Answers to Consumer Questions
What is the difference between a registered
counselor, a certified counselor, an associate counselor and a licensed counselor?
In Washington State, anyone who practices as a counselor must be
certified or licensed by the state. The former
category "Registered Counselor" was abolished July 1, 2010. Persons wishing to do
counseling for a fee must be
certified or licensed in one of the recognized categories.
Brief History of
the Registered Counselor Category:
Back in the "dark ages"
before 1992, counselors were unregulated by the state.
counselors belonged to professional associations which at least
provided some basic codes of
ethics for participating counselors.
process of achieving licensure for counselors in Washington State was a
process. The first major breakthrough
occurred when the state set up a process and began to issue permits to be a: 1.
Certified Mental Health Counselor, 2. Certified Marriage and Family Therapist, and
3. Certified Social Worker.
The basic idea of creating a category "Registered
Counselors" was a good as a temporary measure--intended to "grandfather in" those counselors who had been practicing for
some time so as not to cut off their livelihood and yet bring them under state regulation.
Unfortunately, the Registered Counselor category remained open for
years--until July 1, 2010, when it was abolished.
Applicants registered for a small fee with no educational or experience requirements
other than completing an HIV/AIDS course, and become a "registered counselor."
Registering with the state enabled the registered individual able to
provide counseling for a fee, subject to review and disciplinary action by the state including loss of registered status.
The existence of the Registered Counselor category essentially
removed any financial incentive for additional education or
training. The number of Registered Counselors increased until
there were over 17,000 Registered Counselors in Washington.
Then in 2006, Registered
Counselors came under fire in the media.
According to the the Seattle Times series "License to Harm: The unchecked problem of sexual misconduct by health-care professionals," by Julia Sommerfeld
and Michael J. Berens, the Registered Counselor category had become the biggest source of
complaints of sexually inappropriate behavior with clients. (To
the contrary, an examination of the data in the series shows on a
basis of rate offenders per thousand, Chiropractors were disciplined
1.5 times more often for sexually abusing and exploiting their
The Registered counselor
category included a vast variety of counselors with qualifications
that varied in the extreme--from the
person with no degree and no professional counseling training and possibly no
experience, to the person with a bachelors degree in some sort of mental health
area and years of counseling experience but unwilling or unable to expend the additional time and money to meet
requirement for licensing, to the highly qualified mental health counselor with
an appropriate Masters Degree working as a professional counselor
under supervision to obtain the supervised hours of experience to become
During 2000, the licensure law finally passed and the certified categories became
licensing categories: 1. Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC), 2. Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), and 3. a Licensed
Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW). Mental health professionals and Mental Health Agencies worked with the legislature
and health department and developed a plan to divide and classify registered counselors into a number of new categories by education,
preparation, and other qualifications. Registered Counselors were given until July 1, 2010, to qualify
for one of eight new categories.
If you want
to know about a counselors credentials and qualifications, you need to ask. Before you start counseling with mental
health counselors, the counselors must provide the client with
legally required disclosure information about their qualifications and practice methods (required by law to be furnished to
clients before therapy starts).
Three of the new
counselor credentials are in the category of Licensed "Associate"
counselors. Licensed Associates are counselors who have completed their masters degree in a
counseling related field and are now working under supervision to get the required number of supervised counseling hours to qualify
for full licensure. These new (2009) categories include the Licensed Mental Health Counselor Associate (LMHCA), the Licensed
Marriage and Family Therapist Associate (LMFTA), and the Licensed Social Work Associate--Independent Clinical (LSWA-IC).
Fully Licensed counselors generally must have a masters degree, a minimum number of years of
supervised practice, pass an examination and be issued a license by the State of Washington. Licensed counselors are most likely to
be recognized by third-party payees, such as health insurance companies.
Certified Counselor, is a category for counselors who can not
meet the requirements for any of the licensed associate categories.
This includes a number of very qualified and experienced counselors
whose education doesn't meet current requirements. The current
applicants for certified counselor are required to: (a) Have a
bachelor's degree in a counseling-related field, (b) Pass an
examination, and (c) Have a written supervisory agreement.
Certified Counselors can do limited private practicing for a fee,
subject to the restrictions and limitations specified in the Revised
Code of Washington (RCW) 18.19.200.
The term "certification" is complicated by the fact that
there are various types of certification can be awarded by the state, by a national certifying body, or by
a training facility. Certification by a training facility is
the lowest of these as "certification" is too often a sales device,
with the offer of certification presented to entice counselor
expenditure for the training program. Other certifications,
such as National Certified Counselor (NCC) is granted by the
National Board of Certified Counselors and is highly thought of in
the profession--requiring a three hour examination, 5 years of
experience, courses in specific areas of counseling,
Whether you are looking
for counselors in the Yellow Pages under
counselors, social workers, or hypnotherapists, you will find
listings of counselor names followed by initials. The initials should indicate the person's degree and types of licensure
and other certifications. [To understand these different initials
(which vary from state to state, see: Dictionary
of Initials, Acronyms and Abbreviations Used by Counselors and Social Workers.]
a small number of counselors sometimes
make add unofficial "generic" initials to their counselor
credentials. Those who lack licensure or
national certifications may add initials after
their names so that they don't seem so naked. Counselors may
justify or rationalize using these generic initials saying, "this
I do," even though the initials have no official standing and may
mislead the public. Most common are MHC for mental health
counselor and MFT for marriage and family therapist or CBT for cognitive behavioral therapist.
Generic initials are not permitted in counselor listings on
CounselingSeattle.com as a matter of policy, but sometimes may be
(misleading and unethically) listed by a counselor after his/her
name on some other websites.
[ Is it ethical? Professional? ]
Regardless of training and experience, people vary greatly in their natural interpersonal skills and counseling abilities. Add the potential
client's personal biases and you can understand how one person may really like a particular counselor's personality and counseling
techniques while another person would dislike them.
As one example: While one counselor may lead you by facial expression and questions and
never ever suggest you take any specific action (preferring to have you develop your own
solutions) another counselor may focus on educating you to different perspectives and
suggest specific solutions that might never have occurred to you. Which would you prefer?
With regard to degrees, "John Doe, MA"
only tells you the person has a masters degree--not the type of degree. When you make initial contact with a counselor it is
wise to ask what field a degree is in. My masters degree is in counseling. However, the counselor's degree might
be in accounting or music. If so, as a consumer, your next question might be "So how did you get from being an
accountant to being a counselor?" The answer might tell you whether this is someone with whom you feel comfortable
and feel you can trust. Remember, your primary job as a consumer is to find a counselor/therapist that you trust and
feel comfortable with. If on your initial meeting you don't feel comfortable, don't go back--keep looking.
In the past, people look up
"counselors" in the Yellow Pages of phone book. Now
people find their counselors on the Internet and give
one or two counselors a call. They chat
briefly about their problem and--if they feel comfortable--make an
On your first meeting, the counselor should provide you
with a packet of client disclosure
information that explains the counselor's education and
training as well as other information required by state law. This form
must be signed by the client and the counselor before you can legally be charged for therapy.
(You get to keep a copy for your files.) This is done to inform you
of counselor's qualifications, fees and treatment methods and does not require you to enter into
or continue treatment with that therapist, if you do not wish to do so.
What is the difference between the terms counselor, therapist, and psychotherapist?]
Question 2. Can you tell me the advantages
for a counselor in Washington State to apply for licensing as a
LMHC or LMFT vs. just registering as a counselor?
In the distant past, I would have recommended that, even if you were planning
to apply for licensing, you would want to register as a counselor immediately, in order to qualify for employment
as a counselor in Washington State. Registration once was the minimum and first requirement to work as a counselor
in Washington State. Once you were licensed, it was not necessary to renew your registration, only to
keep your licensure current. However,
under the new credentialing law of 2008, no new applications for registered counselor
were accepted after July 1, 2009. The
registered counselor credential ceased to exist after July 1, 2010.
Eight new credentials were created to replace the registered counselor category. So you would probably apply for one of
those categories. (See
I can think of several
advantages of licensure. (If readers are aware of other
please let me know and I
will add them to this list.
First, because licensing
requires a masters degree, a specific, verified number of supervised hours of
practice and passing an examination, consumers (members of the public)
who are looking for counseling services may place more faith in
companies generally only accept licensed counselors as eligible to
serve on their provider panels and receive third-party reimbursement.
(The third party is the insurance company that pays the counselor on
behalf of the insured client.)
Third, (Kathryn Kemp reminds
me) If you were to move to another state that requires licensure in order to
practice, the license you obtained in Washington may be transferable, rather
than starting all over in another state.
Question about complaints against counselors and
disciplinary actions: I am trying to find out if
there is a place online where I could find out what complaints have
been filed for a particular social worker. Can you help? Thanks, C.
The Washington State Department of
Health "Provider Credential Search" provides
information about a health care providerís license status, the
expiration and renewal date of their credential, and lists
disciplinary actions (if any) and the current status of such
Click on "Health care provider" and, in the form provided, search by
(1.) Credential Number (if known) or (2.) Search by the individual's
name. [Of course difficulties arrive in name searches because
a person might apply for licensure as Joseph P Brown or simply as
Joe Brown, and a search for "Joseph" won't bring up "Joe."
Women are often licensed in their maiden name and practice in their
married name--or the other way around. Even dear old "Joe Brown" may marry after years
of practice and continue to practice under "Joe Brown" while using
the married name, Joe Mackrell-Brown, in all other areas of his life.
(1) Suggestions for choosing a counselor or therapist.
Provider Credentials Look-up System
Health Professions Quality Assurance of Washington State
(3) For counselors: Counseling in Washington State.
Floyd Else, MA, LMHC, NCC, MAC
(See what I mean!)
Initials and Acronyms Used By Counselors