When there are so many different types of mental health professionals, it can be tricky to know who does what. By learning about the differences between doctors, counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrists, youth workers, social workers, occupational therapists, peer workers and mental health nurses, you'll be better placed in choosing the right one/s for you.
Different types of mental health professionals
People study and train for years in different areas of mental health so that they can help you work through difficult stuff that might be going on in your life. Here’s a few of the main types of mental health professionals.
Doctors/general practitioners (GP) are usually the first point of contact for seeking any type of help. A GP can diagnose health problems, as well as recognise symptoms of mental health difficulties that you might be experiencing. A GP can refer you to a mental health professional if you need one. They can also write a Mental Health Treatment Plan or other GP referral for you, so that you can see other mental health professionals under Medicare where possible. (This means you pay less, or maybe nothing at all, for your mental health treatment.)
Counsellors are trained professionals who can help solve your personal problems. Counsellors will listen while you describe what’s going on for you, and help you figure out some options to deal with your issues. They can also help you find a more helpful way of thinking about or tackling your challenges.
Psychologists and clinical psychologists treat mental health disorders and can help you deal with the challenges in your life. Psychologists have specialist training in treating and preventing mental health problems so that you can get on with your life. They often specialise in different areas, and in different approaches, so sometimes you may have to meet a few psychologists before you find the right person for your situation. Read our article on how to choose the right mental health professional for more info.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors with specialised training in mental health issues. They can diagnose and treat mental health disorders such as depression, severe anxiety, eating disorders, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. They can decide whether you need medication as part of your treatment, and are able to prescribe it for you.
Youth workers are specially trained in the practical life issues young people face, such as school and education, sexual health, finding accommodation, drug use problems, or being a young parent. Their job is to help you get your life back on track, by providing you with the information and skills you need to succeed. They usually work with young people aged 12 to 25.
Social workers help individuals, families and communities deal with challenges to their social, physical and mental wellbeing. They provide professional support for issues such as family welfare, employment, mental health, violence, disabilities and drug abuse. They can offer you practical support, referrals to other services, counselling, information and emotional support. They can be found in or through community centres, hospitals, Centrelink, housing services, private practice and the court system. An Accredited Mental Health Social Worker (AMHSW) is a health professional who is trained in assessment and treatment of mental health issues.
Mental health nurses are registered nurses who hold graduate qualifications in mental health and care for patients who are experiencing mental illness. Mental health nurses work with you to help you manage your life and work towards recovery, however that looks for you. Mental health nurses work in places such as community mental health services, psychiatric hospitals, mental health units in hospitals, and in private practices.
Peer workers are trained mental health professionals who have their own experience of mental health issues and recovery. This allows them to make a strong connection with those going through similar mental health challenges. By sharing their own experiences, they can help you feel more empowered and know you’re not alone. Peer support recognises that we all learn and grow from each other, and that support isn’t a one way street. Peer workers are found in many different types of mental health services.
Occupational therapists (OTs) who work in mental health may be able to help you develop coping strategies and build confidence and independence. They can also help you manage stress and difficult emotions, develop communication skills and work with you to structure daily life activities. Occupational therapists work in hospitals, community health centres, private practices, schools and universities and other human services.
While these are some of the more common mental health professionals, there are others you may come across too.
How do I find a mental health professional?
Not sure how to find the person you need to talk to? A visit to your GP is always a great place to start. You can also try ReachOut NextStep to receive anonymous and personalised support options.
How do I know which mental health professional is right for me?
Seeing a GP will help you identify which mental health professional is the right fit for you. For example, if you have a mental health disorder, a psychologist and/or psychiatrist might be best, but if you need help with an external life issue, a social worker or youth worker may be a better fit. See our article on how to choose the right mental health professional for more tips.
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