Mental health has historically been a touchy subject. The standard approach for most people was doing nothing at all. Those who sought treatment did so on the down low, petrified of what their friends and loved ones might think. Fortunately, this stigma is changing. Men and women are more comfortable talking about mental health issues and feel less pressure to conceal their own mental health problems.

With that said, much about the science of good mental health remains a mystery to most folks. This is especially true when it comes to the duties and responsibilities of mental health experts. It’s not uncommon to hear people refer to psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, and counselors as being one and the same. Unfortunately, this leads to confusion in the event the guidance and expertise of these professionals are required.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at what distinguishes the different types of mental health experts from each other:


A psychologist is someone with the authority to diagnose mental illness after a thorough evaluation of the patient. Earning clinical psychology degrees at the graduate level is a requirement for those who wish to become psychologists. Furthermore, they must attain professional licensing through a state board. In addition to using research-based psychological behavioral techniques for treating patients, psychologists may also work with a research team on behalf of a university or for-profit enterprise. Psychologists must adhere to a strict code of ethics, especially when it comes to patient privacy, as well as receive continuing education to ensure they keep abreast of the latest research and developments in the field of psychology. 


A psychiatrist is a trained medical doctor. As a result, psychiatrists are able to prescribe medication to their patients, something a psychologist is unable to do. This means most psychiatrists focus their attention on the management of medication used by patients to treat a variety of mental illnesses and behavioral disorders. Many psychiatrists began their careers working in the psych wards of hospitals, where they help treat patients from a wide variety of age groups and backgrounds. Psychiatrists often work alongside psychologists, which explains why the two professions are often confused for each other.


Many mental health professionals fall under the umbrella of being considered a therapist. This includes the aforementioned psychologists as well as social workers. However, most states and countries require licensing for those who wish to practice as therapists. Unless they are psychologists, therapists cannot diagnose someone with a mental health condition. They also can’t prescribe medication.


The title of “counselor” can be used by men and women with a wide range of training and expertise. The aforementioned psychologists and licensed therapists can be considered counselors, but so can individuals who call themselves life coaches as well as those operating within the confines of religious doctrine. Lacking any necessary education and licensing, counselors are not bound to adhere to a strict code of ethics, which means confidentiality is based on their ability to stay true to their word. The quality of service provided by counselors is also hit or miss. Some are acclaimed for their ability to help those with mental health problems, while others are little more than charlatans out to make a quick buck off the suffering of others.

Thanks to the changing nature of social pressures and cultural taboos, mental health is something people are able to discuss more openly than they could in the past. While this is a fantastic shift in the right direction, it opens up the possibility of confusion for those who wish to seek help from mental health experts. Knowing the difference between the various professionals in the mental health sector is something that everyone thinking about seeking help must do before going further.