Published on: November 26, 2021

Kathryn Nicole Sam and Sai Chandana Mukkamala, Interns with Pallium India, write:

Mental health is a broad and complex issue that requires different types of support or treatment.

But quite often laypeople are not quite sure what the distinction is between a psychiatrist, a psychologist,  a counsellor or the various other roles involved. There are various types of professionals who provide different mental health services. People study and train for years in different areas of mental health so that they can help you work through difficult issues that might be going on in your life. A mental health professional’s role will vary depending on the condition a person has, and its severity. It can sometimes be confusing to understand who does what. This article discusses different types of mental health professionals, their services, and how to access them.


Psychiatrists mainly diagnose, treat, and help prevent mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. They use psychiatric medicine, physical exams, and lab tests. They can decide whether you need medication as part of your treatment, and are able to prescribe it for you.

They treat all types of mental illness, from mild to severe. They can work in many locations, including private practices and hospitals. A psychiatrist is a doctor with either a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree.

Psychiatrists can:

  • Diagnose mental illness
  • Help with both your physical and mental health
  • Review your life situation and history and how it affects your mental health
  • Provide medication and psychological treatments (talking therapies)
  • Prepare reports for a court
  • Admit you to hospital when needed
Psychologists and Clinical Psychologists

Psychologists specialize in evaluating mental health concerns and providing psychotherapy and psycho-diagnostic assessments. They are not medical doctors and do not prescribe medications as treatment. Psychologists specialize in the science of behaviors, emotions, and thoughts. They work in places like private offices or hospitals.

Clinical psychologists have special training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. They are the type of psychologist you are most likely to see for help with a mental health issue. Psychologists will typically have a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and specialize in understanding the mind and human behavior. They also require a license to practice.

Psychologists can:

  • Diagnose mental illness
  • Provide psychological treatments
  • Test for intellectual and psychological function
  • Prepare reports for a court

Counselling is a process in which a trained professional provides guidance to individuals so they can come to deal with personal problems. Counselling is not the same as giving advice; rather, counsellors help their clients make their own choices and come to peace with their lives.

Counsellors usually work with less severe psychological problems than clinical psychologists. They may specialize in areas like personal stress, marriage and family problems, trauma, substance abuse, grief, and career counselling. A counsellors training can vary from a course that lasts a few months, to a masters degree or postgraduate diploma in counselling.

Counselling is also not the same as coaching. Coaching is more action-oriented, with the aim of challenging an individual to maximise their potential and achieve specific goals. Counsellors focus more on providing support, though they may gently challenge you. While coaches help you recognise your thoughts, counsellors also help you recognise your feelings. In addition, counsellors may receive training in mental health conditions, development, family dynamics and sexuality.

Psychiatric social workers

Psychiatric social work is a specialized field of medical social work, wherein professionals help people with severe mental illness. They help individuals deal with the range of social problems that accompany mental illness in domains like relationships, career, and quality of life.

Some tasks a psychiatric social worker may perform are assessing individuals’ financial, social, and psychological needs, providing individual, group and family therapy,  educating the client’s family about the illness and treatment plan, and facilitating communication with the family and hospital team. They also connect patients to community resources, and create a plan to integrate them back into the community. Psychiatric social workers in India hold an MPhil or Phd in psychiatric social work.

Psychiatric nurses

Psychiatric nurses can provide an assessment, diagnosis, and therapy for various mental health conditions, depending upon their level of training and certification. Psychiatric nurses are specially trained nurses who care for the psychological and physical well-being of people with mental health conditions or behavioral problems.

They may also support the people close to a person with these conditions, such as family members or romantic partners. Psychiatric nurses are registered nurses who work in the mental healthcare sector. To become a registered nurse, a person must obtain one of three degrees and pass the registered nurse (RN) licensing examination in their state after graduating.

Oxford languages – definition of counselling.

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