What’s the Difference?: A Guide to Understanding Mental Health Professionals 

I have learned throughout my journey of becoming a mental health professional that many people are quite confused about the titles, roles, and qualifications of the various types of professionals that make up the mental health professions. Today, I hope to shed some light on this topic in order to help individuals gain a better understanding of who’s who.

Psychiatrists- Those who use this title are medical doctors who have specialized in the treatment of mental disorders and are able to prescribe medication. With very few exceptions,  these are generally the only mental health professionals that can prescribe medications. They tend to focus on psychiatric medication management and few of them offer in depth counseling services. 

Psychologists- Those who use this title have a doctorate degree (approximately 8 years of post-secondary education) in psychology and are licensed in their state. They need to take a licensure exam. They typically have the designation PhD or PsyD after their name. They are able to provide mental health counseling services as well as teach psychology on the college level.

Licensed Counselors- Those who use this title have a Master’s degree (Approximately 6+ years of college) in counseling or social work along with additional post-master’s field experience. They must also take a licensure exam. They typically have the designation LMHC, LCSW, or LPC listed after their name.They are able to provide counseling services in a variety of settings including private practice. They do not typically teach full-time but are often allowed to do adjunct professorial work.

Therapist (or Psychotherapist)- This is a more general term that can be used by almost any mental health professional who has a degree (especially master’s or higher).Some professionals decide to use this title when they have a master’s degree in counseling but are not yet fully licensed. This is typically the terminology I use to describe myself. Some therapists decide to work toward licensure as a counselor,  others do not. If a therapist decides to work toward licensure, they register with their state’s department of health and as a result may have a designation such as RMHCI after their name.

Social Workers- Similar description to therapists, although they typically have degrees in social work and may focus more on case management than the typical therapist with a counseling degree does.

Case Manager- This is a title typically associated with those with a social work background but some professionals with Bachelor’s degrees in counseling may also do this type of work. Although case managers may perform some supportive counseling, they typically focus on identifying tangible and/or familial needs, coming up with a plan to meet these needs, and assisting clients in finding the resources necessary to meet those needs. 

Life Coach- This title can be used by almost anyone regardless of their education or experience. This means that it is very hard to predict the quality of the services you will receive based off of their title alone. However, their are certifications that can be obtained that can add more credibility to the professional. Life coaching seems to be best suited for those who are high functioning and are seeking personal growth as opposed to those with moderate to severe mental illness who have major impairments in functioning.

I hope this description of various mental health professionals has been helpful! If you have any questions or comments, feel free to post those!

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6 thoughts on “What’s the Difference?: A Guide to Understanding Mental Health Professionals 

  1. hey I’m hoping I could get your opinion.. That was awesome how you broke it down, but I’ve been confused as to where I fit under for a while. I have my Masters Degree in Psychology and I’ve been practicing as a mental health therapist/mental health clinician for a year and a half. I’m moving to Boston and I believe the only license I meet criteria for (not all criteria I still need to take a few specific classes) is licensed mental health counselor. I’m not sure if these are just my feelings or if there actually is a difference, but I don’t feel like the way I practice is really “counseling.” My goal has been to get my PsyD in clinical psychology but im 24 so thats not happening any time soon. And I’m not sure if I should get licensed as a mental health counselor because I don’t feel like I am one lol. Is it just the title that’s different or the role? Do you know if there are any other licenses I could obtain with a Masters in Psychology that is more related to my degree, without of course having a doctorate I know I can’t be a licensed Psychologist. I would appreciate if you have any feedback 🙂 Thanks so much!

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    1. Thanks! As far as I know, you would have to pursue licensure as a counselor (LMHC) until you get your PsyD. However, it would not hurt to look at the specific licenses available in Boston if you have not already done so. I think that although psychology, counseling, and social work are considered distinct professions, in practice there can be an overlap of roles and tasks done by people who identify with these professions. I would look at the license and title as more of a tool to be able to help you get to where you want to be in your career rather than what the title itself is. PS. Kudos to you for being 24 and already having your master’s and being close to licensure!

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      1. Thanks so much that was actually super helpful I did check out the difference licenses in mass and lmhc is the only one but thank you I’m going to start thinking about in that way.. And thanks I’ve been super passionate about psych since high school so i just dove right in lol.. What is your background in

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      2. Good! I am fairly similar in that I knew by the time I finished high school that I wanted to go into the field. My goal is LMHC licensure and to eventually work in a counseling office. I currently work at a local hospital, primarily with involuntary psych patients, assessing and assisting with getting patients admitted/transferred. For about a year and a half (with 6 months of over lap juggling working for the hospital ) I worked as an in home mental health clinician. I will have my required registered/postmasters experience in a few months, meaning I plan on applying in October for licensure. I have a BS in psychology and a MS in professional (mental health) counseling.

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      3. SO AWESOME!!! I’m actually doing in home therapy now. I’ve never worked in a psych hospital but I’d be interested to learn what its like in places besides Florida, hopefully their not all like the ones here. Best of luck, and your awesome.

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