Psychologist, Social Worker, Psychiatrist, Therapist?

Written by psychologist  |  13. March 2001

Over the years, it has become clear that the public has been confused about the different titles of mental health professional. Many people are referred to mental health resources from their insurance companies, friend's recommendations, physicians, and even the yellow pages. Many times, they do not know the training, credentials, or credibility of the individuals they are calling. Prospective patients have called me and asked if I was a psychiatrist, therapist, psychologist, or social worker. This confusion prompted me to write this article in order to make the distinction a bit clearer. In New York State to call oneself a psychologist, an individual has to have obtained a Ph.D. from an accredited graduate program, had the appropriate amount of supervised clinical training, and passed a rigorous licensing examination. According to data from graduate programs, psychologists spend an average of an additional 7.2 years above their undergraduate training studying human behavior and its applications to life. In addition to doing therapy, psychologists are the only mental health professionals who are trained to administer full psychological assessments. Social workers are creditentialed as either M.S.W. (Masters of Social Work) or D.S.W. (Doctor of Social Work). Social workers can graduate with approximately 2 years of graduate school for the M.S.W. degree and 4 years for the D.S.W. Social workers can do therapy, as psychologists do, and they care registered and certified in New York State, as a C.S.W. (certified social worker). Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialized in the treatment of mental disorders. They are can do counseling and they also prescribe medications for anxiety, depression, and a host of other psychiatric disorders. In recent years, since the advent of managed care, many psychiatrists have significantly reduced their therapy practices and reserved most of their time to medication management. Those psychiatrists who primarily do medication management tend to work with either psychologists or social workers to perform the counseling. Therapists, counselors, what are they? In New York State, the designation "therapist"or "counselor" is what we call an unprotected title. That is not to say that the words "counseling" or "therapy" are to be viewed as improper or suspicious. The problem is that anyone can call himself or herself a counselor or therapist without having any proper training. To confuse the matter even more, there are individuals who do have training as marriage and family counselors. These individuals may have Ph.D.'s or C.S.W.'s and who chose to take additional training, or they may be individuals who only studied in a masters program that focused on marriage and family counseling. At this time, 42 states do license marriage and family counselors; New York is not one of these states. One last confusing variable is that many clergy do perform counseling, and some even have advanced degrees. I hope that after reading this summary you have more answers than questions. The bottom line is that it is always important to inquire about a prospective mental health worker's training and background before choosing them. Check for the next article will be on how to choose a mental health professional.

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