With a plethora of impressively titled mental health professionals out there, it can be difficult to know what they all do and how they differ from each other. The clearest way to explain this is to use a physical health analogy; so, let’s assume you have a problem with your physical conditioning, anything from sub-optimal fitness to a serious injury.
Personal Trainers = Coaches
If you’re simply unhappy with your fitness level, and there’s nothing particularly wrong, then you should consider working with a personal trainer. Perhaps you want help attaining a certain goal, like running a marathon, or just want to get fit.
Coaches are our mental PTs, helping the still functioning individual to function better. They may offer a generalist ‘life coaching’ service, or something more specialist, like executive coaching.
Physiotherapists = Psychologists, Counsellors and Therapists
If you’ve suffered an injury then you’ll want to consult a physiotherapist. They can diagnose your injuries, and guide you through specific exercises that will target those injuries. They will help you to gain insight into possible causes, facilitating improved management in the future.
In mental health, counsellors, therapists and psychologists all provide knowledge-based or behavioural therapies to address some level of dysfunction.
Orthopaedic Surgeons = Psychiatrists
Finally, some injuries warrant a direct biological intervention, so you’ll need to see a doctor. In particular, an orthopaedic surgeon has the most relevant specialist knowledge. Of course, a surgical procedure carries an increased level of risk, but it may be the most potent treatment available.
Psychiatrists are doctors with specialist mental health training, and usually employ biological treatments including medications, the not-as-bad-as-it-sounds Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), and more recently developed treatments like Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS). (Psychosurgery is very rare nowadays.)
Let’s now consider some variations on these basic roles:
- Psychologists work in various fields, not just mental health. For example, there are neuropsychologists, educational psychologists, organisational psychologists and forensic psychologists to name but a few. Psychologists working in mental health may have engaged in further training on mental health disorders and the therapies used to treat these disorders. In some countries they may hold a specialist designation like ‘Clinical Psychologist’.
- Doctors often favour the ‘medical model’, that is, using biological treatments to address mental illness; but some will also use psychological therapies. And not only psychiatrists treat mental illness; general practitioners may often prescribe drugs to treat mental ill-health, and of course many GPs are helpful counsellors also.
- People calling themselves counsellors or psychologists may well provide coaching services.
- Depending on which country you live in, the various titles used by mental health workers might be regulated by law, and if not, it’s likely there are professional bodies that regulate the standards of their members, so look for these when choosing someone.
*I’ve left out mental health nurses because most people know roughly what nurses do; they care for patients in a hospital, clinic or community setting, and administer treatments, often in consultation with and/or on behalf of doctors. It’s similar in mental health.