If you or a loved one needs mental health services, it can be a challenge to choose which practitioner would be the best choice. While your doctor can provide a referral, it helps to know the difference between the types of professionals who specialize in mental health:
Psychiatrist (MD or DO)
Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have specialized training to diagnosis and treat mental health conditions. Treatment from a psychiatrist typically involves being prescribed medication, such as a mood stabilizer to treat bipolar disorder, and undergoing psychotherapy. Some psychiatrists, though, only manage the medication-side of treatment and refer you to another practitioner for psychotherapy. A psychiatrist’s training includes a bachelors degree, medical school, and 4 years of residency training in the field of psychiatry. Many psychiatrists get additional training so that they can specialize in areas, such as working with children, teens, the elderly, or people with addiction problems.
Psychologist (PhD or PsyD)
Psychologists are mental health professionals who work in a variety of settings including clinics, hospitals, private practice, schools, and universities. Psychologists have a doctorate degree in psychology, which they obtain after getting a bachelors degree. Depending on their training and specialization, psychologists may:
- Do psychological testing
- Assess and counsel people who have serious mental conditions, such as schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, alcoholism, drug addiction, and eating disorders
- Assess and counsel people who are experiencing life transitions, such as divorce, relationship problems, and academic problems
Mental Health Counselor (MA, MS, CCMHC) and Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)
Mental health counselors and licensed professional counselors are therapists who are trained to diagnose and provide individual and group counseling. They often provide general psychotherapy. They work in community mental health centers, in group or private practices, or other settings. Mental health counselors and licensed professional counselors have a masters degree (usually in clinical or counseling psychology) and several years of supervised clinical work experience.
Clinical Social Worker (CSW, MSW, LSW, LCSW)
Licensed social workers are mental health providers that deal with a range of issues, such as life events, family conflicts, domestic abuse, and substance abuse. They not only do assessments and offer therapy, but also help people find community care. Social workers have an advanced degree in social work that they obtain after they get a bachelors degree. They may practice in community mental health centers, family services agencies, private practice, and many other locations.
Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor or Addiction Counselor (CSAC, CAC)
Certified alcohol and drug abuse counselors and addiction counselors are trained to diagnose and provide individual and group counseling for individuals with addiction problems. They may work in drug abuse and addiction centers, hospitals, clinics, and community mental health centers. Training may include a bachelors degree, specific training in alcohol and drug abuse (a certificate program in alcohol and drug abuse counseling), and supervised experience.
Pastoral Counselors (MA, MS, Mdiv, DMin)
Pastoral counselors are certified mental health professionals who have had extensive religious/theological training and clinical training in the behavioral sciences. They may specialize in marriage and family therapy, addiction, grief, and other mental health issues. They may also provide educational programs on preparing for marriage, adjusting to divorce, and coping with loss and grief. They may work in health clinics, state hospitals, private and group practices, congregation-based centers, or in pastoral counseling centers. Pastoral counselors typically have a bachelor degree, a 3-year professional degree, and a specialized master or doctoral degree in a mental health field.
Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT)
Marriage and family therapists diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders, and other health and behavioral problems within the context of marriage, couples, and family systems. They often work in group or private practices. Marriage and family therapists have a masters or doctoral degree in marriage and family therapy, as well as clinical experience. They are trained in psychotherapy and family systems.
American Psychological Association
Mental Health America
Canadian Mental Health Association
Canadian Psychiatric Association
Alcohol and drug abuse counseling certificate. UC San Diego Extension website. Available at: http://extension.ucsd.edu/programs/index.cfm?vAction=certDetail&vCertificateID=4&vStudyAreaID=108. Accessed March 31, 2016.
Types of mental health professionals. Mental Health America website. Available at: http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/types-mental-health-professionals. Accessed March 31, 2016.
What is psychiatry? American Psychiatric Association website. Available at: http://www.psychiatry.org/mental-health/more-topics/what-is-a-psychiatrist. Accessed March 31, 2016/
Last reviewed March 2016 by Michael Woods, MD Last Updated: 5/9/2014