Not All Therapists are Created Equal: What You Need to Know about Mental Health Providers

difference between mental health specialists

As a psychologist, the worst feeling ever is when people tell me they had a bad experience with a therapist (insert sad face emoji). However, every time I dig a little deeper into these stories, what I usually find, is that these “therapists” aren’t really therapists at all.


There are a lot of terms out there to describe mental health professionals and it seems everyone has a million letters after their name. If you don’t know what they all mean, it is easy to see the wrong person for the wrong thing. I will also note that the media isn’t doing us any favors. You know those doctor shows where people go sit on a couch and do talk therapy with their psychiatrist? Yea, that’s all wrong! UUgghhh!  And since I know ain’t nobody got time to be looking up all these terms, consider this your quick and easy guide to who you should see, and for what.


If you are considering therapy, you pretty much have two options, Doctorate level and Masters level clinicians.



Title: Licensed Psychologist

Credentials: PhD, PsyD, or EdD

Possible Aliases: Clinical/Counseling Psychologist, Forensic Psychologist, Sports Psychologist, Child Psychologist, School Psychologist, Rehabilitation Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, or Neuropsychologist.

Training: Minimum of 4-6 years of graduate school, 1 year professional internship, 3,000 hours of supervised practice, and must pass national and sometimes local state exams.

What they do: Psychologists are the experts in the field and are knowledgeable of the best available research on the treatment and prevention of mental illness. They help people cope more effectively with life stressors through individual, group, couples, or family therapy.

Frequency & Duration Visits: Weekly or every other week for 45 – 90 minutes.


Title: Psychiatrist  

Credentials: MD or DO


Possible Aliases: Most all psychiatrists refer to themselves as such, but recognized specialties include, addiction, child psychiatry, neurophysiology, forensic psychiatry, geriatric psychiatry, and pain medicine.

Training: 4 years of medical school, a minimum of 4 additional years of psychiatry residency, and must pass an examination for a state license. Most psychiatrists also take a voluntary examination to become a "board certified" psychiatrist.

What they do: Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in the brain and medications that impact our overall mental health. They typically do not do talk therapy. Instead, they focus on diagnosis and medication management. While you can sometimes get prescriptions for antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications from your primary care physician, psychiatrists are the experts in the field. They will often work in collaboration with your physician, psychologist, or counselor to give you the best wrap around care.

Frequency & Duration Visits: Weekly until an effective medication regimen is established, and then it is more common to check in monthly. The first appointment may be 30 – 60 minutes, and subsequent appointments are usually around 15 minutes.   



Title: Counselor  

Credentials: LCSW, LMFT, LEP, LPCC

Possible Aliases: Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Marriage and Family Therapist, Licensed Professional Counselor, or Educational Psychologist.

Training: Up to 2 years of graduate school, 3,000 hours of supervised therapy practice, and must pass national and sometimes local state exams.

What they do: Counselors help individuals in need improve their quality of life through individual, group, couples, and family therapy. They are often experts at identifying local resources and act as advocates for their clients. They may work separately or in collaboration with psychologists and psychiatrists.  

Frequency & Duration Visits: Weekly or every other week for 45 – 90 minutes.


Lastly, while it is super trendy to have a coach right now, let me be clear (in my best Obama voice)… coaches are NOT a recognized specialty of any mental health profession!  A therapist can market themselves as a coach, but if the person does not have one of the aforementioned degrees and a license, you should not be seeing them for help with your mental health, period!


As a consumer, you should know that there are no regulations on the term “coach.” So literally, anyone can call themselves a coach. So, then does that mean all coaches are quacks? No, it just means they are not mental health professionals! I actually employ a business coach who is ahhh-mazing! You also might consider a financial coach, or a weight-loss coach (who might also be a nutritionist), or maybe you just want someone to motivate you to reach a goal you have been putting off? Those are all good reasons to hire a coach. However, if you are dealing with emotional distress you should be seeing a psychologist, psychiatrist, or counselor.  


References: American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, Association of Social Work Boards

Taisha Caldwell-Harvey

Dr. Tai is a licensed psychologist and the founder of, The Black Girl Doctor. She also works as an analyst who identifies best practices in mental health for the University of California system in all 10 campuses.
What she’s most passionate about: Helping people of color learn to dream bigger, reach higher, and achieve excellence.
Her Clever Girl Super Power: Mesmerizing people with their own beauty.
Keep up with her over at