Mental Health Professionals: Who They Are and How to Find One
Mental health services are provided by several different professions, each of which has its own training and areas of expertise. Finding the right professional(s) for you or a loved one can be a critical ingredient in the process of diagnosis, treatment and recovery when faced with serious mental illness.
Types of Professionals who Provide Mental Health Services:
- Psychiatrist – Psychiatrists are physicians with either a doctor of medicine (M.D.) degree or doctor of osteopathy (D.O.) degree, who also has at least four additional years of specialized study and training in psychiatry. Psychiatrists are licensed as physicians to practice medicine by individual states. "Board Certified" psychiatrists have passed the national examination administered by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. Psychiatrists provide medical and psychiatric evaluations, treat psychiatric disorders, provide psychotherapy and prescribe and monitor medications. There are several subspecialty boards in psychiatry including child and adolescent, forensic, and addictions.
- Psychologist – Psychologists have has a doctoral degree (Ph.D., Psy.D. or Ed.D.) in clinical, educational, counseling or research psychology. Psychologists are also licensed by individual states to practice psychology. They can provide psychological testing, evaluations, treat emotional and behavioral problems and mental disorders, and provide a variety of psychotherapeutic techniques.
- Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioner – Psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNP) have a four-year college degree in nursing (BSN) and also complete an approved masters of science in nursing (MSN) or doctor of nursing practice (DNP). PMHNPs are licensed by individual states and in some states are required to practice under the supervision of a psychiatrist. PMHNPs provide a wide range of services to adults, children, adolescents and their families including assessment and diagnosis, prescribing medications and providing therapy for individuals with psychiatric disorders or substance abuse problems.
- Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse – Psychiatric/mental health nurses may have various degrees ranging from associate's (R.N.) to bachelor's (B.S.N.) to master's (M.S.N. or A.P.R.N) to doctoral (D.N.Sc., Ph.D.). Depending on their level of education and licensing, they provide a broad range of psychiatric and medical services, including the assessment and treatment of psychiatric illnesses, case management, and psychotherapy. In certain states, some psychiatric nurses may prescribe and monitor medication.
- Social Worker – Social workers have either a bachelor's degree (B.A., B.S. or B.S.W.), a master's degree (M.A., M.S., M.S.W. or M.S.S.W), or doctoral degree (D.S.W. or Ph.D.). In most states, social workers take an examination to be licensed to practice social work (L.C.S.W. or L.I.C.S.W.), and the type of license depends on their level of education and practice experience. Social workers provide a range of services based on their level of training and certification. Typically a bachelor’s level social worker provides case management, inpatient discharge planning services, placement services and a variety of other daily living needs services for individuals. Master’s level social workers can provide this level of services but are also able to provide assessment and treatment of psychiatric illnesses including psychotherapy.
- Licensed Professional Counselors – Licensed professional counselors have a master's degree (M.A. or M.S.) in psychology, counseling or other mental health related fields and typically have two years of supervised post-graduate experience. They may provide services that include assessment and diagnosis of mental health conditions as well as providing individual, family or group therapy. They are licensed by individual states and may also be certified by the National Board of Certified Counselors.
- Peer Specialists – The recognition that peers offer a unique window into the recovery process is gaining traction across the nation. Learning from someone who “has been there” is often quite helpful. Certification typically occurs on a state by state basis, and reimbursement is also locally driven. Contact your local state mental health authority to find out where to connect to peer specialists in your state.
Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselors. (CADC) certified individuals have expertise in working with people who have substance abuse issues. These providers may have other degrees (e.g., MSW) and have an interest in this area. There are other substance counseling certifications that vary state by state.
Resources for Locating a Mental Health Professional
The following sources may help you locate a mental health professional or treatment facility to meet your needs:
- NAMI State Organizations and NAMI Affiliates – Speaking with NAMI members (individuals living with mental illness and family members) can be a good way to exchange information about mental health professionals in your local community. You can find your state or local NAMI organization at www.nami.org.
- Primary Care Physician (PCP) – Your primary physician or pediatrician is an excellent resource for making recommendations and referrals to a mental health specialist or therapist in your area.
- Your Insurance Provider – Contact your insurance company for a list of mental health care providers included in your insurance plan.
- American Psychiatric Association (APA) – The APA can give you names of APA members in your area. Find your state branch online, consult your local phone book or call (703) 907-7300.
- Psychiatry department at local teaching hospital or medical school.
- National Association of Social Workers (NASW) – NASW has an online directory of clinical social workers. Visit www.socialworkers.org and click on Resources or call (202) 408-8600.
- American Psychological Association (APA) – The APA can refer to local psychologists by calling 1 (800) 374-2721.
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA) Center for Mental Health Services – SAMHSA has an online database of mental health and substance abuse services and facilities in each state. Visit www.samhsa.gov/treatment and click on Mental Health Services Locator.
Reviewed by Ken Duckworth, M.D., May 2013
[Download the NAMI mental health professionals fact sheet.]