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Mental Health Professionals

What are the types of mental health professionals?

There are many types of mental health professionals. Each type has its own training, techniques, and area of expertise.

  • Psychiatrists. These are medical doctors (MDs) who are trained in the medical aspects of mental health. They can prescribe medicines as well as provide therapy. They must take 4 years of special training in psychiatry after they get their medical degree. They may have special training to treat children and teens, older adults, or people with substance abuse problems. They may be board certified, which means they have passed a national exam.
  • Psychologists. Psychologists are trained in counseling, testing, and therapy. They work with people who have many kinds of problems and use different types of therapy. They may use tests such as IQ tests, personality tests, and career tests. They may work with individuals, couples, families, and groups. They cannot prescribe medicine in most states.

    Psychologists may have either a master's degree (MA) or a doctoral degree (PhD, PsyD, EdD). They complete at least 1 year of special training after earning their degree. They must pass a national exam to be licensed.

  • Psychiatric nurses. These are registered nurses (RN) with a master's degree, and sometimes additional training. They are trained to assess mental and physical illness. They may provide individual, family, and group counseling. In some states, it is legal for a psychiatric nurse with special training to prescribe medicines.
  • Social workers. Most have a master's degree (MSW) in social work. They have special training that helps them understand how culture and society affect people. Some social workers teach classes about life skills such as how to deal with anger. They may work with individuals, couples, families, and groups.
  • Licensed clinical social workers (LCSW). LCSWs help people with mental illness or substance abuse problems. They have a master's or doctoral degree. They must complete 2 years of supervised experience after they earn their degree and pass a national exam to be licensed.
  • School psychologists. Most school psychologists have a PhD, PsyD, or EdD degree. They help students with school and personal problems. They work with teachers, parents, and others to help children with learning and behavior problems. They may test for learning disabilities, and help develop individualized education plans (IEP). They provide therapy only if it relates to helping students.
  • Marriage, family, and child counselors (MFCC). MFCCs are therapists who have a graduate degree in counseling or psychology. They work with people who have problems in relationships.
  • Pastoral counselors. These counselors are mental health professionals who have had in-depth religious or theological training. They work with people who want faith-based counseling for personal, marriage, or family problems. In most states, no license is needed to do pastoral counseling.
  • Psychotherapist. This is a very general term. Anyone can call themselves a psychotherapist, even with no education, degree, or training. They may not be licensed. Before you see a psychotherapist, check their degree, training, and if they are licensed in their state.

How do I find a therapist?

Ask questions and get referrals from people you know and trust. You could check with:

  • Your healthcare provider, school teachers, or school counselors
  • Friends or family members who have been in therapy
  • Your health insurance company (If you belong to a health plan, your choice of therapists may be limited to providers who are included in your plan.)
  • Your employee assistance program (EAP) at work
  • Local mental health or human service agencies

You may also want to contact professional organizations such as:

  • American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
  • American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy
  • American Psychiatric Association
  • American Psychological Association
  • National Association of Social Workers
  • American Association of Pastoral Counselors

Licensing is regulated at the state level. A license means that a provider has completed a level of training set by the licensing board. You can make sure the provider’s license is in good standing by calling or checking the website for your state's licensing board.

Developed by Change Healthcare.
Pediatric Advisor 2022.1 published by Change Healthcare.
Last modified: 2021-01-11
Last reviewed: 2018-01-09
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2022 Change Healthcare LLC and/or one of its subsidiaries
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