The world of mental healthcare providers is a diverse one, with many different types of professionals.
Between psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists, licensed clinical social workers, and more, things can get a bit confusing. If you’re looking for a provider, you may not know which way to turn.
Well, have no fear! This post will hopefully help clear things up for you by describing the different types of mental health professionals, thereby helping you to choose which is the best option for yourself or your loved one.
First off, we have the psychologist. A clinical psychologist is a mental health professional with a doctorate who administers therapy to a patient.
Common types of therapy include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), rational-emotive behavior therapy (REBT), and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and a psychologist may specialize in one or the other or multiple of these. Different types of therapy are indicated for different mental health conditions.
In most US states, psychologists can not prescribe medication. The exceptions to this rule are Illinois, Idaho, New Mexico, Iowa, and Louisiana.
As for their educational background psychologists possibly majored in psychology as undergraduates, then went on to graduate school to receive either a Ph.D. (doctor of philosophy) or Psy.D. (doctor of psychology) degree. They learned how to apply psychology to therapy through internships and clinical practice.
What’s the difference between a Ph.D. and a Psy.D? Are these different types of psychologists?
Sort of. The main difference is that a Ph.D. program emphasizes research – in order to obtain a Ph.D., the student must write a lengthy dissertation. Psy.D. programs are more about imparting clinical skills.
Additionally, earning a Ph.D. may take between 5 and 8 years, whereas earning a Psy.D. may take between 4 and 6 years. Aspiring Ph.D. and Psy.D. students must both complete a one-year internship (included in the numbers given). Finally, the salary of a Psy.D. may also be slightly lower than that of a Ph.D.
These differences are a bit pedantic, and you shouldn’t worry that a Ph.D. is “better” than a Psy.D. or vice versa. As long as the psychologist has their degree, you can rest assured they know what they’re doing.
Unlike a psychologist, a psychiatrist is not a Ph.D. or Psy.D but an M.D. The job of a psychiatrist is mostly to provide prescriptions for psychiatric medications to patients, and raise and lower the dosage as needed.
In general, a psychiatrist would not be the person to see if you’re looking for therapy such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), although some “traditional” psychiatrists do continue to administer therapy.
If you suffer from a condition such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder, what you might decide to do is work with a psychiatrist for your medical needs and a psychologist or social worker for your therapy needs – together, medication and therapy can have a synergistic effect.
Being an M.D., the psychiatrist must work their way through medical school and complete a four-year residency, much the same as other medical doctors.
“Psychotherapist” is a bit of a general term, and may refer to anyone who administers therapy (shorthand, of course, for “psychotherapy”). We could say, for example, that all psychologists are psychotherapists, but not all psychotherapists are psychologists.
How therapy sessions work depends on what condition you’re dealing with. Psychology services (psychology can sometimes be interchangeable with “psychotherapy”) run the gamut from exposure and response prevention for OCD to dialectical behavior therapy for borderline personality disorder.
Clinical Social Worker
Clinical social workers have a master’s degree in social work. Their education typically lasts around two years.
As compared to psychologists, they are more “jack-of-all-trades” mental health professionals, potentially being able to treat depression and anxiety or help with more severe conditions such as bipolar disorder or personality disorders. A substance abuse counselor is likely to be a type of clinical social worker.
Whether or not they have good knowledge about a specific condition really depends on the individual social worker.
Unlike psychologists, clinical social workers can not administer psychometric tests such as the Rorschach test.
Depending on what state they work in, the letters after their name may be different, from LCSW (licensed clinical social worker) to LICSW (licensed independent clinical social worker).
Counselors are somewhat similar to clinical social workers in that they are not necessarily specialized, but more generalized: counseling services are provided for anxiety and depression, substance abuse problems, behavioral issues, and many others.
In theory and practice, there’s no difference between “therapy” and “counseling” – therapy is a type of counseling, after all.
Someone referred to as a counselor may only have a bachelor’s degree but, in order to be a licensed professional counselor, the person must have a master’s degree. A counseling program usually takes between 1 and 3 years to complete.
Marriage and Family Therapists
Marriage and family therapists – as you can guess from the name – focus on relationships between married couples, parents and children, etc. However, they do offer individualized therapy for a wide range of conditions, from anxiety disorders to personality disorders.
Marriage and family therapists have either a master’s or doctoral degree, and train specifically with another marriage and family therapist to learn to apply the techniques specific to this type of therapy – i.e., how to observe and resolve relationship issues.
Therefore, a marriage and family therapist may be best if you’re not struggling with a psychiatric disorder but marriage or family issues. Additionally, they may be a good option if you’d like to work out how your (or a family member’s) psychiatric problems relate to the rest of the family.
Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner
A nurse practitioner is a type of advanced practice registered nurse. Nurse practitioners have grown in popularity over the past few decades and especially in recent years. They are what are called “mid-level” healthcare providers, somewhere between doctors and those with much less training.
You could think of a psychiatric nurse practitioner as the nursing equivalent of a psychiatrist – that’s pretty much exactly what they are, actually.
Whereas psychiatrists attend medical school for four years, nurse practitioners attend nursing school for four years. After becoming registered nurses (RNs), aspiring nurse practitioners pursue a specialization in psychiatry
Psychiatric nurse practitioners are professionals you want to see if you need medication and someone to listen to what you are going through. Overall, there is no real reason to choose a psychiatrist over a nurse practitioner. Both have extensive training and expert knowledge of medications, and nurse practitioners are growing to fill an important niche in the world of healthcare.
Family Nurse Practitioner
A family nurse practitioner is similar to a psychiatric nurse practitioner in that they are able to prescribe medications. However, psychiatric nurse practitioners have more in-depth knowledge of psychiatric disorders and are able to provide some talk therapy.
A family nurse practitioner is also not licensed to diagnose a patient according to the DSM5 (the text which includes descriptions of and diagnostic criteria for psychiatric disorders). Therefore, if you are struggling with mental health options, it would be better to see a psychiatric nurse practitioner than a family nurse practitioner.
Overall, which type of therapist you choose depends on your individual needs. If you have a serious condition such as OCD or bipolar disorder, it may be a better idea to see a psychologist who specializes in these areas.
However, it may also be difficult to find a specialist who is covered by your insurance, assuming you have coverage. It is always possible to find a social worker who can help you with your problems for a much-reduced rate. Counseling and psychology are, in some cases, interchangeable.
Be sure to check out online reviews for the person before you set up an appointment, or even talk to them on the phone or via e-mail to discuss what you’re going through and how they can help you.
You can also find online psychologists or online counseling through various programs such as BetterHelp or TalkSpace, and these may be less expensive and more convenient for you, so consider that option, as well.