“Our wounds are often the openings into the best and most beautiful part of us.”—David Richo

Do you know what a therapist does and what degree they hold? Do you know the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist? Are you clear about which helping professional to seek out if you are in need?

If you answered “no” to any or all of the above questions, you are not alone. I get emails weekly from people asking me to help them make sense of mental health practitioners, so I decided to write about it.

The world of mental health is just like any other business in that you have good therapists and less skilled therapists. Since people are all unique, what they seek in a professional relationship is different as well. I have clients fill out an intake form so I can understand what their issues are, but it also gives me an idea of their past therapeutic experiences and what they are looking for in a therapist now. If a client is seeking a very traditional you talk and I take notes and nod type of therapist, then I know we will not be a good fit, and I refer to someone else.

Finding the right helping professional requires a basic understanding of who does what.

I found a very helpful, comprehensive list by John M. Grohol, Psy. D. breaking down types of mental health professionals that I will share with you here.

There are over a half-dozen different professions that provide services that focus on helping a person overcome a mental health concern or a significant life issue. The main differences between the types of professionals is their specialty/issues on which they focus and educational background.


A psychiatrist is a medical doctor (M.D.) and the only mental health care professional who can prescribe medications. (Family doctors often prescribe medications for mental health concerns, but have not completed a residency—years of highly specialized medical training—in the treatment of mental disorders.) Most psychiatrists focus on diagnosing and prescribing appropriate medication for mental disorders, while a few also do psychotherapy, also know as “talk therapy.”


A psychologist is a professional who does psychotherapy and has a doctorate degree (such as a Ph.D. or Psy.D.). Psy.D. programs tend to focus on clinical practice and result in the professional having thousands of hours of clinical experience before they enter the field on their own. A Ph.D. program will either focus on either clinical or research work, depending on what area the student would like to focus their career. Psychologists receive specific training in diagnosis, psychological assessment, a wide variety of psychotherapies, and research.

Clinical Social Workers

Typically, a clinical social worker will have completed a Master’s degree in social work (M.S.W.) and carry the LCSW (Licensed Counselor of Social Work) designation if they are doing psychotherapy. Most programs require the professional to go through thousands of hours of clinical experience, and the program focuses on teaching principles of psychotherapy and social work.

Psychiatric Nurses

Most psychiatric nurses are trained first as a registered nurse (R.N.) but go on to receive specialized training in psychiatry and some forms of psychotherapy, typically including up to 500 hours of direct clinical experience. Some psychiatric nurses are nurse practitioners (N.P.), meaning they may also carry prescription privileges, depending on the state in which they practice, and, therefore, can potentially prescribe the same kinds of medications that a psychiatrist does.

Marriage and Family Therapist

These therapists tend to have a Master’s degree (but may only have a Bachelor’s degree or less, depending on the regulations of the state in which they practice) and typically have a minimum of a couple hundred hours of direct clinical experience. This designation varies from state to state.

Licensed Professional Counselor

The requirements for this designation, which can be in addition to the professional’s educational degrees, also vary from state to state. Most hold a Master’s degree and have completed thousands of hours of direct clinical experience.

In addition to these more common types of mental health professionals, there are a wealth of other professional designations and initials that follow practitioners’ names. Most of these designate a special certification as opposed to an educational degree.

The key to choosing which mental health care provider is right for you is to determine what issues you are facing and finding someone that seems to fit with your needs and personality. I believe everyone can benefit from therapy. I have personally had many years of my own, and it changed the course of my life. Therapy helped me understand my issues and then provided the tools so I could affect change. It may take more than one try to find the right professional for you, but your happiness and mental health are worth the investment.

I would love to hear your thoughts about therapy and happy to answer any questions, so please leave a comment.

Love Love Love


Terri Cole, founder and CEO of Live Fearless and Free, is a licensed psychotherapist, transformation coach, and an expert at turning fear into freedom. A cornerstone of Terri’s practice, meditation, was the impetus for her recently released guided mediation CD Meditation Transformation. Terri can be found on Facebook and Twitter.