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 things to keep in mind as you search for a mental health provider.

Mental health providers are professionals who diagnose mental health conditions and provide treatment. Most have at least a master's degree or more-advanced education, training and credentials. Be sure that the professional you choose is licensed to provide mental health services. Licensing and services depend on the provider's training, specialty area and state law.

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 who 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 as a primary care provider or in collaboration with a physician. Physician assistants can specialize in psychiatry. These physician assistants can:

  • Diagnose and treat mental health disorders
  • Counsel on diagnoses, treatments and prognosis, and provide education
  • Prescribe medication

Licensed clinical social worker

If you prefer a social worker, look for a licensed clinical social worker (L.C.S.W.) or a licensed independent clinical social worker (L.I.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.) and some have a doctorate in social work (D.S.W. or Ph.D.). These social workers:

  • Provide assessment, diagnosis, 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.), licensed clinical professional counselor (L.C.P.C.) or similar titles may vary by state, but most have at least a master's degree with clinical experience. These licensed counselors:

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

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 who are covered or may 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.

To find a mental health provider, you have several options:

  • Ask your health insurance company for a list of covered providers. Many insurance companies make a list of providers they cover available on the internet.
  • Seek a referral or recommendation from your primary care provider.
  • Ask trusted friends, family or clergy.
  • Check to see whether your company's employee assistance program (EAP) or student health center offers mental health services, or ask for a referral.
  • Contact a local or national mental health organization by phone or on the internet, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
  • Search the internet for professional associations that have directories of mental health providers, such as the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association or the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.
  • Check phone book listings or search the internet under categories such as community service numbers, counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists or social service organizations.

When choosing a mental health provider, consider these issues:

  • Education, training, licensing and years in practice — licensing requirements vary widely by state
  • Areas they specialize in and specific services they offer
  • Treatment approaches and philosophy
  • Which insurance providers they work with
  • Office hours, fees and length of sessions

Don't hesitate to ask lots of questions. Finding the right match is crucial to establishing a good relationship and getting the most out of your treatment.

May 16, 2017