Mental Health Practitioners: Who’s Who?
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Mental Health Practitioners: Who’s Who?

Perhaps you or someone you love is wrestling with a relationship problem, a life crisis, or a serious mental illness. But deciding whether you should see a psychiatrist, psychologist, or another type of mental health professional can be enough to make you lose your mind! Don’t worry, your healthcare provider can likely provide you with an appropriate referral, if necessary. In the meantime, it helps to know the difference between the types of mental health professionals.

Psychiatrist (MD)

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have specialized training to diagnosis and treat mental illnesses. They understand the body's functions and the complex relationship between emotional illness and other medical illnesses. They are the only mental health professionals who can prescribe medication. Although they may sometimes practice some type of psychotherapy, particularly if they are in private practice, at the present time, most psychiatrists focus largely on prescribing medication for the treatment of mental disorders.

Education and Training

A psychiatrist’s training includes a bachelor degree, medical school, and four years of residency training in the field of psychiatry. Many psychiatrists get additional training so that they can specialize in areas such as child and adolescent psychiatry, geriatric psychiatry, forensic psychiatry, psychopharmacology, and/or psychoanalysis. They are trained to work with a biosocial model, in which behavior is largely viewed as a function of biology and brain chemistry.


Psychiatrists should have a state license and be board eligible or certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.

Psychologist (PhD or PsyD)

Psychologists are mental health professionals who work in a variety of settings including clinics, hospitals, private practice, schools, and universities. Depending on their training and specialization, psychologists may:

  • Assess and counsel people who have serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia , depression , anxiety , alcoholism , drug addiction, and eating disorders
  • Assess and counsel people who are experiencing life transitions such as divorce, relationship problems, and academic problems
  • Teach in a college or university
  • Conduct research on any number of mental health issues
  • Consult in various areas such as business and sports teams

Education and Training

All psychologists must have a Bachelor of Arts or Science degree before they enroll in a PhD or PsyD program.


The PhD training program may be in clinical psychology, which focuses on research and practice, or counseling psychology, which focuses on practice in less pathological populations. As part of their training, individuals in this program must complete a minimum of three full-time academic years of study and a one-year internship (practicum), known as a post-doctorate, in an in-patient or out-patient setting. The average length of a PhD program is 6-7 years.


The PsyD program tends to have a more clinical focus than the PhD program, and it offers more pre-internship experience and practical coursework than courses on statistics and research. Students may need to take up to three practicums before their internship. They have the most direct clinical training experience of all mental health professionals. The average length of a PsyD program is 6-7 years.


Psychologists should have a state license.

Mental Health Counselor (MA, MS, NCC, CCMC) and Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)

Mental health counselors and licensed professional counselors are therapists who are trained to diagnose and provide individual and group counseling. They often provide general psychotherapy. They work in community mental health centers, in group or private practices, or other settings.

Education and Training

Mental health counselors and licensed professional counselors have a master degree (usually in clinical or counseling psychology) and several years of supervised clinical work experience.


In many, but not all states, mental health counselors must have a state license to practice. They may also receive certification by the National Academy of Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselors. Licensed professional counselors have a state license.

Clinical Social Worker (CSW, MSW, LSW, LCSW, PhD)

Licensed social workers are mental health providers that deal with issues such as life events, family conflicts, violence, substance abuse, and disabilities. They not only offer psychotherapy, but also help patients find community care. They may practice in community mental health centers, family services agencies, child welfare agencies, hospitals, schools, businesses, nursing homes, private practice, courts, prisons, and various public and private agencies.

Education and Training

Clinical social workers have a bachelor degree, as well as a master or doctoral degree, in social work from an accredited graduate program.


Clinical social workers must have a state license. They may also be members of the Academy of Certified Social Workers.

Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor or Addiction Counselor (CSAC, CAC)

Certified alcohol and drug abuse counselors and addiction counselors are trained to diagnose and provide individual and group counseling for individuals with addiction problems. They may work in drug abuse and addiction centers, hospitals, clinics, and community mental health centers.

Education and Training

Training may include a bachelor degree, specific clinical training in alcohol and drug abuse, and supervised experience.


Alcohol and drug abuse counselors and addiction counselors usually have a state license. They may also receive national certification through the National Association for Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselors.

Pastoral Counselors (MA, MS, Mdiv, DMin)

Pastoral counselors are certified mental health professionals who have had extensive religious/theological training and clinical training in the behavioral sciences. They may specialize in marriage and family therapy, addiction, grief, and other issues, including serious mental illnesses. They may also provide educational programs on preparing for marriage, adjusting to divorce, and coping with loss and grief. They may work in health clinics, state hospitals, private and group practices, congregation-based centers, or in pastoral counseling centers.

Education and Training

Pastoral counselors typically have a bachelor degree, a three-year professional degree, and a specialized master or doctoral degree in a mental health field.


Pastoral counselors are certified through the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. Many are also certified and licensed as other mental health professionals.

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT)

Marriage and family therapists diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders, and other health and behavioral problems within the context of marriage, couples, and family systems. They often work in group or private practices.

Education and Training

Marriage and family therapists have a master or doctoral degree in marriage and family therapy and at least three years of clinical experience. They are trained in psychotherapy and family systems.


Marriage and family therapists have a state license.


American Psychological Association

Mental Health America


Canadian Mental Health Association

Canadian Psychiatric Association


American Association of Pastoral Counselors website. Available at: .

American Psychiatric Association website. Available at: .

American Psychological Association website. Available at: .

The Association for Addiction Professionals. National Association of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselors website. Available at:

FAQ's on MFTs. American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists website. Available at: Published 2002. Accessed July 25, 2008.

Mental health professionals: who they are and how to find one. National Alliance on Mental Illness website. Available at: Accessed July 25, 2008.

Types of mental health professionals. Mental Health America website. Available at: Updated November 2006. Accessed July 25, 2008.

Last reviewed June 2008 by Theodor B. Rais, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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