Mental health professionals have different specialties and play unique roles in your care.
Whether you have a mental health condition or think you might have one, deciding to get mental health help can be difficult. And even after taking this step, you might be confused about the different mental health professionals.
Do you need one that does only therapy or one who can also prescribe medications? Should you see a counselor or a therapist?
Doctors who help with mental health conditions have specific education, training, and specialties. The stage of your mental health journey, recommendations from your family doctor, and knowing what mental health professionals can prescribe medication are all possible factors as you start your search.
Each mental health professional plays a unique role in mental health care, and you may need more information to find who’s right for you.
Mental health professionals may work in diagnosis, therapy, treatment, research, or other roles in the field. You might connect with a mental health professional if you want support, resources, or guidance about how you experience your mental health.
Mental health is about psychological and emotional well-being. The
Someone with a mental health diagnosis can experience wellness, and someone with mental health challenges might not have a mental health diagnosis.
Your mental health will change throughout your life. Therefore, you may need to partner with a different professional depending on your current experience.
Mental health professionals can hold different educational degrees, licenses, and credentials. Some can help evaluate and diagnose mental health conditions. They can also help plan your course of treatment and offer guidance and support along your journey.
A psychologist can evaluate the mental health of an individual. They use interviews and tests to establish a diagnosis. These professionals also lead therapy both on a one-to-one basis and in a group setting.
Psychologists hold a doctoral degree (Psy.D or PhD) and are licensed in the state where they practice. Psychologists usually cannot prescribe medications, but that varies from state to state.
Those who can prescribe are required to gain additional training, including specialized training in psychopharmacology — using medications to treat mental health conditions.
Therapists or counselors
These mental health professionals hold a master’s degree (MA or MS). They assess mental health and provide therapy in a one-on-one or group setting.
Therapists and counselors have a variety of titles that reflect their training and licensing:
- Mental health counselor: has several years’ experience in clinical work
- Licensed professional counselor (LPC): master’s degrees in counseling, psychology, or a similar field
- Certified alcohol and drug abuse counselor: training in alcohol and drug use
- Nurse psychotherapist: registered nurses with specialized training in the psychiatric and mental health field
- Licensed marital and family therapist (LMFT): trained in marital and family therapy
Each state has different rules for licensing therapists, so your professional’s title may be a bit different depending on where you live.
Counselors and therapists cannot prescribe medication. However, they may help connect you with a provider who can offer different kinds of support if it may help you.
Clinical social worker
Social workers typically hold a master’s degree (MSW) or may be licensed clinical social workers. They often practice as part of interdisciplinary teams with others in health and education.
As your mental health partner, a clinical social worker may help you find and build upon your inherent strengths and assets to improve your well-being.
These professionals cannot prescribe medication.
These mental health professionals can prescribe medications and do evaluations, make diagnoses, and recommend treatment.
A psychiatrist is a medical doctor. Because of this training, they can look at the biological reasons for mental health challenges and the psychological factors. They can request tests to help rule out other medical issues and recommend treatment, if necessary.
A psychiatrist may talk with you at length about what you experience to make a diagnosis and pursue a treatment plan.
After graduating from medical school with an MD (or DO) degree, prospective psychiatrists usually specialize in psychiatry with a 4-year residency.
Psychiatric or mental health nurse practitioner
A mental health nurse practitioner is a nurse with graduate-level education and advanced licensing. These professionals are also called psychiatric-mental health advanced practice nurses (PMH-APRNs).
These professionals have a master’s degree in nursing or doctoral degree in advanced practice psychiatric nursing. They must also obtain board certification and renew that certification every 5 years.
A psychiatric nurse practitioner is trained in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions. These professionals can prescribe many medications and therapies in all 50 states.
It’s rarely easy to decide on the right therapist. Consider trying these steps when you embark on your journey to find the mental health professional that’s best for you.
Start with your family doctor
They can help you decide if you need a medical doctor, therapist, or both. Sometimes your family doctor can prescribe medications that can help.
Make a shortlist of providers
Your doctor can help you find a list of practitioners where you live. Your state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) can also help.
Do preliminary research
State licensing boards should have information on the credentials of the people on your list, as well as whether their certification has lapsed.
Interview potential doctors or therapists
Talk with the potential provider to find out answers to practical and personal questions:
- Do you have experience handling people with my types of concerns?
- Do you practice a particular therapeutic method?
- Can you prescribe medication or refer me to someone who can?
- Do you take my insurance?
- How easy is it to schedule an appointment?
- Are appointments virtual or in-person?
- Do you ensure my confidentiality?
You can also ask the professional about their credentials, even if you have already done the research. They may have more recent specialized training or have other skills not listed on licensing websites.
Assess your comfort level with the professional
Even someone with great credentials and a top-notch reputation might not be the right therapist or doctor for you. Know that this can change.
You may feel comfortable enough to make an appointment but uncertain during a therapy session. Try to be honest and talk about those feelings with the therapist or consider contacting a different counselor.
When you’re ready to meet with a mental health professional, you can expect certain things during your first — aka intake — visit. These may include:
- completing an informed consent document
- discussion of confidentiality
- fees and potential schedule for therapy
- discuss online or telephone therapy options, if provided
During this first session, the mental health professional will ask questions to get to know you and understand why you have sought their help. These questions may cover your previous experience with therapy, why you’re seeking it now, and how you’re feeling.
It’s common for therapists to ask specific questions about thoughts and feelings you’re currently experiencing, as well as your home and family life.
Getting support for mental health is the first step toward improved well-being.
Consider making an appointment with your family doctor or contacting a local mental health advocacy organization.
There are people who can help connect you with the mental health professional who can further guide you to better health.