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Depression & Anxiety

From the Current Issue

Who’s Who Among Mental Health Providers
Psychiatrists, psychologists, psychiatric nurses, and social workers can help people with mental health problems.

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 so.

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

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 prescribe medications.

Social Workers

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.).


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Depression & Anxiety

The Depression and Anxiety White Paper from The Johns Hopkins White Papers series is an annual, in-depth report written by Hopkins physicians.



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