There is a lot of confusion about mental health providers, our roles, educational background and qualifications. Here's a basic overview of the common mental health professional licensing titles in Delaware and the respective alphabet soup you may encounter behind our names.

Most people would prefer not to need a healthcare provider because when they do, it usually means something is amiss or interfering with their life. And unfortunately, this is even truer for mental healthcare for many people.

When I answer and return new calls to my practice, it’s an opportunity to not only learn about a person’s needs but more importantly, it’s an opportunity for me to answer questions and provide information.

It is common during these calls for me to be educating callers about how counseling “works,” who can or can’t prescribe medications, and “what all those letters after everyone’s names mean.”

There is a lot of confusion about mental health providers, our roles, educational background and qualifications.

I will provide a basic overview of the common mental health professional licensing titles in Delaware and the respective alphabet soup you may encounter behind our names. All are qualified to assess, diagnose, and treat mental illnesses and emotional disturbances. Those who use “Therapist” or “Counselor” as their job title are qualified to provide individual, family and group counseling and have most often earned one of the first four credentials:

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) – A professional with a master’s degree in social work, they also place emphasis on promoting social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients.

Licensed Professional Counselor of Mental Health (LPCMH) – A professional with a master’s degree in psychology, counseling or a related field.

Licensed Psychologist (PsyD. or PhD.) – A professional with a doctoral degree in psychology which usually includes training in psychological or educational testing/evaluations.

Licensed Chemical Dependency Professional (LCDP) – a professional with a master’s degree in a counseling field who has specific clinical training and experience in treating substance abuse.

Licensed Psychiatrist (M.D. or D.O.) – A medical doctor with special training in mental disorders and the ability to prescribe medication. Most psychiatrists focus on evaluations and medication management rather than therapy.

Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (APRN, FPMHNP, PMHCNS) – A registered nurse practitioner with a graduate degree and specialized training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness, including prescribing medication.

To be a fully informed consumer, I recommend that anyone seeking mental health services for themselves or a family member first verify potential providers’ credentials and ensure that their professional license is in good standing.

Fortunately, it is easy to check the Division of Professional Regulation website for licensing history as an important step in selecting a mental health professional.

Unfortunately, current Delaware laws do not legally require some mental health professionals to be licensed in order to practice counseling, leaving no oversight or recourse for potential unprofessional behavior or harm.

Just as there are dishonest, unethical or impaired persons in other professions, the mental health profession is sadly not immune. As mental health professionals, who are expected to maintain certain codes of ethical standards and client protections, who are entrusted by individuals, couples and families with their most personal information and life experiences, the damage of unprofessional behavior goes beyond inconvenience and financial ramifications, as might be the case with other kinds of professionals. And in working with any unlicensed professional, consumers lose significant protection and rights in the event of unprofessional behavior, short of criminal behavior.

On a brighter note, take comfort in knowing that the large majority of therapists and counselors recognize and respect the importance of licensure in protecting you, the public, and upholding the standards of our profession!

Dawn Schatz is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, certified Domestic Violence Specialist, and owner of Appoquinimink Counseling Services, LLC located at Wellbeing on Main in Middletown. She works with adolescents and adults on a wide variety of issues. She can be reached at dawn.schatz@appocounseling.com or (302) 898-1616.