In California, it is perfectly legal to advertise mental health services provided by associate therapists. Registered Associate Marriage and Family Therapists (AMFTs), Registered Associate Clinical Social Workers (ASWs), and Registered Associate Professional Clinical Counselors (APCCs) all can advertise or have ads placed by their employers for services they provide. However, many of the ads I see for California associates do not appear to be compliant with the legal requirements for such advertising. Here are some important advertising reminders for California associates governed by the Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS).
A disclaimer here first: I’m not an attorney, and none of this should be taken as legal advice or as a substitute for consulting with an attorney. What follows is based on a clinician’s plan-language reading of the relevant statutes and regulations.
Advertising is a broad term
The law defines advertising broadly, encompassing basically any public statement you make that indicates that you offer therapy or counseling services to the public in exchange for money. That includes things like business cards and flyers, of course. It also includes social media posts or profiles, podcast appearances, and other forms of public announcements. Even a single tweet can be considered an ad if you are marketing your services.
A few years ago, I asked the BBS about things like tweets and Google Ads. They noted that if such an ad does not contain direct contact information, but instead links to a web site where all required disclosures are present, then they would consider the tweet or Google Ad and the web site together as a single advertisement. In other words, you wouldn’t have to squeeze all your required disclosures into such a limited space. But that allowance goes away as soon as you include direct contact information like a phone number or an email address. If those are in your tweet, social profile, Google Ad, or similar space, then a client could contact you based on your ad, without ever having seen those required disclosures.
Stuff you have to do
Speaking of those required disclosures, the law is specific. In any ad, you need to include:
- Your exact name, as it exists on file with the BBS. You can use other forms of your name as well, but the legal name has to be there somewhere.
- Your full title or an acceptable abbreviation. Acceptable abbreviations are as follows: AMFTs can use “Registered Associate MFT,” ASWs can use “Registered Associate CSW,” APCCs can use “Registered Associate PCC.”
- Your registration number.
- An indication that you are under licensed supervision.
- The name of your employer.
Notably, you do not need to include the name or licensure information for your supervisor, as the state used to require. If your employer and supervisor are the same (for example, if you’re working in a private practice), you can address the last two bullets there together by saying something like “Employed and supervised by Jane Supervisor, LMFT.”
Stuff you don’t have to do, but if you do it, you have to follow rules for it
You don’t have to list your fees. But if you do, fee listings must be exact. Phrases like “as low as” can be considered misleading if they lead people to think they’ll be eligible for a lower fee than what they’ll actually have to pay.
You don’t have to use “AMFT,” “APCC,” or “ASW” as a title. But if you do, you need to also include the fully spelled out version of the title, without abbreviating anything. For example, if you call yourself an AMFT, you have to also say “Registered Associate Marriage and Family Therapist” somewhere in the same ad.
You don’t have to make any scientific claims. But if you do, you have to be prepared to back those up with peer-reviewed scientific literature.
Stuff you can’t do
Obviously, you can’t make any claim in an ad that could be considered false, misleading, or deceptive. You can’t say or imply that you’re licensed when you aren’t, and you can’t use a license or registration title that doesn’t exist or that you don’t actually hold. You can’t, for example, call yourself an Associate Psychotherapist, because that’s not a thing in California. Similarly, you can’t advertise any degree or other qualification that you don’t actually hold. That’s been an issue for some folks working on doctorate degrees who may be in the dissertation process. You can’t actually advertise as “Dr.” until you have completed all requirements, and actually been awarded the degree.
Why this all matters
We all want the public to have accurate information about the services offered by mental health professionals. The more good, accurate information people have available to them, the easier it should become for them to find and choose the best provider for their needs.
It’s also true that violations of these rules are among the easiest violations for the BBS to prove. If you have a business card, flyer, or social media post that is missing required information or is somehow misleading, all someone has to do is send it to the BBS. If the BBS determines that a violation has occurred, they can issue a citation and fine you up to $500. In some instances, they may act against your supervisor as well.
Hopefully these advertising reminders are helpful. The BBS offers a useful fact sheet on their site summarizing these requirements. Many more advertising reminders, including rules for licensees and for MFT trainees, are available in my Basics of California Law for LMFTs, LPCCs, and LCSWs text. And perhaps the most important non-legal advertising reminder: Use your time and money wisely.