What’s the Difference Between Various Mental Health Professionals?
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Finding help for a mental illness can be an overwhelming and confusing process. With the growing number of mental health professionals, their responsibilities and qualifications are not always clear. As an emerging Social Worker and current Social Work intern, I find many of my clients having trouble understanding the difference between all the mental health professions. It is clear to say, duties of the various mental health professions overlap, however, there are limits and boundaries within their job descriptions. In order to provide my clients with better understanding and clarity, I have researched the different professions and found the following:

  • Social Worker (BSW, MSW, LMSW, LCSW) – Social workers promote social justice and reduce barriers to needed services for individuals, families and groups with limited resources. They also assist people in developing healthy coping strategies to deal with stressors and difficult life circumstances using a variety of therapeutic techniques including individual and group therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Solution-Focused Therapy. Clinical Social Workers (LCSW) are able to diagnose and treat mental health disorders according to DSM-5 criteria. Social workers are able to work in a variety of settings including but not limited to schools, hospitals, mental health organizations, policy child welfare and human service agencies, community development organizations, and private practice.
  • Licensed Professional Counselors (LPC and LPC-I) – Counselors work with individuals, families and groups to address specific behavioral, emotional and mental issues. LPC’s are qualified to diagnose individuals with a mental illness using various assessment and evaluation tools and treat them by providing psycho-education and other therapeutic techniques to meet the specific needs of the client population. Counselors can work in schools, private practice, rehabilitation programs and behavioral health facilities.
  • Psychiatric Nurse (ADN, BSN, PMHN, PMHN-RN) – Psychiatric Mental Health Nurses (PMHN) work with individuals, families and communities to address psychiatric needs and concern. They assist in the development of nursing care plans, assist patients and families in developing effective coping strategies, and provide crisis intervention and counseling. Not all PMHNs prescribe medications, only those with advanced degrees in Nursing, however, they do provide medication management by checking patients to assess side effects, check drug levels and ensure compliance with medication. Psychiatric Nurses can work in clinics, psychiatric hospitals, jails, group homes and drug rehabilitation facilities.
  • Psychiatrists (M.D.) – Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in mental health and diagnose and treat individuals with mental, emotional or behavioral issues. Psychiatrists are considered physicians and have the ability to conduct both medical laboratory testing and psychological testing to evaluate an individual’s physical and mental needs. Psychiatrists use a variety of treatments including but not limited to prescription medications, therapy, psychosocial therapeutic interventions, and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Psychiatrists are employed in a range of settings including hospitals, behavioral health facilities and private practice.
  • Psychologist (Ph.D. in Psychology) – Psychologists seek to improve the overall health and well-being of an individual, family or group. Their emphasis is on the human brain and mental processes and the ways in which it affects human behavior. Psychologists have earned their doctorate degree in psychology and work with individuals who are experiencing psychological and emotional difficulties by providing testing and evaluations, diagnoses and treatments and conducting research. Psychologists can provide therapy, testing and treatment for individuals with neuropsychological difficulties including learning deficits or developmental disabilities, and other areas where there is an intersection between the brain and behavior. Psychologists work in multiple places including schools, nursing homes, healthcare facilities, government and industry, and private practice.
  • Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) – Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists work with couples and families to address a variety of concerns related to mental, emotional, health-related and behavioral issues occurring within the context of the family system. LMFT’s specialize in evaluating and treating individuals while addressing familial and relationship concerns. They provide psychotherapy and psycho-education to improve relationships and overall mental well-being. LMFT’s often times work in private practice but are also found in schools, behavioral health facilities, churches and religious settings and treatment centers.

The most important thing to remember when seeking help from a mental health professional is to find someone who fits your needs and someone you are comfortable working with.  Also, each mental health professionals has expertise and preferences in working with certain populations.


Social worker

Licensed Professional Counselor

Psychiatric Nurse



Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

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