Therapists have very specific credentials and are legally required to hold a license to practice therapy in their state. “A licensed therapist has obtained a master’s or doctorate level education in either clinical psychology, mental health counseling, social work, marriage and family therapy, or similar field,” Francis explains, “[and] has also completed requirements for state licensure, including two to three years of practicing under the supervision of a licensed and state-approved supervisor, as well as passing a state-approved exam.”
Likewise, according to the American Counseling Association, professional counselors are also required by law in every state to be licensed in order to legally practice. While the specifics vary by state, licensure usually will require some kind of graduate education, passing an exam, and training under a licensed supervisor as well. Notably, in some states, licensed counselors are also legally allowed to practice therapy and can legally refer to themselves as therapists. (This is why it gets confusing, and often the terms can be used interchangeably.)
That said, Francis notes there are some exceptions in which some types of counselors may be allowed to practice without state licensure. Groups commonly exempt from licensure might include students in graduate programs working under supervision, members of the clergy in the performance of their religious duties in connection with a religious denomination, and employees of federal, state, and local agencies acting in an official capacity.
Again, it’s far more effective to ask your potential practitioner about their education and credentials than to assume based on the title alone.