There are six basic types of mental health professionals found in the United States, with dozens of variations on these types.
Naturally, this produces a great deal of confusion when it’s time to consult one! Do you go to a counsellor, a psychiatrist, or a psychologist? What are the qualifications of the psychiatric nurse you are assigned to at the clinic? You can get medications from a psychiatrist but no therapy, and therapy from a psychologist and no medications. It can be very frustrating.
The main differences between the types of mental health professions is what kind of treatment they focus on or specialize in, their educational background, and the types of licensing required for their profession. Following is a very brief synopsis of the six main types of mental health professionals you are likely to encounter:
A psychiatrist is a physician with a doctor of medicine degree (M.D. or O.D.) plus at least four more years of specialized study and training in psychiatry. Psychiatrists are licensed to practice as physicians by the individual states. “Board certified” psychiatrists have passed the national examination administered by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.
Psychiatrists are licensed to write prescriptions, and most focus on prescribing and monitoring medications. A few practice psychotherapy, as well.
A psychologist is a professional who does psychotherapy. Most have a doctorate degree (such as Ph.D. or Psy.D., Ed.D.), though there are some with Master’s degree (M.A. or M.S.). They are licensed by the state to practice psychiatry. Psychologists receive specific training in diagnosis, psychological assessment, and a wide variety of psychotherapies.
Psychologists provide psychological testing, and evaluations. They treat emotional and behavioral problems and mental disorders, as well as provide psychotherapy. Psychologists do not prescribe medication.
Clinical Social Worker
Clinical Social Workers can have a Bachelor’s degree (B.A., B.S. or B.S.W.), a Master’s degree (M.A., M.S., M.S.W. or M.S.S.W), or a doctoral degree (D.S.W. or Ph.). Most states require social workers to take an examination to be licensed to practice social work as a Licensed Counselor of Social Work (L.C.S.W. or LIC.S.W.). The type of license depends on level of education and practical experience. Their schooling requires thousands of hours of direct clinical experience.
Clinical social workers provide various services such as assessment and treatment of psychiatric illnesses, case management, hospital discharge planning, and psychotherapy.
Psychiatric or Mental Health Nurse
Most Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurses start out with a regular registered nursing degree (R.N.), then also acquire a Bachelor’s degree (B.S.N.), a Master’s degree (M.S.N. or A.P.R.N.), or a doctoral degree (D.N.Sc., Ph.D.). They receive specialized training in psychiatry and some forms of psychotherapy. Their schooling requires over five hundred hours direct clinical experience. Psychiatric Nurses are licensed by the state.
Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurses perform a broad range of psychiatric and medical services, including the assessment and treatment of psychiatric illnesses, case management, and psychotherapy. In some states Psychiatric Nurses may have prescription-writing privileges.
Licensed Professional Counselors
Licensed Professional Counselors have a Master’s degree (M.A.) in psychology, counseling or a similar discipline and typically have two years postgraduate experience. They are licensed by the state. They also may be certified by the National Academy of Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselors.
Licensed Professional Counselor provide services that include diagnosis and counseling (individual, family/group or both).
Marriage and Family Therapists
Marriage and Family Therapists usually have a Master’s degree, though some states allow a Bachelor’s degree or less. They typically have hundreds of hours of direct clinical experience. Most states license marriage and family therapists. Because this designation varies from state to state, the quality of the professional may vary significantly from person to person. In California Marriage, Family and Child Counselors have very strict requirements, including a Master’s degree and three thousand hours direct clinical experience.
The right kind of mental health professional for you
Finding the right kind of mental health professional can be a daunting task, not only because there are so many kinds, but because each insurance company or EAP program seems to have its own requirements. It is very important, however, to find the professional that is the right fit for your mental health concerns and your personality.
Thankfully, I have found that mental health professionals care deeply for their patients — in my opinion, more so than medical professionals. And they are more than willing to help you find just the right professional to suit your needs. Finding a professional will be the subject of a post in the near future.
Updated May 14, 2009
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RESOURCES USED IN THIS ARTICLE:
Grohol, John M. (2006) Types of Mental Health Professionals. Retrieved June 30, 2008 from Psych Central Web site: http://psychcentral.com/lib/2006/types-of-mental-health-professionals/
National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2008). Mental Health Professionals: Who They Are and How to Find One. Retrieved June 30, 2008 from National Alliance on Mental Illness Web site: http://www.nami.org/Content/ContentGroups/Helpline1/Mental_Health_Professionals_Who_They_Are_and_How_to_Find_One.htm