Much like mental health itself, the mental health field is exceedingly confusing to navigate.
There are dozens of different avenues for professionals interested in helping those who suffer with emotional, psychological and behavioral disorders, and it seems that many potential careers overlap significantly. Such is the case with counseling, psychology and psychiatry.
So, if you are interested in helping clients sort through problems and maintain proper mental health, which path should you choose?
This guide will explain the differences – and similarities – among counseling, psychology and psychiatry, so you can better determine the right career for you.
At the most fundamental level, counselors strive to foster strength and wellness in individuals and relationships by helping clients tackle problems that might impact their mental health and overall well-being.
However, unlike the other professionals described below, counselors often do not employ psychotherapy to understand issues and generate treatments; rather, counselors utilize counseling techniques, or “talk therapy,” to discuss problems and work with clients to overcome them.
Counseling requires gentle guidance, as opposed to direct advice or medication, to lead clients to answers that cultivate a healthier mindset and lifestyle.
Every mental health professional on this list is required to complete advanced education. Still, counselors see the most direct route through education to practice: They require only a master’s degree in counseling or therapy – as well as licensing in most states – to qualify for clients.
Often, advanced counseling programs offer specializations built-in, for example a masters in school counseling online prepares students for working with students who might be struggling academically, financially and/or emotionally.
You might also consider specializations such as marriage and family, rehabilitation, substance abuse, grief and mental health.
Ultimately, counseling should be your first choice if you are eager to enter the field of mental health as soon as possible. You might also prefer counseling if you want to help clients work through issues via discussion as opposed to testing or drugs.
In truth, psychology is a broad field of study that offers dozens of different professions; clinical psychology is the practice of utilizing the theories of psychology to improve patients’ mental health.
Clinical psychologists have the same responsibilities as counselors – to address mental and behavioral problems so clients can cultivate an overall sense of well-being and stability – but they have more authority to administer psychological tests and communicate with other medical professionals regarding treatment strategies.
Most often, psychologists employ some form of psychotherapy, which tends to ignore discrete problems to identify destructive patterns and chronic issues in patients’ lives. The goal for psychologists is usually to resolve past traumas and built stronger foundations for the future.
To practice as a clinical psychologist, you need at least a Ph.D. in psychology or a Doctor of Psychology, both of which require several years of advanced study and research.
It is possible to find psychology jobs with merely a master’s degree, but your ability to treat patients will be highly limited. Additionally, all states require clinical psychologists to have state licenses, which is obtained after passing an exam.
Psychology is an ideal choice if you are primarily interested in how the human mind works.
With an advanced degree in psychology, you can become a clinical psychologist, but you can also participate in cutting-edge research on psychological phenomena and treatment methods. Thus, this path provides access to more than one profession in mental health.
Unlike counselors and psychologists, whose advanced study is wholly targeted at understanding the brain and developing strategies to help clients establish mental health, psychiatrists are medical doctors at heart.
Psychiatrists are M.D.s, meaning they graduated from medical school and have a better grasp of human biology and anatomy than the other mental health professionals on this list.
Though many of them study psychology and gain experience with psychotherapy techniques and treatments, psychiatrists are the only professionals in mental health qualified to prescribe medications across the U.S., so they most often work with patients suffering from relatively severe mental health troubles, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Psychiatrists must first obtain their medical degree and then complete a one-year internship program and three years of specialized training in psychiatry.
You might be interested in becoming a psychiatry if you are drawn to the prestige of the medical field or if you believe pharmacotherapy provides the best opportunities for mental health.