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E-Mail: sburns1@kent.edu

Got a State Licensed Counselor? Why it Matters

- By Daniel R. Cruikshanks, Ph.D., LPCC (Ohio) and Stephanie T. Burns, Ph.D., LPC (Ohio and Michigan), NCC

There are all kinds of people out there who have the title counselor, who perform counseling, or frighteningly, who provide counseling services under titles like Psychotherapist, Philosophical Counselor or Life Coach. In some cases, these folks are legitimate professionals, but in other cases, not only are they not legitimate but they may be breaking the law as well. To add to what already is a very confusing situation, many of these folks are now offering their services on-line making it even more difficult to be sure whether or not they are appropriately trained and practicing legally. 

Not long ago I was listening to NPR’s Morning Edition when I heard a story in which a Life Coach was interviewed. When the interviewer asked “What is the difference between a life coach and a counselor?”, I was stunned to hear the answer. The life coach stated that counselors try help by digging back into a person’s past, but “we focus on what’s happening now and how people can fix their problems by doing things differently.”  In another NPR interview, life coach Jennifer Hall stated: 

A life coach is really a person who helps you move forward. It's very different from therapy. It's not a clinical process, it's a holistic process in that we work on goals; we can coach you for your business, parenting coaching, all types of coaching to get people to move, in a proactive way, to succeed.

So, why was I stunned by these answers? While it is true that there are some counselors and other mental health practitioners who focus on past experiences to help people with their problems, it is also true that most counselors do exactly what these life coaches claim that they do.  In other words, when life coaches talk about what they do and why it’s different, what they describe is counseling! But, unlike state licensed counselors, life coaches are not required to have received state mandated training (which is why they often don’t understand that they are doing counseling), and they are not licensed by the state in which they live and work. 

Why does training and licensure matter?

Life coaches and other variants often claim that it is their “life experience” that matters and makes them good at what they do. Certainly life experience is valuable, but there is more to understanding the problems that people have and what helps than life experience. We humans are extraordinarily complex, and sometimes even relatively simple problems can be tricky. 

Think of it this way…

Let’s say you go to your physician because you’ve got a sore that hasn’t gone away after trying everything you could to heal it on your own. It could be a wound that will heal with some prescribed ointment (simple problem) or it could be a cancerous tumor (serious problem). Would you want your sore treated by an individual who has a certificate from an organization housed on the internet and no state license to practice medicine? I’m guessing that most reading this would say, “Well of course not!” We go to physicians who we know are trained and licensed because we understand that that training and state licensure implies a certain knowledge and skill standard. 

Just in the way that state regulated training and standards are important qualities for those who will care for our physical wellbeing, they also are important qualities to look for in those who will care for our mental and emotional well being. 

Anyone can be a life coach, a therapist, or a psychotherapist simply by proclaiming that they are one. These folks even can get a legitimate looking certificate to hang on their wall from an Internet based company taking money to print fancy pieces of paper. These are unregulated titles. At best, certification is a knowledge-based criterion (Does the individual possess knowledge with at least minimal competency?). Licensure is a skill-based criterion (Does the individual perform the requisite skills with at least minimal competency?) and is a state-specific license. Although there are exceptions to the rule, which only adds to the confusion here, generally certifications are issued by organizations while licenenses are always issued by the government. When you see certification titles used instead of legally defined state license titles such as Licensed Professional Counselor, Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor, or Licensed Professional School Counselor, then you have no way of knowing whether the person you are seeing has met state training standards for licensure. 

So why does having a state licensed counselor with a skill-based criterion matter so much? Without those competencies, very often life coaches, therapists, non-licensed "counselors," and psychotherapists 

(a) may have little or no training or competence in who should be setting goals in the counseling session,  
(b) may have a view of mental wellness that is misrepresented by their personal (or their organization's) opinions and not based upon empirical research, a code of ethics, and set of laws demanding no harm,  
(c) may have a view of multiculturalism (including persons of color, women, individuals with disabilities, those from varying religions, etc.) that is misrepresented by their personal (or their organization's) opinions and not based upon empirical research, a code of ethics, and set of laws demanding no harm, or they may have no understanding of the importance of multiculturalism at all,
(d) are likely to work with clients based upon the latest fads from contemporary books written by lay persons and not based upon empirical research  and proven methods developed by leaders in a field who are held to standards by review committees, and
(e) may not have the training or competence to help individuals who are suicidal, homicidal, need referrals for medical treatment, etc.

Without these competencies, non-licensed “counselors” are at serious risk of offering deficient, prejudiced, and confused counseling services that increase oppression.  As such, these well meaning individuals often (and more than likely very unintentionally) tend to perpetrate "harm," which seriously jeopardizes any meaningful help.

State licensed counselors are highly trained. To become licensed, we are required to have at least a master’s degree in counseling that includes at least 700 hours of supervised practice in the field. We have to be certified by our training institutions as having demonstrated the professional and ethical qualities that are expected by our discipline. We have to demonstrate competence in working with people from diverse cultural, ethnic and lifestyle backgrounds ethically and in all areas of the discipline. In order to maintain our license to practice, we have to complete many hours of ongoing training and education to ensure that we remain current in the field, and we have to practice within the law. 

We have seen people practicing under the titles of life coach, philosophical counselor, pastoral counselor, psychotherapist and others who have no formal education or training or have some kind of education, but are ineligible for state licensure, or worst of all, were formerly licensed but lost their license due to violations of the law. Life coaches, non-licensed therapists, non-licensed philosophical counselors and the like may believe that they are practicing legally, but regardless of what they call their work, if it looks like counseling and uses the language of counseling, then it is quite possible that they are breaking the law. To be sure, read your state's laws and rules governing the practice of counseling

State licensed counselors are demonstrated experts in their fields. They are specifically trained to help people with their problems and issues. Because they are licensed by the state, on the rare occasions that they mistreat their clients, there is a licensure board whose job it is to protect the public. 

Got a State Licensed Counselor? If you don’t, now you know why you should. 

State licensed counselors are demonstrated experts in their fields.

Mental Health Counselors (LPC, LPCC, LCPC, etc.) 

Career Counselors (may be licensed as school or mental health counselors)
Professional School Counselors (LPSC, CSC, etc.)