What’s the difference between the various types of mental health professionals?

There are many different types of mental health professionals, and we understand that the string of letters behind our names can be confusing. I developed the table below to offer some transparency and clarification on the various mental health professionals.

A broad (but imperfect) distinction can be made by thinking about two categories: medically trained vs. not medically trained.

  • Psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners, for example, are medically trained, as they attend medical school and nursing school, respectively. Thus, they are equipped with physical medicine knowledge that qualifies them to prescribe psychiatric medications. This educational background is important, as they are trained to understand interaction effects of various drugs, physical conditions that can masquerade as mental health conditions, and the nuanced uses of medications based on symptoms, medical conditions, etc. These mental health professionals also receive training in conducting psychotherapy – but to a lesser degree than nonmedical mental health professionals.
  • Psychologists and clinical social workers, on the other hand, are not medically trained. Our training emphasizes conducting psychotherapy, differential diagnosis, etc.

It is common for patients to have both a medically trained and nonmedically trained mental health provider if the patient is engaged in psychotherapy and is being prescribed psychiatric medication at the same time. In this case, the nonmedical clinician would be the one providing psychotherapy, whereas the medical clinician would be the one prescribing and managing the patient’s medications.

People also often wonder what the difference is between, for example, a psychologist and a social worker. The only skillset difference between the two is that psychologists are trained and licensed to conduct psychological testing and assessment, whereas a social worker is not. (Note: Psychological testing and assessment can be used for many things. In short, it is a structured, standardized, and reliable method for assessing learning differences, dementia, neurodivergence, personality, etc.) Otherwise, psychologists and social workers have the same skillsets.

Two other differences between the various types of mental health professionals are (1) the length of time required to achieve the credential and (2) the culture of the career field.

  • Length of time – Psychiatrists and psychologists, for example, are required to obtain a medical degree or doctorate to be eligible for licensure, whereas a social worker or professional counselor is required to obtain a master’s degree to be eligible for licensure. In my experience as a psychologist, however, my extra schooling did not provide extra education in how to do therapy or how to be a therapist. Rather, my extra schooling taught me how to interpret statistics, how to design a research study, and how to critically analyze research outcomes. Therefore, my extra schooling didn’t equip me to be a better clinician.
    • I have met extraordinarily gifted clinicians that are social workers, and I have met lousy clinicians that are psychologists (and vice versa), so I wouldn’t select a therapist for myself or a loved one based on credentials. In my experience, we truly learn to be clinicians in supervision and practice, which means an individual of any credentialing type has the potential to be great, mediocre, or lousy.
  • Culture of career field – Psychologists and social workers, for example, tend to have vastly different cultural experiences in their educational and professional journeys. In the culture of psychology, we’re generally not supposed to admit if we have our own wounds, whereas social work programs promote self-disclosure. The psychology field emphasizes rigor, legalism, and specificity, whereas the social work field emphasizes essence and intent. The social work field emphasizes being person-centered and fighting for patients at all costs, whereas the psychology field emphasizes accuracy and facts – despite the human cost.
    • We joke at our clinic that it’s essential our fields work together, so we can polish down one another’s rough edges and bad habits.

You might see other letters listed behind the names of mental health professionals (i.e., beyond the ones listed in the table below). It would be impossible to provide an exhaustive list, but for the sake of orienting you to them… A psychologist might have ABPP listed behind their PhD/PsyD, which means they are board certified. A social worker’s board certification might be listed as BCD. There are also various specialty certifications that a clinician may or may not list in their title (e.g., CWT = Certified in War Trauma). If you are curious about the extra letters, a simple web search should reveal their meaning.

Many of the mental health credentialing types are governed by different licensing boards, which I’ve listed in the table below for the State of New Mexico. These can also serve as a guide for which board to look for in other states. Any consumer complaint should be submitted to the board governing the specific clinician in question.

Relatedly, most credentialing types are beholden to a professional Code of Ethics, which is specific to their credentialing type. For example, psychologists are bound to the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct, which can be found here: https://www.apa.org/ethics/code . You can easily find the web-based Code of Ethics for the credentialing type in question. These Codes are important, as their ratified standards are enforceable by the respective licensing boards.

Title Typical Degree Type Typical Practice Functions
Regulatory Authority
Psychiatrist (MD, DO) Medical doctor with specialized training (e.g., residency) in mental & emotional illnesses Prescribing psychiatric medications, Diagnosis
New Mexico Medical Board
Clinical Psychologist (PhD, PsyD) Doctoral degree in psychology Psychotherapy, Psychological testing and assessment, Diagnosis
New Mexico Board of Psychologist Examiners
Clinical Social Worker (MSW, LMSW, LCSW) Master’s degree or higher in social work Psychotherapy, Diagnosis
Board of Social Work Examiners
Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner (NP, DNP) Master’s degree equivalent or higher Prescribing psychiatric medications, Diagnosis
New Mexico Board of Nursing
Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC, LPCC) Master’s degree or higher in psychology, counseling, or related field Psychotherapy
New Mexico Board of Counseling and Therapy Practice
Marital and Family Therapist (LAMFT, LMFT) Master’s degree or higher with specialized training in marital & family therapy Psychotherapy
New Mexico Board of Counseling and Therapy Practice
Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) Master’s degree or higher in counseling or related field Psychotherapy
New Mexico Board of Counseling and Therapy Practice
Licensed Professional Art Therapist (LPAT, ATR) Master’s degree or higher Uses forms of art to aid patients in emotional exploration
New Mexico Board of Counseling and Therapy Practice
Licensed Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor (LADAC) Associate’s degree or higher in an Addictions Counseling related field Substance abuse-related psychotherapy
New Mexico Board of Counseling and Therapy Practice
Licensed Substance Abuse Associate (LSAA) Tier 1: Associate’s Degree; Tier 2: Bachelor’s Degree; Tier 3: Master’s Degree Substance abuse-related psychotherapy; must have a clinical supervisor
New Mexico Board of Counseling and Therapy Practice
Pastoral Counselor Associate’s degree or higher in an ecclesiastical field Spirituality-based counseling
Ecclesiastical groups
Mental Health Technician (MHT) High School Diploma or GED or higher Ancillary paraprofessionals; may conduct limited, supervised clinical interviews, co-facilitate groups, administer screeners & psychological tests, & manage administrative tasks
Employer responsible for proficiency
Certified Peer Support Worker (CPSW) High School Diploma or GED or higher; is a current or former mental health consumer Providing support & skill-building
Office of Peer Recovery and Engagement


Joye Henrie, PhD

February 2023