What are the different types of mental health professionals?

Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/Ambro
Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/Ambro

“What are the different types of mental health professionals?”  I get this question a lot, or more often, “What is the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?”  There are a number of links online about this, but I thought I would share some information, which could be useful particularly if you were searching for a professional- either for yourself or a loved one.

Since I’m a psychologist, I’ll describe that one first.  A psychologist is someone with a doctorate in psychology, which takes 5-6 years to earn and includes graduate coursework in psychology, supervised clinical experiences, a dissertation, and a one-year full-time internship.  This is after earning a bachelor’s and possibly a master’s degree.  Psychologists can be clinical, counseling, school, or industrial and organizational, and can specialize in all kinds of areas.  The degrees include the Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology), Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy), or the Ed.D. (Doctor of Education).  As laws have changed over the years, there are some providers out there with master’s degrees who have the title of “psychologist”, though most today do not. As a clinical psychologist, I’m trained to provide assessment and psychotherapy as well as to do psychological testing.  I work with people with many common life concerns, as well as more serious mental health issues.  Although not all psychologists have this training, I also have significant experience in assessing and treating substance abuse.  At least here in Pennsylvania, one has to have a license as a psychologist to use the term “psychologist” or “licensed psychologist”.  Otherwise some other designation like “psychotherapist” must be used.

Master’s level therapists have about 2-3 years of graduate training beyond a bachelor’s degree, again with appropriate coursework and supervised clinical experience.  Degrees and designations can include the MSW (Master of Social Work), LSW (Licensed Social Worker), LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker), LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor), MA (Master of Arts), MS (Master of Science), MFT (Master of Family Therapy), LMFT (Licensed Marriage and FamilyTherapist), or MEd (Master of Education).  Most are trained in psychotherapy but there are often differences in their areas of specialty- for example, MFTs and LMFTs specialize in marriage and family therapy.  There are even other providers, like advanced practice nurses (MSN- Master of Science in Nursing) who have medical training and possibly training in therapy as well.  Some of these, like nurse practitioners, are able to prescribe medication as well.

Terms like counselor, therapist, or psychotherapist are more generic terms and can relate to any of the above.  They are often used when a person is not yet licensed and cannot yet call him or herself a psychologist, LMFT, LPC, LSW, LCSW, etc.  The “L”, of course, means someone is licensed.  To get licensed in these fields, you need additional supervised experience and to pass at least one licensing exam.  At least here in PA, therapists can practice when they are not licensed, provided that they have a licensed supervisor.  They occasionally practice independently, but this is not recommended.  One thing for consumers to be aware of is that they may see an unlicensed provider and pay fee-for-service (out-of-pocket), but these services will not be reimbursable by an insurance company, as in or out-of-network they will only reimburse for licensed providers.  In addition, seeing a licensed provider means that the person is accountable to a state board and has met certain criteria in order to earn their license. 

Psychiatrists are medical doctors, similar to your family physician or types of specialists, like cardiologists or orthopedists.  They have their bachelor’s degree and then attended medical school.  In addition, psychiatrists have at least a year of psychiatric training beyond that.  There are some psychiatrists today who provide psychotherapy, but by and large they provide assessments and medication management services for people with mental health concerns.  A psychiatrist can treat a person on his or her own, or he or she may work in conjunction with a therapist to treat someone.  The latter option is generally recommended and has been shown in research to help people to achieve the best outcomes, however, the kind of treatment people seek is certainly their choice.

There may very well be other types of providers out there treating mental health, but I wanted to provide a basic primer here.  One type of provider is not necessarily better than another.  It may depend on what you are looking for, their training, their experience, and so forth.  But the number one factor in good psychotherapy is that you feel a connection with a provider and that you are comfortable.  If you are not, you might want to keep searching.  Don’t get discouraged, however, because like shopping for anything else, you may not find the perfect therapist the first time around.  I hope this is helpful.

Published by Dr. Jesse Matthews

I'm a practicing psychologist and director of Matthews Counseling & Coaching, a private practice in Chester Springs, PA. I work with clients 18 and older, and my specialties include: depression; addiction/substance abuse; relationships; anxiety; ADHD and behavioral issues; and Autism/Asperger's. Our group works with individuals from tween through older adult, helping them with a variety of life issues. Check out the practice website for information on other clinicians and their services: http://matthewscounselingcoaching.com .

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