Types of Mental Health Professionals

A smiling mental health professional talks with a patient in their office.
A smiling mental health professional talks with a patient in their office.

Mental health conditions and disorders are among the most common health issues that Americans face. Approximately 20% of adults living in the U.S. have some form of mental illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Those who live with mental health conditions and disorders that go untreated may experience an array of symptoms that impair their ability to function, cause them emotional distress and reduce their overall quality of life. With many of the stigmas and prejudices surrounding mental illness fading, people are now more willing to talk openly about the importance of maintaining their mental health and receiving treatment for their mental health issues.

The nonprofit organization Mental Health America reports that there are more than 200 recognized forms of mental illness. Any of a wide range of circumstances can negatively impact a person’s mental health, including work-related stressors, a recent death in the family, divorce or substance misuse issues. Common risk factors for mental illness include childhood trauma, biological factors, isolation and experiences related to ongoing medical conditions.

Those seeking treatment are advised to reach out to a mental health professional. However, identifying the right type of mental health professional for their needs can be challenging. By learning about the different types of mental health professionals, where their expertise lies and who they most commonly treat can help patients connect with the right mental health professional and know what to expect when their treatment begins.

Why Is Mental Health Important?

An individual’s mental health effectively sets the tone for every aspect of their life. For example, there is a direct correlation between mental health and physical health. People who remain in a prolonged state of poor mental health may experience:

  • Physical health problems such as stroke, heart disease or diabetes
  • Low energy, lack of motivation and fatigue
  • Chronic headaches
  • Digestion issues and upset stomach
  • Insomnia and restlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating and productivity issues

Good mental health fosters a person’s ability to think, function, maintain relationships, be productive at work, handle stress and regulate their emotions. People who remain in a state of poor mental health for an extended period or who have an untreated mental illness or disorder may be at a greater risk of experiencing:

  • Drug or alcohol misuse
  • Suicidal ideation or actions
  • An inability to cope with common problems and stressors
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Intense mood swings and outbursts
  • Significant changes in their sleeping and eating habits
  • Self-isolation
  • Withdrawal from relationships and hobbies
  • Anxiety and fear
  • Depression and feelings of unhappiness
  • An inability to concentrate and complete tasks

The physical, mental and emotional symptoms of a mental health issue or disorder can negatively impact any facet of a person’s life, including their career, physical health, relationships and behavior.

Notable Mental Health Statistics

mental health professional

What Is a Mental Health Professional?

A mental health professional is someone who is formally trained to deliver mental and emotional guidance, support and coping methods to individuals with mental health issues. However, not all mental health professionals operate within the same scope, nor can they all prescribe medication. Some mental health professionals focus on general mental health issues whereas others are qualified to treat mental illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

What Are the Different Types of Mental Health Professionals?

There are several types of mental health professionals, differentiated by their area of specialty, who they treat and their education and training. The following sections provide an overview of the most common mental health professionals and what they do.

Addiction Counselors

Addiction counselors (also known as substance abuse counselors) treat individuals who are challenged by drug addiction and substance misuse issues. Depending on whom they’re treating and other factors, addiction counselors may employ any of the following techniques:

  • Developing new coping skills
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Motivational interviewing
  • Substance misuse education
  • Recovery programs (such as 12-step programs)
  • Support groups and group therapy

Most addiction counselor positions require a bachelor’s degree in substance misuse counseling or a related field to treat patients. However, with educational standards on the rise, many addiction counselors have a master’s or doctorate.

Clinical Social Workers

Clinical social work is a specialty within social work that focuses on diagnosing and treating patients with a behavioral or mental health condition. Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) are required to have an advanced degree in social work and state licensure, which qualifies them to treat a broad range of clientele. 

Typically, clinical social workers develop treatment plans and prevention strategies for clients who are struggling with conditions such as addiction, depression, eating disorders and anxiety. The day-to-day responsibilities of a clinical social worker include:

  • Interviewing clients
  • Assessing and diagnosing clients
  • Maintaining client records and performing other administrative duties
  • Providing counseling services to individuals, families and groups
  • Developing and providing treatments and monitoring clients’ progress
  • Collaborating with health care professionals

LCSWs generally have a Master of Social Work degree and have completed at least 900 practicum hours in a clinical setting.

Marriage and Family Therapists

Marriage and family therapists (MFTs) help couples and families address specific problems that are impacting the dynamics of their relationships. Most MFTs have either a master’s degree or a doctorate in marriage and family therapy, which qualifies them to treat patients with a broad range of emotional disorders and mental health issues, such as:

  • Childhood autism and conduct disorders
  • Anorexia
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Substance misuse and addiction
  • Affective mood disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Marital conflicts and distress

What makes the field of marriage and family therapy distinct is its solutions-oriented approach and short-term format. According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, approximately 66% of cases are resolved within 20 sessions.

Mental Health Counselors

Mental health counselors primarily use talk therapy to provide support and guidance to patients who are experiencing an emotional or mental health issue. Counselors may choose to specialize in one specific area or treat people with any of a broad range of issues, such as:

  • Adjustment disorders
  • Dementia
  • Personality disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Substance misuse and addiction issues
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

Mental health counselors must have a master’s degree and licensure to practice. What differentiates them from psychologists and psychiatrists is that they generally don’t treat patients with complex mental illnesses or disorders, and they cannot prescribe medication.

Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioners

Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs) work with individuals and families who are experiencing a mental health issue or psychiatric disorder. As professionals with advanced nursing degrees who are extensively trained in assessing, diagnosing and treating patients with mental health issues, PMHNPs are qualified to work with patients experiencing any of a broad range of issues, such as:

  • Mental health issues related to childhood trauma
  • PTSD and combat-related trauma
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Dementia
  • Substance misuse disorders
  • Depression, bipolar disorder and other serious mental illnesses
  • Suicidal thoughts or actions

What differentiates PMHNPs from other types of mental health professionals is that they begin their careers as registered nurses (RNs) before specializing in psychiatric mental health. This means they are qualified to treat patients with any number of acute and chronic health conditions, which is why PMHNPs are viewed as having one of the most versatile roles in healthcare.

PMHNPs are required to have an advanced nursing degree, such as a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), and to pass a specialized licensing exam that allows them to obtain licensure.


Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in mental health disorders and psychological issues. When compared with other types of mental health professionals, psychiatrists have the most demanding educational and training standards to meet before they can practice. It usually takes 12 years of education beyond high school to qualify as a general adult psychiatrist.

After meeting training and credentialing requirements, psychiatrists can diagnose and treat patients who suffer from any of a range of emotional, behavioral and mental health disorders. Psychiatrists may employ any of a variety of treatment methods when working with patients, with a focus on prescribing medications.

Types of medications psychiatrists can prescribe include:

  • Stimulants
  • Mood stabilizers
  • Hypnotics
  • Sedatives
  • Antipsychotic medications
  • Antidepressants

Psychiatrists may practice general psychiatry or pursue additional specialized training to become certified in an area such as addiction, forensics, hospice care, family medicine, internal medicine or child psychiatry.

Psychiatric Pharmacists

Psychiatric pharmacists specialize in mental health and have extensive training in and knowledge of medication management. As advanced practice clinical pharmacists, they must earn a Doctor of Pharmacy degree and meet board certification requirements to practice.

Psychiatric pharmacists collaborate with other members of a patient’s health care team to treat the whole patient. They are particularly skilled at resolving drug interaction issues, providing patient education and managing adverse reactions to medications.


Psychoanalysis is among the most in-depth forms of talk therapy, based on studies of the unconscious and conscious mind. Psychoanalysts specialize in working with patients suffering from deeply rooted mental health issues. Through strategic prompts and asking questions designed to promote introspection, psychoanalysts can help patients examine their behaviors, relationships and thoughts to identify changes they can make that will foster a better quality of life for themselves.

Psychoanalysts treat patients with any of a broad range of mental health issues and disorders, including:

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Phobias
  • Psychosomatic disorders
  • Identity disorders
  • Self-destructive thoughts and behaviors
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Psychoanalysts typically evaluate and assess patients to diagnose their specific disorder or mental health condition. The diagnosis guides the direction of the discussions and the approach to treatment. Some of the tools and techniques psychoanalysts use include:

  • Dream analysis and interpretation
  • Free association exercises
  • Interpretation of personal details and memories

To qualify to practice, psychoanalysts must earn a doctorate in philosophy or a doctorate in psychology that focuses on clinical studies. Some psychoanalysts choose to pursue specialized certifications that are relevant to their area of practice.


Psychologists specialize in helping people cope with a mental health issue, mental health disorder or life challenge. As with only a few other types of mental health professionals, psychologists must earn a doctoral degree to practice. In most states, after they earn either a Doctor of Psychology, a Doctor of Education or a Doctor of Philosophy, they must complete at least one year of supervised practice before becoming licensed.

Once fully credentialed, psychologists can treat patients using any of a range of evidence-based techniques, talk therapy and medication. Typically, psychologists work with patients who are experiencing any of a number of issues, such as:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Substance misuse and addiction issues
  • Eating disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Personality disorders
  • Chronic illness
  • Issues related to stress
  • Sleep disorders
  • Body dysmorphia
  • Anger and mood issues
  • Issues stemming from past trauma


While psychoanalysts focus on patients’ unconscious and deeply rooted issues, psychotherapists concentrate on patients’ active agency and their day-to-day decisions and actions. Psychotherapists who are licensed psychiatrists may prescribe medication used in combination with psychotherapy treatments for patients with serious mental health disorders.

Psychotherapy sessions can be tailored to individuals, families or large groups experiencing any of an array of issues that impact their well-being, including:

  • The death of a loved one
  • Chronic or terminal illness
  • Stressful life events
  • PTSD
  • Mental health conditions and disorders

Psychotherapy treatment can either be short term or ongoing, depending on the complexity of the patient’s issues. Some patients have immediate problems that psychotherapy can resolve in a few weeks, while others may require long-term care to help them cope with chronic anxiety or depression.

Psychotherapists must have at least a master’s degree in a psychology-related area of study to practice. However, many psychotherapists elect to pursue a doctorate while they complete their internship requirements.

What Types of Mental Health Professionals Can Prescribe Medication?

Individuals in need of mental health care and prospective mental health professionals may want to know what types of mental health professionals can prescribe medication.

Clinical psychologists and school psychologists generally don’t prescribe medications, although some states allow it. Psychiatrists can prescribe medication, and, depending on the state, so can PMHNPs and psychiatric pharmacists. Psychologists can prescribe medication in Louisiana, New Mexico, Illinois, Iowa and Idaho.

An individual who is receiving treatment from a medical health professional who cannot prescribe medication may speak with their primary health care provider about medication. It’s not uncommon for mental health professionals to coordinate with physicians on treatments that may benefit from medication.

Resources for Current and Prospective Mental Health Professionals

Resources for Those Seeking Mental Health Services

Mental Health Professionals Support Society’s Well-Being

Mental health professionals support the millions of Americans who are challenged with mental health issues and disorders that reduce their quality of life. They can help patients with anxiety, depression, substance misuse issues and problems regulating their emotions. Many mental health practitioners now can treat patients virtually as well, providing convenience to those who find it difficult to meet providers in person.

By keeping the conversation going about mental health and increasing awareness, mental health professionals can help people identify the most common symptoms of mental health disorders and be more inclined to seek the treatment they need.

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