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Finding a Mental Health Provider for Your Student, Part 1: What Do All the Letters Mean?

Rob Danzman, MS, NCC, LCMHC

Click here to read the companion article, "Finding a Mental Health Provider, Part 2: How to Get Your Student Started in Therapy" >

While searching for a counselor or therapist for your young adult, you will likely see a whole bunch of letters after someone's name. While it may seem confusing and maybe a bit meaningless, those letters are a means of determining that professional's minimal formal training and discipline.

Many licensing bodies require clinicians to list their degree (e.g., Masters, Doctorate or Medical Doctorate) and their license in order to accurately and transparently communicate their level of education to the public.

For example, I'm required in North Carolina and Indiana to list myself in any professional and public manner as Rob Danzman, MS, NCC, LCMHC. This means I have a Masters of Science (MS), I’m a Nationally Certified Counselor, and I am a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC).

Most licenses are administered by a state licensing board, which is where you can go to verify a therapist's license and file a complaint against a therapist if they did something wrong while working with you.

Here is a link in Indiana to verify my license. Just type my last name (Danzman) into the search box and click enter. You will see my license information pop up. These letters are evidence I’ve been trained and have enough experience to help clients struggling with mental health challenges.

Alphabet Soup

Unlike other professions like architects or plumbers, a significant range of professionals is allowed to serve clients. Here is a list of additional credentials you may see after someone's name and what they mean:

LPA – Licensed Psychological Associate

LCSW – Licensed Clinical Social Worker

LCAS – Licensed Clinical Addiction Specialist

LMHC – Licensed Mental Health Counselor

LCMHC – Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor

LPCA – Licensed Professional Counselor Associate

LMFT – Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

NCC – National Certified Counselor

RN – Registered Nurse

MS – Masters of Science

MA – Masters of Arts

MSW – Masters of Social Work

DSW – Doctorate of Social Work

Ph.D. – Doctorate of Philosophy

Psy.D – Doctorate of Psychology

Ed.D – Doctorate of Education

M.D. – Medical Doctor

D.O. – Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine

In my recent book (Insider’s Guide to Parenting: How to Solve Messy Problems and Build a Great Family), I go into excruciating detail on each of these, but for our purposes today, I highlight the most common credentials you need to know.


A psychiatrist is a physician (doctor of medicine [M.D.] or doctor of osteopathic medicine [D.O.]) who specializes in mental health and often attends residency for mental health care in addition to medical school.

This type of doctor may further specialize in child and adolescent, geriatric or addiction psychiatry. Psychiatrists are the only medical professionals I refer to for medication management since general practitioners and pediatricians are generally untrained in psychiatric medications.

A psychiatrist can perform the following, though nowadays they primarily prescribe medication:

  • Diagnose and treat mental health disorders
  • Provide psychological counseling (also called psychotherapy)
  • Prescribe medication


Psychologists are trained in psychology — a science that deals with thoughts, emotions and behaviors. Typically, a psychologist holds a doctoral degree (Ph.D., Psy.D., Ed.D.). A psychologist:

  • Can diagnose and treat several mental health disorders, providing psychological counseling in one-on-one or group settings
  • Can only prescribe medication in Louisiana, New Mexico, Illinois, Iowa and Idaho 
  • Primarily conducts psychological testing

Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse

A psychiatric mental health nurse (P.M.H.N.) is a registered nurse with training in mental health issues. A psychiatric-mental health advanced practice registered nurse (P.M.H.-A.P.R.N.) has at least a master's degree in psychiatric-mental health nursing.

Other types of advanced practice nurses able to provide mental health services include a clinical nurse specialist (C.N.S.), a certified nurse practitioner (C.N.P), or a doctorate of nursing practice (D.N.P.).

Mental health nurses:

  • Vary in the services they can offer, depending on their education, level of training, experience and state law
  • Can assess, diagnose and treat mental illnesses, depending on their education, training and experience
  • Can prescribe medication in some states if they're an advanced practice nurse

Physician Assistant

A certified physician assistant (P.A.-C.) practices medicine under the supervision of a physician. Physician assistants can specialize in psychiatry. These physician assistants can:

  • Diagnose and treat mental health disorders
  • Provide psychological counseling (also called psychotherapy)
  • Prescribe medication

Licensed Clinical Social Worker

If you prefer a social worker, look for a licensed clinical social worker (L.C.S.W.) with training and experience specifically in mental health. A licensed clinical social worker must have a master's degree in social work (M.S.W.), a Master of Science in social work (M.S.S.W.), or a doctorate in social work (D.S.W. or Ph.D.).

These social workers:

  • Provide assessment, psychological counseling and a range of other services depending on their licensing and training
  • Do not prescribe medication
  • May work with another provider who can prescribe medication if needed

Licensed Professional Counselor or Clinical Mental Health Counselor

Training required for a licensed professional counselor (L.P.C.) and (L.C.M.H.C.) varies slightly by state, but most have at least a master's degree with clinical experience, and some have a doctorate.

Licensed counselors focus primarily on individual and family therapy. These counselors:

  • Provide diagnoses and psychological counseling (psychotherapy) for a range of concerns
  • Do not prescribe medication
  • May work with another provider who can prescribe medication if needed

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Training required for licensed marriage and family therapist (L.M.F.T.) is a master’s degree or doctorate. Licensed marriage and family therapists have specialized training in working with couples and families.

Similar to LCSWs and LCMHCs, these therapists:

  • Provide diagnoses and psychological counseling (psychotherapy) 
  • Do not prescribe medication
  • May work with another provider who can prescribe medication if needed
Though a professional may have impressive credentials, the starting point of working with someone is rapport.

I’d take a professional with a master’s degree and great personality and communication skills over the most "accomplished" medical doctor.

When looking for a clinician, do your homework, verify their license, ask lots of questions, and determine if their personality will fit. These are deeply personal, intimate relationships, so I encourage clients to choose slowly and wisely. 

Rob Danzman, MS, NCC, LCMHC is a licensed clinical mental health counselor and Nationally Certified Counselor. He's author of The Insider's Guide to Parenting and holds a BA in Outdoor Leadership and an MS in Community Counseling with a focus on teen and college student anxiety, depression, substance use, and motivation issues. Rob lives, runs and mountain bikes in Bloomington, Indiana. Visit Motivate Counseling to learn more.
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