Mental health professional

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]


A mental health professional is a person who offers services for the purpose of improving an individual's mental health or to treat mental illness. These professionals include psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, clinical social workers, psychiatric nurses as well as other professionals. These professionals often deal with the same illnesses, disorders, conditions, and issues; however their scope of practice often differs. The most significant difference between mental health professionals is education and training.[1]

Professional Distinctions

Comparison of Mental Health Professionals

Occupation Degree Common Licenses Prescription Privilege Average Income ($US)
Psychiatrist MD/DO Psychiatrist Yes $145,600
Clinical Psychologist PhD/PsyD Psychologist Varies $75,000
School Psychologist EdD/EdS LEP No $78,000
Counselor/Psychotherapist (Doctorate) PhD MFT/LPC No $65,000
Counselor/Psychotherapist (Masters) MA/MS/MC MFT/LPC/LPA/LMHC No $49,000
Occupational Therapist BOT/MOT/DOT/PhD [Occupational Therapist] No $48,000
Clinical Social Worker BSW/MSW/DSW/PhD LCSW/LICSW/LMSW No $36,170
Psychiatric Nurse BSN/MSN/DNP/PhD MHNP/NPP Varies $75,711
Expressive/Art Therapist MA ATR/MT-BC No $45,000

Treatment Diversity

Mental health professionals exist to improve an individual's mental health. Because mental health covers a wide range of elements, the scope of practice greatly varies between professionals. Some professionals may enhance relationships while others treat specific mental disorders and illness. Oftentimes, as with the case of psychiatrists and psychologists, the scope of practice may overlap.

Most qualified mental health professionals will refer a patient or client to another professional if the specific type of treatment needed is outside of their scope of practice. Additionally, many mental health professionals may sometimes work together using a variety of treatment options such as concurrent psychiatric medication and psychotherapy. Additionally, specific mental health professionals may be utilized based upon their cultural and religious background or experience.


Psychiatrists are physicians and one of the few professionals in the mental health industry who specialize and are certified in treating mental illness using the biomedical approach to mental disorders including the use of medications.

Psychiatrists may also go through significant training to conduct psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy; however psychologists and clinical psychologists specialize in the research and clinical application of these techniques. The amount of training a psychiatrist holds in providing these types of therapies varies from program to program and also differs greatly based upon region.

Specialties of Psychiatrists

As part of their evaluation of the patient, psychiatrists are one of only a few mental health professionals who may conduct physical examinations, order and interpret laboratory tests and EEGs, and may order brain imaging studies such as CT or CAT, MRI, and PET scanning. A medical professional must evaluate the patient for any medical problems or diseases that may be the cause of the mental illness.

Historically psychiatrists have been the only mental health professional with the power to prescribe medication to treat specific types of mental illness. However Physician Assistants, psychiatric nurses, and clinical psychologists have gained the ability to prescribe psychiatric medications in a few U.S. states.

Educational Requirements for Psychiatrists

Typically the requirements to become a psychiatrist are substantial but differ from country to country.[2][3]

In the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, and most Commonwealth countries, one must pursue Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery degrees.[2] These degrees are most often abbreviated MB BS: MB ChB, MB BCh, MB BChir (Cambridge), BM BCh (Oxford), BM BS, or plain BM also occur. Following this, the individual in the UK will in future act as a "foundation programme trainee" for two additional years.[2] The foundation programme allows new graduates to experience the different specialties of medicine, as well as learn important attributes and qualities of a doctor.[2] Upon completion, a postgraduate student can apply for training to specialize in psychiatry.[2] Following acceptance, this specialized training will last for about 6 years.[2] After one year of training a written and clinical examination would be taken and after three years or so and experience in a range of subspecialties the trainee would pass the examination for Membership of the Royal College of Psychiatrists: abbreviated as MRCPsych. In the past a few trained in internal medicine (qualifying as MRCP) or, more recently, general practice (MRCGP) before starting psychiatric training. After specialist training is successfully completed, the individual can apply for a consultant post and start a career as a licensed psychiatrist.[2]

In the United States and Canada one must first complete their Bachelor's degree.[3] Students may typically decide any major of their choice, however they must enroll in specific courses, usually outlined in a pre-medical program.[3] One must then apply to and attend 4 years of medical school in order to earn their MD or DO and to complete their medical education.[3] Following this, the individual must practice as a psychiatric resident for another four years. Psychiatry residents are often required to complete at least four post-graduate months of internal medicine or pediatrics and two months of neurology during the first year.[3] After completing their training, psychiatrists take written and then oral board examinations.[3] The total amount of time required to complete post-baccalaureate work in the field of psychiatry in the United States is typically 8 to 9 years.

Clinical Psychologist

A clinical psychologist studies and applies psychology for the purpose of understanding, preventing, and relieving psychologically-based distress or dysfunction and to promote subjective well-being and personal development. In many countries it is a regulated profession that addresses moderate to more severe or chronic psychological problems, including diagnosable mental disorders. Clinical psychology includes a wide range of practices, such as research, psychological assessment, teaching, consultation, forensic testimony, and program development and administration. Central to clinical psychology is the practice of psychotherapy, which uses a wide range of techniques to change thoughts, feelings, or behaviors in service to enhancing subjective well-being, mental health, and life functioning. Clinical psychologists can work with individuals, couples, children, older adults, families, small groups, and communities.

Specialties of Clinical Psychologists

Clinical psychologists who focus on treating mental health specialize in evaluating patients and providing psychotherapy. There are a wide variety of therapeutic techniques and perspectives that guide practitioners, although most fall into the major categories of Psychodynamic, Cognitive Behavioral, Existential-Humanistic, and Systems Therapy (e.g. family or couples therapy).

In addition to therapy, clinical psychologists are also trained to administer and interpret psychological personality tests such as the MMPI and the Rorschach inkblot test, and various standardized tests of intelligence, memory, and neuropsychological functioning. Common areas of specialization include: specific disorders (e.g. trauma or depression), neuropsychological disorders, child and adolescent, family and relationship counseling, health, sport, forensic, organization and business, and school psychology.

Educational Requirements for Clinical Psychologists

Clinical psychologists undergo many hours of postgraduate training—usually 4 to 6 years post-Bachelors—in order to gain demonstrable competence and experience. Today, in America, about half of the licensed psychologists are being trained in the Scientist-Practitioner Model of Clinical Psychology (PhD)—a model that emphasizes research and is usually housed in universities. The other half are being trained within a Practitioner-Scholar Model of Clinical Psychology (PsyD), which has more focus on practice (similar to professional degrees for medicine and law).[4] Outside of coursework, graduates of both programs generally are required to have had 2 to 3 years of supervised clinical experience, a certain amount of personal psychotherapy, and the completion of a dissertation (PhD programs usually require original quantitative empirical research, while PsyD dissertations often address qualitative research, theoretical scholarship, program evaluation or development, critical literature analysis, or clinical application and analysis).

Counseling Psychologist or Psychotherapist

Counseling generally involves helping people with what might be considered "normal" or "moderate" psychological problems, such as the feelings of anxiety or sadness resulting from major life changes or events.[5][6] As such, counseling psychologists often help people adjust to or cope with their environment or major events, although many also work with more serious problems as well.

One may practice as a counseling psychologist with a PhD, and as a counseling psychotherapist with a Masters degree. Compared with clinical psychology, there are fewer counseling psychology graduate programs (which are commonly housed in departments of education), counselors tend to conduct more vocational assessment and less projective or objective assessment, and they are more likely to work in public service or university clinics (rather than hospitals or private practice).[7] Despite these differences, there is considerable overlap between the two fields and distinctions between them continue to fade.

Certified Mental Health Professional

The Certified Mental Health Professional (CMHP) certification is designed to measure an individual’s competency in performing the following job tasks. The job tasks are not presented in any particular order of importance.

  1. Maintain confidentiality of records relating to clients’ treatment.
  2. Encourage clients to express their feelings, discuss what is happening in their lives, and help them to develop insight into themselves and their relationships.
  3. Guide clients in the development of skills and strategies for dealing with their problems.
  4. Prepare and maintain all required treatment records and reports.
  5. Counsel clients and patients, individually and in group sessions, to assist in overcoming dependencies, adjusting to life, and making changes.
  6. Collect information about clients through interviews, observations, and tests.
  7. Act as the client’s advocate in order to coordinate required services or to resolve emergency problems in crisis situations.
  8. Develop and implement treatment plans based on clinical experience and knowledge.
  9. Collaborate with other staff members to perform clinical assessments and develop treatment plans.
  10. Evaluate client’s physical or mental condition based on review of client information.

School Psychologist

School psychologists' primary concern is with the academic, social, and emotional well-being of children within a scholastic environment. Unlike clinical psychologists, they receive much more training in education, child development and behavior, and the psychology of learning, often graduating with a post-Masters Educational Specialist Degree (EdS), or Doctor of Philosophy (Ph D) degree. Besides offering individual and group therapy with children and their families, school psychologists also evaluate school programs, provide cognitive assessment, help design prevention programs (e.g. reducing drops outs), and work with teachers and administrators to help maximize teaching efficacy, both in the classroom and systemically.[8]

Social Worker

Social workers in the area of mental health (known as clinical social workers in the US) assess and support, and sometimes diagnose and treat, individuals with mental health (particularly psychosocial) problems. They may partner with an MD or psychiatrist if they feel medication should be part of treatment. In the US, state licensing boards and national certification boards require clinical social workers to have a masters or doctoral degree (MSW or DSW/PhD) from a university. The doctorate in social work requires submission of a major original contribution to the field in order to be awarded the degree. In the UK, Approved Social Workers have a legal role in certifying (sectioning) individuals requiring psychiatric treatment against their wishes. However it has been said that a social model, rather than or in addition to the dominant medical model, is the underlying rationale for mental health social work, including a focus on Social causation, Labeling, Critical theory and Social constructivism. It has also been said that social workers need to work with medical and health colleagues to provide an effective service, but need to be at the forefront of processes that include and empower services users.[9]

Psychiatric and Mental Health Nurse

See also: Psychiatric and mental health nursing

Psychiatric Nurses or Mental Health Nurse Practitioners work with people with a large variety of mental health problems, often at the time of highest distress, and usually within hospital settings. These professionals work in primary care facilities, outpatient mental health clinics, as well as in hospitals and community health centers. MHNPs evaluate and provide care for patients who have anything from psychiatric disorders, medical mental conditions, to substance abuse problems. They are licensed to provide emergency psychiatric services, assess the psychosocial and physical state of their patients, create treatment plans, and continually manage their care. They may also serve as consultants or as educators for families and staff; however, the MHNP has a greater focus on psychiatric diagnosis, including the differential diagnosis of medical disorders with psychiatric symptoms and on medication treatment for psychiatric disorders.

Educational Requirements for Psychiatric and Mental Health Nurses

Psychiatric and mental health nurses receive specialist education to work in this area. In some countries it is required that a full general nurse training be completed prior to specializing as a psychiatric nurse. In other countries, such as the U.K., an individual completes a specific nurse training course that determines their area of work. As with other areas of nursing, it is becoming usual for psychiatric nurses to be educated to degree level and beyond.

In order to become a nurse practitioner in the U.S., at least six years of college education must be obtained. After earning the Bachelor's degree (usually in nursing, although there are Masters Entry Level Nursing graduate programs intended for individuals with a Bachelors degree outside of nursing) the test for licensure as a registered nurse (the NCLEX-RN) must be passed. Next, the candidate must complete a state-approved Masters Degree advanced nursing education program which includes at least 600 clinical hours. Several schools are now also offering further education and awarding a DNP( Doctorate of Nurse Practice).

Individuals who choose a Masters Entry Level pathway will spend an extra year at the start of the program taking classes necessary to pass the NCLEX-RN. Some schools will issue a BSN, others will issue a certificate. The student then continues with the normal MSN program.[10][11][12][13]


  1. About:Psychology. (2007). Difference Between Pyschologists and Psychiatrists. Retrieved March 4, 2007, from
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 The Royal College of Psychiatrists. (2005). Careers info for School leavers. Retrieved March 25, 2007, from
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 (Unknown last update). Student Information. Retrieved March 25, 2007, from
  4. Norcross, J. & Castle, P. (2002). Appreciating the PsyD: The Facts. Eye on Psi Chi, 7(1), 22-26.
  5. Brain, Christine. (2002). Advanced psychology : applications, issues and perspectives. Cheltenham : Nelson Thornes. ISBN 0174900589>
  6. Compass, B. & Gotlib, I. (2002). Introduction to Clinical Psychology. New York, NY : McGraw Hill. ISBN 0-07-012491-4
  7. Norcross, John. (2000). Clinical versus counseling psychology: What's the diff? Eye on Psi Chi, 5(1), 20-22.
  8. Silva, Arlene. (2003). Who Are School Psychologists?. National Association of School Psychologists.
  9. Golightley, M. (2004) Social work and Mental Health Learning Matters, UK


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