Types of Mental Health Care Professionals 

The most important thing to understand is that Psychiatrists, Psychologists, and Therapists all provide an integral service to those who seek their help. They are all considered mental health professionals.

Oftentimes, an individual is best served by working with a combination of all, since medication and therapy may each be necessary. In most cases, an individual can start by seeking help from one type of professional and then be referred to another professional if indicated.

Psychiatrists are medical doctors, as described above, who diagnose psychiatric conditions such as mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders; manage medical issues, prescribe medications, and provide psychotherapy. The practice of using medications to treat psychiatric conditions is referred to as “psychopharmacotherapy.”

Because they are also medical doctors, psychiatrists may order lab work or other tests to monitor progress. Psychiatrists also collaborate with other medical doctors, such as pediatricians, neurologists, endocrinologists, and family medicine doctors, in order to provide the best medical care. 

Many people prefer to go to a psychiatrist instead of a general practice doctor because even though they can prescribe medicine, psychiatrists can treat more complicated disorders. Psychiatrists’ specialties can include:

  • children and adolescents
  • forensic psychiatry
  • learning disabilities

Psychologists have also completed post-graduate training, but in a different setting than psychiatrists. They have completed a doctoral program that is non-medical. Psychologists specialize in the science of behaviors, emotions, and thoughts.

They often specialize in administering specialized diagnostic testing as well as therapy and counseling. Psychologists work in places like private offices, hospitals, or schools. They do not prescribe medications, but their services are very important.

Therapists / Counselors have usually completed post-graduate training in a Master’s program, and there are a variety of licensures that can be obtained. The terms “therapist” and “counselor” are often used interchangeably. Therapists and counselors typically focus on providing psychotherapy, or counseling, to individuals, families, couples, or groups, in a variety of settings and specialties. 

Since therapist/counselor are vague terms, it's important to ask about their education, experience, and the types of services involved to know if it is the right fit for you. Therapists/Counselors can specialize in fields like:

  • job stress
  • addiction
  • marriages
  • families
  • general stress

Social Workers usually have a Masters of Social Work (MSW) or can be a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). In all of these forms, the goal of the social worker is to empower the client to be able to see their own inner strengths and build upon them so that they can overcome the challenges they are facing in their lives.

Social workers assess, treat, and evaluate individuals' interpersonal and societal problems through the use of social work knowledge, skills, and strategies. They may address social problems like substance use, housing, and unemployment, and are often involved in family disputes that involve domestic violence or child abuse.

Social workers usually work in multi-disciplinary teams alongside health and education professionals. Professional social workers are the largest group of mental health service providers.

Check out ADAA's Find the Right Therapist helpful infographic

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