Over the years, several distinct helping professions have evolved around mental health care. The main contenders today include psychiatry, clinical psychology, social work and counseling. Each has its own history, theoretical approach, and licensure privileges. In many ways they complement each other, especially when working in collaboration to provide a team of mental health professionals for those who need it. Many clinics bring together various professions. One social worker commented on her clinic, Noyes Mental Health Services, “It’s really an asset having different backgrounds here – everyone brings a little different perspective to the table, and we often collaborate on cases. Sometimes I’ll have one of my patients see the art therapist to work on a specific issue and then return to me, or a patient might see one therapist for couples’ counseling and another for individual therapy.” At this clinic, there are mental health counselors, family therapists, creative arts therapists, social workers, a psychiatrist and a psychiatric nurse practitioner who all work together to provide mental health services.
Each profession plays a different role in the care and advocacy for mental health, and have developed different licensure requirements and privileges that facilitate these roles. It’s important to note that licensure privileges vary along state lines, and these professions may differ slightly in their capacity to practice depending on the state. The descriptions below are specific to New York state licensure guidelines.
Psychiatrists attend medical school and specialize in psychiatry in order to get a medical degree (MD) that enables them to work with patients, diagnose and prescribe medication. Because of this background, they generally approach mental healthcare from a biomedical model perspective, treating mental illness with a similar approach to physical illness. Psychiatrists tend to work with individuals dealing with major psychological disorders.
Clinical psychologists attend a graduate program to earn a PhD, EdD, or PsyD and are licensed by the state. These programs may be more research-focused than others, especially the PhD programs. Many clinical psychologists are considered experts in psychological assessment and are also able to diagnose and treat individuals.
Social workers are eligible to gain licensure after completing a master’s degree in social work (MSW) and an internship in a social agency setting. Social workers help to improve social functioning for both individuals and groups, by working within social systems and advocating for change. This can mean administering government programs or working in counseling, school, or medical and public health settings. Generally, social workers come from a systemic approach, focusing on the individual in context of the environment.
Counselors are eligible to gain licensure after completing a master’s degree in community mental health counseling and 3,000 supervised hours. This enables them to diagnose and hold private practice, as well as practice in a clinic or agency setting. Counselors come from a strength-based wellness approach and a biopsychosocial model. This differs slightly from some other approaches in that it considers cultural context to be a priority as well as physical and mental development.
Different degrees aren’t necessarily “better” or “worse” than any others; it is more a matter of goodness of fit for the individual entering the helping profession. The question is which program and which degree will enable you to practice (or not) with a specific population of people, in the right setting and using the right set of tools for your own personal interests and motivation.
Gladding, S. & Newsome, J. (2010). Clinical Mental Health Counseling in Community and Agency Settings (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.