What is their training?
A licensed psychotherapist is a master’s level clinician who has graduated with an M.A. from a program in clinical counseling, psychology or an M.S.W. (masters in social work). These programs are often two additional years beyond a college degree and focus on mental health. After completing coursework and practical experience, a clinician graduates and can begin to pursue supervised work experience. After one to two years of supervised clinical hours, this clinician is able to obtain a license, either an LPC (licensed professional counselor) or LCSW (licensed clinical social worker). These clinicians, like psychologists, are licensed to do psychotherapy with children, teens, adults who have been diagnosed with mental health conditions. These clinicians cannot call themselves “doctor.”
To become licensed, this clinician must meet the state standards for supervised work experience, complete an ethical standards test, go through various paperwork processes documenting their practical experience and take an exam. Each state has different requirements to obtain and maintain a license. Each state requires an LPC or LCSW clinician to take and pass an examination. Once a clinician has gone through this process, he or she is granted a license that is regulated by the state. Most states require biannual professional development and renewal of licensure.
When you need this professional, what do they do?
A psychotherapist can provide treatment for mental health conditions. If you already have a diagnosis like Autism Spectrum Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), etc., you can seek a psychotherapist with expertise in treating that condition. A psychotherapist can help guide you to other services and supports for your child.
Many psychotherapists work with clients using behavioral techniques, cognitive-behavioral techniques, play therapy, mindfulness and other tools and strategies. Behavioral techniques are ways to increase desired behavior or decrease undesired behavior. These techniques are often concrete strategies that involve some self-monitoring and reinforcement. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) takes into account the way that our thoughts influence behaviors. Roleplays, coping strategies, and techniques to increase cognitive and emotional awareness can help children and adults make strides in social skills, coping with emotions, etc. CBT has a lot of research to support its use with children, and it is a widely accepted method of treatment for anxiety and depression as well as Autism Spectrum Disorders. Play therapy addresses emotional themes through play and can be good for very young children, especially those who have experienced loss or trauma. Mindfulness practice includes noticing one’s thoughts and letting them be experienced. Mindfulness includes relaxation, meditation and breathing to relax the mind and body.
Can they diagnose?
A psychotherapist is licensed to treat mental health conditions. In order to file with an insurance company, he or she must provide a diagnostic code. So yes, this person can provide a diagnosis, but he or she generally is not trained in psychological or neuropsychological assessment. Often, your psychotherapist will refer you to a psychologist if the diagnosis is in question.
For example, a primary care doctor may utilize rating scales to diagnose ADHD. He or she might have you answer questions, and he might observe your child. This information may lead to a diagnosis. This diagnosis did not involve actual assessment of your child’s attention. The medical doctor may refer you to a psychotherapist who treats ADHD to work with you and your child. In this scenario, you have a diagnosis but no formalized assessment to confirm this diagnosis. Many times, psychotherapists who suspect there could be more going on with your child will refer you for an evaluation. An evaluation is a great synthesis of data that you can then take back to your psychotherapist to help guide treatment. It also may help to determine whether you are seeing a therapist with the right expertise.
Often psychotherapists are part of an integrated practice and work side by side with psychologists. The psychologist does the diagnosis, and the psychotherapist can then provide therapeutic support. A psychotherapist who is in training to be a psychologist will often be part of an assessment team and will administer standardized assessment measures under the supervision of a licensed psychologist. Very often, clinicians pursue a master’s degree in psychology before going on to a PhD program. It is quite possible that you will find master’s level clinicians as a part of the assessment team should you pursue a diagnostic evaluation.
What they do not do
Psychotherapists are not Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapists unless they have that credential and training as well. They do not do occupational therapy or therapy for speech articulation disorders. They usually have areas of specialty for therapy and usually do not do assessment independently. A psychotherapist cannot provide you with a comprehensive psychological evaluation. Learn about the clinician’s or the practice’s areas of specialty before you go in for a consultation to be sure you are getting the best fit.
How to find one
This aspect can be challenging. Your insurance company keeps a list of covered providers in your area. That list may not specify what the psychotherapists specialize in—e.g., therapy, evaluation, children, adults, ADHD, or Autism. You will have to call or visit the website to learn more about each provider. The website will note “LPC” or “LCSW” after the person’s name. Often your pediatrician can provide you with a few names of organizations that specialize in your area of concern. Search for a parent group via the “parent to parent” website or a known website with authenticity like “the autism society of Baltimore” or “CHADD- children and adults with attention deficit disorder.” Visit our ever-growing provider list to look for a provider in your area. If you are googling to find a clinician, look carefully for that licensure information. Search the provider on your state licensing board website to verify their license, and see if there is disciplinary action against them. Look at the provider’s areas of specialty and age of clients served.