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Understanding the Different Types of Mental Health Professionals

Kyle Caldwell, M.Ed., LPCC-S

Since the month of May is Mental Health Awareness Month, it would seem fitting to spend some time talking about the various types of mental health professionals, how they can help you, and how you can access them.  As I work in the emergency department one of the most common issues I see with regard to access to mental health care is that many parents simply do not know where to turn for help.  What does help look like?  Who do I call?  What are the differences between all of the different mental health professionals?  These are all valid questions and hurdles for parents to overcome when reaching out for help.  It’s not uncommon for this uncertainty to lead parents to bring their child to the emergency department.  Below, we will go through the various kinds of professionals and highlight their differences and jobs within the mental health system.

For starters, a basic distinction to make when seeking out help is whether you are looking for a provider to prescribe medication, or therapy.   If you are seeking someone to help with medication then you are looking for either a Psychiatrist, or a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner.  The former is a medical doctor who has completed medical school, and a psychiatric residency.   The latter is an advanced practice nurse who has completed a Master’s degree along with supervised clinical hours in the area of psychiatry. Both of which could potentially provide therapy, but are typically doing medication management.

The other type of mental health provider is generally called a therapist.  This word “therapist” is really more of a generic title that refers to someone who provides psychotherapy.  There are actually four distinct professionals with different licensure types that you might call a “therapist.”  The first, and most commonly thought of, is a Clinical Psychologist.  This is someone who has completed a doctorate degree and has completed supervised clinical training.  A clinical psychologist is someone who can diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders by way of psychotherapy, and they are not to be confused with a psychiatrist.  Psychologists also have a specialty in administering psychological assessments.The other three types of therapists can be grouped together due to their similarities in level of education and clinical training requirements.  These are Clinical Counselors, Social Workers, and Marriage and Family Therapists.  Though these types of therapists are distinct from one another in their training, they share similarities in that they each will have completed a Master’s level degree as well as supervised clinical training.  Each of these three have the ability to diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders, similar to that of a clinical psychologist.

If you or your child are struggling with any concerns related to mental health, it is usually appropriate to first reach out to a therapist for an evaluation.  From there they can make recommendations if they feel a medication management provider could be helpful.  If you are unsure of who to call first, you can always start with your primary care physician.  They are usually able to help refer you to an appropriate therapist.  Another helpful resource in finding a therapist is

Understanding The Different Types Of Mental Health Professionals
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