Types of Mental Health Providers
Below is a brief outline of the various types of mental health practitioners, including a summary of how they approach mental health.
Psychiatrists: Medical doctors who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of mental or psychiatric illnesses. They have medical training and are licensed to prescribe drugs. They also often engage in psychotherapy (aka "talk therapy" which aims to change a person's behaviors or thought patterns.); however, their primary focus is on the biological processes that support mental illness. Thus, their primary focus is the prescription and management of psychotropic medications (antidepressants, antipsychotics, anxiolytics, etc.). On an outpatient basis, psychiatrists usually meet with their patients for approximately 20 minutes to assess symptoms, prescribe or adjust medication, and then schedule a follow-up appointment every 1-3 months as needed.
Psychiatric Nursing: Like psychiatrists, Psychiatric Mental Health Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (PMH-APRNs) are medically trained individuals who have chosen to specialize in mental health. As such, APRN's may also engage in psychotherapy but generally focus on the prescription and management of medication. APRN's are Master's or Doctoral level nurses and apply the nursing process to assess, diagnose, and treat individuals or families with psychiatric disorders.
Psychologists: Doctoral degree (PhD or PsyD) experts in psychology. In some states, psychologists may be licensed to prescribe medication. However, the bulk of their education and training is focused on the study of the human mind and human behavior; thus, psychologists are trained in multiple modes of psychotherapy. Additionally, psychologists are licensed to administer psychological testing which may be used to assist in treatment or fulfill forensic needs. In states where psychologists are not allowed to prescribe medication, they can refer you to a psychiatrist if necessary.
Social Workers: Specialists with a Master's or PhD in social work, social workers provide social and mental health services in a variety of avenues, including working with hospitals, social service agencies, community building organizations, and private practice. In most of their roles, social workers provide counseling and psychotherapy with individuals, families, and groups. The practice of social work requires knowledge of human development and behavior; of social and economic, and cultural institutions; and of the interaction of all these factors. Because of the broad nature of their vocation, social workers often specialize in a particular field or patient population over the course of their career (i.e. child therapy, couples counseling, medical social work, policy development, etc). Social workers do not prescribe medication but can refer you to a psychiatrist or APRN if needed. The professional licensure of a social worker is either a CSW or an LCSW.
Marriage and Family Therapists: Specialists with a Masters or PhD, marriage and family therapist are trained in psychotherapy and family systems, and licensed to diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders within the context of marriage, couples and family systems. They evaluate and treat mental and emotional disorders, other health and behavioral problems, and address a wide array of relationship issues within the context of the family system. Marriage and family therapists take a holistic perspective to health care and are concerned with the overall, long-term well-being of individuals and their families. They have graduate training in marriage and family therapy and, prior to become licensed as independent providers (LMFT), have at least two years of clinical experience. LMFT's do not prescribe medication but may refer you to a relevant provider as needed.
Licensed Professional Counselors: Counselors required by state licensure laws to have at least a master's degree in counseling and 3,000 hours of post-master's experience. They are either licensed or certified to independently diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders. They combine traditional psychotherapy with a practical, problem-solving approach that creates a dynamic and efficient path for change and problem resolution. As with LCSW's and LMFT's, licensed professional counselors do not prescribe medication but may refer you to a relevant provider if needed.