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Often the process of seeking mental health care begins with your primary care physician. Your primary care physician may recommend that you see a mental health professional, or may prescribe medications until you’re able to get an appointment with a mental health professional.
Once you decide to seek professional help, there are many types of providers who can assess and treat your condition, and it may be a challenge to know who would be the best fit for your needs. You may want to consider several mental health care professionals before settling on one. You will need to determine what kind of mental health care professional is best for you or someone you care about?
As an initial step, it's a good idea to begin with an initial evaluation by a general psychiatrist or psychologist. These individuals will usually do a thorough diagnostic interview and may offer you treatment. They may, in some instances, recommend another mental health professional, and may give you a referral to a specific practitioner.
You may want to seek a provider with a particular expertise or treatment approach - or you may find that specific training and credentials are less important to you than your comfort level with a provider's personal style. There are quite a few types of mental health professionals, offering a broad variety of treatment approaches. Licensing and certification requirements for these professionals vary by state, province or country.
Psychiatrist (credentials: MD)A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specializes in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental health conditions. Training to become a psychiatrist requires an advanced degree from a four-year medical school, followed by a year of internship, usually in general medicine, and then three additional years of residency training in psychiatry. Some psychiatrists specialize in treating certain age groups, such as children and adolescents or older adults. These specialties often require one or two additional years of training.
Psychiatrists may prescribe medications, provide talk therapy, or both. Psychiatrists who specialize in medication management are often referred to as psychopharmacologists.
Other care providers
Psychologist (credentials: PhD, PsyD, EdD, or MS)Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. Psychologists assess and treat emotional, behavioral, and learning problems. A psychologist has typically earned a doctoral degree in psychology, although some have a master's degree in psychology. Some psychologists provide talk therapy, and may specialize in certain types of therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or interpersonal therapy (IPT). Other psychologists specialize in evaluating learning and behavioral issues that can affect academic and work performance. In most US states, psychologists are not authorized to prescribe medications.
Social Worker (credentials: MSW, LCSW, LICSW, ACSW, LCS, DSW, PhD, CCSW)A social worker helps individuals, families, and communities to overcome challenges and improve emotional health and daily functioning by providing counseling and identifying appropriate community resources and support systems. A social worker has an advanced degree in social work, and may have received additional clinical training in mental health care. A licensed clinical social worker undergoes additional years of training in clinical social work and is qualified to conduct psychotherapy and diagnose social, emotional, behavioral, developmental, and addictive disorders. Social workers cannot prescribe medication.
Psychoanalyst (credentials: MD, PhD, MSW/LICSW)A psychoanalyst may be a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker or, in certain states, even a lay individual. To become a trained psychoanalyst, one must undergo at least four years of training in addition to one's medical, psychological, social work, or other prerequisite studies. Psychoanalytic candidates must also undergo their own analyses, take academic courses, and perform supervised training analyses.
Psychoanalysts focus on helping individuals understand and address the unconscious factors that may create unhappiness or difficulties in work or relationships. Typically, treatment is intensive, involving psychoanalysis sessions four to five times a week.
Licensed Mental Health Counselor (credentials: LMHC, LPC, LCPC)Licensed mental health counselors have a master's degree in counseling or a closely related mental health discipline, plus a minimum of two years of post-master's clinical work under the supervision of a licensed or certified mental health professional. Counselors perform a variety of services to individuals, couples, and families, including assessment and diagnosis, psychotherapy, treatment planning, substance use treatment, crisis management, and prevention programs.
Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (credentials: APRN, APN, ARNPP, MHN)Advanced practice registered nurses have a master's degree in psychiatric/mental health nursing, and they are eligible to be licensed as therapists. APRNs provide a range of primary mental health care services to individuals, families, and groups, and may perform the function of a psychotherapist, educator, or advanced case manager. These nurses are authorized to prescribe medication in certain states, usually under the supervision of a medical doctor.
Substance Use Counselor (credentials: NCAC, MAC)Substance use counselors are individuals trained to prevent and treat problems relating to drug and/or alcohol overuse. They have typically received training in a certified training program, and a master's degree is required to become a licensed substance use counselor in most states. Some substance use counselors are themselves recovered substance users, and may disclose to their clients their experiences with drugs or alcohol. This practice differs from the practices of other mental health professionals who typically do not disclose detailed information about their personal lives.
Other mental health professionals such as psychologists and psychiatrists may also work in the substance use disorder field, either as therapists or (in the case of psychiatrists) as psychopharmacologists.
A substance use professional does not provide health care, but is usually hired by an employer to evaluate employees who have had a drug or alcohol problem. Their role is to monitor compliance and make recommendations concerning education, treatment, follow-up testing, and aftercare.
Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT, MFCC)These professionals, who specialize in working with families and couples, are trained in psychotherapy and family systems. Marriage and family therapists evaluate and treat emotional disorders, other health and behavioral problems, and address relationship issues within the context of the family system. They have a graduate degree (a 2- to 3-year master's degree or a 3- to 5-year doctoral degree), and clinical work experience.
Other Care ProvidersIn addition to the more conventional therapy approaches, many other choices exist: art or music therapy, osteopathy, homeopathy, neurofeedback, acupuncture, Reiki, massage, and others, for example. Some of these "alternative" practitioners are subject to licensing and some are not. Likewise, some of these practices have specific degree programs associated with the discipline and others do not. Keep in mind that some conventional practitioners, such as medical doctors and psychologists, may opt for additional training in these alternative disciplines and may obtain the required licensing to practice them as well. It's generally a good idea to research alternative care providers carefully before embarking on a lengthy course of treatment, particularly as alternative treatments are often not covered by insurance.
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