Note: With the exception of therapy, traditional psychiatric care isn’t typically my top recommendation for someone struggling with mental health issues. That said, I know quite a bit about various mental health professionals and their educations. Since there’s so much confusion about this, I decided to create a handy guide for anyone trying to figure out who’s who in the world of mental health.
So you’re thinking about seeing a mental health professional, but you may not have realized just how many different kinds of mental health professionals there are. Maybe you’ve heard people use words like psychiatrist, psychologist, and therapist interchangeably, but this isn’t quite right. In reality, there’s a whole range of professions, each with their own kind of training, who even provide different services.
You’ll need to know who’s who so you can make the best choice for you. You can use this guide to compare and contrast and see who would be the best fit for your circumstances. And with any practitioner, you’ll want to inquire into their experience in working with people with your exact problems to make sure they can help you. (Yep, you can totally call up their office and ask this stuff! You’re the client, after all.) You’ll also want to make sure you find someone you feel comfortable talking to. It’s okay to go to a couple people to find someone who feels like a good fit.
Okay, so who’s who in the world of mental health? Let’s get started!
Psychiatrists are doctors who went through traditional medical school, followed by a residency in psychiatry. This is essentially years of hands-on training in treating psychiatric patients in hospitals. Since psychiatrists are doctors, they’re one of the only types of mental health professionals who can legally prescribe medications. They are able to give psychotherapy, but most psychiatrists do not provide this service, instead focusing on diagnosis and medication management.
Psychiatrists have experience seeing people with a wide variety of mental illnesses, so they will likely try to get a thorough understanding of what you’re experiencing. They’ll ask you to tell them about your experiences and ask a variety of questions in the diagnosis process. How much time they spend on this can depend on the individual doctor and their preferences.
– good knowledge of a variety of psychiatric disorders
– can prescribe medications & are knowledgeable about medications
– likely to advocate medication for all patients as it is their primary therapeutic modality
– have a reputation as coming across cold in personality
Psychologists are individuals who have a Ph.D or a Psy D. in psychology. These are advanced degrees typically taking about 5 years after earning a Bachelors or Masters. Psychologists have had academic education in both abnormal psychology and significant training in providing therapy. Most also have experience in research settings.
It has become somewhat rare to find psychologists practicing therapy in clinics simply because they command a higher salary due to their extensive training. You can find some clinical psychologists providing therapy in private practices, however. These are the professionals with the most extensive academic training in mental disorders and how to treat them.
-Have far more education in the disorders they provide therapy for and in the most effective ways to treat them than any other non-prescribing professional
-Have in-depth knowledge of disorders other therapists may lack
-Can’t prescribe medications (except in IL, LA, NM, & IW)
Licensed Professional Counselors
These therapists have Masters degrees in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, and you’ll usually see LPC after their names (depending on the state). In their 2-3 year education, they have extensive training in providing counseling for a variety of life problems, and additional hours after graduation to be licensed. These programs usually only have 1-2 classes covering mental disorders and diagnosis, but there is an emphasis in the programs on providing mental health counseling for normal life issues and phases such as finding a career and dealing with grief.
These counselors may or may not have significant experience with more complex mental disorders, so you’ll want to talk to them about their experience to see if they would be a good fit for you.
-Have a lot of experience providing therapy
-Can diagnose and have some knowledge of psychiatric disorders
-Limited training in more nuanced psychiatric disorders and diagnosis
-May be better at counseling for normal problems of living, depending on their experience
Licensed Clinical Social workers
These individuals have completed a 2-3 year Masters in Social Work. Their training is more specific to social work than to mental health counseling, though they may have a class on mental disorders in their curriculum. They also complete additional hours of counseling to achieve licensure to be able to provide therapy. You’ll see LCSW after their names.
These individuals have significant training in social issues and working with various populations. You can expect them to be empathetic helpers, but should speak with them about their specific experience in practice to see if they’re a good match.
-They are trained to be empathetic and work well with people
-They have limited education in abnormal psychology and its treatments
-Their graduate education is less focused on providing counseling than LPC training is
Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners
Psychiatric nurse practitioners are nurses who have earned Masters degrees in Nursing, and have been specifically trained in the diagnosis of psychiatric disorders and the prescription of psychiatric medications. Depending on the state, they can work under the guidance of a doctor or independently. These professionals operate in a similar way to psychiatrists, providing medication management for patients.
Research on nurse practitioners in general finds that patients have equal treatment outcomes with NPs and higher satisfaction than when seeing medical doctors. This research is not specifically on psychiatric NPs, but could translate to practitioners who spend more time and make their patients feel heard.
-Have training in psychiatric diagnosis and prescription
-Can prescribe medications
-May have higher patient satisfaction than psychiatrists
-Likely do not provide therapy
Primary Care Doctors
While not mental health professionals, primary care doctors have become frequent first points of contact for those suffering from psychiatric symptoms. They are able to diagnose and prescribe medications for depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders. They may sometimes refer patients to a psychiatrist or therapist, but research has found that the majority of those on antidepressants have not seen a mental health worker in the last year, instead getting them from their general doctor.
There is a lot to be said for the convenience of having psych meds prescribed by your regular doctor, but general practitioners are not specifically trained in psychiatric disorders and many are concerned that their quickness to prescribe these medications isn’t responsible medicine.
-Easy to get into if you already have a family doctor
-Can prescribe antidepressant, anti-anxiety, and sleep medications
-No education or training in psychiatry
-Limited knowledge of DSM disorders, may not know when to refer out
By this point, it’s pretty obvious you have a lot of choices when it comes to traditional mental health professionals. If this is a route you choose to go, learn who’s who and then look around in your community to see what’s available. And remember, these professionals are helpers. Their job is to help you, and you pay them for that service. Never feel obligated to follow their advice if it doesn’t seem right for you, and always feel free to stop seeing someone you aren’t comfortable with.
The best help should always feel empowering, so find supporters who make you feel more empowered to find your own way to your most vibrant health.