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Which mental health care professional is right for you?

Note: This article focuses on mental health care providers practicing in the United States. Licensing regulations and education requirements may differ in other countries.

Many people think the terms therapist, counselor, psychiatrist, and psychologist are interchangeable. While all of these professionals are trained to provide mental health treatment, their education levels and extent to which their practices are regulated vary greatly. Don’t worry if you’re unsure about which specialist is best for your needs; you can always talk through what might be right for you with your primary care physician. In the meantime, we’ve outlined the most common mental health professions below to give you some guidance.

  • Primary care physicians are medical doctors who have specialized in a field other than psychiatry. Because mental disorders often have physical effects, many physicians have an understanding of the mental health care system and may work together with a patient’s psychiatric team to provide more holistic treatment. Talking to your primary care physician is, therefore, a great place to start if you’re thinking about seeing a specialized mental health professional.
  • Psychotherapists can be any designation of mental health care professional. It’s a broad term that includes everyone from psychiatrists and psychologists to social workers and counselors.
  • Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have received extra training in mental, emotional, and behavioral conditions. As such, they can help their patients with the physical and mental issues associated with their illness and prescribe medication. The primary role of a psychiatrist is to diagnose, treat, and prevent psychological disorders.
  • Psychologists.  There are two main categories of psychologists: clinical and non-clinical.  Clinical psychologists must hold a doctoral degree in clinical psychology from a school recognized by the American Psychological Association. They perform psychological testing, assessment, and treatment for individuals and/or groups, but can’t prescribe medication. However, they’re well-educated in preventative and interventional techniques for patients dealing with minor to severe mental health challenges. Non-clinical psychologists usually hold a Ph.D. in philosophy and focus more on research, assessment techniques, and psychological theory rather than treating patients directly.
  • Therapists and counselors hold master’s degrees and specialize in a wide range of areas, including relationships, addiction, religion, and suicide. Their main role is to help the patient or group understand and learn healthy ways of coping with their emotions, address psychological disorders, and/or overcome trauma.
  • Psychoanalysts follow the school of thought championed by Sigmund Freud and employ tools like ink blot tests and dream analyses to unlock their patients’ unconscious thoughts and desires. They do this with the goal of finding what lies at the root of a patient’s psychological condition. While licensing rules vary by state, psychoanalysts typically hold graduate degrees in mental health and have some prior experience as therapists.
  • Social workers. Like psychologists, there are clinical and non-clinical social workers. Clinical social workers have attained a Master of Social Work degree and provide psychotherapeutic care similar to that of therapists and counselors. However, social workers also help their patients access relevant resources and any social services they may need. Non-clinical social workers operate on a more community-focused level, influencing program design, policy, and implementation. They may also perform administrative and counseling roles for individuals and/or groups as necessary.
  • Psychiatric/mental health nurses have various levels of involvement in patient care depending on education and certification, but generally are all trained to evaluate and treat an individual or group’s mental health needs. They typically work in hospitals and clinics as part of the patients’ mental health care team. For detailed descriptions of all the different types of psychiatric nursing designations, click here.
  • Psychiatric pharmacists hold doctorate degrees in pharmacy. They develop drug therapy plans for patients, help them understand and manage their medications, and monitor their treatment for adverse effects.
  • Peer specialists are the only non-licensed mental health care providers on this list. Their expertise stems from personal experience with mental illness. Peer specialists have successfully overcome their condition and in some cases have also completed a certification to better equip them to help others facing similar challenges.

Deciding which professional is best for you

The list above is pretty overwhelming. A lot of these professions sound nearly identical, and depending on which services you need any one of them could effectively assist you. Here are some questions to consider when narrowing down your search:

  • Does the professional specialize in my area(s) of concern?
  • What kind of education, licensing, and/or certification do they have?
  • What are their methods of treatment?
  • Are they in a convenient location?
  • What are their hours of availability?
  • Do they incorporate faith into their practice?
  • Do I need counseling or medicine—or both?
  • How much will treatment cost?
  • Will my health insurance cover any of it?

Find the mental health resources you need, 24/7

Answering these questions will allow you to more confidently choose a mental health care provider. However, you may still feel you need support outside of your sessions. If that’s the case, LifeSpeak can help you further understand your condition and find healthy solutions. Our online library of mental health resources contains hundreds of videos, podcasts, and tip sheets on everything from depression and anxiety to addiction and suicide, and you can access it anytime from anywhere. Ask your HR department to contact us today to find out more.