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Making Sense of the Different Mental Health Professions

Updated: Mar 16, 2022

When considering whether to begin work with a mental health professional, making sense of the various professions that are out there can easily become quite confusing.

As this is often one of the most frequently asked questions that I and my colleagues in the mental health professions tend to receive, I thought a brief primer might be beneficial for anyone out there who feels like they would be benefitted by work with a helping professional, but not sure where to start or which profession is appropriate for what they’re looking for. This can get very complicated very quickly, but I’ll do my best to sketch a general idea:

Psychiatrists are medical doctors. Unique among mental health professionals, they can prescribe psychotropic medication. While psychotherapy started with medical doctors like Freud and Jung in the late-1800’s, today the work of psychiatrists often tends to fall more in the realm of medication than of psychotherapy, although there certainly are still psychiatrists who also practice psychotherapy. Other mental health professionals specializing in psychotherapy often collaborate with psychiatrists when working with clients whose conditions may be benefitted by medicinal prescription(s).

Psychologists hold doctoral degrees (PhD or PsyD) and often do practice psychotherapy, in addition to research, assessment, teaching, and other activities in line with their competencies and interests. Clinical psychology entailing therapeutic work with clients is one subfield of the discipline among others (organizational psychology or sports psychology, for instance). Practicing clinical psychologists are often specially trained to work with particularly complex psychological and neurobiological conditions such as severe cases of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Mental Health Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists may hold a master’s degree or a PhD and have very similar courses of study and training. The main difference is that mental health counselor training has more of an emphasis on the individual as the primary unit of focus, while marriage and family therapist training has more of an emphasis on the family system as the primary unit of focus, though many counselors also work with relationships and families, and many marriage and family therapists also work with individuals. My own training is in mental health counseling.

Social workers also practice psychotherapy and may have a master’s or doctoral degree, but their course of study is different, and is more specifically geared towards working with individuals coming from disadvantaged and lower-socioeconomic backgrounds.

Life coaches may help clients in overcoming difficulties or working towards goals similarly to psychotherapists in any of the above professions, but their profession is unregulated and thus does not require advanced degrees, training, or licensure of any kind.

I hope this primer helps you in your journey of determining which professional is the closest match for what you’re looking for. If counseling seems most appropriate and you feel like I might be a good fit, I would be very happy to have the opportunity to work with you.

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