A common point of confusion when seeking care from a mental health professional is the difference among psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and counselors. While there is some overlap among the professions, here’s a quick run down of who does what and in what way.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors (M.D. or D.O) trained in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. They have attended medical school and are able to prescribe psychotropic drugs in the treatment of some mental disorders. Psychiatrists often have a keen eye for diagnosis, especially differential diagnosis between physical and mental illness. They are also the best resource for monitoring medication effectiveness and side effects over time. Primary care physicians may also prescribe psychotropic medications, although PCPs will generally manage medications only for patients with fairly straightforward mental health issues. More complex or long-term cases often warrant referral to a psychiatrist. Psychiatrists do not typically provide counseling aside from medication counseling.
Psychologists are mental health providers who have earned a doctoral degree in psychology (Ph.D. or Psy.D.). Often, psychologists are the best trained professionals to administer assessments and conduct psychological research. Many are trained in counseling psychology and also provide counseling to individuals, couples, and families. A psychologist’s expertise in counseling often varies depending on the focus of their doctoral work. Psychologists do not prescribe medication.
Licensed clinical social workers hold masters degrees in social work and are the most similar in training to professional counselors, with some distinctions. Traditionally, social workers have been trained in case management to assist individuals with meeting their basic needs, but social workers are also able to help individuals with personal needs via counseling. LCSWs can provide counseling services to individuals, couples, and families. They cannot prescribe medication.
A professional counselor holds a graduate degree in counseling. The training of professional counselors allows them to diagnose and treat mental disorders and relational problems in families and couples. Because the bulk of a counselor’s education derives from counseling theory and technique, the counseling process is more of a focus for professional counselors than diagnosis, assessment, or connection with resources, although a counselor is familiar with these skillsets. Professional counselors can provide counseling services to individuals, couples, and families. They cannot prescribe medication.
Please refer to the ACA’s Professional Counseling Fact Sheet for more information.