If you decide to seek out help for mental health, it should be easy to figure out which kind of professional to see. But choosing between psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists and counselors can be overwhelming. While the various types of mental health clinicians do differ in certain meaningful ways, there’s also some overlap between what they’re licensed to do, which issues they specialize in and how they approach treatment. Here’s a breakdown of the main types of mental health providers.
Medical doctors who specialize in mental health
Psychiatrists hold either a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO). That means they’ve been through medical school and completed a residency in psychiatric health, and are licensed in the state where they practice. Their medical training qualifies them to treat both the mental and physiological components of mental health.
“[We] psychiatrists will sometimes identify ourselves as the most comprehensively trained people in the mental health clinical world,” said Jody M. Rawles, a psychiatrist, professor and medical director at the University of California, Irvine, Neuropsychiatric Center. “We tend also to take care of the most acute illnesses. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor first and, as that, we’re trained in biology, chemistry, physiology [and] pathology.”
Which services do psychiatrists provide?
Because psychiatrists are doctors, they’re able to diagnose and prescribe medication for mental health conditions, as well as recommend other medical tests and treatments. In addition to writing scripts, psychiatrists also receive training in psychotherapy (talk therapy). Psychotherapy isn’t a monolithic treatment model; there are a number of different methods (or “theoretical orientations”). Two of the most popular include psychoanalysis, in which patients and therapists work through unresolved feelings and experiences, and cognitive behavioral therapy, in which patients identify disordered beliefs and then develop the skills to change them.
Still, psychiatrists are primarily experts of medicine. Though some psychiatrists might administer therapy themselves, they’re far more likely to refer patients to other mental health professionals.
What distinguishes psychiatrists from other mental health professionals?
With their medical training and background in biology and chemistry, psychiatrists are uniquely qualified to prescribe medication for mental health disorders, as well as evaluate the physiological impact of mental illness and order lab tests. “All psychiatrists work in hospitals during some part of their training, so they have worked with the most acute and most difficult patients,” Rawles said. “Not all psychologists and social workers get that as part of their training. It’s not that psychologists and social workers can’t do high-level critical care, just that not all have gotten that specific training.”
Psychiatrists can also monitor other ailments that manifest with psychiatric symptoms. When doctors prescribe medication for conditions including depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD and anxiety, they are able to work with patients to ensure that dosages are correct and there are no interactions with other drugs they might be taking.
Highly trained, licensed professionals who can make diagnoses and offer counseling
Psychologists aren’t medical doctors, but they do have years of specialized education behind them, and typically hold a master’s (MS) or doctorate (PhD) degree. “The term ‘clinical psychologist’ often implies that the person holds a PhD or PsyD, which is doctoral-level training,” explained Sheela Raja, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of Overcoming Trauma and PTSD.
Psychologists need to get licensed by the state, a process that involves thousands of hours of supervised clinical practice. The exact number of hours varies by state. In Michigan, for example, it’s 6,000 hours, whereas in California, it’s 3,000.
Which services do psychologists provide?
Clinical psychologists can’t prescribe medication, but they can diagnose mental disorders and administer therapy. While psychiatrists are the authorities on treating mental illness with medication, psychologists receive more extensive, intensive training in non-drug therapy.
Many psychologists work in conjunction with other health professionals, including psychiatrists and primary care providers, to furnish treatment. But it’s also not uncommon to see only a psychologist. You can see one alone for individual therapy, with your partner for couples therapy or as part of a group. Group therapy often focuses on short-term issues, such as grief counseling.
Therapists and counselors
A diverse group of experts trained to provide counseling or “talk” therapy
Here’s where things can get confusing. Licensed therapists and counselors are an integral part of treating many mental health issues, and if you’re receiving psychotherapy as part of your treatment plan, there’s a good chance that you’ll visit one. However, licensed therapists may provide counseling and licensed counselors may provide therapy, and there is plenty of overlap between “therapists” and “counselors” in terms of their education, training and expertise.
“A psychotherapist is a general term for professionals who clinically treat people with mental health issues,” said Lisa Brateman, a psychotherapist and relationship specialist in New York City. “A psychotherapist can be a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker or counselor who works with individuals, couples, groups or families in either a private practice or clinic or agency setting.”
“Counselor” is a term that can encompass many mental health professionals, including ones with advanced degrees in counseling and psychology.
When you’re trying to determine whether a therapist or counselor is the better fit, Brateman recommends looking at their official title, which will tell you about their training and credentials.
- Mental health counselors can make mental health diagnoses and provide counseling and therapy. They hold a master’s degree in a relevant field and they’ve undergone supervised clinical training.
- Licensed professional counselors have a master’s in psychology. Like mental health counselors, they can diagnose mental health issues and provide psychotherapy (including group therapy).
- Certified alcohol and drug abuse counselors help patients work through drug and alcohol abuse. They’ve gone through certification training, but don’t need to have an advanced degree.
- Marital and family therapists hold a master’s degree in a related field like psychology and are additionally trained to administer therapy for family and marital issues.
- Art or music therapists use artistic expression as a form of communication. Many hold an advanced degree in art (or music) therapy. Some instead have an advanced degree in a related field like psychology, plus post-degree certification as an art (or music) therapist.
Professional titles, however, vary somewhat by state. Standalone titles, like “therapist” or “counselor” without further specification, aren’t uniformly protected by the law in all states, meaning that people can call themselves therapists without meeting all the requirements or even being licensed to practice. Licensed professional clinical counselors (LPCCs), licensed mental health counselors (LMHCs), licensed professional counselors (LPCs), mental health counselors (MHCs) and professional counselors (PCs) are typically protected titles. If someone has a title without the word “counselor” or “therapist,” such as “life coach,” they may not have formal training or licensing.
Which services do therapists and counselors provide?
Therapists and counselors furnish behavioral (i.e., non-drug) treatment and typically provide two main types of therapy: psychotherapy and psychological counseling, which aren’t the same thing.
Psychotherapy generally means longer-term therapy to address long-standing behavioral patterns or mental-health issues. You might receive psychotherapy to work through depression or PTSD, for example, or to address recurrent problems with self-confidence or relationships. It’s not uncommon to receive psychotherapy for months or years at a time.
Counseling, on the other hand, focuses on shorter-term issues. You might attend counseling to work through a period of heightened stress, tackle a specific relationship problem or manage grief.
Most therapists and counselors help patients through both short- and long-term mental health disorders and emotional issues, and they’ll work with you to find the right treatment plan. Psychotherapists, Brateman says, can treat any number of conditions, including anxiety and panic disorders, bipolar disorder, depression, eating disorders, PTSD, substance abuse and addiction, OCD, work issues and family therapy.