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Understanding Your Treatment Team

A Guide to Mental Health Professionals

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Updated July 26, 2009

If you are undergoing treatment for a mental health condition, such as a phobia, you may be seen by multiple professionals. Although it is very rare to see all of the types of mental health providers that can assist with your problem, understanding the function of each can help you make informed decisions about your treatment. Here is a brief overview of the educational background and job functions of each type of provider. Note that this information is general, and both educational requirements and specific duties may vary by location.

Psychiatrist

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor that specializes in mental health conditions and, in many areas, is the only mental health professional licensed to prescribe medications. If you visit a community or university-based mental health center, you might see one psychiatrist for medication management and another psychologist or therapist for counseling. Some psychiatrists, however, prefer to handle both medication and therapy.


Find a Psychiatrist Near You

Psychologist

A psychologist is not a medical doctor, but holds a doctoral degree in psychology. In many areas, psychologists are the only mental health professionals certified to administer testing such as IQ tests and personality tests. Some psychologists focus exclusively on testing, while others primarily do therapy. In some states (New Mexico and Louisiana), psychologists can be licensed to prescribe psychiatric medications.

Therapist or Counselor

"Therapist" and "counselor" are broad terms that may cover a variety of different professionals. For instance, doctoral-level psychologists, psychiatrists and licensed clinical social workers may all be therapists. Still, many therapists or counselors only hold a BA or MA degree. Most areas require a master's degree for licensure, and require those who are unlicensed to be supervised by a licensed professional.

Some therapists specialize in particular patient populations or disorders; others specialize in a particular method of therapy, such as art therapy. It is common to visit a practice in which several counselors work under a single licensed therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist.

Case Manager

A case manager is a professional who specializes in connecting clients with needed services in the community. The services of a case manager vary dramatically from one client to the next, according to need. For example, case managers can help you apply for Medicaid, check your eligibility for food stamps, or help you find emergency shelter, if necessary. Case managers can also provide home-based services, such as monitoring your medications or ensuring that your home is safe.

Some case managers hold BA or MA degrees in social work, while others have degrees in counseling. Case managers may provide counseling services, depending on the facility.

Psychiatric RN

Psychiatric RNs are registered nurses who have completed additional training in mental health. They most commonly work on inpatient mental health units, but can also be found at larger outpatient facilities. Psychiatric RNs are extremely familiar with mental health medications, and can be a great resource if you have questions or concerns.

Mental Health Tech

Mental health techs are generally students who have not yet completed a BA in psychology, although some jurisdictions require a BA for the job. They are most frequently found on residential psychiatric units or in day treatment programs, where they organize and engage in daily activities with clients. Mental health techs are always supervised by professionals with advanced degrees. They generally do not provide formal counseling services, but are available to clients as needed.

Each of the professionals on your treatment team is there to meet a specific need. Nonetheless, there is a lot of overlap between the positions, particularly at community and university-based facilities. Getting to know your entire team can help increase your chances for successfully managing or even defeating your mental health concern.

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