Written by Stephanie Grunewald, Ph.D. 

When choosing the best treatment for your mental health needs, knowing the difference between the types of mental health professions is important.

After identifying an area of your life you’d like to improve, you’ve decided to go to counseling! Now, how do you decide who to see? There are many different options – therapist, psychologist, and psychiatrist – so it can be a bit confusing. Here we will explain the differences between these professions so that you can choose a mental health professional that fits your needs.

Psychiatrist (M.D. or D.O.)

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who has an advanced degree that specializes in diagnosing and treating mental illness. This means that psychiatrists can:

  • conduct evaluations
  • prescribe medications
  • provide ongoing medication management
  • conduct psychotherapy and counseling (not all psychiatrists perform this service)

Also, depending on their training history, a psychiatrist may refer you to a counselor or other type of mental health professional.

Clients typically see their psychiatrist less frequently than their psychologist or master’s-level therapist. Generally, a psychiatrist helps to manage medications on a monthly or less frequent basis.

Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP)

In addition to psychiatrists, some nurses have received specialized training to:

  • evaluate patients
  • prescribe medication
  • provide ongoing medication management
  • provide case management services

In some states, they practice independently and sometimes under the supervision of a medical doctor.

Psychologist (Ph.D., Psy.D. Or Ed.D.)

A psychologist has a doctoral degree in Clinical, Counseling, or School Psychology. Psychologists specialize in the study, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of emotional, mental, behavioral, and developmental issues.

One feature that differentiates psychologists from master-level clinicians and psychiatrists is their specialized training in conducting assessments and testing for specific disorders. Therefore, psychologists are qualified to provide a variety of services, such as:

  • mental health evaluations
  • counseling and psychotherapy
  • psychological testing

When choosing a psychologist, it’s worth noting that in a few states (including Illinois), psychologists can receive additional training to prescribe medications. Thus, they can also conduct ongoing medication management.

Clinically Licensed Master-Level Therapists (M.A., M.S., OR MSW)

There are several master-level therapists that can provide counseling and psychotherapy. When choosing a mental health professional, it’s important to know that master-level therapists cannot prescribe medications. They can however refer you for evaluation for medication or other treatments. Here are the different types of master-level clinicians:

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

A social worker is a person who has a master’s degree in Social Work. Therefore, a clinical social worker can:

  • evaluate and treat mental illnesses
  • provide counseling for clients and their families who are dealing with social, emotional, and environmental problems
  • provide case management
  • conduct hospital discharge planning
  • advocate for patients and their families

Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC)

A professional counselor is a mental health professional who has a master’s degree in psychology, counseling, or a related field. A mental health counselor is qualified to:

  • evaluate and treat mental illnesses
  • provide counseling or psychotherapy

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)

A marriage and family therapist is someone who has a master’s degree in marriage, couple, and family counseling. They are specifically trained in family systems and can:

  • provide counseling services
  • diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders specifically in marriage, couples, and family systems

What Does This Mean For You When Choosing a Mental Health Professional?

With so many options available, it is important to research the qualifications and specializations of a provider. Thus, choosing a clinician who will be effective depends on your needs – medication management or psychotherapy – and you may see one or several types of specialists. Psychiatrists, psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners, psychologists, and master’s-level therapists can work in offices, hospitals, treatment centers, and group homes. In many cases, they work together to collaborate on client care. Counseling services (not medication management) are often available for individuals, families, and couples, virtually or in a group setting.

When you seek treatment, you will likely be asked to complete some questionnaires. However,  you will also have a chance to talk about your concerns and the symptoms you are experiencing. Also, you may be asked about your childhood, education, work history, relationships, and long-term goals.

Now that you know a bit more about the training and specialty areas of these distinct professions, you can read more about finding the right clinician. The clinicians at Restorative Counseling each have unique training. Schedule an appointment today!

headshot of stephanie wearing a pink shirt standing on a nature trail smiling

Hello! I’m Stephanie.

I help adults identify strengths and learn strategies to manage stress, deal with life transitions, and overcome anxiety. Read more about me.

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