Can I Be A Therapist Without A Degree?

Career
December 31st, 2019

You love helping people, and your advice tends to help everyone around you. It may sound attractive to just slap a sign on your front window and call yourself the town therapist, but it’s not so easy. Therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists go through years of education and training in order to provide care to their patients.

Can I Be a Therapist Without a Degree? No, all licensed therapist professions in the United States require a master’s degree at minimum. To practice independently as a psychologist or therapist, you will need to hold a license, and in some states, independent work requires a doctoral degree (typically Ph.D. or Psy.D.).

The designation of “therapist’ is a protected term in most states, but broader termed professions of counselor, life coach, and hypnotist are legally allowed to operate without a license.

Legal Ramifications for Practicing Without a License

Each state has different laws concerning which terms are protected/regulated. Professionals operating under these protected terms are required by law to adhere to licensing and educational guidelines for that professional.

For example, in Massachusetts, the term “medical health counseling” is a protected term, but “counseling” is not. This means someone may offer counseling without any formal education or licensing to back them up but not medical health counseling.

The American Psychological Association is in charge of all licensing in the country, and they monitor professionals licenses to make sure no one is misrepresenting themselves. If found guilty of practicing without a license, it is considered a federal crime.

In 2005, a famous television psychologist was found to have faked her Ph.D. She was convicted and sentenced to six months in prison, five years probation, one year of house arrest, and a lifetime prohibition from practicing psychotherapy.

Penalties for Practicing Without A License

The penalty for practicing without a license differs widely by state but those convicted can typically expect the following:

  • Fines. Misdemeanor fines range from $500 to $1000, while felony fines can exceed $5000.
  • Incarceration. Jail sentences for misdemeanors can last up to a year while someone convicted of a felony faces at least a year in prison.
  • Probation. Probation sentences typically last around a year or more.
  • Prohibition. Depending on the severity of the crime, those convicted may be prohibited from practicing certain types of therapy or medicine.
  • Restitution. Restitution is paid for the victims who paid for the services under false pretenses.

Mental Health Professions Explained

TherapistA professional who specializes in different aspects of improving a patient’s life through different types of therapy.
PsychologistA social scientist that can work in a variety of settings, including research or clinical.
PsychiatristA medical doctor specializing in the diagnosis or treatment of mental illness.
Social WorkerResponsible for helping individuals or families cope with problems they’re facing in order to improve their patient’s lives.
CounselorOften used interchangeably with therapist, the word counselor is not a protected term. Some counselors are licensed while others are not.
Life Coach / Hypnotist / Hypnotherapist, Etc.These terms and ones like them are broad and not legally protected terms. These proprietors may operate with no degree, license, or training.

What’s The Difference Between a Psychologist and a Therapist?

The term psychologist places much more emphasis on the scientific study of the human mind and the effects its functions have on human behavior.

A therapist is a broader term meant to encompass all professionals trained, and often licensed, to provide a variety of treatments for people. Therapists can be marriage counselors, social workers, licensed life coaches, etc.

Both are legally able to practice in most states once passing the licensing procedure.

Therapy Specialties

  • Family therapist
  • Marriage family therapist
  • Substance abuse therapist
  • Grief and loss therapist
  • Child and adolescent therapist
  • Divorce therapist
  • Group therapist
  • Clinical social work therapist

Education Requirements for Different Types of Mental Health Professionals

According to APA licensing standards, the following education and training are required for each mental health profession:

Counseling48-60 graduate credits required for a master’s degree. 100-hour practicum, 600-hour internship required.
Pastoral CounselingCertification is done through the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, but academic preparations are not accredited.
Marriage and Family TherapyMaster’s degree required, practicum, and internship required. Hours vary by state.
Social Work60 graduate credits required for a master’s degree. Minimum of 900 hours of field experience required.
NursingMaster’s degree required credits vary by state. Minimum of 500 hours of direct clinical practice. There are additional requirements for psychiatric nurse specialties depending on the state.
Psychology3 full-time years of graduate study required for a doctoral degree. 1 full-time year of residency required.
Psychiatry130 weeks or 4 years required for a medical degree. 48-month residency in psychiatry required, including a 12-month internship in a primary-care clinical setting.

How To Obtain a License in Mental Health

Once completing the educational and training requirements in the desired field, professionals will typically obtain their licenses in that area.

  • The first step is sitting for the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). This 225 multiple-choice question test is administered by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards.
  • A pass for the EPPP is usually scoring at least 500 out of 800, but some state’s requirements differ.
  • Once the EPPP is passed, a jurisprudence exam specific to state laws and regulations must be passed as well.
  • After obtaining a license, most states require you to renew it every 1 to 3 years.

Most states also allow you to simply retake the state-specific portion of the exam if you move to a new state. This process is called license reciprocity. If it’s not offered in the state you’re moving to, you’ll need to resit the entire licensing exam.

Additional Mental Health License Options

In addition to or in lieu of typical licensure, professionals may opt to obtain their license in mental health counseling, marriage and family therapy, or social work.

  • Licensed mental health counselors (LMHCs) are counselors with a master’s degree who have passed 1 of 2 tests offered by the National Board of Certified Counselors Exams. Counselors are typically required by their state to obtain continuing education credits every couple of years.
  • Licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFTs) are therapists with a master’s degree who have passed the exam administered by the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards. LMFTs are also usually required to continue their education every few years to maintain their licenses.
  • Licensed clinical social workers (LCSW) are social workers who have completed their master’s degree and passed the exam administered by the Association of Social Work Boards. Many states also require continuing education in areas such as law, ethics, and domestic violence.

Careers You Can Use Your Psychology Degree for Without a License

Having only your bachelor’s in psychology or not having your license doesn’t immediately disqualify you from working in the field. In addition to the counseling options mentioned above, here are a few ways you can work in psychology without getting your master’s or doctoral degree.

  • Government agency work such as drug and alcohol programs, crisis intervention units, and victim’s rights agencies.
  • Correctional treatment professionals like probation officers or parole officers
  • Non-profits of a psychological nature such as suicide hotlines, shelters for the homeless, and cancer support programs.
  • Working alongside a licensed psychologist or social worker as a case manager or assistant.
  • Career counselor or drug and alcohol counselor. *Make sure to adhere to state guidelines on counseling.
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