Unless you or a loved one has experience with a mental health professional, the terminology can be confusing.  Someone may mention their: psychiatrist, psychologist, clinical social worker, marriage and family therapist, or counselor.  Some of these titles overlap a bit, and depending on what country, or state within the US you are in, there may be different titles used.  So what is the difference between all of these mental health professionals?

Let’s start with psychiatrists.  These are individuals who went to medical school and then chose to specialize in mental health.  Psychiatrists are the people one would go to in order to be prescribed medication for their mental illness.  While general practitioners can prescribe mental health medication, I would recommend seeing a psychiatrist; they know mental health issues much better than any GP can.

All of the professionals listed below may be colloquially called a therapist.

A psychologist is someone who holds a PhD or PsyD in psychology.  They can certainly be clinicians working in the field, but they also often teach and/or conduct research.

Clinical social workers are professionals who have a master’s degree or higher in social work and have met the required clinical hours and testing requirements to practice talk therapy.

Marriage and Family Therapist’s also hold a master’s degree or higher and can also practice talk therapy.  These therapists are specially educated in working with couples and families, but also often work with individuals.

Licensed Professional Counselors hold a master’s degree in most states and also practice therapy.

Bonus: Substance Abuse Counselors can hold, depending on state and in what setting they work, anything from a bachelor’s degree to a PhD.

When looking for a mental health professional, try not to get too lost in titles.  With the obvious exception of psychiatrists, many types of clinicians can help with the same issue.  I talk about how to find a therapist that will work for you here.