Perhaps you or someone you love is wrestling with a relationship problem, a life crisis, or a serious mental illness. But deciding whether you should see a psychiatrist, psychologist, or another type of mental health professional can be enough to make you lose your mind! Don’t worry, your healthcare provider can likely provide you with an appropriate referral, if necessary. In the meantime, it helps to know the difference between the types of mental health professionals.

Psychiatrist (MD)

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have specialized training to diagnosis and treat mental illnesses. They understand the body's functions and the complex relationship between emotional illness and other medical illnesses. They are the only mental health professionals who can prescribe medicine. Although they may sometimes practice some type of psychotherapy, particularly if they are in private practice, at the present time, most psychiatrists focus largely on prescribing medication for the treatment of mental disorders. A psychiatrist’s training includes a bachelors degree, medical school, and four years of residency training in the field of psychiatry. Many psychiatrists get additional training so that they can specialize in areas such as child and adolescent psychiatry, geriatric psychiatry, forensic psychiatry, psychopharmacology, and/or psychoanalysis.

Psychologist (PhD or PsyD)

Psychologists are mental health professionals who work in a variety of settings including clinics, hospitals, private practice, schools, and universities. psychologists had a doctorate degree in psychology which they obtain after getting a bachelors degree. Depending on their training and specialization, psychologists may:

  • Assess and counsel people who have serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, alcoholism, drug addiction, and eating disorders
  • Assess and counsel people who are experiencing life transitions such as divorce, relationship problems, and academic problems
  • Teach in a college or university
  • Conduct research on any number of mental health issues
  • Consult in various areas such as business and sports teams

Mental Health Counselor (MA, MS, NCC, CCMC) and Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)

Mental health counselors and licensed professional counselors are therapists who are trained to diagnose and provide individual and group counseling. They often provide general psychotherapy. They work in community mental health centers, in group or private practices, or other settings. Mental health counselors and licensed professional counselors have a masters degree (usually in clinical or counseling psychology) and several years of supervised clinical work experience.

Clinical Social Worker (CSW, MSW, LSW, LCSW, PhD)

Licensed social workers are mental health providers that deal with issues such as life events, family conflicts, violence, substance abuse, and disabilities. They not only offer psychotherapy, but also help patients find community care. Social workers have an advanced degree in social work that they obtain after they get a bachelors degree. They may practice in community mental health centers, family services agencies, child welfare agencies, hospitals, schools, businesses, nursing homes, private practice, courts, prisons, and various public and private agencies.

Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor or Addiction Counselor (CSAC, CAC)

Certified alcohol and drug abuse counselors and addiction counselors are trained to diagnose and provide individual and group counseling for individuals with addiction problems. They may work in drug abuse and addiction centers, hospitals, clinics, and community mental health centers. Training may include a bachelor degree, specific clinical training in alcohol and drug abuse, and supervised experience.

Pastoral Counselors (MA, MS, Mdiv, DMin)

Pastoral counselors are certified mental health professionals who have had extensive religious/theological training and clinical training in the behavioral sciences. They may specialize in marriage and family therapy, addiction, grief, and other issues, including serious mental illnesses. They may also provide educational programs on preparing for marriage, adjusting to divorce, and coping with loss and grief. They may work in health clinics, state hospitals, private and group practices, congregation-based centers, or in pastoral counseling centers. Pastoral counselors typically have a bachelor degree, a three-year professional degree, and a specialized master or doctoral degree in a mental health field.

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT)

Marriage and family therapists diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders, and other health and behavioral problems within the context of marriage, couples, and family systems. They often work in group or private practices. Marriage and family therapists have a master or doctoral degree in marriage and family therapy and at least three years of clinical experience. They are trained in psychotherapy and family systems.