Many of you who are reading this article or are looking at my site have never sought the services of a mental health professional.  I have found that most of my patients have never seen a mental health professional before, and know very little about the different types.  I thought I would take the opportunity to list and explain the different types, and give you some tips on questions to ask, what to expect, and what to look for.

The different types of mental health professionals I will cover 5 different types: Professional Counselor, Marriage and Family Therapist, Clinical Social Worker, Psychologist, and Psychiatrist.

Professional Counselor

Typically, a Professional Counselor, which is what I am, has completed a bachelor’s degree, and also a master of arts or master of science degree in counseling or clinical psychology.  It’s a rigorous program of at least 2 years of academic study, and an internship of thousands of hours. After completion of the degree, this individual must apply to their state board, take the licensing

exam, and then, much like a new doctor fresh out of medical school, must spend 2-5 years as a resident, under the thumb of a supervisor, as you have a restricted license.

Clinical Social Worker

The requirements for the social worker are much the same as the counselor, but they have a master’s degree in social work.  Programs vary, and the coursework isn’t all the same, but they are qualified and licensed to do the same therapy.

Marriage and family therapist

Given that my master’s degree allows me to sit for the licensing exam for this, and that I can get the license, I would say that you just need to read the professional counselor blurb I wrote. The main differences lie in the lens that the therapist approaches a case, with marriage & family therapists taking a systemic lens.


A Psychologist typically has a doctoral degree in psychology.  In a few states, they allow folks with master’s degrees to do some extra work and be licensed as psychologists, but this license is coming out of style.  A licensed psychologist, interestingly enough, does NOT have to have a degree that is laser specific to therapy.  A psychologist could have a degree that is heavy in research, and has little emphasis in counseling, but passed the board exam just the same.


A psychiatrist is a mental health professional that is a medical doctor, who completed a residency in psychiatry, and can prescribe medicine.  Interestingly, not many psychiatrists are well versed in therapy/counseling.  I know quite a few, and most aren’t.

So how do you chose?

Many times, especially if you contact a counseling agency, you aren’t likely to have your phone intake completed by the counselor that will be giving you therapy.  You can ask this person questions, but they may not know the answers.  It can be frustrating at times, especially when you just want help, but you also have concerns about who this person is and if you’ll get along with them. 

Bottom line, you want them to be a good fit.

If you’re actually speaking with the therapist you will be seeing, go ahead and ask questions. The therapist should be able to field most general questions, though you should keep in mind that this isn’t the time to start a session. Ask about what the therapy process will be like, and general office procedures like intake paperwork.

Here’s an additional list of things to keep in mind that should help.  This list is not exhaustive, and is in no particular order:

1. Location-How far one has to drive for therapy can definitely be a factor.  You don’t want to base your choice of counselors on how close to your home their office is.  On the other hand, you probably don’t want to have to drive 45 minutes out of the way when so and so down the street would’ve sufficed.

2. Gender-First, if one gender or another really bothers you and you have the option of going with a gender you’re comfortable with, then go with that. That being said, gender is not always important, but things I have learned in my own practice and from other professionals and professors is that notwithstanding some sexual trauma, if you have problems with a certain gender more than another, it is good to challenge yourself with that particular gender.  If you

have problems with women, then you might consider a female counselor. The same goes for men. All things being equal, it usually doesn’t matter.

3. Referral from a friend-I think one of the best ways to choose is to ask people if they know anyone.  Unless your friend is mad at you, they aren’t likely to send you to someone that they didn’t like.  In this business, we get a lot of referrals by word of mouth.

4. Cost and Insurance-Sometimes the only way you’re going to get counseling is through your insurance.  Consider points 1-3, and check your provider list.  Or, if you have no insurance, what money you have and the rates of the provider can determine who you see.

5. Don’t base your expected outcome off the first session.  As the patient, you are likely to be nervous, even if the counselor is likable.  Give it a chance.  Counseling is challenging.  See where it goes.

Again, this isn’t an exhaustive list, but keeping these things in mind will hopefully make the task of finding and choosing a counselor easier.

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