Understanding Mental Health Professions

The mental health field can be confusing. Entering college, you may know you want to "help people," but which degree is best and how do you decide what kind of career path to follow? There are a lot of terms: "psychologist," "clinical psychologist," "therapist," "psychiatrist," "psychotherapist," and "counselor," among others. The truth is some of these distinctions can be blurry and some job duties overlap. Big differences between the professions typically rest on education/preparation expected.

Below we break down what each term means and the schooling required.


A psychologist holds a doctoral degree; either a Ph.D., a Psy.D., or in some cases an Ed.D. (school/educational psychologists). Psychologists who hold a Ph.D in either clinical or counseling psychology have an emphasis on research. They sometimes practice, but more often, Ph.D. psychologists work in academia. There is some practicum experience and a dissertation is required. The degree takes about six to seven years to complete.

A psychologist with a Psy.D places an emphasis on practice. In general programs take five to six years to complete and can include more than 4,000 hours of clinical training experience in both practicum and internship.

Clinical vs. counseling specialties refer to the types of cases a psychologist will be dealing with. For the most part, clinical cases are more severe, long-term mental illnesses. Counseling typically refers to more short term, life-change issues like bereavement or specific trauma.


Therapists and psychotherapists are basically the same thing. They hold a M.A. or M.S in clinical or counseling psychology. Programs are generally two years. Training focuses on the technique of psychotherapy, but does not delve into psychological theory or assessment. This degree is either a gateway into a doctoral degree or can stand alone.

Licensed Counselor

A licensed counselor is much like a therapist in terms of educational background. Counselors hold master's degrees in a counseling field and must complete a certain number of supervised hours in order to achieve licensure. Counselors typically deal with shorter term issues, acting as advisors to help clients set goals and work out problems. Issues encountered are typically less related to serious mental illness and more likely to be an issue of a relationship or particular circumstance, like the loss of a job or a divorce.


A psychiatrist holds an M.D. He or she is a doctor, went to medical school, and completed a residency in psychiatry. Psychiatrists most often deal with patients with severe mental illness. Of all of the professions listed, psychiatrists are the only ones able to prescribe medication.

For more specific information on what defines various mental health professions, see http://therapists.psychologytoday.com/rms/content/therapy_professionals.html.

Mental health training can also be more specialized, as in the case of:

  • Substance Abuse Counseling
  • Family Therapy
  • Psychiatric Nursing
  • Life Coaching
  • Art/Music Therapy
  • Career Counseling