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  • Christy George, LMFT

Finding the Right Therapist: With so many to choose from, what's the difference?

You have taken the brave first step of admitting some extra support from an outside, neutral party would be helpful. If only there was was a guide to finding that that special person you click with, who you can confide in, trust and who will ultimately help guide you to where you want to be in life, psychologically speaking, of course. Fret no more, here is a basic guide to navigating the sea of therapists who await your call.

Looking beyond cost and insurance, your primary task should be making sure you feel comfortable with the therapist, their style of practice and their specialty. Making sure you can afford the person you choose is important, but not the only factor in picking that person you’re going to build an important relationship with. Ask yourself questions like: What type of person do I like to spend time with? What do I need to feel comfortable with someone? What type of problem do I want to have addressed? What motivates me? How do I like to be treated? And What do I need from a support person?

Many people also look at the type of education the therapist has both in terms of school they attended and type of degree received. This can be a misleading indicator. People often think the higher ranked the school the better the therapist, or a PhD verses a Masters level person is automatically better, or more likely to be covered by insurance. While a good formal education is valuable, it does not predict how good of a therapist a person will be. It is good to ask about the therapist’s internship experience, and personal growth. Only a small amount of what makes a good therapist comes from the school they attend, because it is a profession that relies on a person’s experience. Simply put, there are some things you can’t learn in a book alone. A large portion of what is actually learned comes from on the job experience, practice and good supervision. Inquire what additional training they have received beyond their graduate or PhD program. Many people specialize in certain areas and obtain significant, additional training and certification in those areas giving them unique expertise.

It is important to recognize, a therapist who has dealt with their own problems is much more valuable to you than one who has not. Psychotherapy is one career where everything the therapist has done and everything they are is relevant to their practice. Life experience matters, and the ability of the person to be able to reflect upon that experience with awareness and neutrality is essential to help others and not harm them. A good therapist has a high level of self awareness, insight and the ability to regulate their thoughts and emotions. They must be able to tell the difference between their personal, internal process verses their authentic reactions to what is shared by the client, and how those reactions with affect the client. The therapist should be able to recognize what their thoughts and feelings are, are separate from what the client may need. The therapist must be able to act as a true neutral party for the benefit of the client. A therapist who has not done their own work, so to speak, can inadvertently and unconsciously work through their own problems with clients unwittingly causing damage and detriment to those clients. Many people who have had bad therapeutic experience can attest to this.

Lastly, it is helpful to understand what the different types of therapists are, and what their scope of practice is. Whether you are looking for someone to give you support, or seeking help with a more serious problem, here is a basic list of some of the mental health professionals you might encounter in your search.


Psychiatrists are medical doctors specially trained to administer psychiatric medication. Typically, modern psychiatrists do not provide psychotherapy.


The American Psychological Association reports Psychologists receive a PhD focusing on the study of psychology, research and assessment, and 4-6 years of supervised clinical practice.. Psychologists are trained to used evidenced based practices to treat various mental health issues. Psychologists can specialize in clinical treatment, counseling, Marriage and Family Therapy, Children, and Criminal Psychology or Forensic Psychology. One primary difference between Psychologists and other licensed mental health providers is they can perform research, and a higher level of assessments that other therapists cannot do.

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Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT or LMFT)

According to the American Association of Marriage Family Therapists, “Marriage and Family Therapists (MFT)s are metal health professionals trained in psychotherapy and family systems, and licensed to diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorder within the context of marriage, couples and family systems...They evaluate and treat mental and emotional disorder, other health and behavioral problems, and address a wide array of relationship issues.” Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists complete a two year master’s degree (M.A. or M.S.) with emphasis in clinical diagnostics, child, marriage and family therapy. The basic training of MFTs focuses on how a person’s impairment affects their relationships, and how relationships with others can be improved through treatment. In the state of California, they must complete 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience, post graduate work with clients before taking and passing two written examinations for license.

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Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

Per the California Board of Behavioral Sciences: “The practice of clinical social work is defined as a service in which a special knowledge of social resources, human capabilities, and the part that unconscious motivation plays in determining behavior, is directed at helping people to achieve more adequate, satisfying, and productive social adjustments. The application of social work principles and methods includes, but is not restricted to, counseling and using applied psychotherapy of a nonmedical nature with individuals, families, or groups; providing information and referral services; providing or arranging for the provision of social services; explaining or interpreting the psychosocial aspects in the situations of individuals, families, or groups; helping communities to organize, to provide, or to improve social or health services; or doing research related to social work.” LCSWs complete a 2 year graduate program, and must complete 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience post graduate work before taking two written examinations for license.

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Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC)

Similar to MFT’s and LCSW’s LPCC’s are clinically trained to provided mental health counseling and assessment for a variety of issues. Two significant differences are, LPCCs receive training in career counseling, and do not receive formal training in marital, family, child or relationship counseling. Per the California Board of Behavioral Sciences, LPCCs must complete additional coursework in these areas and/or complete clinical work supervised by an MFT to be qualified to provide couples or family counseling services. LPCCs complete a 2 year graduate training program, and 2,000 hours of supervised, clinical experience post graduation before passing examination for license. For more information:

Licensed Educational Psychologist (LEP)

The California Board of Behavioral Sciences defines “The practice of educational psychology is the performance of any of the following professional functions pertaining to academic learning processes or the education system or both: (a)Educational evaluation. (b) Diagnosis of psychological disorders related to academic learning processes. (c) Administration of diagnostic tests related to academic learning processes including tests of academic ability, learning patterns, achievement, motivation, and personality factors. (d) Interpretation of diagnostic tests related to academic learning processes including tests of academic ability, learning patterns, achievement, motivation, and personality factors. (e) Providing psychological counseling for individuals, groups, and families. (f) Consultation with other educators and parents on issues of social development and behavioral and academic difficulties. (g) Conducting psychoeducational assessments for the purposes of identifying special needs. (h) Developing treatment programs and strategies to address problems of adjustment. (i) Coordinating intervention strategies for management of individual crises.” LEP’s may earn a Bachleor’s, Master’s or PhD. in psychology, school psychology, counseling or school counseling and complete 3 years of supervised experience as a school psychologist before being eligible to take the license examination.

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