So you want to be a therapist?

I often get asked about how to pursue a degree to become a therapist. Many first responders are interested in counseling as a second career.

This blog will cover the types of counselors, schooling and education, scholarships in Utah, post graduation hours, and acronyms to know.

Types of counselors

Therapy and counseling are synonymous. While many coaches and peer support counselors receive training, they do not fall under the umbrella of licensed professionals. The main types of counselors follow.

  • PhD or a clinical psychologist. Note: Someone can receive a PhD without being a clinical psychologist. PhD’s often focus on research but can and do see clients. I know some therapists who’ve gotten PhDs, but they are not listed in the state licensing board as clinical psychologists. Instead, they practice under their master’s licensure.
  • PsyD is a doctor of psychology who often does hands-on clientele interaction. Both PhDs and PsyDs do testing. Other counselors do “assessments” but they cannot do “testing,” like the MMPI, which most cops take prior to getting hired by an agency.
  • Social workers are often referred to as LCSWs or licensed clinical social workers. Social workers can work in areas not related to counseling, but they can also just focus on counseling. Due to this, there are many more job opportunities for social workers. Someone can obtain a doctorate degree in social work.
  • Clinical mental health counselors or CMHCs are also referred to as LPC or licensed professional counselors in some states. 
  • Marriage and family therapy is another degree option. Social workers and CMHCs can do marriage and family therapy, but a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) specializes in that area.
  • School counselors can only practice within a school. They cannot have a private business or do licensed counseling outside of that area.
  • Drug and addiction counselors also cannot practice outside of that specific area or outside a specific drug and addiction counseling center.

Schooling and education

Other than the doctorate degrees listed above, all therapists must have master’s level education. It is important to attend a fully accredited school. Some schools do not have specific, nationwide, automatic accreditation for the respective licensing boards—the Department of Professional Licensing or DOPL in the state of Utah. When that’s the case, as long as the school is accredited, sometimes all DOPL needs for the counseling program is proof of the syllabi. So, students should keep the syllabus for each course taken to later present to the state.

Getting a bachelor’s or master’s degree in psychology is NOT a path to accreditation. In some instances, depending upon the admissions to the school of higher education, it may not matter what your undergraduate degree is in. Frankly, many schools want you to attend. After all, schools operate on money, and the more students, the more money.

If you want to take less time in a master’s degree, which equals both less time and less money, consider getting an undergraduate degree in social work. That will cut your master’s degree in social work in half. I had a colleague who started her master’s degree after me and ended before me because she had to take less classes.

Those with degrees in social work may have more options for practicums and internships as well. For instance, the VA, Vet Center, or the DoD currently does not take applications for CMHCs. Besides, due to the nature of a social worker, their jobs do not have to focus on counseling alone but social structures.

Scholarships in Utah

In the state of Utah, there are not enough culturally competent therapists for first responders. In fact, there are not enough counselors in general so the job forecast is promising. You’ll never be without a job in the field of counseling. Anyway, as a current first responder or retired first responder, you can get up to $6,000 a year in tuition through the Utah System of Higher Education as long as there’s money available. 

See Utah law First Responder Mental Health Services Grant Program 53B-8-117 or House Bill 278 in the 2023 General Session.

While you need a master’s degree to be a counselor, I know of people who have applied and gotten money to receive their bachelor’s degree with the long term goal of becoming a counselor. 

While the website only says Utah schools, going to another online school out of state may be approved.

When I was in the military and then in law enforcement, I often didn’t have time or the work schedule to attend classes in person. Thankfully, there are a lot of online options. My second master’s degree, the one in CMHC, was from Grand Canyon University online.

I’m sure there are other scholarship options. Sometimes those working for a municipality or county or state agency have options of tuition reimbursement too.

Post graduation hours

Once you graduate, you have to be under a supervisor for so many hours, which usually equates to over a year of work, sometimes two or more depending on if you’re counseling full time or not. That length in time doesn’t include the national tests either. Frankly, I think that’s kind of annoying. Someone who’s 50 years old with a bunch of life experience shouldn’t have the same exact standards as a 25 year old who just finished their master’s degree in counseling. In fact, you cannot own your own company if you are still working on your full licensure, but you can own a counseling company if you are not a therapist. To the bald guy with love handles on his second career, it makes no sense. Oh well. End of rant.

While the individual states have set hours for post graduation rules, they sometimes change with updated legislation or updated rules established by the state licensing agency.

Off hand, the marriage and family therapy route has some of the longest hours, currently, at least in Utah.

Acronyms to know

Because I think it’s important when looking for a therapist, consider these acronyms:

  • MSW-I (Masters of Social Work-Intern) – This person is still in their master’s program.
  • CSW, MSW (Clinical Social Worker, Masters of Social Work) – this person has graduated and is licensed; they are just working on their full licensure. Sometimes it’s just listed as CSW.
  • LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker)
  • CMHC-I (Clinical Mental Health Counselor-Intern) – this person is still in their master’s program.
  • ACMHC (Associate Clinical Mental Health Counselor) – this person has graduated from their master’s program and is working on their hours.
  • CMHC (Clinical Mental Health Counselor)
  • MFT-I (Marriage and Family Therapist-Intern) – this person is still in their master’s program.
  • AMFT (Associate Marriage and Family Therapist) – this person has graduated from their master’s program and is working on their hours.
  • LMFT (Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist) 

Finally, when looking for a therapist, you need to take the person—the human being—into account, not just the licensure and not even the label of the acronym. Just because someone has initials after their name or is fully licensed, doesn’t mean they are a good fit for you. Modalities of therapy and extra certifications are important, yes, but even more important is what does that person believe and how do you interact with that person. If it’s not a good fit, try another therapist.

I believe there are people with gifts and talents God gave them to help others. I’d recommend looking at that when considering seeing a therapist. Or, for that matter, becoming a therapist. Pray about it. If you are on the path God wants for you, you will be successful in whatever endeavors you pursue.

Jeffrey Denning

Jeffrey has written award-winning articles for the Washington Times,, and other publications. He is the author of seven books, including Warrior SOS: Military Veterans’ Stories of Faith, Emotional Survival and Living with PTSD. He teaches courses on peer support, suicide prevention, and other mental wellness and resilience to public safety professionals. If you would like Jeff to speak at your event or training please contact him HERE.

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