If you're trying to seek treatment for your mental health, it may be overwhelming to figure out where to begin. Some mental health professionals can prescribe medication, others offer psychotherapy (aka talk therapy), while some can recommend an effective treatment plan overall, which may include medication, therapy, and other lifestyle factors. Not sure which professional you should seek out? We broke down the main mental health professions and what distinguishes them from each other.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors, either with an MD (medical doctor) or a DO (doctor of osteopathy), who have specialized training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. They can diagnose mental illnesses and mental health conditions, prescribe medication, and may even administer therapy. In addition to their medical degrees, psychiatrists also complete a residency training in psychiatry. Psychiatrists should be licensed in the state where they practice and may be board-certified by the Board of Neurology and Psychiatry.
Psychiatrists aren't the only medical professionals that can prescribe medication. A physician assistant (PA) who works in a psychiatrist's office may be the one who prescribes and monitors medication. Psychiatric or mental health nurse practitioners may also prescribe medication, depending on the state, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Your primary care physician can also prescribe medication, but it's a good idea to seek someone who specializes in mental health care (such as a psychiatrist); primary care physicians and mental health professionals can also work together on a treatment plan.
Psychologists have a doctoral degree, such as a PhD in psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD). They are licensed by boards in each state. Although psychologists can't prescribe medication, they can make diagnoses and provide psychotherapy (talk therapy). Psychologists assess mental health through clinical interviews, psychological evaluations, and testing, according to NAMI. After an initial intake assessment or diagnosis, some people may choose to continue to see a psychologist for therapy.
Licensed Therapists and Counselors
Licensed therapists and licensed counselors are masters-level (MS or MA) professionals that provide therapy based on a person's mental health. Like psychologists, therapists and counselors can administer psychotherapy, such as in individual or group therapy. Through talk therapy, therapists and counselors can help change the pattern of patients' thinking and help them reduce symptoms. There are a number of different types of psychotherapy, and licensed therapists and counselors may provide a wide range of therapy or specialize in certain treatments.
The licensure for therapists and counselors varies by state. They may also vary based on specialty and the kinds of patients that are treated. Some examples of licensed therapists and counselors include: Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), Licensed Clinical Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor (LCADAC). Since "counselor" and "therapist" can be umbrella terms for a variety of professions, it's best to ask your care provider if he or she is licensed in the state where he or she practices.
Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Clinical social workers may also provide therapy and are trained in assessing someone's mental health. They are also licensed to do other social work, such as case management, adoption services, and advocacy services. One of the most common types of licensed social workers who provide therapy are Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW). Other licensed social workers include: Licensed Independent Social Workers (LICSW) and Academy of Certified Social Worker (ACSW).
What to Ask Your Mental Health Professional
It's important to verify that the mental health professional you are seeking is licensed to practice in the state where he or she works. "Somebody with a license is obliged to follow an ethics code and to keep your private information confidential, and can be disciplined if they don't," explained Aimee Daramus, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Chicago. Be wary of people who call themselves "coaches," since that's not a regulated term and those people may not have formal training or a license.
If you're concerned about cost, you should also ask if they take your insurance; in addition to verifying with the mental health professional, you should also double-check with your insurance company to see if he or she is covered. If the professional is in private practice and the sessions are out of pocket, you can call the professional's office and ask how much each session will cost ahead of time. Sometimes, professionals will offer services on a sliding scale, where they will determine a price for you depending on your income.
It's also reasonable to ask ahead of time to see if he or she can spend a few minutes on the phone answering questions before coming in for an official session or if the professional will offer the first session free, Dr. Daramus explained. You may need that initial call to determine if the therapist or doctor treats the condition you are seeking help for. An ethical therapist will be honest and let you know if your condition is out of the scope of their treatment.
"Trust your instincts," Dr. Daramus said. "If it just feels wrong, keep moving. It's OK to chat with two or three different therapists before you decide which one you want to work with."