Navigating the world of mental health can be difficult at times. Once you make the decision to get psychological help, you might struggle with deciding what type of mental health professional is right for you. Many people don’t know the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist (and why would they unless they are already working with one!) In addition, there are many different types of mental health professionals. These include social workers, therapists, counselors, and doctors, who sometimes perform overlapping functions. To help you figure out where to begin, we have created a handy guide to all of the different types of mental health professionals.
Psychologists specialize in the science of human behavior, cognition, and emotional processes. In psychology, practitioners are trained to observe, interpret, and record how individuals relate with others and their environment. They typically hold a doctoral degree like a Ph.D. or Psy.D. and must also have a state license to use the title psychologist. Psychologists can be divided into two categories: Some are researchers while others are practitioners. Practicing psychologists are the ones most people encounter when receiving mental health treatment. They provide psychotherapy and are often included under the umbrella of therapists.
Psychiatrists are who people go to in order to diagnose, treat, and help prevent mental and behavioral disorders. Psychiatrists are mental health professionals who have medical schooling. They typically are either a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO). Psychiatrists provide diagnoses, just like a regular doctor, and can prescribe medication to help with mental health symptoms. Some primary care physicians can also prescribe medications to help with mental problems, but it’s best to go to a psychiatrist first as they can do a complete evaluation and are better equipped to help with complicated disorders. Some psychiatrist also provide some form of counseling or psychotherapy during sessions, but it varies provider to provider. Under the umbrella of psychiatry are also psychiatric nurse practitioners (ARNPs) and psychopharmacologists, who perform some of the duties of psychiatrists, such as prescribing medication.
If you hear the term “psychoanalyst” and think Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung, you’re not far off. Psychoanalysis is one of the oldest forms of psychological therapy. Psychoanalysis focuses on the study of the unconscious mind. Psychoanalytical techniques and theory were once the predominant school of psychotherapy, and still influence modern psychiatry and therapy. Its popularity has declined as newer schools of psychotherapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) have emerged. Psychoanalysis is a long-term mental health treatment, which individuals can participate in for years.
Psychotherapist is a general term that encompasses psychologists, mental health counselors, and clinical social workers. Broadly speaking, a psychotherapist utilizes “talk therapy.” Any mental health professionals that provide this type of service fall into the psychotherapist category. There are many different schools of psychotherapy, such as psychoanalysis and cognitive behavioral therapy (see above). For some, the focus is on processing past events to improve current issues. Psychodynamic psychotherapy is one school of thought, and is what most people think of when referring to “talk therapy.” There are also therapeutic schools of thought that are focused on teaching coping skills. This is the case with the behavioral therapy umbrella, which includes CBT and DBT (dialectical behavior therapy).
People often use the terms therapist and counselor interchangeably, however counselor is more inclusive term. Mental health counselors are state licensed, provide psychotherapy, and must have a master’s degree and completed hundreds of hours of supervision in order to practice. Some counselors are not licensed but have a certification and provide specialized services. This is true of certified addiction counselors (CACs), who do not do therapy but provide other forms of support, like recovery coaching or case management. Typically, certified counselors give practical support to help individuals get their life back on track.
If you are struggling with mental health, it is recommended that they see both a psychiatrist and a psychotherapist. Seeing two professionals covers both the medical and clinical ends of the spectrum. That comprehensive model is the one used by the Delray Center, and is considered best-practice for mental health treatment centers. A psychiatrist properly diagnoses patients and provides medication to help with mental health symptoms. From that diagnosis, a psychiatrist will also refer you to the appropriate therapist who specializes in your diagnosis. A therapist helps with processing past events, setting goals, and with learning new healthy coping skills.