What are the differences between social worker, mental health counselor, psychologist and psychiatrist? Who should I see? This is a common question, so I’m going to explain the differences between these professionals to help clear up this question.
Mental health counselors specialize in counseling people with mental health problems. This is our specialty. We do NOT do psychological testing, arranging social services, or medication prescriptions or management. We are trained in talking to people and helping them learn to manage their own problems, including relationships, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse recovery. A good mental health counselor will help empower you, and will never try to make you dependent on them to make decisions. You will be encouraged to get better and become self-reliant. A counseling session usually consists of weekly meetings for 50-60 minutes for three to six months. Occasionally someone stays for a year or longer, but typically these are people with severe mental health problems. A person who hears voices, thinks invisible people are watching him, is fearful of leaving his home due to OCD or trauma, or has a long-term history of mental health hospitalizations may need therapy for longer than a year, but the typical person, who is just sad, depressed, or anxious over life problems should expect to get better much faster. If your counselor is doing his job, you won’t need counseling for years and years. Sitting down and talking to a counselor weekly will help you get over the difficult times in your life, and you can expect to feel better and get better fast.
Social workers are trained in counseling, but their expertise in working as a client advocate, helping connect you with community services, and coordinate your care. They will help someone leaving a psychiatric hospital make sure they have follow-up mental health services, as well as housing, finances, legal. And other necessary services to keep them functioning in the community. A psychologist can also do counseling, but their expertise is in testing. If your child needs a special school placement, either due to problems or an IQ test for gifted classes, you will want to see a psychologist for testing services.
Psychologists also test adults with various tests to meet needs for special services including Social Security or legal requirements. Because a psychologist has a Ph.D. they are able to charge more for their counseling services than a mental health counselor with a master’s level education. However, their additional education in testing doesn’t make them a better counselor, just a more expensive one. The measure of a good counselor is the connection that they do with you on a personal level.
A psychiatrist is a medical doctor with specialized in mental health problems. They listen to you to determine your symptoms, and prescribe medication to help you feel better and to relieve your symptoms. They are not trained as counselors, and will not see you for an hour every week for counseling. When there are serious problems, it is often necessary for a client to work in tandem with a psychiatrist to prescribe medication to relieve symptoms, while working with a mental health counselor to learn new coping skills which will allow you to eventually function without the need for medication.