The number of different degrees that allow people to practice therapy may confuse a lot of people looking for counselors. You may note ads for therapy from people who are psychiatrists, psychologists, marriage and family therapists (MFT), licensed clinical social workers (LCSW), or MFCCs — marriage, family, and child counselors. Whether or not one type better than the other is a highly debatable point, and it may serve you better to see a psychologist or MFT depending upon your needs.
A few distinctions can be made between degrees in psychology and degrees that result in a MFT. A psychologist receives a PhD, and has more education than an MFT who receives a master’s degree. This does not mean that greater education makes the psychologist automatically more competent than the MFT. Some of the education for those receiving a PhD in psychology may focus on clinical work, learning to administer tests to evaluate people for learning or cognitive disorders, and using the scientific method to test and evaluate specific functions of human and/or animal brains. This is not therapy focused, as is much of the MFT degree. Both fields must practice a certain amount of hours of supervised therapy prior to receiving licensure.
Psychologists are often specially trained to administer behavioral and learning tests. Some, like neuropsychologists, specialize in child and adolescent development and diagnosis of learning disabilities like autism spectrum disorder. An MFT or LCSW can administer some standardized tests, if he or she has received the appropriate training; in other cases, the counselor may refer a patient to a neuropsychologist for testing.
Other times, psychologists are mainly interested in practicing therapy. In this case they may study a particular school of therapy, but graduation requirements may also have them studying things outside of their interest. Some psychologists function as school counselors and head programs to administer individualized education plans (IEPs) or special services to students. As such, they may not practice therapy at all.
If you are not seeing a person for a learning problem, then either a counseling psychologist or MFT may be equally equipped to provide therapy. The main issue is not so much what degrees the person holds, though they should be licensed to practice therapy. Instead, your main consideration should be how comfortable you feel with a particular therapist.
If you are seeing a therapist and need to take medication for your condition, you may also want to consider whether seeing a psychiatrist who offers counseling makes more sense than seeing a counselor who can't prescribe medications. Psychologists, MFTs, MFCCs, and LCSWs cannot prescribe medications, and a lack of communication between your psychiatrist and therapist can cause problems. From a purely practical perspective, a psychiatrist, since he or she holds a medical degree, may come under different insurance laws, and you may be able to see a psychiatrist more often, and for smaller co-payments than you can see other types of counselors.
While you are trying to choose a therapist, you should look at the practical situation of your counseling needs, your comfort with the therapist, and the degree to which the therapist has experience in the type of counseling you want or need. If you're looking for a therapist for a child, you may want to know that the counselor, psychologist or otherwise, has experience with children; not all therapists are equally adept in this field. When you want to pursue a certain type of therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or Jungian therapy, you'd look for people who have studied these things extensively and practiced them.
You may require some specialization or extra practice in other things, like counseling the children of alcoholics, providing family counseling, or focusing on counseling to couples. Some therapists see a diverse group of patients and others tend to work in one area only. It's okay to ask a lot of questions in preliminary visits to a therapist to gauge how well his or her experience fits with your needs. In most cases, however, you should feel a sense of comfort with the psychologist or any other therapist you plan to use. Without some trust, it can be hard to be honest, and failure to be honest in therapy may not help you resolve the problems you would like to work on.