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  • Jessica Abegglen, LPC, NBCC

Therapy 101 : Defining Counseling


Therapy doesn't have to be scary. True, it isn't the easiest thing you will ever do, but the payoff is worth it - promise. I often hear a lot of the same comments or questions from clients who are new to therapy. I know when I am nervous or unsure, I ask questions - but not everyone is comfortable doing that. There is often a lot of confusion around terminology..what therapy really is...the difference between types of professionals...the list goes on. Its can make accessing mental health care seem unmanageable.

The goal of our next three posts is to offer some clarification around these confusing topics so whether you're the person who asks, or the person who avoids the unknown, you'll get a better understanding of what therapy is all about. We will be breaking down the different terminology used in the field, including the differences between professional titles, all those insurance terms, the clinical terminology you may come across, as well as the ins and outs of seeing a therapist in hopes that this clarifies many of the misconceptions and misunderstanding of therapy.

To start, below are a list of terms that often confuse clients (and even some of us!) followed by down to earth explanations and definitions. As someone who sees a counselor and IS a counselor, I have never understood why my profession has a tendency to use language that someone not educated in the field wouldn't understand.


  • PSYCHIATRIST - this is a professional who has a MEDICAL DOCTORATE DEGREE (MD) in psychiatry. He/she has extensive training is assessment (the evaluations/test used to help determine what some is struggling with) and diagnostics (defining what someone is struggling with) and is able to prescribe medication to support client's functioning. Though not across the board, most psychiatrist will practice in larger group practices (think "Psychology Center") or even mental health clinics in hospitals (think UW Behavioral Health Clinics). Some psychiatrists do offer "counseling" however most will manage a clients medications and suggest that they also see a therapist/counselor to support their mental health needs.

  • LICENSED PSYCHOLOGIST - this is a professional who has a PHILOSOPHY DOCTORATE (PhD) in psychology and is licensed by the state as a "Licensed Psycholgist". He/she has extensive training in assessment, diagnostics, and in depth training in an array counseling modalities (the type of counseling you receive). A psychologist can not prescribe or manage medication if he or she does not also have an MD. Most licensed psychologist see clients in large group practices, mental health clinics and hospitals.

  • LPC - LICENSED PROFESSIONAL COUNSELOR - this is a professional who has a license from the state to be a Professional Counselor. These can be professionals with either a PhD or a Masters degree and are required to have a certain type of education and have over 3000 hours of experience before they are able to be licensed. LPC's can work in all sorts of settings but are most often found in mental health clinics, group practices, and private practice (like Abegglen Counseling).

  • LPC-IT - LICENSED PROFESSIONAL COUNSELOR IN TRAINING - this is a professional who is in the process of acquiring their 3000 hours of training. An LPC-IT is also required to pass an extensive board examination and a "jurisprudence" exam (an exam making sure we are aware of the laws and ethics around counseling. These professional have already graduated with their PhD or MS and are under supervision while in training from a licensed counselor or psychologist.

  • LMFT - LICENSED MARRIAGE AND FAMILY THERAPIST - this is a professional who has a license from the state to practice psychotherapy. LMFTs are much like LPCs however their training focused more on looking at mental health issues within marriages, couples, and families. That does not mean they only see couples and family, it just means that the work you do with them may also focus on your relationship with other and how they may or not be impacting your mental health.

  • SAC - SUBSTANCE ABUSE COUNSELOR - this is a counselor who has special training in order to support those with a chemical dependency (i.e. an addiction). Typically these are individuals who also hold a broader license (like LPC or LMFT) who take additional course work and have additional training in order to be a SAC.

  • COUNSELOR/THERAPIST/COUNSELING/THERAPY - you'll notice I use these terms interchangeably. Though I am sure there are professional who can identify the minute difference between each term, for the sake of this blog, I will use these terms interchangeably, because in reality, they are close enough to be used that way. Sometimes you will also see the term "psychotherapist" used - a true licensed psychotherapist does have a slightly different training, degree, and license, however it is close enough to be used interchangeably with the terms counselor/therapist.

  • PATIENT/CLIENT - typically you will see the term "patient" used for individuals accessing care from those who have an MD or a PhD as it implies that medical intervention is needed. The term "client" is used to identify a person seeking mental health counseling (think talk therapy versus seeing a psychiatrist for medications).

There are countless other professionals in the field. This list is a glimpse into some of the terms used most often and focuses on professionals must often accessed by clients.

Ever wondered what all those insurance terms mean? As more and more people pay for mental health care with their insurance its important to understand all the terminology so you are not surprised by the cost of your share. And yes, we will even cover cost - sometimes the scariest part (and biggest barrier) to counseling. Next week you will hear from Anna who will break down all those confusing insurance terms!


"In any given moment we have two choices: to step forward into growth or to step back into safety" - Abraham Maslow

MANTRA: Everything I need is within me.


Have you had a great experience with mental health counseling? We would love to hear about it using the comment section below!

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[This article does not create a client-counselor relationship. This article is general counseling information and is not to be considered legal or medical advice. Please consult with your mental health professional before you rely on this information.]

[Yes, I am a licensed counselor, but I am not YOUR licensed counselor and this article does not create a client-counselor relationship. I am licensed to practice as a counselor in the state of WI and base my information on my general counseling education and general knowledge. This article is general counseling information and is not to be considered legal or medical advice. Please consult with your mental health professional before you rely on this information]

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