Mental Health Professionals: Which One Should I Choose?

By Kathryn Millán, LPC/MHSP

Male therapistMental health issues impact everyone. Even the healthiest people experience difficult times or relationship issues that call for the help of a psychology or relationship professional. Many people still struggle to find the right mental health care, and it’s often difficult to know what — or who — to turn to for the best possible outcome. The matter is even more complicated for people who are actively experiencing distressing mental health issues or are worried about the stigma associated with mental illness.

Gaining greater awareness is the first step toward seeking treatment. A better understanding of mental health and treatment options will help you feel more comfortable about asking questions. And as you realize that you’re not alone, you may find that any lingering doubt about seeking treatment dissipates.

Here’s a handy guide to some of the many types of mental health professionals you may see in your research.

Quick Guide to Mental Health Practitioners

Therapy has come a long way since the days of Sigmund Freud. Modern mental health care offers a number of specialized treatment options for any level of need or type of goals.


Psychiatrists are licensed medical doctors who specialize in the treatment of mental health conditions. Sometimes called psychopharmacologists, these medical doctors offer prescriptions, medication management and, on rare occasions, more in-depth treatment like transcranial magnetic stimulation. Psychiatrists often have MD after their name, which stands for “medical doctor.”1 They may also work with nurse practitioners, advanced-level nurses who also specialize in psychiatric treatment and are able to prescribe medications.


Psychologists also have doctoral degrees, but they are not medical doctors. Psychologists have a PhD or PsyD degree, also known as a doctorate of philosophy or doctorate of psychology. Psychologists offer counseling, and many specialize in assessment and psychological testing. Like counselors, social workers and many of the clinicians you see below, psychologists often meet with clients for 50-minute sessions.2,3


The word “counselor” is often used as an umbrella term to describe everything from experienced mental health professionals to people who simply offer help with little to no training. However, licensed counselors have advanced degrees in mental health treatment and assessment and have practiced in-person mental health counseling and assessment for a number of years, passed a number of tests, and undergone a rigorous state licensing process. Licensed professional counselors may have initials like LPC or LPCC after their name. Others may carry an MHSP credential, which indicates that they are a mental health service provider who has passed rigorous testing to diagnose mental health conditions. Most people spend up to 50-minute sessions with licensed counselors.


Social workers are similar to counselors in that they provide mental health counseling. However, social workers must complete slightly different licensing procedures in the state where they practice. Traditionally, social workers have focused more on the immediate physical needs of clients, such as helping them obtain food, shelter, clothing, medical care and employment. Social workers may be found in hospitals, VA centers and even in private practice. They may have earned the acronyms LMSW (Licensed Master of Social Work) or the more specialized LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker).


LMFTs (Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists, sometimes shortened to MFT) offer brief, solution-focused therapy for families and couples. Marriage and family therapy often lasts less than 12 sessions and is often focused on a particular issue or need within a family. Licensed marriage and family therapists have completed many hours of clinical practice in helping families improve communication while healing from the past.4


Substance abuse counselors specialize in helping individuals and families recover from addiction. These counselors may simply hold a bachelor’s degree or they may have an advanced degree and additional certification as a licensed counselor or social worker. In some cases, substance abuse counselors are people who have also recovered from addiction in their own past. Because each facility requires different levels of certification and experience, it’s a good idea to ask your substance abuse counselor about his or her experience and qualifications.


Pastoral counselors, like substance abuse counselors, may have a variety of backgrounds. They may have a four-year degree or even a master’s or doctoral degree. These counselors often have a church affiliation and counsel from a spiritual or religious perspective. Pastoral counselors are not usually licensed, but it pays to ask questions and learn more to find the best support system for yourself or someone you love.


“Therapist,” “psychotherapist” and “mental health professional” are often used as blanket terms to describe any of the professionals above. It’s a good idea to ask a few questions before considering a treatment facility or to talk with any potential therapist over the phone before you meet. One simple call can answer any questions you may have about a mental health professional. Many therapists have specialties, such as trauma, addiction, family, divorce, loss or child counseling.5

If you or someone you love could benefit from mental health support, we are here to help. Rolling Hills Hospital offers treatment for a wide range of co-occurring disorders and mental health concerns, provided by a team of dedicated, licensed professionals. Call now to learn more about how we can help.


1 “What is Psychiatry?” American Psychological Association, Accessed December 22, 2017.

2 “What do Practicing Psychologists Do?” American Psychological Association, Accessed December 22, 2017.

3 Ryback, Ralph. “Psychiatrist vs. Psychologist.” Psychology Today, January 4, 2016.

4 “What is Marriage and Family Therapy?” American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, Accessed December 22, 2017.

5 “Types of Mental Health Professionals.” Mental Health America, Accessed December 22, 2017.


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