Mental Health Professionals – Who are they and how can they help your child?

People who suffer from mental illness are often reminded: “you are not alone.” It’s something that every child who suffers from mental illness or who has a disorder that negatively affects their life should hear. I think it’s also something parents should hear. There are dozens of people ready to sit in your corner, ready to help you with all of the tests, assessments, evaluations that a child with Learning Differences might need – and after diagnosis or after the evaluations, to help you with treatments, interventions, medication management, resource referrals . . . anything you might need to help your child with Learning Differences live a happier life. This list of mental health professionals is here for you to read, review and refer to whenever you need. The following list is non-exhaustive— there are always more people ready to help you— but this is a great place to start learning about all of the people who work in mental health and how they can help your child.

Mental Health Professionals in the Schools

Mental health professionals in schools are all tasked with the goal of improving academic success, reducing bullying, assessing their programs’ efficacy, and improving the school’s environment and programs to help students feel happy, safe, successful, and supported. Each of the following mental health professionals may at any point act as an advocate for the student, provide leadership to effect change in the school, or offer their expertise to create collaborative solutions for students who are facing adversity. It is important to know that the roles of each of these mental health professionals will vary depending on the school and district. Not every school will have their own school psychologist, social worker, or counselor on-site. Many schools will “share” a counselor, for example, meaning that the counselor spends specific days or times at different schools within the district to serve a large population of students.

School Psychologists

School psychologists work in schools to assess, evaluate, assist and counsel students. To become a school psychologist, one must earn an upper level degree in school psychology: typically an Education Specialist (EdS) or doctoral degree is required (PhD, PsyD, or EdD). Some schools may hire school psychologists who have obtained their master’s degree (MS or MA) and completed a minimum of 1,200 hours in an internship. By definition, the American Psychological Association only recognizes people with doctoral degrees in psychology as psychologists.”

School Social Workers

School social workers provide counseling (to individuals or small groups), crisis intervention, crisis prevention, and develop school-wide programs. Their job is to help students (especially those with social, psychological, or emotional difficulties) succeed academically by emphasizing home, school and community collaboration. School social workers typically hold a master’s degree in social work (MSW) but in rare cases may have a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW).

School Counselors

School counselors focus on academic, career/college and personal/social subjects while working with students. They, like school social workers, provide crisis intervention/prevention, develop school-wide programs, and counsel students. The majority of their time is spent counseling students, frequently one-on-one. In some schools, counselors will be more academic-focused and may refer students to the school social worker or school psychologist for mental health issues. School counselors are not as likely to participate in the IEP process as school social workers and school psychologists. If they do participate in the IEP meeting, they can provide helpful information about students’ strengths, interests, and career path. School counselors must possess at minimum a master’s degree in school counseling.

Therapists

Therapists are trained in psychological or physical methods used to help their patients/clients heal. There are numerous kinds of therapy and therapists may use one, two, or a combination of several methods to assist their clients. A therapist’s education will depend on the type of therapy/therapies they offer. Psychotherapy specifically deals with mental health. Since the list of psychotherapies is extensive, I won’t be able to list them here, but I recommend you read the National Institute of Mental Health’s (NIMH’s) article on psychotherapies. There are many psychotherapies available that are not listed by NIMH—when looking for the right therapist, you’ll find a little research intothe different therapies available can go a long way in finding the right treatment for your child.

Psychiatrists

Psychiatrists are trained physicians. They must complete medical school to become a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO). After medical school, physicians complete a residency in psychiatry, and additional training if they decide to take on a specialization. Child and adolescent psychiatrists must complete a two year fellowship program, for example. Other specializations include palliative medicine, developmental disability, forensic, neuropsychiatry, eating disorders, and more.

Psychiatrists are able to assess, evaluate, and diagnose mental illness or disorders. Psychiatrists are specifically trained to know which prescriptions may interact with other prescriptions, foods, or substances and it is in your child’s best interest to visit a psychiatrist if they need to take psychotropic medications. Psychiatrists are the only doctors that Learning Differences World recommends seeing for mental health medication management. We also recommend that you discuss any new medications (that your child’s primary care physician prescribes) with your child’s psychiatrist. Psychiatrists are well-versed in what reactions or side effects may occur when your child takes psychotropic medication, and they will do their best to keep your child safe and healthy while managing their medication. In rare instances, psychiatrists will also provide therapy to their clients.

Psychologists

Psychologists are described as any of a variety of mental health professionals who deal with psychological testing, diagnosis, therapy, behavior, and treatment of psychological disorders or mental problems, ranging from the mild to the severe.

Clinical and Counseling Psychologists

Clinical psychologists work with clients who have severe disorders or mental illness, while counseling psychologists work with clients who are dealing with more typical issues, like difficulty adapting to a new job or city, trouble recovering from a loss, etc. Clinical psychologists must hold a doctorate in psychology (PsyD or PhD) to practice unsupervised. Counseling psychologists may hold a doctorate in psychology (PhD) or a master’s degree in counseling (MA or MS). If state law allows, counseling psychologists who hold master’s degrees may practice psychology, but only under the supervision of a doctorate level psychologist.

Behavioral Psychologists

Behavioral psychologists study human behavior through experimental research. Some behavioral psychologists focus on academics and research, while others make use of the research to provide therapy for clients who want to change certain behavior(s). Behavioral psychologists can assisting parents and the IEP team in finding appropriate accommodatons, modifications, and placement. They must possess at least a doctoral level degree (PhD or PsyD).

Educational Psychologists

Educational psychologists focus on education at a broader level. Instead of focusing on individual students, educational psychologists focus on the organizational level and spend time researching educational theories and practices in order to improve students’ educational, emotional, and psychological well-being. Educational psychologists may also conduct program evaluations and work on program development. Educational psychologists may hold either a master’s degree (MA/MS in Educational Psychology) or doctoral degree (PhD, PsyD or EdD). As with any psychologist, private practitioners must hold a doctoral degree.

Psychiatric Nurses

Psychiatric Registered Nurses, also known as Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurses (PMHNs), Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs), or Psychiatric Mental Health Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (PMH-APRNs), provide assessments, diagnoses, and treatment to individuals or families dealing with mental illness. Psychiatric Nurses also provide therapy, guidance, education and advocacy. In some states, Advanced Practice Registered Nurses can even prescribe medication. In order to officially be a psychiatric nurse, a nurse with a diploma, associate degree or bachelor’s degree in nursing must also hold a master’s (MSN) or doctoral degree (PhD).

Social Workers

Clinical and Direct Service Social Workers

Clinical social workers evaluate mental illnesses and provide counseling or therapy. Clinical social workers are well-trained in mental illness and hold at least a master’s degree (Master of Social Work (MSW), Master of Science in Social Work (MSSW), or Master of Science in Social Administration (MSSA)). Direct service social workers provide counseling, but not therapy, and assist their clients in accessing services and care. A direct service social worker may hold a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) or a master’s level degree.

Behavior Analysts

Behavior analysts use experimental and applied behavior analysis to address behavioral issues and encourage development for children and adults with disabilities. They may also work with companies to increase employee satisfaction. Behavior analysts must hold at least a master’s degree in behavior analysis.

Mental Health Care Navigators

Mental health care navigators assist consumers/clients in applying for public benefits, provide education and information on the systems of care, and provide referrals to other community providers. They are your guides to the mental health care system. Mental health care navigators may be direct service social workers by education, meaning they may hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Editor’s Note: The roles of each mental health professional may vary slightly by state. Licensure may vary widely by state. If you are interested in learning more about licensing or board certification, we recommend researching your state’s regulations on mental health professions.

Related Reading & References

How to Choose a Therapist

Who Are School Psychologists?

Role of the School Counselor

School Social Workers’ Role

What Do Practicing Psychologists Do?

About Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurses

Clinical Social Work vs. Direct Services Social Work

About Behavior Analysis