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Unlicensed (Associate) versus Licensed Therapist? Does the “Title” Matter?

As many people are reaching out more frequently to get therapy services, there has been a rise in potential clients not having much information on the difference between unlicensed (associate) versus licensed therapists. Often, people hear the word “associate” and are concerned they are not a trained professional and will immediately jump ship. While this can be frustrating for both the client seeking services and the associate level therapist wanting to get more clients to support, not much information is readily available for those looking to start therapy. Let me take some time to explain what each means so you can have a better understanding when you reach out to a therapist.

The Deets on Associate versus Licensed Therapist

- Depending on what you are looking for (long term versus short term), sometimes associate level therapists are working solely with an agency or private practice until they become fully licensed, which may be a factor when determining how often or how long you will be coming to see the therapist. Licensed therapists can also leave at any time too, so there isn’t always a guarantee they will be at that specific place indefinitely.

- The length of time a licensed therapist has experience “being in the field” will always be longer as they have completed their hours for licensure

- The knowledge or experience on specific diagnoses/populations/etc. of unlicensed/licensed therapists will depend on multiple factors typically depending on where they have obtained clinical hours for licensure

- Financially, an associate level therapist will be cheaper in rate versus a licensed therapist

- There is an extensive process that all therapists in the field must go through to apply for registration or licensure with the Board of Behavioral Sciences

- Licensed therapists are required to have continuing education (CEUS) in order to maintain licensure renewal. This can vary in what they choose to take as not all continuing education courses are mandatory for renewing licensure

- Registered associates are actively working with the most informed information (just out of grad school or have been working in the field for a while) while under supervision by a licensed therapist as they work towards understanding what direction and specialization they want to continue pursuing once they obtain licensure

Some Concluding Thoughts

While Licensed therapists will have more experience because they have completed all the above steps, that does not guarantee that they will have the adequate knowledge or experience you are looking for when working on specific things in therapy. Each therapist will practice and utilize different modalities that they have obtained throughout their experiences while working towards their licensure. Some will take the additional steps in getting certified in a specific field (DBT, CBT, EDMR, etc.), which you can do some more research into if you are wanting to focus on solely something more specific (Positive Psychology provides some examples of skills/interventions that therapists utilize in sessions). The overall takeaway is that the general education that all therapists (unlicensed/licensed) will have has already come from their master’s program. So, deciding what you feel most comfortable with will be up to you when it comes down to which specific title you are most comfortable with. Both provide value to the field and sometimes it can be beneficial to go with either an associate or a licensed professional depending on what you are looking for and every therapist will have valuable experience to provide their clients.

A good associate or licensed therapist will always be checking in with you about the progress of your therapy journey. The overall goal is to build a relationship together that is impactful, supportive, and helps address the needs you are coming in for. This will always be an ongoing part of the conversations you will have with your therapist. As I’ve mentioned in my previous blog, a good fit is a necessity! Always question your therapist. If something comes up you don’t like, share it. The best way to help you is to let your therapist know what is working and isn’t working. If it doesn’t feel like a good fit, you are allowed to share that and find someone who does fit your needs. The therapeutic relationship is always evolving, and a good therapist will help you with this even if that means you look for another therapist along the way.

Questions To Ask A Therapist

- What is your background experience?

- How long have you been working with this specific population or diagnosis?

- What can I expect/anticipate when working with you?

- Any additional info about your education and why we would be a good fit?


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