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In the world of counseling and psychology, there are a multitude of terms for people who study, research and provide therapy relating to the mind, behavior and emotions.  

A Mental Health Professional (MHP) is one who focuses on the mental and emotional health of his or her clients.  There are a number of terms that refer to practitioners in this line of work.  "Therapist", "psychotherapist" and "counselor" are terms that are essentially synonymous.  In most states they refer to people who have undertaken a postgraduate, masters degree in a field that prepares them to providing counseling to individuals, couples or families.   Differences occur in the legal definition from state to state.  Most states require specific coursework and supervised counseling experience to be licensed either in individual counseling, or to work with couples and families.  Social workers and teachers can also be licensed to provide counseling due to the related content of their studies.  Again, licensure is different from state to state, so it is wise to research the requirements in your state if you are unsure about a practitioner’s qualifications.

The term psychologist in its broadest sense is used to refer to anyone with postgraduate education in the field of psychology or counseling.  As above, it can also refer to teachers, consultants, social workers and others working in the mental health field.  However, Psychologist is also a legal title used here in America to refer to one who has doctorate level training, and has passed other state licensure requirements. Licensed psychologists have generally earned a Ph.D., Psy.D. or Ed.D.  Psychiatrists are physicians who have earned an M.D. or a D.O.  Psychiatrists generally use psychoactive drugs as their main treatment, whereas psychologists generally spend more time with their clients assessing and treating many cognitive, emotional and behavioral factors.

As our understanding of the body, the mind, and the human community progresses, we are coming (back) to the realization of the interconnected nature of all aspects of our being.  The physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, social and environmental levels of human existence all impact each other in a complex web, which is at its foundation, a unity.  An MPH pays particular attention to mental, emotional, behavioral and social factors in one’s health.  The methods that an MHP uses can be quite varied.  Some focus on exploring issues from childhood that may relate to the present complaint, while others focus on here and now interactions (in truth, most will be cognizant of both).  Some practitioners provide body-oriented therapy, others support emotion expression, perhaps through dialogue or artwork, and still others may focus on thoughts or behaviors.  Occasionally, an MHP will develop an expertise in certain areas of concern (i.e. grief, depression, anxiety, relationships, ADHD) or on a particular population (i.e. children, couples, families, individuals).

Studies have shown that the particular orientation of the practitioner is not as important as the relationship formed between the MHP and the client.  An effective relationship is characterized by trust, empathy, congruence and an optimistic view of the individual to overcome their difficulties.  It is important to give yourself time to see if a particular MHP is a good fit for your needs.  Finding someone you can speak openly with and who has a style that makes sense to you is essential.  Effective and upstanding MHPs are willing and able to hear and address your ongoing feedback as it relates to both the methods and philosophy they are employing as well as the relationship itself.  The experience of effective therapy may at times be uncomfortable and disorienting, but ultimately becomes validating, empowering and encouraging.

Author: Michael Byrne, ND

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