Psychology is always a hot topic, and it informs just about every area of discussion you can imagine. For that you can thank (or blame, considering your personal views) Sigmund Freud. He was not the first of his kind, as most would credit Wilhelm Wundt with that distinction (see Annenberg Learner for an informative timeline of Psychology as an academic discipline). No, Freud was not the first, but he remains the most well-known psychiatrist to most people on the street.
While Freud retains his status as the first name many think of in regards to psychology, most of the mental health profession has evolved well beyond Freud, both in theory and in practice. There are several different types of practitioners in the mental health disciplines, and this brief article will help you sort through the role of each.
The American Psychiatric Association states that “Psychiatry is the branch of medicine focused on the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental, emotional and behavioral disorders.” This is a fancy way of stating that a psychiatrist is a Doctor; an MD or DO. Yes, you read correctly, a psychiatrist is a doctor in the same sense that your GP, surgeon or gynecologist is a doctor. The article above shares much good information about the particulars, but a psychiatrist attends four years of medical school before training for four additional years of residency. Psychiatrists work to include physical issues that may impact mental health, and as a doctor, a psychiatrist is the main mental health professional to prescribe any sort of medication.
As defined by the American Psychological Association, Psychologists have a doctoral degree, but that does little to tell what they do. Their practical applications are many and varied, from research, to testing and assessment to therapy; psychologists are an important cog in the wheels of mental health treatment. Ultimately the aim of most all psychologists is to help diagnose and treat mental illnesses and improve one’s mental health. A psychologist in private practice or working in a clinical setting typically is engaged in counseling more so than most psychiatrist have time to do, but there is no hard and fast rule that dictates this. Psychologists generally do not prescribe medications, though there are two current exceptions: “As of January 2009, properly trained and qualified, licensed psychologists in New Mexico and Louisiana are authorized to prescribe certain medications for the treatment of mental health disorders. In addition, there are many efforts within the field to expand this authority.”)
Psychiatric nurse is one of the most transparent etymologies out there. This professional is a full RN specializing in psychiatric issues. They assist patients in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues and can also, like psychiatrists, prescribe medications. Their organization is the American Association of Psychiatric Nurses and they have a helpful informational link here.
Psych nurses may also earn a Master’s Degree and/or a PhD, and often engage in counseling with clients.
Technically all three previously cited professionals conduct therapy, but often their main duties supersede the actual practice of counseling. For example, in certain areas the demand for psychiatric medication is so high that a psychiatrist either cannot take the time to conduct therapy or chooses to focus on diagnosis and prescribing. This article from the New York Times is a good start if you want to explore this issue. For professionals whose focus is counseling you have a variety of choices.
These professionals mainly focus on counseling, with individuals, couples, families and groups. Each of the below detailed disciplines requires a Master’s Degree at minimum and may progress all the way to a PhD if desired. Though the distinctions between these professionals are relevant, essentially you may receive quality care from any of the three: all are trained to properly diagnose and treat a range of mental health issues. They all have standard training that is very similar, and study many of the same experts, theories and traditions, while also branching out into areas that are unique to each.
Marriage and Family Therapist
Don’t be fooled by the title, an MFT is qualified to counsel anyone, not just couples and families. The difference with an MFT is their focus on Systems Theory, in this discipline pioneered to a great degree by MFT grandfather Murray Bowen, as a means of therapeutic change. Their organization is the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. https://www.aamft.org/iMIS15/AAMFT/Content/about_aamft/Qualifications.aspx
Licensed Professional Counselor
You will find LPCs anywhere there is a need for a therapist—community mental health centers, hospitals, substance abuse facilities, schools and more.
Social Workers also spend much of their time conducting therapy in situations similar to MFTs and LPCs.
There are other specializations available to mental health professionals, such as music therapy or art therapy, to name just two. At the base, most every mental health professional you encounter will be qualified in at least one of the modes detailed above.