Types of Mental Health Professionals

Types of Mental Health Professionals

There are many types of mental health care professionals who are trained to help with various aspects of mental health, including assessment, treatment, medication, case management, advocacy, and consultation. In order to work directly with clients (as compared to other areas of psychology, such as teaching, writing, or research), mental health professionals must be licensed by the state in which they practice. These licensed professionals may be found in both outpatient settings, such as private practices, community mental health clinics, and schools as well as inpatient settings, such as hospitals and psychiatric facilities. They may work with a wide range of mental health concerns (e.g., depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, autism), ages (e.g., child, teen, adult), and modalities (e.g., individuals, couples, families).

Due to the many options of professional titles and provider types, finding the right mental health care practitioner can be a challenging experience. Attempting to differentiate between the oftentimes subtle distinctions between mental health professionals in terms of their training, areas of expertise, and approach to treatment is often confusing and overwhelming. Many people desire help but quickly feel lost and uninformed when they begin looking for a provider to work with. Where do you start if you do not know who would be a good fit for your needs?

While the specific job titles, specialties, and requirements for licensure vary by state, there are many commonalities that exist in these professional categories across the country. The following information will provide an overview of the major differences between mental health care professionals so that finding the right fit for you or a loved one can be a more fully informed and straight forward process. Once you know what/who you are looking for, you’ll be one step closer to getting the help you need!


Psychologists are required to hold a doctoral degree. In order to become licensed, individuals must have completed either a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) program in a field of psychology (clinical, counseling, education, etc.), a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) program, or a Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) program. Like other mental health practitioners, they also must complete thousands of hours of supervised clinical experience prior to licensure. The major difference between psychologists and most other mental health therapy providers is that they are required to complete more extensive coursework, particularly in areas related to psychological assessment/testing, research methods and statistics, biological aspects of behavior, and diagnosis/treatment of serious mental illnesses (e.g., schizophrenia).

In general, psychologists are trained to evaluate mental health concerns using in-person clinical interviews and/or psychological testing as well as to diagnose and provide therapy. Clinical psychologists specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions, but there are numerous other types of psychologists who have specialized areas of interests in one of the many sub-disciplines of psychology. For example, neuropsychologists focus on how brain injuries or illnesses affect cognitive functions and behaviors; health psychologists examine the relationship between psychosocial factors and health/illness; industrial/organizational psychologists use psychological principles to solve problems in the workplace; sports psychologists help athletes perform at peak levels; and forensic psychologists specialize in the intersection of psychology and the justice system.

Counselors, Clinicians, and Therapists

The terms “counselor,” “clinician,” and “therapist” most often refer to health care professionals who are trained at the masters-level (i.e., have completed a master’s degree). While a doctorate is not required for licensure, some practitioners proceed to complete a doctorate for a variety of reasons, such as personal and professional growth. There are numerous types of licensure and job titles at this level, including licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFT), licensed professional clinical counselors (LPCC), and licensed clinical social workers (LCSW). Like psychologists, all of these forms of licensure require extensive supervised clinical experience.

Marriage and family therapists are trained to look at mental health through a systemic lens. That is, they are relationally-focused in their interpretation and treatment of mental health issues rather than viewing any single person as the “identified patient.” Marriage and family therapists tend to conceptualize problems as relating to the systems the person is embedded in and, therefore, take into consideration the various relationships and environmental factors that may influence the development and maintenance of mental health conditions. Treatment tends to be brief and specific (directly aimed at accomplishing identifiable and attainable goals).

Professional clinical counselors apply counseling interventions and techniques towards issues related to personal growth, adjustment, and other psychosocial problems. In the state of California, the pathway to licensure is very similar to the process of becoming an LMFT; in fact, in California, it is not unusual for marriage and family therapists to also be licensed as professional clinical counselors due to the overlapping curriculum and requirements necessary for licensure. The major difference between LMFTs and LPCCs is that LPCCs identify problems within the individual, rather than looking at issues from a more systems-informed perspective.

Clinical social workers are also eligible to diagnose and treat a wide variety of mental health conditions. Clinical social workers tend to provide therapy that is strength based; that is, focused on the natural skills and talents a client possesses that can be used to overcome presenting obstacles in that person’s life. Compared to LMFTs and LPCCs whose training focuses heavily on mental health diagnosis and treatment, LCSWs receive more extensive training in case management and advocacy services. As such, clinical social workers are often employed in agency settings, such as positions within the government or large mental health organizations.

Psychiatrists and Other Prescribing Professionals

Psychiatrists are medical doctors (MD or DO) who have chosen to specialize in the field of psychiatry (much like an oncologist specializes in the treatment of cancer). They are trained to diagnose mental health conditions and to prescribe and monitor medications used to treat these conditions. While psychiatrists are also trained to be clinicians and provide therapy, many do not offer this service due to the high demand for medication-related assistance. Similar to psychologists, there are numerous opportunities for specialized practice with additional training, such as in areas of child and adolescent psychiatry, substance use disorders, or geriatric psychiatry.

While psychiatrists are considered to be the most trained and specialized practitioners in terms of medications for mental health conditions, there is a growing shortage of providers that is expected to worsen considerably in the foreseeable future. Thankfully, there are a variety of other types of medical providers who have prescription privileges in the United States. For example, other types of medical specialists/generalists, such as neurologists and primary care physicians as well as nurse practitioners (NPs) commonly treat individuals for mental health concerns with a variety of psychiatric medication options. While working with a provider who is specifically trained to diagnose and treat mental health conditions (e.g., psychiatrists and psychiatric NPs) is the ideal option due to their extensive knowledge and experience, other types of prescribing professionals may be relied on due to availability, cost, and other limiting factors. In these cases, it’s important to work closely with another mental health provider who can assist with diagnosis and treatment planning.

While there are distinguishing factors in terms of the degree of education/training, perspectives on mental health/illness, and eligibility to prescribe medication and/or work in certain settings, there are many more similarities across mental health professionals than there are differences. All providers are required to have a background in mental health/psychology, obtain graduate degrees in a related field, accumulate thousands of hours of clinical experience, and genuinely want to help people overcome obstacles to their growth, fulfillment, and stability.

Finding the right mental health professional starts with knowing what matters to you and what type of support you need. After you’ve determined that, the next step is to contact professionals in your area who seem like they’d be a good match for your needs and personality. You may need to meet with a few providers before you find one that feels like the right fit and it may be the case that 2 or more providers are necessary to meet your needs. Although it may feel frustrating, it’s worth the investment of your time and energy in order to help ensure a successful treatment process. You can’t put a price on mental health!

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