Mental healthcare is an important type of overall healthcare, but one that is too often neglected or underutilized. Mental health includes having good coping strategies for stress and negative emotions and moods, but also diagnosing and treating mental illnesses, behavioral conditions, and addictive disorders. There are many different mental health professionals who provide this type of care.

From psychiatrists, who are medical doctors and can diagnose, treat, and prescribe medications, to specialized counselors for children, people struggling with addiction, and other types of particular mental health needs, a whole range of mental health professionals are trained to help people live well and with good mental health. Selecting the best professional requires an understanding of what services each can provide and how to choose someone who is experienced, skilled, and provides quality care.

Types of Care Mental Health Professionals Provide

In order to choose the best mental health professional for your needs or for your loved one, you need to understand the kind of care they provide. Mental health care does not need to be implemented only after someone has suffered symptoms of a mental illness. Good mental health care begins with prevention and maintaining wellness.

Mental healthcare providers can offer education and prevention through public health campaigns and community programs. They educate people about practicing good mental hygiene, which includes learning and using healthy coping mechanisms, knowing how to identify and avoid unhealthy coping strategies, and managing stress and bad moods. They also show people how to make lifestyle changes to improve and maintain good mental health.

Mental health professionals also screen patients to make early diagnoses. They assess and diagnose patients that are struggling. Once a diagnosis of a mental illness is made they provide treatment that may include residential stays, outpatient therapy, medication, and other types of care. They monitor patients over longer periods of time and periodically assess them for progress, for symptom management, for meeting goals, and to change treatment if needed. A variety of professionals perform some or all of these services for patients.

Psychiatrists and Psychiatric Nurses

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor and has gone through medical school. This type of mental health professional is an M.D. and has specialized in psychiatric disorders and medicine. A big difference between a psychiatrist and other mental health professionals is that they can prescribe medications. Physicians of any specialty may prescribe psychiatric medications. Many people receive basic mental health care, including medications, from their primary care physicians, although therapy is not usually a part of this care.

Psychiatrists may work in private practices, in hospitals, in psychiatric hospitals, or in residential mental health care facilities. Some focus mainly on medical treatment for mental illnesses, while others combine the use of medicine with psychotherapy. Psychiatric nurses are nurses with additional mental health training. They work under the supervision of psychiatrists and usually in residential facilities or psychiatric hospitals.


Psychologists are often referred to as doctors, but they are not medical doctors. They have received a doctoral degree in psychology and may work in academics, in research, or in practice treating patients with therapy. They cannot prescribe medications but they have a deep knowledge of psychiatric disorders and therapeutic treatments.

Clinical psychologists are the professionals in this field who work with patients. They evaluate, diagnose and treat patients with mental health issues. They may focus on certain types of therapy but are generally able to offer patients a range of therapies to help them learn to manage mental illness symptoms and meet goals for changing behaviors and negative thoughts and moods. Psychologists may work in private practices, community settings or clinics, hospitals, medical practices, schools, correctional institutions, or any other setting in which mental health care is needed.

Therapists and Counselors

The terms therapist and counselor are generally used interchangeably and refer to mental health professionals that are trained and certified in some way to diagnose and treat patients with therapy. The educational and certification requirements for these professionals vary by state, so it is important to know what those are in your state before choosing to work with a therapist or a counselor. Also check experience, expertise, and references to be sure you are working with the right kind of mental health professional for your needs.

Addiction Specialists

There are many different ways in which a mental health professional may be specialized. Education and training in various specialties allow them to help certain groups of people with specific needs. One of the most common types of specialization is in addiction counseling and care. There are millions of people struggling with addictive disorders, including addictions to illicit drugs, prescription drugs, alcohol, and certain behaviors like shopping or gambling.

Addiction specialists may be psychiatrists, psychologists, or therapists and counselors. They work in outpatient settings and private practices, in hospitals, in community clinics and organizations, and in residential treatment facilities. They have special training and knowledge that helps them guide patients through addictions and into recovery, developing treatment plans and changing them as needed. They may lead group support meetings, work with families of patients, and provide prevention and education services.

Other Mental Health Specialists

At any level of training or certification, a mental health professional may choose to specialize in a specific area of mental health. For instance, a psychiatrist may work in pediatric medicine or a therapist may choose to focus on family, couples therapy, or group therapy. Religious counselors or pastoral counselors work in a specific religious setting and provide care that is based on religion and spirituality.

Psychologists or therapists may specialize in certain types of mental illnesses, such as mood disorders or trauma disorders. Others may specialize in specific treatments, like behavioral therapies. Or, they may specialize in treating certain groups of patients, including veterans, women, or victims of domestic violence. School counselors and psychologists work in schools and specialize in helping children or teens.

There are also therapists that specialize in using alternative or creative strategies to treat patients. These include art and music therapists, sound therapists, drama therapists, and those that use methods from alternative and complementary medicine, such as acupuncture, massage therapy, homeopathic medicine, meditation and yoga, and many others.

Clinical Social Workers

Clinical social workers are social workers that have at least a master’s degree and are certified to work in clinical settings. They have received extensive training in working with patients that includes two years of supervised clinical work. These social workers can assess, evaluate, diagnose, and treat patients with mental health concerns. They often work in hospitals and other medical settings, but may also work in offices or may treat patients in their home environments or in their communities. They provide treatment using various types of therapies, much like counselors and therapists.

Choosing a Mental Health Care Professional

There are so many options when it comes to receiving mental health care, and it is important to make the right choice to meet your needs. A good place to start is with your primary care physician who can guide you to make a decision about whether or not you need more specialized care. If you are seeking more extensive mental health care, consider your needs. If you or a love done is not functioning on a daily basis or are experiencing a mental health crisis, you may need a psychiatrist or temporary hospitalization.

If symptoms are less severe, you may choose to be referred to a psychiatrist, but you also may benefit form a psychologist, clinical social worker, or therapist. If you have a special need, such as a child who is struggling or an issue with alcohol, choose someone who specializes in pediatric psychology or addiction. Most of all, make sure that the professional you choose is appropriately certified, has experience, and can provide good references. If at any point you don’t feel as if your needs are being met or that you are getting good quality care, don’t hesitate to find a new caregiver for better service.