Who’s Who Among Mental Health Providers
Psychiatrists, psychologists, psychiatric
nurses, and social workers can help people with mental health
Although your family doctor can prescribe medication and offer
some counseling if you have a mental health problem, many people
prefer to see a professional who specializes in these problems.
Such specialists include psychiatrists, psychologists, psychiatric
nurses, and social workers. Each of these professionals has undergone
specific training and received licensing that allows him or her
to perform certain tasks. For example, psychiatrists can prescribe
medication, while most psychologists are prohibited from doing
To find the mental health professional who best meets your needs,
it is important to know what each one does. (Please note: The
term “psychotherapist” is a generic term that does
not require a specific type of training. Always be sure to ask
what training and credentials a psychotherapist has.)
Psychiatrists are medical doctors who help prevent, diagnose,
and treat psychiatric illnesses. In addition to obtaining an
M.D., they complete four years of residency training and can
practice psychotherapy, prescribe medications, hospitalize patients,
and order laboratory tests and x-rays.
Psychiatrists work with patients who have a range of problems,
from everyday stresses to substance abuse. In addition, they
are often consulted in complex cases, such as those in which
multiple medication regimens are needed (as with bipolar disorder)
or when patients have severe symptoms such as hallucinations
or suicidal thoughts.
The two main types of psychologists are clinical psychologists
and counseling psychologists. These psychologists diagnose mental
disorders and use psychotherapy to help people cope with a wide
range of mental health issues. Psychologists are not allowed
to prescribe medications except in New Mexico, where specially
trained clinical psychologists can prescribe medication.
Most psychologists earn a doctoral degree in clinical or counseling
psychology, which requires five to seven years of graduate study.
Through this training, they acquire either a Ph.D., which requires
that the person conduct original research in the field of psychology,
or a Psy.D., which requires that the participant successfully
complete an exam and certain clinical work. Some people can work
as psychologists with just a master’s degree in psychology,
but these people usually do not work in a clinical setting.
Psychiatric nurses can have basic or advanced training. Basic
psychiatric nurses assist in the care of people with mental illnesses,
teach patients self-care, monitor the effects of medication,
and help with counseling and crisis intervention. These nurses
must complete a two- or three-year nursing program or a four-year
undergraduate nursing program.
Additional training allows a nurse to become an advanced practice
registered nurse (A.P.R.N.). Such nurses have a master’s
degree in psychiatric mental health nursing. Others go on to
attain a doctoral degree in nursing—a Ph.D., a doctor of
nursing science (D.N.Sc), or a doctor of education (Ed.D.). These
nurses diagnose people with mental health disorders and treat
them using psychotherapy. In some states, they are allowed to
Social workers help patients, families, and other groups of
people with their personal or social challenges. They often counsel
or advocate on behalf of people who are most vulnerable, such
as those living in poverty, victims of abuse, and people with
disabilities. They also help people with mental illnesses understand
the causes of their behavior and their life situations and help
them work to change their behavior and situation for the better.
They cannot prescribe medication.
Although some social workers have only a four-year college degree,
most have a master’s in social work (M.S.W.). Most social
work requires that the person be trained in a subspecialty, such
as eating disorders, veterans’ services, or psychiatric
social work. Also, most social workers need to undergo training
to gain practical experience. Some go on to earn a doctorate
in social work (D.S.W.).