So you’ve decided to get help, but don’t know where to start. Many people are unsure of the differences between the types of mental health treatment providers. Read on to learn about each provider’s specialty, qualifications, and how they can help you. 


Psychiatrists hold MD (Doctor of Medicine) or DO (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine) degrees. Their training begins with medical school and is followed by a three to four year residency in psychiatry. Psychiatrists can diagnose and treat a wide variety of mental health conditions, but many psychiatrists have specialty areas, like working with children. Psychiatrists can prescribe medications and offer psychotherapy.

Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

Like psychiatrists, Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioners (PMHNP) take a medical or biological approach to assessing, diagnosing, and treating mental health disorders. They may prescribe medications and offer talk therapy. They differ from psychiatrists in their education and training. PMHNPs attend a nursing program and then go on to complete two to four more years of a Master’s or Doctorate degree in nursing. Certain states require that PMHNPs work under the supervision of a psychiatrist. 


Psychologists hold doctorate degrees that are earned while attending a four to six year graduate program and then followed with one to two years of supervised professional experience. The types of doctoral degrees in psychology include:

  • PsyD (Doctor of Psychology)
  • PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
  • EdD (Doctor of Education)

Psychologists who hold PsyDs have received training that focuses on clinical work, while psychologists with PhDs have focused on research and academics during their training. They may work in hospitals, treatment centers, and private practices. Psychologists with EdDs focus primarily on working with students in schools. 

Psychologists are qualified to assess, diagnose, and treat mental health disorders using psychological interventions, such as group, individual, and family psychotherapy. They can also conduct psychological assessments, such as intelligence and personality tests. Some states, including Louisiana, New Mexico, and Illinois, allow psychologists to prescribe psychiatric medications if they have received additional training. 

Master’s Level Therapists

There are several different types of Master’s level therapists within the mental health treatment field. These degrees all require at least two years of coursework and one or more years of supervised experience under the direction of another Master’s level therapist or psychologist. 

Social Worker

Social workers earn an MSW (Master of Social Work) and go on to earn an LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker). Like other Master’s level counselors, social workers can perform psychotherapy in hospitals, private or public agencies or treatment centers, schools, and in private practice. Their training focuses on bringing about social change by working with individuals, families, and communities. They are also knowledgeable in community resources.

Mental Health Counselor

Mental health counselors assess, diagnose, and treat a wide variety of mental health conditions. Like social workers, they may be employed in hospitals, treatment centers, for-profit or non-profit agencies, and private practices. What sets mental health counselors apart from social workers is that they tend to focus on creating positive change within the person and are less likely to focus their efforts on social change.

Marriage and Family Therapist

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (MFTs) work with individuals, couples, and families in a variety of settings. MFTs examine the impact of the family system and other close relationships on a person when diagnosing and treating mental health disorders. 

Substance Abuse Counselor

Substance abuse counselors specialize in working with people struggling with drug and alcohol addictions. Their training typically involves one or more years of school and supervised experience. Drug and alcohol counselors may or may not be in addiction recovery themselves. They can be employed in hospitals, treatment centers, and private or public agencies. Their jobs typically involve performing group, individual, and family therapy. 

Selecting the Right Mental Health Provider

Selecting the right type of treatment provider depends upon what you’re looking for in a doctor or therapist. Many mental health treatment providers specialize in working with specific populations, such as mood disorders (like depression and Bipolar disorder), anxiety disorders, trauma, or perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (like postpartum depression).

For more information about how to find help, see the National Institute on Mental Health.