Q: Dear Dr. Barton, I'm confused by all of the different mental health professionals who say they do psychotherapy or counseling. I know you are a psychologist, but there are also psychiatrists, social workers, family and marriage therapists, licensed mental health professionals, substance abuse counselors, and on and on. What's the difference and how do I choose the right professional for me?
A: This is a great question. As you said, when seeking help for emotional, mental, behavioral or relationship problems, it can be confusing and frustrating to sort out who's who among the different credentials. Yet, it's crucial to choose a professional who has the right education, training and experience to really understand and help.
There are vast differences in education and training among mental health service providers, yet the general public is not being sufficiently educated about those differences. In my opinion, this is an unfortunate failing of the mental health system, because choosing the right clinician profoundly affects the lives of individuals, as well as the people in those individuals' lives.
As you know, I am a psychologist. I have a doctorate, or Ph.D., in clinical psychology. In order to understand what a psychologist can do, let's define the word psychology.
The American Psychological Association defines psychology this way --
"Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. The discipline embraces all aspects of the human experience -- from the functions of the brain to the actions of nations, from child development to care for the aged. In every conceivable setting from scientific reseach centers to mental healthcare services, 'the understanding of behavior' is the enterprise of psychogists."
A psychologist with a Ph.D. has earned a doctoral degree in psychology from an accredited university or professional school. They study normal and abnormal processes, including brain and body functioning, are extensively trained in research, psychological assessment, diagnosis, a wide range of psychotherapies, and, depending on specializations, can be qualified to treat patients with the range of mental and emotional problems. Psychologists also study and encourage behaviors that enhance wellness and emotional resilience.
The foregoing refers to psychologists who earn a Ph.D. Psychologists who earn a Psy.D. are not extensively trained in research, but have comparable clinical training.
In addition to training, in order to call oneself a psychologist, that person must also be licensed in the states in which she or he practices.
So, how is a Psychologist different from other mental health service providers? Here is a link to psychcentral.com that providers a primer on some of the differences. I hope this takes at least some of the confusion out of choosing the right mental health professional for you.