Different Types of Mental Health Professionals and What They Do
Mental health is complex, and requires a variety of different supports and treatments. Seeking help for mental, emotional, or relationship issues can be daunting as there are a number of mental health professionals who are able to provide various services—it can be hard to know where to begin! Finding the right professional will help meet your treatment goals.
Mental health professionals can fall under the umbrella of medical practitioners or service providers who deliver services to help diagnose, treat, or improve your mental health. This includes psychologists, psychological associates, psychiatrists, registered psychotherapists, social workers, and nurses. These professionals can work in a variety of settings including hospitals, psychiatric facilities, outpatient facilities, non-profit organizations, private clinics, and schools. Knowing the difference between the various service providers can help you find the type of care that best fits your needs, or know where to refer a friend if needed! Below we have provided a description of 6 different mental health professionals to help guide your understanding:
1. Clinical Psychologist
A clinical psychologist is a mental health professional who has advanced graduate training in mental health and psychotherapy. After the completion of an undergraduate degree, a psychologist completes a masters degree as well as a Ph.D. The graduate training takes a minimum of 6 years during which the individual completes coursework, clinical training, and research. Psychologists are trained to conduct psychological assessments (often employing standardized tests), diagnose psychological disorders, provide psychotherapy, and provide supervision4. Depending on their training and licensing, clinical psychologists may provide assessment/treatment to adults, adolescents, children, couples, families, and groups for a wide range of psychological problems. Psychologists focus their work on addressing how individuals think, feel, and behave through a scientific lens backed by research, and apply this to evidence-based practice. Thus, many clinical psychologists are research-focused and can work in academic settings, research labs, as well as work directly with clients3. Psychologists do not prescribe medication. Although some psychologists work in publicly funded (i.e., OHIP covered) centers, many work in private practice. If. you wish to spend time discussing your concerns and learning skills to more effectively manage your thoughts, behaviours, or emotions, a psychologist may be right for you.
2. Psychological Associate
A psychological associate has completed their masters level degree in psychology and has then completed 4 years of supervised practice in the field. Following this, psychological associates go through the registration process with the College of Psychologists of Ontario and their scope of practice is equivalent to that of a psychologist. Although the training path is different, once complete, there is no practical distinction between a psychologist and a psychological associate.
A psychiatrist is a licensed medical doctor (MD) who has completed specialized training in mental health1. They complete 4 years of any undergraduate program, followed by 4 years of medical school, and a minimum of 4 years of psychiatry-specific residency where they gain knowledge on treating psychiatric patients1. Since psychiatrists are medical doctors, they look at mental health through a medical or biological lens, and are qualified to assess both mental and physical aspects of psychological problems2. Psychiatrists are equipped to diagnose and treat a variety of mental health conditions. Although psychiatrists often focus their work on medications, they may also deliver psychotherapy, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) to treat symptoms1. To access psychiatric services in Ontario a referral from your family physician is required. If you’re interested in pursuing psychiatric medication to treat a disorder, or are experiencing debilitating symptoms that interfere with daily functioning, meeting with a psychiatrist may be a good option.
4. Registered Psychotherapist
Registered psychotherapists provide talk therapy to individuals with the goal of helping to improve or maintain individual’s mental health and well-being. Psychotherapists undergo 2 years of a professional master’s program after a 4-year undergraduate degree to become licensed to practice with their respective regulatory body5. Psychotherapists differ from clinical psychologists as they generally only provide psychotherapy, and do not typically conduct research or make diagnoses. Psychotherapists are mostly found in schools, community centers, hospitals, or private practices, and are trained to deliver therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), interpersonal therapy (IPT), psychodynamic therapy, and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)5. Overall, they use a talk-based approach to bring about change in the client’s thinking, feeling, behavior, or daily functioning. If one of these areas are adversely affecting your relationships or daily functioning, seeking therapy from a psychotherapist might be the right solution for you.
5. Social Worker
Social workers are registered professionals who help meet the basic and complex needs of vulnerable populations. This includes helping to protect people from harm or abusive situations, aiding individuals to live independently, and connecting individuals to different social services. Additionally, they respond to broader social issues such as homelessness and poverty, racism, and unemployment. Social workers are able to work in the field of mental health by providing counselling and therapy (such as CBT) to individuals, couples, or groups6. Social workers differ from the above professionals as they utilize their understanding of the social determinants of health—how individuals’ race, income, education, social status contribute to one’s mental and physical wellness6. To become registered with their respective regulatory body, social workers complete 4 years of undergraduate training in a bachelors of social work. However, many complete additional training to obtain a masters of social work for one to two years6.
6. Psychiatric Nurse
Psychiatric nurses are specially trained nurses who care for patients struggling primarily with their mental wellbeing. These specialized nurses account not only for the individual’s physical health, but take a holistic view at mental, developmental, and emotional health7. They can treat people of all ages experiencing mental illness or distress. Psychiatric nurses work in a variety of healthcare settings including inpatient and outpatient services in hospitals, doctors’ offices, long-term care facilities, and correctional facilities8. They receive specific training in psychological therapies, and are able to administer psychiatric medications.
7. Counsellor/Therapist/Life Coach
Other professional designations that you might see are general terms such as counsellor or therapist that can be used by anyone as they are not regulated health professions. For example, although a psychologist is a therapist and may refer to themselves as such, a therapist is not necessarily a psychologist since this is a regulated term that requires specific training and credentials. Although individuals referring to themselves with these general terms may provide excellent services, there are no educational or training requirements for these professions and so there will be greater variability in the quality of services provided.
Overall, there are many different types of professionals who specialize in mental health and wellness. If you have never seen a mental health professional provider, you may not know which one is best to addresses your unique needs. Here are some final points to consider: To find the provider for you, speak to your primary care provider for a referral or recommendation. It may also be beneficial to speak to your insurance provider to see which professionals, treatments, or medications are covered. Finally, don’t be shy to ask questions! The right professional match is essential in establishing strong rapport and getting the most out of your treatment.
Authors: Emma Weber, BSc., Dee Gavric, Ph.D., C. Psych., and Jennifer Boyd, Ph.D., C.Psych.
- Psychiatry.org (n.d.). What is psychiatry? Retrieved September 12, 2022, from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/what-is-psychiatry
- MediLexicon International. (n.d.). What is a psychiatrist? what they are, types, and more. Medical News Today. Retrieved September 5, 2022, from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/what-is-a-psychiatrist#definition
- CMHA National. (2021, August 13). Getting help. Retrieved September 6, 2022, from https://cmha.ca/brochure/getting-help/
- Canadian Psychological Association (2022, July 4). The national voice for psychology in Canada. Retrieved September 15, 2022, from https://cpa.ca/sections/clinicalpsychology/
- W. M. D. E. (n.d.). What is a psychotherapist? what they do, when to see one, and what to expect. WebMD. Retrieved September 20, 2022, from https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/what-is-psychotherapist
- Social Work Practice in Mental Health. Canadian Association of Social Workers. (2022, May 20). Retrieved September 20, 2022, from https://www.casw-acts.ca/en/social-work-practice-mental-health
- College of Registered Psychiatric Nurses of Alberta. (n.d.). About RPNs. Retrieved September 25, 2022, from https://www.crpna.ab.ca/CRPNAMember/Home_Page_New/About_RPNs.aspx
- College of Registered Nurses of Ontario. (n.d.). Psychiatric nurse. Retrieved September 27, 2022, from https://www.cno.org/en/learn-about-standards-guidelines/educational-tools/ask-practice/psychiatric-nurse/