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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 local, accessible and complete mental healthcare solution that accepts insurance. We close the gap for individuals who want to get better but feel that mental health care has been challenging to navigate up until this point and want a more convenient way to take the first step. Talkiatry takes the traditional local mental health visit and combines it with technology, scale, efficiency, and design to provide the best possible environment for healing.
We have providers including psychiatrists, PMHNPs, and therapists on staff who can provide outpatient mental health care services including diagnosis, psychotherapy, and medication management to ensure every patient receives the right level of care to start feeling better, faster. At Talkiatry, we believe that our MDs, DOs, and PMHNPs who offer a wide variety of specialties and services are best equipped to meet your mental health needs. Meet our team of providers!
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.