Finding the right mental health provider can be challenging, confusing, and overwhelming. There are not enough mental health professionals out there to meet the needs of these challenging times. At least one in four American adults, and one in three teens in the US, have a diagnosable mental health condition. Many providers have waitlists that are booked for months out.
The other challenge is that there are so many different types of mental health providers offering wildly different services. It is hard to know which approach and provider is the right fit for each individual’s needs. It’s helpful to understand the differences between a Psychiatrist, Psychologist, Counselor, Life Coach, Primary Care Physician and Naturopathic Doctor.
Psychiatrists: Medical Doctors Who Can Prescribe and Manage Medications
Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have gone through additional training and board certification in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions. Psychiatrists can prescribe pharmaceuticals and are seen on occasion to manage medications and treatment. As medical doctors, psychiatrists are also skilled in treating physical health conditions as well. Some physician assistants and nurse practitioners take additional training in mental health and may be able manage psychiatric medications.
Behavioral Tools and Psychologists
Psychologists have completed a graduate degree, often at the doctoral level, but are not medical doctors. That means that they use counseling and behavioral tools to address mental health conditions but aren’t able to prescribe or manage medications. They can diagnose conditions and may meet frequently with clients.
Primary Care Physicians Focus on Screening and Medication for Mental Health
Primary care physicians are responsible for the majority of mental health prescriptions in America. PCP’s are on the front line of treating depression, anxiety, ADHD, and other common mental health conditions. Despite this significant role, MD’s and DO’s receive limited training in mental health. Treatment of these conditions in this setting is often limited to screening tools, the use of first line medications, and referrals to specialists when needed.
The Holistic Approach to Mental Health by Naturopathic Doctors
Naturopathic Doctors (ND) are trained as primary care physicians but also receive extensive training in mental health. This is because naturopaths have a ‘holistic’ approach which considers the mind and body as inseparable systems. Naturopaths are trained in counseling techniques, nutritional therapy, natural medicine, pharmacology, and mind-body techniques such as biofeedback, mindfulness, and meditation. Some have additional training in yoga, acupuncture, and Chinese medicine. ND’s serve as a bridge between conventional and alternative medicine and seek to treat each patient as a “whole person”.
In many states in the west, northwest, and northeast, Naturopathic Doctors have prescription rights comparable to medical doctors and Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine. In some states such as Colorado, ND’s have limited prescriptive rights but may work with a medical doctor who can prescribe on their behalf. ND’s are also trained in herbal/botanical medicine, nutritional and supplemental therapy, homeopathy and other modalities for those who prefer natural options over pharmaceuticals. Not all ND’s specialize in mental health, so be sure to check a naturopath’s areas of focus before booking an appointment.
Therapeutic Tools Used by Counselors
Counselors have usually completed a master’s level degree and use talk therapy, behavioral approaches, and other therapeutic tools to support clients in an ongoing professional relationship. Counselors may have had additional training in techniques such as EMDR, Internal Family Systems, yoga therapy or even nutrition. Clients should always verify a counselor’s additional certification before accepting their recommendations on diet, supplements, hands on therapies, or other areas outside of their basic scope of practice. A counselor may work in conjunction with a client’s doctor or psychiatrist and offer recommendations on treatment, but they do not prescribe medications.
Life Coaches Focus on Behavior Change and Motivational Techniques
Life Coaches may be trained or may be self-taught. Rather than providing therapy, they focus on behavior change and motivational techniques. They offer a relationship with their clients based on accountability and support. There is a large amount of variation in the services delivered by life coaches. They do not diagnose or treat any mental health condition.
How to Choose Your Mental Health Provider
When considering which type of healthcare provider is right for you, ask the following questions:
- Who is accepting new patients or clients in my area?
- Do I need a prescription or a provider who can manage my medication?
- Am I open to pharmaceutical treatment, or do I prefer natural options?
- Is talk therapy sufficient to meet my current needs?
- Does my insurance cover care provided by the provider I’m interested in?
- Is there a member of my current care team that is able to meet my mental health needs?
It is important to know what options are out there and which may be the best fit. The list in this post is far from exhaustive. When you face long waitlists with one type of provider, remember that there are many options and approaches available. The best care is that which matches a patient’s condition, values, and goals. If you are in the midst of a mental health emergency, please call a suicide prevention hotline or visit a local crisis center.