Who Does What?: Dissecting Mental Health Practitioners

“But what exactly are you? Can you prescribe medication? What’s your degree anyway?” The mental health field is so confusing these days, I thought I’d take some time to explain.

A Psychiatrist is a medical doctor (MD and state medical license) specializing in psychological disorders. Psychiatrists focus on diagnoses, testing and medication, and sometimes do counseling or psychotherapy.

A General Practitioner is a medical doctor (MD and state medical license) serving a wide variety of ages and medical concerns. Regarding mental health, GP’s can diagnose and prescribe medication for general, short-term mental health issues. However they tend to refer out to a psychiatrist for on-going or more complex diagnoses.

A Psychiatric Nurse Practicioner (MS or PhD and state medical license) can prescribe some medication and offer simple diagnoses. They don’t do extensive tests nor do they offer counseling.

A Psychologist (PhD or PsyD and state license) focuses on psychological testing, diagnoses and counseling. They do not prescribe medication. Parents with a child with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) might work with a psychologist for testing and diagnosis.

A Psychotherapist (MA) focuses on counseling. We also offer testing and diagnoses, however that’s not an emphasis. For us it’s more about the relationship with clients and working on creating concrete life changes. Psychotherapists are licensed by the state, each of which has different criteria. In Colorado you can be a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), which means you have a Master’s Degree and have met a wide variety of requirements. Additionally you could be a Registered Therapist, which means you register with the state as a psychotherapist. There are no degree requirements for this title. The only national certification for psychotherapists is National Certified Counselor (NCC). The requirements are similar to that of LPC (including a national exam I had to pass).

A Colorado Addictions Counselor (CAC I, II, III) and Licensed Addition Counselor (LAC) focus on substance abuse issues. In addition to specific classes, experience and a state certification or licensure, CAC I and II requires a high school diploma, CAC III a BA degree, and LAC a MA degree.

Finally, you can begin to obtain other specialties. I am a Registered Play Therapist (RPT), which means I participated in specific classes and supervision hours focused on working with children and teens. This is a national certification.