Mental Health Specialists at a Glance
An overview of mental health specialists and what they do
If you’re seeking help for a child who’s struggling, you may find yourself faced with a bewildering range of different mental health professionals. It can be challenging to understand what skills each has to offer, how their training is different, and which might be right for your child. Here we go through a list of specialists and focus on what their areas of expertise are, how they are trained and licensed, and what services they offer.
Psychiatrist: A psychiatrist is a medical doctor, or MD, who is trained to diagnose and treat psychiatric disorders. General psychiatrists treat adults but some choose to diagnose and treat children with psychiatric disorders as well, including prescribing medication, and psychotherapy. General psychiatrists are fully qualified if they have completed national examinations that make them “board certified” in general psychiatry.
Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist: Child and adolescent psychiatrists are MDs who are fully trained in general psychiatry and then have at least 2 more years of training focused solely on psychiatric disorders arising in childhood and adolescence, including developmental disorders. Child and adolescent psychiatrists are skilled at diagnosis, prescribing medication, and psychotherapy. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists (AACAP) allows parents to search its members with its psychiatrist finder. Child and adolescent psychiatrists are fully qualified if they have completed national examinations that make them “board certified” in child and adolescent psychiatry as well as general psychiatry.
Psychopharmacologist: A psychopharmacologist is a medical doctor who specializes in the use of psychoactive medications in order to affect mood, feelings, cognition, and behavior. A psychopharmacologist is a psychiatrist who focuses on the use of medications in treating psychiatric disorders, but he should know when other kinds of therapy should be integrated with medication in the treatment plan, and be able to either offer it or refer patients to other professionals for that therapy.
Pediatric Psychopharmacologist: A pediatric psychopharmacologist is a child and adolescent psychiatrist who has extra training, skills and experience in the use of medication in the treatment of children and adolescents with psychiatric disorders. Most often, this will not be the only form of treatment recommended for a patient, and this clinician will either provide that additional treatment or else refer and coordinate that additional care.
Psychologist: Psychologists are trained to diagnose and treat psychiatric disorders, but they are not medical doctors (MDs) so they cannot prescribe medication. A psychologist usually has a doctoral level degree and may hold either a PhD or a PsyD. During the course of psychology training, a psychologist may specialize in a particular area such as child psychology. After completing the doctorate, a child psychologist does at least one year of supervised clinical work or “internship,” in order to qualify for licensure; this may or may not be in a child mental health setting. The most highly trained psychologists do additional post-doctoral training in their area of specialization. Psychologists who have passed national proficiency exams are certified by the American Board of Professional Psychologists or “ABPP.”
Psychologists with PhDs do graduate training for 5-8 years in both clinical psychology and research. They are trained as both scientists and clinicians, and are often involved in clinical studies. Psychologists with a PsyD generally complete 4 years of graduate training focused on clinical techniques, including testing and treatment.
The American Psychological Association (APA) maintains a database of members. You can narrow your search by the ages each practitioner serves and her area of expertise. Psychologists may utilize several forms of cognitive behavioral therapy tailored to specific disorders, such as exposure and response prevention for OCD, and parent-child interaction therapy for disruptive behavior disorders. Because these treatments involve evidence-tested techniques, it’s important to make sure the practitioner you choose has training and experience with the treatment she is recommending. Psychiatrists and psychologists often work together to provide care to patients who benefit from a combination of medication and cognitive behavioral therapy.
Neuropsychologist: Neuropsychologists are psychologists who specialize in the functioning of the brain and how it relates to behavior and cognitive ability. Most have completed post-doctoral training in neuropsychology. They may have either a PhD or a PsyD. Pediatric neuropsychologists have done post-doctoral training in testing and evaluation. They perform neuropsychological assessments, which measure a child’s strengths and weaknesses over a broad range of cognitive tasks, and they provide parents with a report that highlights those cognitive strengths and weakness, and forms the basis for developing a treatment plan. The report also serves as evidence for requesting school accommodations, and as a baseline for measuring whether interventions are effective. Neuropsychologists also work one-on-one with children struggling in school, to help them devise learning strategies to build on their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses. Neuropsychologists who have passed national proficiency exams are certified by the American Board of Professional Psychologists-Neuropsychology or “ABPP-N.” The American Association of Clinical Neuropsychology maintains a list of members.
School Psychologist: School psychologists are trained in psychology and education and receive a Specialist in School Psychology (SSP) degree. They can identify learning and behavior problems, evaluate students for special education services, and support social, emotional, and behavioral health. The National Association of School Psychologists has more information.
Social Worker: A licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) has a master’s degree in social work and is licensed by state agencies. LCSW’s are required to have significant supervised training and expertise in clinical psychotherapy. The training must be approved by state licensing boards, which maintain a public list of all LCSWs. Some social workers in clinical practice may also have a doctorate degree in social work, but this is not a substitute for a clinical license.
LCSW’s do not prescribe medication, but often work with the family and the treating physician to coordinate care. In a school setting, they often offer support for children with behavioral issues and the teachers who work with them. The National Association of Social Workers provides tools for locating help.
Counselor: A licensed professional counselor (LPC) is a graduate level (master’s, education specialist, or doctoral degree) mental health service provider who works with individuals, families and groups in treating emotional and behavioral problems. Counselors are trained to evaluate, diagnose, develop treatment plans and offer therapeutic services. In school settings counselors are often the first to be alerted to student mental health and/or learning challenges and are often the central point of contact for school staff involved in an individual case. The American Counseling Association has more information.
Psychotherapist: This is a term used loosely to describe someone who practices some form of talk therapy for mental illness. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers all use the term psychotherapy to describe what they do. But since “psychotherapist” is a self-designated term in America, not everyone who is called a “psychotherapist” or “therapist” is credentialed, has relevant experience, or is even trained in their stated area of work. (However, psychotherapy is a regulated profession in several provinces in Canada, where it is illegal for anyone who is not a registered psychotherapist to use the term “psychotherapy” to describe their work.) If you’re considering seeing someone who is labeled as a psychotherapist, make sure to ask what training he had, whether he is licensed, and what kind of treatment he offers.
Pediatrician: Pediatricians are physicians who specialize in treating children and adolescents. They have 3 years of training after medical school and are typically the first professional a parent consults when concerned that a child may have a psychiatric or learning problem. As medical doctors, pediatricians are allowed to prescribe all medications, but they may have little or no training in psychiatric disorders, and limited experience with psychotropic medications. They may also have inadequate time to spend with each patient to do careful diagnostic assessment and regular monitoring of a child’s progress. Some pediatricians practice in networks that enable them to consult with a specialist or invite a specialist to take over a child’s treatment. Parents who are not comfortable with the care available from their pediatrician (or whose pediatrician is not comfortable treating their child) should seek out a specialist—if medication is involved, a child and adolescent psychiatrist. Pediatricians also do medical testing that can be important in ruling out possible non-psychiatric causes of troubling symptoms.
Developmental and behavioral pediatricians: Developmental and behavioral pediatricians are pediatric sub-specialists who have completed 2 additional years of training in evaluating and treating developmental and behavioral problems, and hence may offer both more expertise and more experience than a general pediatrician when it comes to children with developmental disorders, though they may not have training in psychiatry and expertise in psychotropic medications. The Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics has a list of clinicians.
Neurologist: A neurologist is a medical doctor who specializes in disorders of the nervous system—which, of course, includes the brain. Neurologists can identify nervous system causes of some worrying symptoms and aid in the treatment of neurological and neurodevelopmental disorders including cerebral palsy and epilepsy.
Pediatric Neurologist: Child neurologists complete 5 years of training and clinical experience in pediatrics and pediatric neurology after medical school. Pediatric neurologists specialize in the treatment of neurodevelopmental disorders, including intellectual disability, Tourette’s, ADHD, and learning disabilities. The Child Neurology Society maintains an online resource.
Pediatric Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner: Nurse practitioners have advanced degrees, either a master’s or a doctorate, and can prescribe medication. A pediatric psychiatric nurse practitioner has training in treating and monitoring children and adolescents with psychiatric disorders. Some work as part of a team in a pediatricians’ office; some practice independently. The American Academy of Nurse Practitioners has a tool for locating its membership.