An overview of the different types of mental health professionals who provide therapy and their qualifications.
When you are feeling troubled or wish to make some kind of change in your personal or professional life, seek counseling from a trained mental health professional.
Usually a therapist has an area, or areas, of specialty, such as substance abuse, depression, traumatic stress, women’s issues or men’s issues. The type or technique of counseling that a therapist provides also can vary.
Most therapists are trained in several different approaches. They then combine techniques from these various approaches that fit their own style and personality. There are also various formats in which therapy may be held — including individual, group and family psychotherapy.
How to find a therapist
Finding a qualified professional who is the right one for you may require some research. Often it is a good idea to first describe the symptoms and/or problems to your family physician or clergy. He or she can suggest the type of mental health professional that you should call.
Before making an appointment, find out about the therapist’s experience with your particular problem. Make sure you feel comfortable with the therapist’s qualifications and technique of therapy before you begin treatment.
Selecting a therapist is a highly personal matter. A professional who works well with one individual may not be a good choice for another person.
Types of mental health professionals
Psychiatrist A psychiatrist is a medical doctor with special training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental and emotional illnesses. Like other doctors, psychiatrists are qualified to prescribe medication. A psychiatrist should have a state medical license and be board-eligible or board-certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.
Child/adolescent psychiatrists are medical doctors with special training in the diagnosis and treatment of emotional and behavioral problems in children. They should have a state license and be board-eligible or board-certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. They also can hold specialized certification in child psychiatry.
A psychologist is a counselor with an advanced degree from an accredited graduate program in psychology, and two or more years of supervised work experience. Most states require a doctoral degree and a state license for psychologists. Psychologists are trained to make diagnoses, administer psychological testing, and provide individual and group therapy. However, they are not licensed to prescribe medication.
Clinical social worker
Social workers have a master’s degree in social work from an accredited graduate program. They are trained to make diagnoses and provide individual and group counseling. Their qualifications should include a state license and membership in the Academy of Certified Social Workers.
Licensed professional counselor
A licensed professional counselor has a master’s degree in psychology, counseling or a related field. Licensed counselors are trained to diagnose and provide individual and group counseling and are required to have a state license.
Mental health counselor
This term describes an individual with a master’s degree and several years of supervised clinical work experience in mental health. A mental health counselor is trained to diagnose and provide individual and group counseling and is certified by the National Academy of Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselors.
Certified alcohol and drug abuse counselor
Certified alcohol and drug abuse counselors have specific clinical training in alcohol and drug abuse. They are trained to diagnose and provide individual and group counseling and must carry a state license.
A nurse psychotherapist is a registered nurse who is trained in the practice of psychiatric and mental health nursing. Nurse psychotherapists require certification and a state license and are trained to diagnose and provide individual and group counseling.
Marital and family therapist
A therapist who provides marriage or family therapy should have a state license and a master’s degree, with special education and training in marital and family therapy. These therapists are trained to diagnose and provide individual and group counseling specific to family and couples issues.
Pastoral counselors are clergy with training in clinical pastoral education. They are trained to diagnose and provide individual and group counseling and must have a certification from the American Association of Pastoral Counselors.
Finding a therapist
There are several ways to get referrals to qualified therapists, including the following:
- Talk to close family members and friends for their recommendations, especially if they have had a good experience with psychotherapy.
- Many state psychological associations operate referral services that put individuals in touch with licensed and competent mental health providers.
- Ask your primary care physician (or other health professional) for a referral. Tell the doctor what’s important to you in choosing a therapist so that he or she can make appropriate suggestions.
- Inquire at your church or synagogue.
- Look in the phone book for the listing of a local mental health association or community mental health center and check these sources for possible referrals.
Choosing a therapist
When choosing a therapist, first talk with him or her on the phone or in person to find out about licensure and level of training, philosophy, approach to psychotherapy, participation in insurance plans and fees, and any specialty that they have (such as depression, women’s or men’s issues, substance abuse or grief).
Such a discussion should help you sort through your options and choose someone appropriate for you. If you feel comfortable talking to the counselor or doctor, the next step is to make an appointment.
If at any time you feel uncomfortable with your therapist or wish to try another approach, feel free to talk to other therapists and even change therapists. Feeling comfortable with the professional you choose is very important to the success of your treatment.
Evaluating whether therapy is working
As you begin psychotherapy, you should establish clear goals with your therapist. Perhaps you want to overcome feelings of hopelessness associated with depression. Or maybe you would like to control a fear that disrupts your daily life. Keep in mind that certain tasks require more time to accomplish than others. You may need to adjust your goals depending on how long you plan to be in psychotherapy.
After a few sessions, it’s a good sign if you feel the experience truly is a joint effort and that you and the therapist enjoy a good rapport. On the other hand, you should be open with your therapist if you find yourself feeling stuck or lacking direction once you’ve been in psychotherapy awhile.
Patients often feel a wide range of emotions during psychotherapy. Some have qualms about it because they have difficulty discussing painful and troubling experiences. When this happens, it can actually be a positive sign indicating that you are starting to explore your thoughts and behaviors.
There may be times when a therapist appears cold and disinterested or doesn’t seem to regard you positively. Tell your therapist if this is the situation, or if you question other aspects of his or her approach. If you find yourself thinking about discontinuing psychotherapy, talk with your therapist. It might be helpful to consult another professional. Also, let your therapist know you are seeking a second opinion.
You should spend time with your therapist periodically reviewing your progress (or your concern that you are not making sufficient headway, if you feel discouraged). Although there are other considerations affecting the duration of psychotherapy, success in reaching your primary goals should be a major factor in deciding when your psychotherapy should end.