Mental Challenges

There are Many Different Types of Mental Health Practitioners—Here’s What Each of Them Does

Erin Bunch

Photo: Getty Images/SDI Productions
Mental health care is not the easiest field to navigate—it's basically the messy, expensive, and convoluted American health care system's even messier, more expensive, and more convoluted cousin. Anyone who's attempted to seek help through it knows that it can be confusing AF. There are so many different types of practitioners, and their abbreviations mean nothing to most people (WTF is an LMFT?!?), so how are you supposed to figure out which one to see when you're feeling depressed or anxious versus when you need help navigating a relationship, etc?

Hopefully the glossary below will help to shed some light on the subject, and serve as a guide to navigating your next mental health appointment. And if you need more assistance, your primary care physician should be able to point you in the right direction. The National Alliance on Mental Illness is a great resource, too.

Mental health practitioners: a glossary

Psychologists

Psychologists are trained to help people cope with specific mental health issues, or just the challenges of daily life. They do this through clinical interviews (aka, those hour-long sessions on the "couch") and may conduct psychological tests or other evaluations. Of all the mental health professionals, aside from psychiatrists, psychologists undergo the most training, averaging about seven more years of education after they complete their undergraduate degrees. Some are trained in specializations such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is useful for quite a few mental health disorders, and dialectal behavioral therapy (DBT), which is commonly used to treat borderline personality disorder.

Degrees: Psychologists hold doctoral degrees, e.g. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in a field of psychology or Doctor of Psychology (PsyD).

Licenses/credentials: Psychologists are licensed by licensure boards in the states where they practice.

Counselors, clinicians, and therapists

Counselors, clinicians, and therapists hold Master's degrees and are trained in specific fields, like family counseling/therapy. The exact title they're given often depends upon the setting in which they practice, and they can often be used interchangeably. The abbreviations after their names are used to identify their specific training. (For example, you may see the abbreviation LMFT frequently when seeking out a therapist—this signifies that the therapist has training in marriage and family therapy.) They will then use the techniques learned through that training to help you cope with difficult situations, navigate relationships, or improve your overall mental well-being.

Degrees: These mental health professionals hold master’s degree in a mental health-related field such as psychology or family therapy.

Licenses/certification: Licenses vary by state and specialty, but you may commonly see the following abbreviations: LPC (licensed professional counselor); LMFT (licensed marriage and family therapist); and LCADAC (licensed clinical alcohol and drug abuse counselor).

Clinical social workers

Clinical social workers are trained to evaluate the mental health or well-being of an individual in the context of their environment, which includes their community, their family, their job, etc. Essentially, they marry the expertise of a therapist/counselor/clinician with that of a social worker (more on that job title below). They may not only provide therapeutic services to individuals and families, but also advocate for their patients in court settings.

Degrees: Clinical social workers are required to hold a master’s degree in social work (MSW).

Licenses/credentials: Licenses vary but include the following: licensed clinical social worker (LCSW); licensed independent social worker (LICSW); Academy of Certified Social Worker (ACSW).

Social workers

Essentially helpers and problem-solvers, social workers may step in to assist in crisis situations, such as when child abuse has taken place, or they may less dramatically help an individual navigate bureaucratic processes required to obtain things like Medicare, disability, food stamps, or other social services.

Degrees: Social workers need a bachelor's degree.

Psychiatrists

Psychiatrists are distinct from psychologists in that they hold medical degrees (MDs as opposed to PhDs), with specific training in the field of psychiatry. For this reason, they can prescribe medication. They can also provide therapy alongside the diagnosis and medical treatment of mental illnesses. Some are specialized in areas like juvenile psychiatry or substance abuse.

Degrees: Psychiatrists must hold either Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degrees and complete a medical residency in psychiatry.

Licenses/credentials: Psychiatrists are licensed by the states in which they practice, and some may also be designated as board-certified by the Board of Neurology and Psychiatry.

Psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioners

These nurse practitioners can do most of what a psychiatrist can do—they're able to assess and diagnose patients, as well as provide therapy—in certain states, they are even allowed to prescribe medications. They may or may not require the oversight of a psychiatrist, depending on where they practice.

Degrees: Psychiatric nurse practitioners must hold either a Master's of Science (MS) degree or a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in nursing, with a psychiatric specialization.

Licenses/credentials: Licenses vary by state, but you may see the following abbreviations: NCLEX, which stands for the National Council Licensure Examination; and PMHNP-BC, which stands for board certification in psychiatric nursing through the American Academy of Nurses Credentialing Center.

Psychiatric pharmacists

A psychiatric pharmacist is specialized in psychiatric medications. Their main area of expertise is in medication management, meaning they monitor and modify medications based on patient evaluations. In some states, they may even be able to prescribe medications themselves.

Degrees: Psychiatric pharmacists hold Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) degrees and often complete psychiatric pharmacy residency training.

Licenses/credentials: These mental health professionals are licensed by the state in which they practice. They may also be board-certified by the Board of Pharmacy Specialties.

Primary care physicians

Primary care physicians are the catch-all doctors you see for general check-ups, or as a first point of contact with the medical system when you face a health issue and don't yet know what specialist to see. They can prescribe and monitor psychiatric medications, but will often refer you to a specialist instead.

Degrees: Primary care physicians must hold either a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree.

Licenses/credentials: Physicians are licensed by the states in which they practice.

Family nurse practitioners

Family nurse practitioners can do a lot of the same things your primary care physician can do, including prescribing psychiatric medication. They will also often refer you to specialized care instead, however.

Degrees: Family nurse practitioners must hold a Master of Science (MS) or Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in nursing.

Licenses/credentials: Nurse practitioners are credentialed in the state in which they practice. You may see the following abbreviations next to their names: NCLEX, which stands for National Council Licensure Examination; and FNP-BC, which stands for Family Nurse Practitioner Board Certified.

Certified peer specialists

A certified peer specialist is someone who has been through the situation facing the patient in need of treatment, e.g. a specific mental health issue or substance abuse. They are trained to help individuals through recovery.

Licenses/credentials: Certifications vary

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