A Shrink’s a Shrink, Right?
One of the most common misconceptions I hear about mental health is that all “shrinks” are the same. People tend to use words like “psychologist,” “therapist,” “shrink,” and “counselor,” interchangeably, but they’re actually pretty different. Not all mental health practioners are created equally and today’s blog is about how to tell the difference so you can make the best choice for your therapy needs.
Here’s the typical line-up:
Psychiatrist or Psychiatric Nurse
A psychiatrist is an MD, which means they trained in medical school to become a doctor and then went into mental health as their specialty. Similarly, a psychiatrist nurse trained as a regular RN then received further training and specialization in mental health. Most psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses focus their practices on prescribing and managing medication, but some also do talk therapy with their patients. Psychiatrists, and in some states psychiatric nurses, are the only mental health practioners that can prescribe medication. If you are looking to try or change medication and you don’t want to go to your regular physician, these are the professionals you need to see.
A psychologist is someone who trains to the level of a Ph.D. or Psy.D. as a mental health clinician. They spend a lot of time learning to do assessment, diagnosis, research, and more. Depending on their degree and the program where they trained, they may either focus primarily on research or primarily in becoming a practicing clinician who works with patients. If you are looking for someone who is trained to do formal assessments for certain diagnoses, a psychologist is your best bet.
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Marriage and family therapists (LMFTs or MFTs) are trained to at least the level of a Master’s degree and can continue on to receive their Ph.D. in the field as well. MFTs focus half of their face-to-face clinical hours toward licensure treating relational cases by doing couples counseling and family therapy. Most MFT programs have a heavily clinical focus, which means they spend most of their time training to work with clients in therapy settings. If you are looking for a professional to work through relationship issues or intergenerational issues, MFTs are a great resource.
Licensed Mental Health Counselor (a.k.a. Licensed Professional Counselor)
Like MFTs and LCSWs, LMHCs have at least a Master’s degree in their field and spend most of their education and training time practicing to work with clients directly. LMHCs champion a collaborative approach and employ a variety of different approaches to therapy when working with clients. Their therapeutic focus depends on their program of study and the requirements in the state they are licensed. If you are looking for a professional with a collaborative approach, an LMHC can be a good fit.
Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Someone with an MSW has completed a Master’s degree in Social Work, but they need to have gone on to get the LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) designation in order to practice therapy with clients. LCSWs, like MFTs and LMHCs, spend most of their training focusing on clinical work with clients in therapy settings. Social workers are typically great at helping clients find resources in and around their communities, so if you’re looking for a professional who can help you find help with housing, financial aid, education, or other resources, check with an LCSW.
Life Coach, Success Coach, etc.
The term "life coach" is a broad term used by a variety of people and is not a licensed profession. There is no formal training, licensing, or education to become a life coach so anyone can call themselves one, regardless of their background. Because it is not a regulated profession (which means there is no state or federal rules or governing body set up to police the profession and protect the general public), you need to tread carefully if you decide to work with a life coach. Just like all professions, there are some wonderful ones who can help a lot, but the field does fall prey to unscrupulous characters because there are no requirements or regulation to work as one.
What’s In a Name, Really?
When all is said and done, the most important things about your mental health professional are that they are knowledgeable in their field, specialize in what you need help with, practice ethically and professionally, and are someone you feel comfortable with and confident in. There are amazing practioners across all fields, and some not-so-great ones, too. Take your time when choosing your mental health professional and don’t be afraid to switch to someone new if the one you’re working with isn’t working out.
The relationship you have with your chosen professional is one of the most important therapeutic factor in determining your outcome in therapy (if you get better or not). While knowing what the letters after your mental health professionals name mean can be a great start in knowing if they’re a good fit for you, it’s just that: a start. Do a little footwork (or phone work) and connect to professionals in your area and see who feels right. Then get moving! Therapy, in all its forms, can be such a wonderful addition to your life!