Intern”

RMFT – “Registered Marriage & Family Therapist Intern”

RCSWI – “Registered Clinical Social Worker Intern”

Interns are under the supervision of a qualified supervisor and will typically discuss what this process means for clients in or before the initial session.

Certifications & Specializations

alphabet soup3

Certifications and Specializations are completely optional for practicing therapy. They simply give the therapist the opportunity to display competence in working with a specific population or issue, or show that they have “gone the extra mile”.

NCC – “National Certified Counselor”. This is a nationwide credential, noting that the recipient has completed a master’s degree in a MH-related field, and taken and passed the “National Counselor Examination” which touches on topics relevant to the national standards/accreditation for the field of counseling. It is recognized by all 50 states.

NCAC I, NCAC II, MAC – “National Certified Addiction Counselor” I & II, and “Master Addiction Counselor”. This is a national certification showing, you guessed it, expertise in working with clients who struggle with addiction, with MAC being the highest credential. The CAC, or Certified Addiction Counselor, is the state-run certification for showing addictions expertise.

RPT – “Registered Play Therapist”. RPTs utilize an approach called Play Therapy in working with their clients, most children and adolescents (although adults can benefit from play therapy, too!)

CCC – “Certified Career Counselor”, for those who work primarily with clients whose presenting concerns involve career and occupational issues.

If you are struggling with a specific issue captured by one of the above specializations, it is your best bet to seek out these therapists for counseling. They have completed extra training, supervision, and potentially testing in order to show competency in working with these specific issues. However, if they do not have these credentials, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re incapable of treating you. It’s important to ask potential therapists about their experience in working with your specific concerns prior to committing to begin therapy with them. 

Whichever mental health professional you decide to contact, know that asking about their education, licensure, and certification/specialization credentials is a completely reasonable step in your decision-making process. They should be able to readily inform you of their credentials and be able to explain to you in plain, understandable words what they mean. If a therapist is unwilling or unclear about what their credentials mean, that may be a red flag.

I hope this helped in making sense of the alphabet soup that is mental health professionals’ credentials! As it is nearly impossible to create a comprehensive list, this should more than suffice in getting you started.

Feel free to comment or pose further questions below!

Be well.♥


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4 thoughts on “Decoding the Mental Health Credential Alphabet Soup

  1. Pingback: The Beginner’s Guide to Finding the Right Therapist – Counselor Ashlei

  2. Pingback: What to Expect From Your First Therapy Session + 3 Tips – Counselor Ashlei

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