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 meets your needs. Here are some things to keep in mind as you search for a mental health provider.

Mental health providers identify and treat mental health conditions. Most have at least a master's degree. Some may have a higher level of education, training and credentials. Make sure that the provider you choose is licensed to offer 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 areas such as depression, alcohol or drug misuse, or family therapy. They may work in a private practice or hospital, for a community agency, or at another facility.


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. This provider can identify and treat mental health conditions and prescribe medicine. A psychiatrist also can offer talk therapy, sometimes called psychotherapy.


A psychologist is trained in psychology — a science that deals with thoughts, emotions and behaviors. Typically, a psychologist holds a doctoral degree, such as a Ph.D. or Psy.D.

A psychologist can identify and treat many types of mental health conditions. This provider offers different types of talk therapy. In the U.S., most psychologists are not licensed to prescribe medicine. But they may work with another provider who can prescribe medicine if needed.

Psychiatric mental health nurses

A psychiatric mental health nurse (P.M.H.N.) is a registered nurse (R.N.) 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 offer mental health services include a clinical nurse specialist (C.N.S.), a nurse practitioner (N.P.) and a nurse with a doctorate of nursing practice degree (D.N.P.).

The services offered by mental health nurses depend on their education, level of training, experience and state law. They can identify and treat mental illnesses. If state law allows, advanced-practice nurses can prescribe medicine.

Physician assistant

A physician assistant (P.A.) practices medicine as a primary care provider or works together with a physician. Physician assistants can specialize in psychiatry.

They can identify and treat mental health conditions. They also can counsel on causes, treatments and outlook. A physician assistant can prescribe medicine.

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 in mental health. A licensed clinical social worker must have a master's degree in social work. Some have a doctorate in social work.

Social workers offer assessment, counseling and a range of other services. What services they offer depends on their licensing and training. They are not licensed to prescribe medicines. But they may work with another provider who can prescribe medicine 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 identify mental health conditions and give counseling for a range of concerns. They are not licensed to prescribe medicine. But they may work with another provider who can prescribe medicine if needed.

Marriage and family therapist

A marriage and family therapist (M.F.T.) is trained in family and individual therapy. This type of therapist can help you overcome family problems or issues in other relationships. They have at least a master's degree. License and certificate requirements vary by state. Look for a licensed marriage and family therapist (L.M.F.T.). These therapists may work independently or in partnership with other professionals.

Think about these issues when choosing a mental health provider:

  • Your concern or condition. Most mental health providers treat a range of conditions, but one with a specialized focus may best meet 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 see 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 medicines, counseling or both. Some mental health providers are not licensed to prescribe medicines. So you may need to see more than one mental health provider. For example, you may need to see a psychiatrist to manage your medicines and a psychologist or another mental health provider for counseling.
  • Your health insurance coverage. Your insurance policy may list specific mental health providers who are covered. Coverage may apply to only certain types of mental health providers. Check with your insurance company, Medicare or Medicaid to find out what types of mental health services are covered and your benefit limits.

To find a mental health provider, you can:

  • Ask your health insurance company for a list of covered providers. Many insurance companies post a list of these providers on the internet.
  • Seek a referral or recommendation from your primary care provider.
  • Ask trusted friends, family or someone from your faith community.
  • Check to see if your employer offers an employee assistance program (EAP). Or find out whether your school's 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, American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, or 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, think about these issues:

  • Education, training, licensing and years in practice. Licensing requirements vary by state.
  • Areas a provider specializes in and services offered.
  • Treatment approaches and philosophy.
  • Which insurance providers can be used.
  • Office hours, fees and length of sessions.

Make a list of questions to ask. Finding the right match is key to setting up a good relationship and getting the most out of your treatment.

April 14, 2023