What Are the Kinds of Mental Health Experts?
Counselors, therapists, clinical social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists are all experts in mental health. But they have different levels of education and some offer different mental health services.
When looking for mental health care, you may also hear the term "behavioral health." It refers to everything you'd think of as mental health, such as help for struggles around conditions like depression and anxiety, and challenges like grief and addiction.
What Kind of Mental Health Expert Is Best for My Child?
The first step to getting help for your child is finding the specialist with the training and experience that fits your needs. But with so many options to choose from, this simple task can feel complicated.
Start with your family doctor. They're called "primary" care providers for a reason. Unless it's an emergency, go to your child's pediatrician or your family doctor first for mental and physical concerns.
Some mental health issues have a physical cause. When they don't, your family doctor or pediatrician can help you find the right mental health specialist.
Here's who your doctor may recommend:
Therapists and Counselors
For the most part, these two words mean the same thing. They're both experts who use talk therapy techniques to help their clients. That includes resolving problem beliefs, changing behaviors, improving emotional outlook, and more.
When they treat children, therapists and counselors can work with the whole family or the child alone. They use a variety of ways to help kids express themselves, like drawing, playing, and talking. Older kids and teens may be ready for activities that help them learn needed skills.
Sometimes, it can help parents to see a therapist by themselves to get their own support.
Most states require licensed therapists and counselors to have a master's degree. So in addition to a 4-year degree, they have education in their specific field.
One way to learn more about a therapist or clinical counselor is to look at the letters that come after their name. These are abbreviations of a license or accreditation that refer to a provider's education and training. Different types of counselors and therapists include a:
- Licensed professional counselor (LPC): Someone who is trained to treat mental health, behavioral, and emotional disorders.
- Licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT): Someone who treats a wide range of mental health disorders. They also help families and couples work through their own challenges.
- Licensed clinical alcohol & drug abuse counselor (LCADAC): Someone who specializes in working with families struggling with drug and alcohol abuse.
Ask if your child's mental health counselor or therapist is certified and find out about their education and experience with children.
Clinical Social Workers
Social workers can help people live healthier, more productive lives. Clinical social workers focus on diagnosing and treating mental health issues.
Like therapists and counselors, clinical social workers can help work families through challenging experiences like divorce. They can also treat mental health conditions like depression.
Clinical social workers work in many places, including with family doctors, at hospitals, and at nonprofit organizations.
They have at least a master's degree. Here are a couple of the types of clinical social workers:
- Licensed clinical social worker (LCSW): They can help clients work through a wide variety of mental and emotional challenges. They're required to meet education and experience requirements, though these vary by state.
- Academy of certified social worker (ACSW): these are clinical social workers with a master's degree and 2 years of organizational experience. These social workers are credentialed by the Academy of Certified Social Workers.
Nurses with advanced education provide a wide range of mental health services, including therapy and sometimes medication management. They have typically earned a master's or doctoral degree, like a PhD or doctorate of nursing practice (DNP). They're called mental health nurse practitioners or psychiatric nurse practitioners.
Psychologists and Psychiatrists
These titles sound similar, but they have an important difference.
Like a counselor or therapist, psychologists can make a mental health diagnosis and develop a treatment plan. They have doctoral degrees (like a PhD or PsyD), but are not medical doctors and can't prescribe medicine.
A psychiatrist is a medical doctor (MD) who can do everything a psychologist can, plus prescribe medicine.
For kids and teens who benefit from talk therapy alone, either a psychologist or a psychiatrist is a great choice. Those who need medication should see a psychiatrist. It's often also helpful to get talk therapy along with medicines.