Mental health providers: Tips on finding one

Mental health providers: Credentials, services offered and what to expect.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

If you've never seen a mental health provider before, you may not know how to find one who suits your specific needs. Here are some points to keep in mind as you search for a mental health provider.

What type of mental health provider do you need?

Mental health providers are professionals who diagnose mental health conditions and provide treatment. Most have either a master's degree or more advanced education and training. Be sure that the mental health provider you choose is licensed to provide mental health services. Services offered depend on the provider's training and specialty area.

Below you'll find some of the most common types of mental health providers. Some may specialize in certain areas, such as depression, substance misuse or family therapy. They may work in different settings, such as private practice, hospitals, community agencies or other facilities.

Psychiatrist

A psychiatrist is a physician — doctor of medicine (M.D.) or doctor of osteopathic medicine (D.O.) — who specializes in mental health. This type of doctor may further specialize in areas such as child and adolescent, geriatric, or addiction psychiatry. A psychiatrist can:

  • Diagnose and treat mental health disorders
  • Provide psychological counseling, also called psychotherapy
  • Prescribe medication

Psychologist

A psychologist is trained in psychology — a science that deals with thoughts, emotions and behaviors. Typically, a psychologist holds a doctoral degree (Ph.D., Psy.D., Ed.D.). A psychologist:

  • Can diagnose and treat a number of mental health disorders, providing psychological counseling, in one-on-one or group settings
  • Cannot prescribe medication unless he or she is licensed to do so
  • May work with another provider who can prescribe medication if needed

Psychiatric-mental health nurse

A psychiatric-mental health nurse (P.M.H.N.) is a registered nurse with training in mental health issues. A psychiatric-mental health advanced practice registered nurse (P.M.H.-A.P.R.N.) has at least a master's degree in psychiatric-mental health nursing. Other types of advanced practice nurses able to provide mental health services include a clinical nurse specialist (C.N.S.), a certified nurse practitioner (C.N.P) or a doctorate of nursing practice (D.N.P.). Mental health nurses:

  • Vary in the services they can offer, depending on their education, level of training, experience and state law
  • Can assess, diagnose and treat mental illnesses, depending on their education, training and experience
  • Can — if state law allows — prescribe medication if they're an advanced practice nurse

Physician assistant

A certified physician assistant (P.A.-C.) practices medicine under the supervision of a physician. Physician assistants can specialize in psychiatry. These physician assistants can:

  • Diagnose and treat mental health disorders
  • Provide psychological counseling, also called psychotherapy
  • Prescribe medication

Licensed clinical social worker

If you prefer a social worker, look for a licensed clinical social worker (L.C.S.W.) with training and experience specifically in mental health. A licensed clinical social worker must have a master's degree in social work (M.S.W.), a Master of Science in social work (M.S.S.W.) or a doctorate in social work (D.S.W. or Ph.D.). These social workers:

  • Provide assessment, psychological counseling and a range of other services, depending on their licensing and training
  • Are not licensed to prescribe medication
  • May work with another provider who can prescribe medication if needed

Licensed professional counselor

Training required for a licensed professional counselor (L.P.C.) may vary by state, but most have at least a master's degree with clinical experience. These counselors:

  • Provide diagnosis and psychological counseling (psychotherapy) for a range of concerns
  • Are not licensed to prescribe medication
  • May work with another provider who can prescribe medication if needed

What factors should you consider?

Consider these factors when choosing among the various types of mental health providers:

  • Your concern or condition. Most mental health providers treat a range of conditions, but one with a specialized focus may be more suited to your needs. For example, if you have an eating disorder, you may need to see a psychologist who specializes in that area. If you're having marital problems, you may want to consult a licensed marriage and family therapist. In general, the more severe your symptoms or complex your diagnosis, the more expertise and training you need to look for in a mental health provider.
  • Whether you need medications, counseling or both. Some mental health providers are not licensed to prescribe medications. So your choice may depend, in part, on your concern and the severity of your symptoms. You may need to see more than one mental health provider. For example, you may need to see a psychiatrist to manage your medications and a psychologist or another mental health provider for counseling.
  • Your health insurance coverage. Your insurance policy may have a list of specific mental health providers that are covered or only cover certain types of mental health providers. Check ahead of time with your insurance company, Medicare or Medicaid to find out what types of mental health services are covered and what your benefit limits are.
Feb. 18, 2014 See more In-depth