Types of Mental Health Professionals

There are several different types of mental health practitioners who treat individuals with mental disorders, emotional conditions and behavioral issues. The following descriptions will help you become familiar with their services, areas of specialization and educational training.

Psychiatrists (M.D. or D.O.) are physicians (or doctors) who specialize in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illnesses. Psychiatrists typically work with individuals who have significant mental health problems but many also see a broad spectrum of patients. After medical school, they complete an additional four years or more of residency training in psychiatry. Like other physicians, psychiatrists have the training required to prescribe medications. They are qualified to order and perform a full range of tests that, coupled with discussions with patients, are used to assess an individual’s mental and physical state. They also have the expertise to provide psychotherapy and prescribe other brain treatments, such as electroconvulsive therapy. Psychiatrists may direct and supervise other practitioners or conduct research. Areas of specialty include child and adolescent psychiatry, geriatric psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and forensic psychiatry.

Psychologists (Ph.D, Psy.D) earn doctorates in the field of psychology and undergo specialized training to provide mental health treatment. Typically, their graduate studies are within a clinical psychology training program, in counseling psychology, or in developmental psychology. Clinical psychologists provide psychotherapy to clients one-to-one or in a group or family setting. They can also perform detailed batteries of assessments that measure specific mental functions and behaviors. Some of the fields they can specialize in include child, cognitive, clinical, developmental, geriatric, social and community psychology. Because they hold doctoral-level degrees, they are “doctors,” but unlike medical doctors – physicians – they cannot prescribe medications.

Social Workers (MSW, LMSW) undergo the training required to understand the social factors that affect behaviors and emotions. Most social workers earn master’s degrees from schools of social work, although some also pursue doctorates while others hold bachelor’s degrees. They often provide specific services to address a person’s day-to-day life needs such as finances, housing and access to community resources or government benefits. Social workers are also trained in supporting healthy coping behaviors, and some possess the training necessary to provide psychotherapy.

Therapists (MFT, LMFT), Counselors (LPC, MHC) and Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselors all provide interventions such as therapy and counseling. “Talk therapy,” “therapy” and “counseling” are terms that span formal psychotherapy as well as providing guidance for specific issues. Individual, couples, family and group therapy may be performed by many types of mental health practitioners. Therapists and counselors work in hospitals, clinics, schools and universities, rehabilitation centers, nursing homes, social service agencies, and in private practice.

Pastoral Counselors are clergy members and others who have received graduate training in both religion and behavioral science for a practice that integrates the discipline of psychology with spirituality and religious beliefs. Many people turn to faith leaders for help with personal, marital and family issues as well as spiritual issues.

Psychiatric nurses – Psychiatric mental health nursing is a specialty within nursing much like psychiatry is a specialty within the practice of medicine. Individuals who are psychiatric nurses have been trained in a school of nursing and have gone on to do specialty training and clinical work in psychiatric nursing. 

Advanced Practice Nurses (APNs), who have completed additional training, can prescribe medications under the supervision of a physician.

Internists, family physicians and primary care doctors are physicians who have the training to diagnose and treat physical illnesses and to encourage preventative health practices. Many people with mental illnesses and related concerns first seek assistance from their primary care physicians who may often start medications and/or refer their patients to mental health practitioners for further evaluation and treatment.