Mental Health Professionals

There was a time, not so very long ago, when mental illness was a topic to be swept under the rug. Now we know that mental illness can happen to anyone and that it is no less a disease than the common cold, which is a viral infectious disease. One of the results of this societal acceptance of mental illness is that the playing field for mental health professionals has burgeoned. This is both a blessing and a curse: there is a greater chance of finding the professional help that's just right for you, but it can be a daunting task to know where to begin.

Who Can Help

It's important to note that regulations vary from state to state, so that the titles of the various professionals mean different things depending on where you live. Be aware, too, that your health insurance providers have a say in the type of help you may receive. Some professionals manage your medication, others provide psychotherapy, and still others are there to aid in the process of finding the most appropriate care available to you. Here are just a few of the options:


Psychiatrists are medical doctors (M.D.), also known sometimes as doctors of osteopathy (O.D.). Psychiatrists have completed medical school plus a minimum 4 years of specialized study and training in psychiatry. Psychiatrists are licensed as physicians to practice medicine by the specific state they work in and can provide both medication as well as psychotherapy. Board Certified psychiatrists have successfully passed the national examination administered by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.


Psychologists provide psychotherapy. Some have a either a master's degree (M.A. or M.S.) or a doctoral degree (Psy.D. or PH.D.) but may not prescribe medication except in New Mexico and Louisiana, the only two states that allow such privileges to trained psychologists. Psychologists provide psychological testing, evaluations, treat emotional and behavioral problems and mental disorders and provide psychotherapy.


Psychotherapists may or may not be trained professionals. The term is used to connote a wide variety of mental health care providers such as psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, lay counselors and marriage or family therapists.

Social Workers

Social workers help people with both social and health problems. Most have a bachelor's degree (B.A., B.S., or B.S.W.) or a master's degree and the title (M.A., M.S., M.S.W. or M.S.S.W.) and some take the exam to be a licensed clinical social worker (L.C.S.W.). Those who provide mental health care must have advanced training and state licensing. The type of license depends upon their level of education and practical experience. They provide a number of services that include assessment and treatment of psychiatric illnesses, case management, hospital discharge planning and psychotherapy. They cannot prescribe medication.

Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurses

Psychiatric/mental health nurses must be licensed registered nurses (R.N.) and have additional training in mental health care, often working under the supervision of a doctor. They may have various degrees ranging from associates to bachelors to masters and doctorates. The care they provide varies according to the level of training they have received. Some of them have doctorates. An A.P.R.N., an advanced practice registered nurse, has at least a master's degree in psychiatric mental health nursing and is licensed to diagnose and treat mental illness. In some states, they may prescribe and monitor medication.

Licensed Professional Counselors

Licensed professional counselors have an M.A. (master's degree) in psychology, counseling or a similar discipline and usually have two year of post-graduate experience. They are able to provide services that entail diagnosis as well as counseling for an individual, family/group, or both. Licensed by their state, they may be certified by the National Academy of Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselors.


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