A Guide to Mental Health Professionals

There seems to be quite a significant amount of confusion regarding mental health professionals and their qualifications. This article is one of a series of articles regarding who are the major mental health professionals and the differences between them. Hopefully, these articles will serve to clarify what the main differences are and help the consumer as well as the legal professional understand the distinctions.

In future articles, I will go into more depth regarding these professions. I will confine my descriptions as they apply to professionals in California. Much of the information will apply to other states as well, but there may be some important distinctions that do not apply in other states.

Psychologist: Psychologists are trained in the social sciences. In California, only someone with a psychology license may call herself a “psychologist.” To be eligible to take the licensing exam, the psychologist must have either a Ph. D. or a Psy. D., degree. The Ph.D. is usually earned in a University (a multidisciplinary setting) where the student is trained in psychological theory and practice and in scientific research. The psychologist is also trained in the administration and interpretation of psychological tests. A Psy. D. degree is usually earned in an educational institution that is dedicated to training psychologists.

As of this date, in California, psychologists cannot prescribe psychotropic medications. If medications are needed, the psychologist will usually work with a medical doctor such as a psychiatrist, a general medical practitioner (80% of psychotropic medications in the USA are prescribed by general medical practitioners) or other medical specialist.
Psychiatrist: A psychiatrist is a medical doctor. He/she is trained in medical school and not in a university. After medical school, she will do a residency in a hospital setting where she will learn psychiatry. Typically, psychiatrists do not receive training in the social sciences or in psychological testing. As opposed to psychologists who see mental problems as predominantly issues of learning and socialization, psychiatrists emphasize the medical model. That is, they see mental problems, such as depression and anxiety, as stemming from chemical/medical imbalances. Thus, psychiatrists are well equipped to treat severe mental disorders such as schizophrenia and bi-polar depressions by prescribing medication.
Marriage and Family Therapist: Marriage and family therapists, (MFT) usually have a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy. Some have doctoral degrees although the doctoral degree may be in some area other than marriage and family counseling. For example, an MFT may have a Ph.D. in psychology or anthropology. However, they are licensed as MFTs because they took and passed the MFT licensing exam.

Social Worker: Social workers usually have a master degree in social work (MSW). Many social workers work in hospital and community clinics where they help medical patients manage social resources while they are dealing with or recuperating from medical problems. Others work in government agencies helping families find appropriate resources for dealing with financial, medical and legal problems.

Counselor: Counselors usually have a master’s level degree and are frequently found in clinics that treat alcohol and substance abuse problems. Some may work as school counselors.
Other Mental Health Professionals: There are various other mental health professionals but the major ones are the school psychologist, the life coach, and spiritual counselors.  School psychologists usually hold a master’s degree in school psychology and are specially trained to work in the schools and with the learning disabilities of students. Life coaching is a relatively new profession wherein the professional helps the client reach her goals and aspirations. They are not licensed as therapists and there are, as yet, no licensing or academic requirements for life coaches. Spiritual counselors, clergy and pastoral counselors also provide counseling. In California there is no provision to license pastoral counselors.
These are the main mental health professionals. There are other individuals practicing as mental health professionals. Be sure to inquire what their credentials are and whether they are licensed by the State of California. If you are putting your trust in a professional that is going to help you in intimate and important areas of your life, it is best to be safe and to obtain the proper professional for you needs.
As stated at the start of this article, future articles will go into detail regarding the laws and ethics governing these various professions.

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