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Is this Therapist a Well-Trained Professional or Unqualified Hack?

_DSC5947I once met an art therapist who was providing individual therapy for PTSD and had just learned what a flashback was—from the client she was treating. Yet therapist can also mean licensed clinician with years of training and supervision. Meanwhile a good friend of mine just became a coach after years of rigorous coursework and consultation—and this on top of the fact that she’s a licensed professional counselor. (Denver peeps check her out). But there are other life coaches with only a few hours of training. Obviously, “therapist” and “coach” can mean a lot of different things. Here’s your guide to sorting out the highly trained professionals from the unqualified hacks (or to prevent you from accidentally paying money to a hack-creating organization when you’re trying to become a qualified professional!).

Certificates, Accreditations and Licenses, Oh My! What Does This Stuff Mean?

A certificate is a thing that says someone completed a training program, which can be any length and provided by any person or organization. You can present in class and then give your peers a certificate that they trained in the topic of your presentation. Or a certificate can be quite prestigious. I still have mine from the International Committee of the Red Cross, that says I completed the Health Emergencies in Large Populations training at Johns Hopkins.

How to tell? Ask what organization provided it (“national,” “international,” and “American” in the name are good signs) and how many hours of training were required. I’ll say 30 hours is the minimum needed to claim any kind of expertise in something.

Certifications or accreditation are provided by organizations (e.g. my EMDR certification is given to me by EMDRIA, the only organization that can certify someone in EMDR) and are good anywhere in the United States.

Many organizations will only certify people who have, or are eligible, to practice independent clinical work. Play therapists, for example, must be licensed clinicians, so licensed clinical social workers, licensed personal counselors, licensed marriage and family therapists, psychologists, etc. Same with EMDR therapists.

But some are different. In most states art therapists don’t need a license to practice. Once they have received their certification from the American Art Therapy Association, they are qualified to work independently. Fortunately, this is changing and more programs are incorporating coursework related to counseling (and hopefully mental health) into their programs and more art therapists are being trained and licensed as Qualified Mental Health Professionals.

A license is given to clinicians by their state (or district or territory) to practice. Social workers, counselors, psychologists, nurses, doctors all have to get permission to practice where they live. This is challenging in DC, since Virginia, Maryland and DC refuse to acknowledge the other states’ licenses even though they are clustered together in an area smaller than the size of Harris County, where Houston, my hometown, is located. It’s disorienting that on my daily jog, I cross a border from not being qualified to practice, to being qualified, then back. Most states have similar qualifications for the disciplines, but some are more strict than others. Neither Maryland nor Virginia, for example, feel that my clinical social work license from North Carolina is adequate and require several years (3 for VA, 5 for MD) of full-time clinical practice after I was already licensed to practice independently before I can transfer that license to their state.

Requiring a license to practice is a good thing for the profession. If I act unethically, it is quite easy for a client to file a complaint to the DC licensing board. The board will then investigate the claim and decide whether I need to receive some sort of sanction. This is then listed on the website and anyone can see it. The DC licensing board has no incentive to protect the image of social work by hiding how many clinicians have been disciplined or to not discipline me at all, and ideally they will be objective. Also, masters-level clinicians can have a hard time getting respect as knowledgeable professionals, so it helps when we’re all held to same high standards.

Coaching is not title-protected and anyone can call themselves a coach (this means you!). There are a lot of different certificates for coaches, some of which are awarded after a day or a weekend, whereas others are a lot more rigorous. The International Coach Federation will provide accreditation to programs that meet its requirements, so a good question to ask is, “is your training program certified by ICF?”

Is this Therapist a Well-Trained Professional or Unqualified Hack?

Sara Staggs, LICSW, MPH

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APA Reference
Staggs, S. (2015). Is this Therapist a Well-Trained Professional or Unqualified Hack?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 7 Oct 2015
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