Types of Mental Health Providers and What They Do
Nearly 1 in 5 adults experience a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder each year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. If you or a loved one is struggling with mental health problems, it can take some time to find the right provider to help you. With an overview of mental health conditions and the providers who treat them, you will have the information you need to choose the most appropriate one for your unique situation.
The National Alliance of Mental Illness defines mental illness as a condition that affects your thinking, moods or feelings. Common examples include depression, anxiety, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). But there are many others.
Two common treatment methods for mental health conditions are counseling and medication. Counseling is also known as therapy or psychotherapy. Some mental health providers only prescribe medication, some provide counseling, and others provide a combination of both.
Psychiatrists are physicians who treat mental illness. All psychiatrists can prescribe and monitor medication. Some, but not all, also provide counseling to their patients. Many psychiatrists specialize in certain areas or age groups, such as addiction psychiatry, military psychiatry, or psychiatric care for children or seniors.
Nurse practitioners who specialize in mental health can also prescribe and monitor medication and provide counseling. These providers also may be known as advanced practice psychiatric nurses or psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners.
Primary care providers—including family care doctors, pediatricians, and internists—can diagnose and prescribe medication for mental health conditions. In some states, nurse practitioners and physician assistants can also do this. If you see a primary care provider (PCP) for mental illness medication, consider also seeing a psychiatrist, psychologist, or counselor for a comprehensive mental health treatment plan. Work with your PCP and mental health provider to determine the frequency of appointments to monitor your treatment.
A range of providers with graduate-level education can assess, diagnose, and treat mental health conditions—but not prescribe medication. These mental health providers can work with a doctor for medication prescription and monitoring if medication is part of your treatment.
Some of the more common types of providers who offer mental health counseling include:
Clinical psychologists have doctorates in psychology. They can diagnose and monitor mental health conditions and use counseling for treatment. Psychologists also give psychological tests and evaluations. In some states, clinical psychologists can prescribe medication.
Clinical social workers have masters or doctoral degrees in clinical social work. Look for the title LCSW (licensed clinical social worker). Like psychiatrists and psychologists, LCSWs may specialize in certain mental illnesses and behavioral problems, particular age groups, and they work in a variety of settings.
Marriage and family therapists have masters or doctoral degrees in marriage and family therapy. Look for the title LMFT (licensed marriage and family therapist). Mental illness in one member of a family often affects other relationships or the entire family. Marriage and family therapy can be a very effective part of an overall treatment plan.
Professional counselors have masters (or doctoral degrees) in counseling, clinical psychology, or school psychology. Look for the title LPC (licensed professional counselor) next to their name. They provide many different types of therapy including psychotherapy.
School psychologists have masters, “specialist,” or doctoral degrees in school psychology, or a closely related field. School psychologists offer psychological testing and diagnosis as well as counseling. They also focus on healthy behaviors and prevention programs.
Many different types of providers offer mental healthcare, so it can be confusing. To narrow the field:
Start by asking for names of good mental health providers from your doctor, family members, friends, teachers, clergy members, or other people you know and trust. You also can search Healthgrades.com for providers by specialty, insurance, distance and, in some cases, by patient satisfaction rating.
When you have the names of a few providers, check to see which providers accept your insurance. Double check with your insurance company to make sure their services will be covered. In fact, some insurance companies will be able to provide you a list of providers by ZIP code. Since you’ll likely visit the counselor for multiple visits, you may want to limit your list to providers located within a reasonable distance to your home or work.
Then, call the providers and ask about their experience treating patients with your particular challenges. This can help you find care that closely aligns with your condition. Keep in mind that some providers may not be accepting new patients/clients. To increase the likelihood of finding someone you can make an appointment with, start with a list of about 5 to 10 providers.
If you think the provider is a good fit for you, schedule an appointment to visit with the provider in person. Pay attention to how well they listen and ask them about their style of counseling. You want to feel comfortable with the provider because you’ll be sharing your thoughts, feelings and experiences with them.