Guide to California Law Related to Mental Health Professionals: Therapists, Life Coaches, and Others

The terminology in the world of mental health professionals can be quite confusing. To take a few examples, licensed social workers (LCSW) don’t necessarily do social work, and licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFT) often work with individual clients. This guide aims to clarify who can do what, in terms of mental health, and how they are regulated.

1. Therapy vs Counseling vs Coaching

What is the difference between therapy, counseling, and coaching?

Therapy (specifically psychotherapy) and psychological counseling both involve helping a client work through and resolve emotional and psychological issues. Therapy often involves deeper work, dealing with more challenging mental conditions.

Coaching is a goal-oriented process that focuses on helping individuals set and achieve specific personal or professional goals. Coaches, often referred to as life coaches or career coaches, work with clients to identify their strengths, clarify their aspirations, and create action plans to reach their objectives. Coaching is more future-oriented and typically does not delve deeply into past traumas or psychological issues. Instead, it emphasizes accountability, skill development, and taking practical steps towards desired outcomes.

2. Therapy & Counseling

How is therapy and counseling defined?

Therapy (specifically psychotherapy) refers to a professional relationship between a trained mental health professional (therapist) and a client (individual, couple, or group). The primary goal of therapy is to improve mental and emotional well-being, resolve psychological issues, and promote personal growth and development.

Therapy sessions typically involve talking and exploring thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and experiences to gain insight into challenges and develop coping strategies. The specific techniques and approaches used in therapy can vary depending on the therapist’s training and the needs of the client. It is essential for therapists to adhere to ethical guidelines and maintain client confidentiality to ensure a safe and supportive therapeutic environment.

Psychological counseling has significant overlap with therapy, and is often used interchangeably. Other types of counseling are quite different, including school counseling, college counseling, and career counseling. These may require specific credentials and/or licenses.

Who can practice therapy or counseling in California?

There are generally three categories of professionals who practice therapy or psychological counseling: clinical psychologists (PhD or PsyD degree); psychiatrists (MD or DO degree), and psychotherapists (Masters degree – includes LMFT, LPCC, LCSW).

Licensed Psychologists aka Licensed Clinical Psychologists: Licensed Psychologists must have a PhD or a PsyD doctoral degree, and are licensed by the California Board of Psychology. are trained in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental and emotional disorders. They often provide individual, group, and family therapy.

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFT): LMFTs must have a master’s degree, and are licensed by the California Board of Behavioral Sciences. They specialize in providing therapy for individuals, couples, and families to address relationship and family issues, but they may practice all accepted therapeutic techniques.

Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW): LCSWs must have a master’s degree, and and are licensed by the California Board of Behavioral Sciences. They offer therapeutic services and counseling to individuals, families, and groups. They are also equipped to connect clients with community resources.

Licensed Professional Clinical Counselors (LPCC): LPCCs must have a master’s degree, and are licensed by the California Board of Behavioral Sciences. They provide counseling and psychotherapy services to help clients address mental health and emotional challenges.

Psychiatrists (M.D. or D.O.): Psychiatrists are medical doctors with a medical degree, specializing in mental health, and are licensed by the Medical Board of California. They can provide therapy and prescribe medication to treat mental health disorders.

Others: Other than the above professionals, individuals may not practice therapy or therapeutic techniques with clients. This includes hypnotherapists, life coaches, wellness coaches, career coaches, and others.

Who can diagnose someone with a mental disorder?

All of the above licensees may diagnose or assess a patient as having a mental disorder or affliction, such as generalized anxiety disorder, or bipolar disorder. However, only licensed psychologists may engage in certain assessments such as autism.

Who can prescribe psychiatric medications?

Only licensed physicians (M.D. or D.O.) may prescribe medications, such as Xanax, Paxil, Zoloft, Celexa, Cymbalta, etc. Often these are prescribed by a psychiatrist, but general practitioners may also prescribe these.

Who can practice sex therapy?

In order to be a certified sex therapist under the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT), you must be licensed as one of the above professionals (LMFT, LCSW, etc), and complete the required sex therapy training.

Is a therapist required to report threats of violence?

A therapist is required to report if their clients make specific threats to harm specific people. They must report this to law enforcement within 24 hours.1California Welfare and Institutions Code sections 8100 and 8105

3. Other forms of therapy and related practices

Certain practices may include the word “therapy” or may be related to psychotherapy, but are not the same. These practices require different credentials or licenses, if they require any.

Who can practice hypnotherapy or hypnosis?

Anyone may practice hypnotherapy, hypnosis or hypnotic techniques, so long as they do not hold themselves out as a psychotherapist or as doing any sort of psychological treatment (unless licensed as a psychologist). There is no license to be a hypnotist or hypnotherapist, although there are various optional certifications by private organizations.2California Business & Professions Code Section 2908

Who can teach or guide meditations?

Anyone may practice teaching or guiding meditations, so long as they do not hold themselves out as a psychotherapist or as doing any sort of psychological treatment (unless licensed). There is no license to be a meditation teacher or guide, although there are various optional certifications by private organizations.

Who can practice music therapy?

To perform music therapy services in California, no special license or permit is required. However, to call yourself a “certified” or “board certified” music therapist, you must have a credential from the Certification Board for Music Therapists.

4. Coaching

What can coaches do for clients? Do they need a license?

There are many types of coaches, including life coaches, career coaches, wellness coaches, sex coaches, etc. As discussed above, coaches generally work with clients to achieve certain goals, like getting a better job, or developing good habits.

There is no required license for coaching in California. However, there are optional certifications through third parties such as the International Coaching Federation (ICF).


Guide to Laws about Health in California

Guide to Professional Licenses in California


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