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Mental health is a spectrum.
We might think of clinical mental illness when we hear "mental health," but that's just one part of it. On the other end is flourishing. In between are many experiences of mental health and degrees of feeling well or struggling.
At any given time, we might find ourselves at a different point along the spectrum. The vast majority aren't experiencing severe clinical disorders, but they also aren't well. Regardless of where we find ourselves, with support, we can learn skills to maintain or improve our well-being and benefit our mental health.
Every individual has a unique mental health journey up and down that spectrum. Just as the spectrum ranges in severity — so will the type of professional support. One thing we all share: our mental health affects our lives.
Let's take a look at some mental health facts:
- 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year
- 1 in 20 U.S. adults experience serious mental illness each year
- 1 in 6 US youth (ages 6-17) experience a mental health disorder each year
Working through your mental health journey can be challenging. But it’s not something you have to work through alone. On one hand, as with physical health, we can all engage with our own mental health. At the same time, as with physical health, sometimes you need to seek a professional for help with your mental health.
As you progress through your life journey, you might feel yourself going up and down that mental health spectrum. After all, your life experiences, challenges, and even successes can impact where you fall on the scale.
For example, during the pandemic, we saw the demand for mental services skyrocket. As people experienced heightened levels of stress and uncertainty, they turned to experts for help and guidance.
I’ve been going to therapy on and off since I was 16 years old. At certain points in my life, I needed some extra support to help push me through more challenging times. At other points, I felt myself pulling back from professional help. I felt better equipped to handle what life threw at me and saw my therapist less frequently.
Today, I still see a mental health professional regularly. I look at it like how I would exercise. I take good care of my body. Why wouldn’t I give my mind that same care?
Every mental health journey is different. And along that journey, you might find yourself in a place where you need the help of a mental health professional. But like mental health, mental health professionals don’t come in a one-size-fits-all box. And it takes getting to know the different types of care to learn how to take care of your mental health.
There are different types of mental health providers. Certain providers specialize in different things, like mental disorders or even types of therapy. Navigating the mental health field can feel intimidating. You might not know where to start or what type of provider is best for you.
Let’s get a better understanding of the different types of mental health professionals. We’ll also talk about what other supplemental support systems you can implement into your mental fitness plan.
What are mental health professionals?
Taking care of your mind is just as important as taking care of your body. While you’re responsible for keeping it fit and healthy, a diverse system of support can be extremely beneficial.
That’s where mental health professionals come in. A mental health professional is a licensed healthcare practitioner. Simply put, their purpose is to treat mental health disorders or improve an individual’s mental health.
Mental health professionals treat a range of conditions, disorders, and diagnoses. Dependent on your needs, you could work with one or more different types of mental health professionals.
6 types of mental health professionals
Mental health professionals range in their specialties and types of care. In many ways, the types of mental health professionals reflect the mental health spectrum and range of needs. Before you select a mental health professional, it’s important to understand what they do.
Whatever they specialize in, they share one common goal — to look after the mental health and well-being of their patients or clients. Let’s learn about some of the most common types of mental health professionals. The more you know, the easier it is to find who’s best suited to help you.
Therapy, assessment, and ongoing support
Psychologists evaluate a person’s mental health through interviews, psychological evaluations, and testing. They often provide both group and individual therapy — and usually hold a doctoral degree ( (Ph.D., Psy.D., Ed.D.).
Psychologists use “the science of psychology” to diagnose and treat their patients. This includes a wide range of mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders. A common form of therapy clinical psychologists use is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT helps people manage mood disorders like anxiety, depression, or eating disorders.
With their help, patients gain resilience and make positive changes in their lives.
Licensed clinical social workers
In the mental health field, licensed clinical social workers (LCSW) hold a master’s degree in social work (MSW). Their job is to diagnose and treat people with various conditions or addictions.
For example, some social workers help those struggling with bipolar disorder or anxiety. Others help treat substance addictions in rehabilitation centers during group therapy. Clinical social workers have experience working with individuals one-on-one or in support groups.
Counselors or therapists
These mental health professionals hold a master’s degree (M.S. or M.A.) in a mental health-related field. Some common fields include psychology, counseling psychology, marriage or family therapy, and more.
Dependent on the treatment setting, these experts operate under different job titles. Some titles include counselor, clinician, or therapist. They also might hold different licenses and certifications, dependent on their specialty. Some examples include marriage and family therapy or substance abuse.
Counselors or therapists help patients overcome different forms of mental and emotional distress. This includes obstacles like relationship issues and other life challenges. For example, a mental health counselor may help you process grief and overcome a loss. Talk therapy is common with their clients.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors or doctors of medicine (M.D, D.O). Psychiatry is a specialty focused on diagnosing, preventing, and treating psychological and behavioral disorders.
They can also prescribe medications to treat more severe conditions. Some mental health conditions psychiatrists treat include PTSD, schizophrenia, and insomnia.
Some psychiatrists choose to focus on a specific field. A child psychiatrist helps children with learning disabilities, ADHD, or mood disorders.
Primary care physicians
While primary care physicians (PCP) and pediatricians are medical doctors (M.D. or DO), they don’t specialize in mental health care. However, they can prescribe mental health medication.
For example, your primary care doctor could prescribe medication while you’re working with a counselor or therapist. Your PCP and trained mental health professional should work together when assembling the best treatment plan for you.
Psychiatric or mental health nurse practitioners
Psychiatric or mental health nurse practitioners hold an M.S. or Ph.D., dependent on their specialized focus in psychiatry. These mental health experts provide assessments, diagnoses, and therapy to their patients. Dependent on the state, they can also prescribe medication.
Supplemental mental fitness support
On top of mental health support, you might be looking for ways to improve your mental fitness. Our mental fitness is there to help us help ourselves no matter what life throws at us. These professionals are not substitutes for mental health professionals for clinical care, but they can be complementary. Lean on the trained professionals below as a supplemental support system in your mental health journey.
BetterUp Care™ counselors are licensed mental health professionals but don’t offer clinical care. They help people learn the skills to strengthen their mental fitness and feel more empowered to engage in their own mental health.
That includes developing the awareness and self-efficacy — and receiving the guidance and support — to seek additional professional help as needed. This type of coaching seeks to equip folks to understand how they are feeling and why — to learn their own operating system. Then, coaching comes into the mix to work through the ebbs and flows.
Coaching is a well-being intervention. It’s tailored to each individual’s needs, lifestyle, and preferences. A certified coach works with you one-on-one to improve your mental health, reduce stress, and strengthen your resilience
While coaching can benefit mental health, it should be seen more as a proactive, performance-oriented activity that can occur in parallel to professional therapy or counseling. This is especially true if you suffer from chronic or severe mental health conditions.
4 factors to consider when choosing a mental health professional
Choosing a qualified mental health professional can be intimidating, especially if it’s your first time seeking help. To simplify this process, we’ve put together a list of factors to consider during your search.
Your conditions or needs
Seeking help starts with understanding what you need. And it’s OK if you don’t know what you need help with just yet.
Try to think through your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Sometimes, it can help to journal and write about your feelings. From there, you might be able to determine what areas of your mental health you’d like to focus on.
For example, you might feel increased stress, anxiety, and feelings of uncertainty. But you feel confident you don’t need medication or clinical intervention.
If you’ve previously received a mental health diagnosis, you might feel you need some help coping with your condition. Talk with your doctor or health care professional to assess your current state of well-being. If you’re struggling with substance use, an addiction counselor can help you with addiction-related issues.
Whether you need medication
Not all mental health issues require medication. And not all mental health practitioners can prescribe it.
This is a difficult factor to determine on your own. But a trained mental health professional will likely be able to make an assessment. From there, they can determine whether or not they’d recommend medicine. Consider if you’ve taken medication before.
Your primary care physician (PCP) is always a good starting place for an assessment. From there, your PCP should be able to serve as a connection point to other trained professionals in the mental health field. They might also be able to help with referrals.
Your health insurance coverage
Your coverage may have a specific list of covered providers and a cap on how much you can claim.
We know access to mental health resources can be a challenge. You can lean on organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or Alcoholics Anonymous to help you. Often, their services are of no cost to the individual.
If you prefer face-to-face counseling, you’ll want to choose a mental health professional that’s close by. Otherwise, virtual therapy and text therapy are convenient and accessible ways to speak to a therapist without the need to meet in person.
Counseling vs. pyschotherapy
People often use the terms counselor and psychotherapy interchangeably. But while there are some similarities, there are significant differences between the two.
Understanding how the two areas of mental health therapy differ is helpful for those who are looking for support.
Scope of treatment
In the mental health field, both counselors and psychotherapists are mental health professionals. However, counseling focuses on treating specific situations that an individual is presently dealing with.
This can be anything from a difficult divorce or the loss of a loved one. A grief counselor, for instance, offers advice and teaches someone who has experienced a significant loss in their life how to cope.
Psychotherapy goes much deeper than that. It focuses on helping an individual understand their behavioral patterns and how past events shaped these.
Once a psychotherapist uncovers the root cause of a person’s issue, they can work on creating lasting change and personal growth. You may want to see a psychotherapist when you’re coping with past trauma or have recurring issues.
Length of treatment
Counseling focuses on short-term treatment. It typically lasts for several weeks and up to six months. Since psychotherapy is a lot more in-depth, it’s usually a long-term, continuous treatment that can take place over many years.
Background and education
There can also be differences in a counselor’s and psychotherapist’s training and education.
To become licensed, a professional counselor needs to complete a master’s program in counseling. But they typically don’t have medical training. Without a medical background, they can’t prescribe medication or diagnose mental health disorders.
Some psychotherapists, such as psychiatrists, finished medical school. They’re able to diagnose and prescribe medication if needed. Their training also allows them to use forms of therapy (like CBT) during their treatment.
4 ways a mental health professional can help you
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the conversation around mental health to the forefront. But it’s also exacerbated many already-existing mental health issues for many people. As the stigma surrounding mental health is reducing, seeking support is becoming normal.
Here’s how a mental health professional can improve your mental health and wellness.
Struggling with a mental health issue alone is difficult and isolating.
A mental health provider can support you through a difficult period in your life, so you don’t have to carry a heavy burden alone.
An expert teaches you the strategies to navigate and overcome negative behaviors or thought patterns. They can also put together treatment plans catered to your specific needs.
It can be something as simple as recommending the right nutrition to support your mental health. In other cases, it can involve more sophisticated therapy methods and specialized training.
For example, a psychologist can use a form of CBT called cognitive restructuring. Using this method, they can help you identify and reshape negative thought patterns.
Reduced risk of other issues
We know that mental health and physical health are intrinsically linked. When your mental health suffers, it’s likely your physical health is also taking a hit. Untreated issues or disorders can escalate and cause harmful medical issues.
Improved personal relationships
Therapy (individual or group) improves your communication skills and helps you become more self-aware. These skills help you form stronger and healthier relationships with those around you.
As you become more self-aware, you’ll be better equipped to have difficult conversations. You might be better at detecting your automatic thoughts. And with help from your therapist, you can navigate challenging situations better than before.
The importance of taking good care of your mental health
A person with a healthy mental state is likely more resilient to stress and anxiety. They can also make better decisions. People who are healthy mentally can maintain more meaningful relationships. Ultimately, taking care of your mental health can lead to a more fulfilling life.
Poor mental health doesn't only affect you. It’s contagious. New research has found that it can negatively affect the mental state and behaviors of those you spend your time with.
Reach out to a mental health professional
Navigating the mental health field can be intimidating.
But the most courageous thing you can do for yourself is asking for help. Regardless of where you are on the mental health spectrum, everyone needs support to build strong mental fitness.
Finding the right mental health professional is important if you want to get the most out of your sessions. A good therapeutic relationship can be as powerful as the treatment.
Mental health professionals are here to help you improve your mental health. They want to help people — and they want to see people succeed.
But it’s important to fully understand the field so you can make an informed decision around what will fulfill your needs. It also requires understanding the type of mental health support you're looking for.
At BetterUp, we provide individual coaching focused on improving your mental health and well-being. With the right resources, tools, and professional mental health support, you can reach your fullest potential.
Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.