Types of Mental Health Care Providers

The following are descriptions of the types of clinicians who most commonly treat mental health issues.

Primary Care Physicians (M.D.) are medical doctors who provide health care to adults. They can prescribe psychotropic medication. However, it is not usually their role to provide extensive mental health services; they will most likely refer patients to one of the professionals listed below. (NB: Psychiatric nurse practitioners may also perform the services just described.)

Pediatricians (M.D.) are medical doctors who provide health care to children and adolescents. Since they have regular contact with families, they can often be helpful in consulting about mental health issues and determining the next steps. They can also prescribe psychotropic medication. However, it is not usually their role to provide extensive mental health services; they will most likely refer families to one of the professionals listed below. (NB: Pediatric nurse practitioners may also perform the services just described.)

Psychiatrists (M.D.) are medical doctors who specialize in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of mental illness.  A psychiatrist must receive additional training and serve a supervised residency in his or her specialty. He or she may also have additional training in a psychiatric specialty, such as child psychiatry, neuropsychiatry or geriatric psychiatry. Psychiatrists can prescribe medication, which psychologists cannot do.

Psychiatric Mental Health Clinical Nurses Specialists (PMH CNS) work with individuals, families, groups, and communities, assessing their mental health needs. They assess, diagnose, and treat individuals and families with psychiatric disorders or the potential for such disorders using their full scope of therapeutic skills, including the prescription of medication and administration of psychotherapy.  At times, the role of a psychiatric clinical nurse specialist may overlap with that of a psychologist, social worker and psychiatrist. For example, all of these positions usually do psychotherapy.  A psychiatric clinical nurse specialist can prescribe psychotropic medication.

Geriatric Psychiatrists (M.D.) are medical doctors who emphasize the biological and psychological aspects of normal aging, the psychiatric effect of acute and chronic physical illness, and the biological and psychosocial aspects of the pathology of primary psychiatric disturbances of older age. Geriatric psychiatrists focus on prevention, evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of mental and emotional disorders in the elderly and improvement of psychiatric care for healthy and ill elderly patients.

Child Psychiatrists (M.D.) are medical doctors who are specifically trained in diagnosing psychiatric disorders in children and adolescents and prescribing psychotropic medication. Typically, the child psychiatrist first evaluates the child and determines which medication would be most useful. In subsequent visits, he or she checks in with the family to find out how effective the medication has been and whether the dosage is appropriate. Most child psychiatrists do not provide therapeutic counseling to their patients, although some do offer this option. (NB: Child psychiatric clinical nurse specialists may also perform the services just described.)

Child Neurologists (M.D.) are medical doctors who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of problems of the nervous system in children and adolescents. If teachers or parents suspect that a child might have a neurological condition that impacts learning and behavior, the child will most likely be referred to a child neurologist for an evaluation. Child neurologists can prescribe medication.

Clinical Social Workers (LCSW, LICSW) are licensed mental health clinicians who provide a range of strengths-based therapeutic services to children, adolescents, adults, and families. They are trained to assess the individual in the context of his or her environment (e.g. cultural background, family situation, current stressors, etc.) and to work collaboratively with the people who are most influential in the individual’s life.

Mental Health Counselors (LMHC) are licensed clinicians who provide individual, family, and group counseling. Like Clinical Social Workers, they are trained in a variety of methods and they practice from a strengths-based perspective. They may also specialize in a particular clinical area, such as substance abuse or eating disorders.

Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFT) are licensed clinicians whose training is focused on working with couples and families. They assess a family’s dynamics and patterns and help the family members learn to improve their interactions. Treatment is typically solution-focused, meaning that the therapist and the family identify goals to work on together.

Psychologists (Ph.D., Psy.D., Ed.D.) are doctoral-level clinicians who are trained in diagnosing and treating psychological disorders. They may specialize working with just children and/or adolescents, working only with adults, or they make work with individuals across the entire lifespan.. They work with individuals and families to address symptoms and improve functioning. They may also have expertise in conducting cognitive, academic, developmental, or personality testing.

School Psychologists are certified professionals who are trained in diagnostic testing and in individual and group therapy. School Psychologists often assess whether students are eligible for supportive services within the school. When a student is identified by teachers and parents as having psychological or behavioral issues that could impact learning, the school psychologist evaluates the student to determine if he or she meets qualifications to receive special education. School psychologists may also serve as consultants to other school staff regarding mental health issues.

School Counselors are certified professionals who provide various kinds of support to students in the school. They are often available to students on a drop-in basis to deal with specific crises and they may also meet with students on a regular basis (individually or in groups) to address ongoing concerns. In many schools, it is also the role of the counselor to advise students on course selection and assist them in career planning and college applications.

School Social Workers are certified professionals who are based in the school to handle mental health concerns. Like school counselors, they generally provide both crisis intervention and ongoing individual and group therapy. They may also collaborate with teachers to offer classroom instruction about issues such as bullying or self-injury. However, it is not normally their role to manage students’ schedules.