What types of mental health professionals are out there? How can YOU tell the difference?
Below I will describe the types of mental health clinicians that are available in the United States. Hopefully, this can help you better digest the information that is available and who would be appropriate for you to see, if needed.
Psychiatrist, M.D-A psychiatrist is a medical doctor trained in the medical, biological model of psychiatric illness. They are trained to understand how mental illnesses can affect the neurological functioning of the brain, and how medications can address/treat these symptoms. They receive training in therapy, although considerably less than psychologists, unless they pursue additional training. Frequently, they refer to clinical psychologists for weekly therapeutic treatment. They have completed medical school and can provide psychiatric medication prescriptions.
Clinical Psychologist-A clinical psychologist is a doctoral-level clinician who focuses on the assessment and treatment of severe mental illnesses. They conduct usually weekly therapy sessions based on their theoretical orientation. However, unlike psychiatrists, they do not prescribe medications (although some states in the U.S do allow clinical psychologists prescription privileges).
There are two degrees that allow someone to be a clinical psychologist. One is a Ph.D. and the other is a Psy.D
Ph.D.- A clinical psychologist who has their Ph.D. was trained to assess and treat serious mental illness. They are also thoroughly trained in how to analyze, interpret, and write their own research. A Ph.D. clinical psychologist incorporates new research findings into their clinical work, regardless of their theoretical orientation. A Ph.D. in clinical psychology requires extensive research in a master’s thesis and separate dissertation, as well as residency and post-doctoral training. At minimum it takes 5 years to complete, with an average completion around 6-7 years, NOT including post-doctoral training.
Psy.D-A clinical psychologist who has a Psy. D has a doctorate in psychology. These programs usually take between 4-5 years to complete, NOT including post-doctoral training. They are trained as well in the assessment and treatment of serious mental illness. They typically do involve a thesis and a dissertation, but without the heavy research component. These degrees focus on training future clinicians who solely want to be in clinical practice and not be in involved in research. This does not rule them out from research; it just means that persons with this degree are less likely to have a heavy research background.
Counseling Psychologist-A counseling psychologist (Ph.D.) is very similar to that of a clinical psychologist in terms of their clinical training and the focus on training in research. However, in training, counseling psychologists focus on populations usually seen in a counseling center setting, with an emphasis on children, teens, young adults, and families. They tend to see less severe mental illnesses in practice than do clinical psychologists.
LCPC-A licensed clinical professional counselor is a master’s-level clinician. They cannot call themselves a psychologist. They can call themselves a counselor or even a psychotherapist. Their training is usually between 2-4 years, including any post-degree work. They focus on the assessment and treatment of mental illness, and although they can treat severe mental illness, it is less common than with a psychologist.
MSW-A counselor who holds a masters degree (2-3 years of training) in social work can also address and treat those with severe mental illness. Persons who hold this degree are more likely to be working in community-based centers, although some work in counseling centers and more rarely private practice.
Neuropsychologist-A neuropsychologist has received either a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. They received specialized training in residency and additionally 2 years of post-doctoral training to be called a “neuropsychologist.” They study the function of the brain and the populations they assess can have several clinical brain dysfunctions (e.g., Multiple Sclerosis, Brain Tumor, Traumatic Brain Injury, Learning Disability, Metabolic Disorder, Dementia Spectrum, ADHD, etc.).
School Psychologist-This is the one setting (academic environment) where someone who does NOT hold a doctorate degree can call himself or herself a “psychologist.” Many school psychologists have a masters and not a doctorate degree, although some do have a doctorate. The majority of school psychologists work in academic settings (e.g., elementary schools, high schools).
Life Coach/Mental Health Coach-Coaches are not a regulated field or profession, nor does it require any training or a degree or license. A life coach is not a counselor, psychologist, psychotherapist, or health care provider. They are not allowed to provide any psychological services.
Of note: When working with those who practice counseling or psychological services, make sure to check their degree and license. Certifications are NOT sufficient to practice psychological services. I frequently have patients ask for my CV (resume), of which I am happy to provide. If a mental health clinician will not provide you with information regarding their training, degree, and license, be extremely cautious. This is your mental health and you want to make sure you receive the best possible care.