Taking control of your mental health takes courage, and finding the right professional should be easy. But when you’re scrolling through the list of mental health experts nearby, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Psychiatrist? Psychologist? Therapist? Counselor? It can be tough to know which one — or ones — you need.
While it’s true that there are multiple kinds of mental health professionals, and some significant differences between them, there’s also usually some overlap in what they do and how they can help you. Read on for a breakdown on the major classes of mental health professionals you’re likely to come across — and which type might be the best fit for you.
Psychiatrists: Medical doctors who specialize in mental health
At the top of the education pyramid for mental health are psychiatrists. All psychiatrists are doctors — so they’ve been through medical school like any other M.D., and they’ve also completed a residency in psychiatric health. Psychiatrists in the U.S. hold either of Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.), and they have to be licensed in the state where they practice.
Because psychiatrists are doctors, they’re able to diagnose mental health issues and prescribe medication or recommend other medical tests or treatments to help to help. They might treat you on their own or — more commonly — work in combination with other medical or mental health professionals to oversee your treatment. Psychiatrists generally don’t counsel patients, but they might refer you to a professional who does and oversee other aspects of your treatment (including your medication).
Psychiatrists often work as part of a team. For example, you might coordinate care between a general practitioner and a psychiatrist to treat a more sensitive mental health issue or see both a psychiatrist and a therapist, counselor or psychologist to get both medical and “talk” therapy.
A psychiatrist’s expertise means they can treat virtually any mental health issue, but that expertise can come at a price. Psychiatrists’ appointments may cost more than other mental health professionals — and, depending on your insurance, you may have to visit a general practitioner to get a referral before you can see one. If you’re on an HMO insurance plan, talk to your family doctor about whether a psychiatrist might help.
Psychologists: Highly trained, licensed professionals who can make diagnoses and offer couseling
Psychologists also have a significant amount of education behind them. While psychologists don’t need to go to medical school the way a psychiatrist does, they will generally hold a Masters or Doctorate in Psychology. Psychologists must also be licensed to practice in their state — and depending on the state’s regulations, they’ve gone through hundreds or even thousands of hours of supervised practice to become licensed.
A psychologist isn’t able to prescribe medical treatments like a psychiatrist, but they are able to make clinical evaluations about their patients’ mental health — for example, identifying clinical anxiety or depression. Psychologists also practice psychotherapy — a type of “talk therapy” that can help you delve deeper into your mental health, identify trouble patterns or behaviors and talk through your feelings in a safe space.
Many psychologists work in combination with other health professionals to get you the treatment you need. You might attend psychotherapy with a psychologist, for example, but visit your general practitioner or a psychiatrist for medication. But it’s also not uncommon to receive treatment via psychotherapy alone.
Visiting a psychologist often comes at a lower cost than visiting a psychiatrist, and they might be more accessible to take regular appointments with minimal wait times. However, you may need to see another expert in addition to your psychologist to get the care you need.
Therapists and counselors: A diverse group of experts trained to provide counseling or “talk” therapy
Here’s where it can get confusing. Licensed therapists and counselors are an integral part of treating many mental health issues — and if you’re receiving psychotherapy as part of your treatment plan, there’s a good chance that you’ll visit one. However, licensed therapists may provide counseling and licensed counselors may provide therapy, and there is plenty of overlap between “therapists” and “counselors” in terms of education and expertise.
When you’re evaluating whether a therapist or counselor will likely be a good fit for you, the best approach is to look at their official title, since this tells you more about their training and credentials. Some common ones you’ll come across include:
1. Mental health counsellor
These experts can make mental health diagnoses and provide counseling/therapy. They hold a Masters in a relevant field, and they’ve undergone supervised clinical training.
2. Licensed professional counselor
LPCs hold a master’s in psychology. Like a mental health counselor, they can diagnose mental health issues and provide psychotherapy (including group therapy).
3. Certified alcohol and drug abuse counselor
These professionals have gone through specific training to help patients work through drug and alcohol abuse.
4. Marital and family therapist
These experts hold a masters degree in a related field and have received additional training on therapy for family and marital issues.
5. Art or music therapists
These experts hold an advanced degree in specialized therapy.
Because different therapists and counselors have different backgrounds and areas of expertise, it’s important to ask about the professional’s education and credentials before you make an appointment.
Some titles — like “therapist” or “counselor” as a standalone title — aren’t always protected by law, so experts can advertise themselves as therapists without meeting certain state standards or being licensed to practice. Licensed Professional Clinical Counselors (LPCC), Licensed Mental Health Counselors (LMHCs), Licensed Professional Counselor (LPCs), Mental Health Counselors (MHCs) and Professional Counselor (PC) often are protected titles that signal that the professional is licensed to practice. And therapists and counselors on Zocdoc list their education, credentials and professional memberships on their Zocdoc profiles so you can feel confident before you book an appointment.
Therapists and counselors provide two major therapies: psychotherapy and counseling.
Psychotherapy generally means a longer-term therapy to address longstanding behavioral patterns or mental health issues. You might receive psychotherapy to work through depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, or to address long-standing issues with self-confidence or relationships. Because it delves into long-term issues, it’s not uncommon to receive psychotherapy for months or years at a time. Counseling, on the other hand, typically focuses on shorter-term issues. You might attend counseling to work through a stressful period in your life, or to help you through the loss of a loved one.
Most therapists and counselors help patients through both short- and long-term mental health and emotional concerns, and they’ll work with you to find the treatment plan that works best for you.
How to find the right mental health professional for you
If your head is still spinning, don’t worry. Try these tips to screen the mental health experts nearby to find out which is right for you.
1. Read their Zocdoc profile
Providers on Zocdoc list their education and credentials so you can feel confident that you’re visiting a licensed professional. You’ll also get insight into their area of expertise and a brief bio, as well as read their recent reviews, so you can get a sense of whether you might click.
2. Call around
If you’ve identified two or three potential experts, call their office to discuss setting up an appointment. Just a minute or two on the phone can give you a sense of whether it’s a good fit.
3. When in doubt, ask your primary care doctor
Your family doctor may not have the expertise to treat more complex mental health issues or provide counseling, but they likely know an appropriate professional who can. Ask for a referral or recommendation from the doctor you trust.