Mental health providers: Which type is best for you?
With so many different types of mental health providers, it can be challenging to keep them all straight. You’ve probably seen the myriad titles like MDs, DOs, NPs, PsyDs, PAs, LCSWs—the list goes on. If you’re wondering what all of these acronyms mean, you’re not alone! Broad terms like “therapist” can add even more confusion to the mix, but the above titles are not interchangeable and have significant differences.
In this blog, we’ll discuss the differences between the types of mental health providers so you can find the right care for your specific needs. But first, let’s discuss what exactly a mental provider is.
What are mental health providers?
In health care, and for the purposes of this article, a provider is an individual who is licensed to provide health care treatment services, which may also include medication. At Talkiatry, we have a few types of mental health providers, including psychiatrists, who are Medical Doctors (MDs) or Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine (DOs), and Nurse Practitioners (NPs) who are board-certified in psychiatric mental health treatment. Below, we’ll explain these types of providers and several other types of licensed mental health providers, so you can understand them all.
Types of mental health providers
What is a psychiatrist (MD or DO)?
Psychiatrists are mental health providers who have attended medical school. Medical Doctors, or MDs, attend conventional medical school and their coursework focuses on disease management. Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine, or DOs, attend schools that integrate the MD education model with additional study of the musculoskeletal system. To become a psychiatrist, both MDs and DOs must complete an additional 4-year residency specializing in psychiatry. They are exposed to various clinical settings during residency, from psychiatric emergency rooms to outpatient mental health clinics. Typically, psychiatrists focus on the adult population but may specialize in additional areas such as child & adolescent psychiatry, geriatric psychiatry, forensic psychiatry, consult liaison psychiatry, or addiction medicine. While it is not a requirement, a psychiatrist must pass an exam to become board-certified by the American Board of Physician Specialties.
What can psychiatrists do?
Psychiatrists can diagnose conditions and prescribe medications. A psychiatrist can assist in determining which medications and doses are appropriate for a patient whose diagnosis involves medication. They have also trained in a range of therapeutic techniques to address patients’ needs in conjunction with or instead of medication. Simply put, psychiatrists can do everything that other mental health providers on this list can do, and more.
Psychiatrists represent the highest level of mental health providers. These physicians have completed medical school and a 4-year residency in psychiatry. Some have also completed board examinations in a particular specialty, such as Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, or Addiction Medicine. Because psychiatrists are medical doctors, they are best for those who are experiencing mental health issues and are seeking medication management and psychotherapy since they are trained in diagnosing, treating, and preventing disorders of the mind.
What is a psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP)?
Nurse practitioners (NPs) attend nursing school and graduate with a bachelor’s degree in nursing, then complete a master’s or doctorate in nursing with a specialty in psychiatry (thus becoming PMHNPs). PMHNPs complete their clinical practice in hospital and clinical settings during their training, including group, individual, and family therapies. Once training is complete, they must pass a clinical exam to receive board certification from the American Nurses Credentialing Center which must be renewed every five years.
What can a nurse practitioner (NP) do?
PMHNPs can make diagnoses, prescribe medication, and provide different therapies. Many NPs are certified to treat patients across the lifespan. The independence of a PMHNP varies from state to state, but since the Nurse Practitioner Modernization Act in 2015, in New York, NPs with more than 3,600 hours of relevant clinical experience can practice without a collaborating physician.
PMHNPs are next to psychiatrists in terms of being able to provide the highest level of mental health care. Although PMHNPs are not medical doctors, they do share similar responsibilities to psychiatrists, including diagnosing and prescribing medications. No other mental health providers on this list (with few exceptions) can provide the same level of care or range of solutions as psychiatrists and PMHNPs. You should consider seeing a PMHNP if you are looking for a treatment that involves therapy and prescribed medication.
What is a psychologist (Ph.D. or PsyD)?
Psychologists have completed a bachelor’s degree plus 4-5+ years in a doctoral program. The focus on these programs is either research for a Ph.D. or clinical application for a PsyD. Unlike psychiatrists, psychologists have not gone to medical school.
What can psychologists do?
Both psychologists with PhDs and PsyDs can diagnose conditions and provide a wide range of specific therapies and diagnostic testing tools. However, in most states (including New York), psychologists cannot prescribe medications.
Therapist vs psychologist
Often, when the term “therapist” comes to mind, we think of psychologists, but there are many types of therapists and they are quite different in their approach, training, and education. Psychologists have an advanced degree in psychology while therapists can have any number of degrees in a variety of disciplines such as social work, clinical psychology, or psychiatry. In addition, a psychologist can help make a mental health diagnosis, while therapists typically do not. Overall, a therapist is a more broad term for an individual who is trained to provide a variety of treatments whereas a psychologist primarily focuses on diagnosing and treating mental health issues.
Psychologists are highly educated mental health providers. They are well-versed in clinical research and will meet your needs in terms of specialized therapies. If you are looking to start medication, a psychologist may not be the right choice, though you may find it helpful to see both a psychologist and a psychiatrist or PMHNP in order to receive the most effective treatment for mental health and behavioral disorders.
What is a physician assistant (PA)?
Physician assistants must complete a master’s degree in a physician assistant program, which is typically 2-3 years in length. PAs complete education based on the medical model during school, an approach that suggests mental conditions are related to the brain's physical structure and functioning. For this reason, mental health disorders are treated as physical diseases, and prescribing medication is common. PAs focus on primary and acute care and complete 2,000 hours of supervised clinical practice. After this program, they must take a clinical exam to receive board certification by the American Academy of Physician Assistants. In almost every state, PAs must have an agreement with a physician who collaborates with and supervises them.
What can a physician assistant do?
The scope of what PAs can do is relatively broad compared to many other providers. PAs do not specialize, per se, meaning they practice a wide variety of specialties. After their schooling, they may choose to focus their career and “self-specialize.”
They diagnose conditions and prescribe medications but do not receive training in therapeutic modalities. Details about supervision from a physician vary between states, but PAs must practice with physician supervision or collaboration overall.
Physician assistants are mid-level mental health providers who can do the basics—provide diagnoses, develop treatment plans, and prescribe medications. They have a strong foundation in primary and acute care and must practice under the supervision of a physician. PAs are trained to conduct comprehensive medical and mental health assessments, which makes them a great first step in receiving mental health care. However, if more assistance is needed, they can also refer you to a more specialized physician such as a psychiatrist.
What is a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW)?
Many of us are probably familiar with the role of social workers in the way that they help clients get the benefits and services they need. But a social worker who has a clinical license (LCSW) has completed a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree in social work, completed three years of relevant clinical work in psychiatry and passed a clinical exam.
What can a licensed clinical social worker do?
These providers can diagnose conditions and provide therapies to patients without supervision, but they do not prescribe medications.
Licensed clinical social workers are an excellent choice for someone who wants therapy, but they don’t tend to practice specified types of therapy. They can often provide personalized treatment plans and prevention strategies to help patients cope with issues that are affecting their mental health.
What is a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC)?
Licensed mental health counselors receive either a master’s or doctorate in counseling, including coursework and supervised clinical work. In addition, they must pass a clinical exam to receive certification.
What can a licensed mental health counselor do?
LMHCs can practice independently at the advanced level once they have completed 3,000 hours of supervised clinical practice. They’re able to diagnose psychiatric conditions and provide a range of supportive therapies.
Licensed mental health counselors are a good choice for someone who wants to pursue therapy. However, LMHCs are not the right choice for someone who would like a specific form of therapy unless their provider specializes in it or is seeking medication management.
What type of mental health providers should you see?
As you can see, there are many different mental health care providers who specialize and provide a variety of different services. It’s important that you find a provider who can provide you with the best level of care and treatment for your needs. While credentials are definitely an important factor to consider, one more factor to consider is the fit. Therapeutic style and personality vary from person to person and provider to provider. It is crucial that you feel comfortable and open and have a good connection with your mental health provider(s) in order to receive the best care and best outcome for your treatment. If you need more guidance on where to start this process, begin by taking our free assessment to receive a preliminary diagnosis and recommended Talkiatry provider, or combination of providers, for your specific situation.
Talkiatry is a national psychiatry practice that provides in-network, virtual care. Co-founded by a patient and a triple-board-certified psychiatrist, Talkiatry has over 300 doctors, 60 insurance partners, and first visits available in days. We treat patients with anxiety, depression, trauma, ADHD, and more. Get started with a short online assessment.
Talkiatry is a mental health practice, and our clinicians review everything we write. However, articles are never a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you think you may need mental health help, talk to a psychiatrist. If you or someone you know may be in danger, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.
Dr. Austin Lin is a double board-certified adult and addiction psychiatrist who has been in practice for over 9 years. At the center of Dr. Lin’s clinical approach is a strong emphasis on establishing trust and using a collaborative approach to help patients develop an individualized and cohesive plan so that they are able to achieve their goals.
Dr. Lin's practice focuses on medication management. Typically, he offers this in conjunction with supportive therapy, motivational interviewing, and/or cognitive behavioral therapy in 30-minute follow-up visits. Occasionally, Dr. Lin may recommend that additional therapy is needed and ask that you bring a therapist into your care team in order to provide the best outcome.
Dr. Lin received his medical degree from St. George’s University School of Medicine. He went on to complete his residency in psychiatry at Harvard South Shore, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, where he served as Chief Resident and earned his 360° Professionalism award. He then had additional training in Addiction Psychiatry through his fellowship at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. After completing training, Dr. Lin has worked as an Addiction Psychiatrist and Director of Adult Services in the Trauma and Resilience Center (TRC) at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). He specialized in treating patients with a history of depression, anxiety, trauma, and substance use disorders.
Dr. Lin has held an academic appointment at UTHealth, and he has spent his professional career supervising and teaching medical students and psychiatry residents.