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Finding the Right Helper: The Differences Between Mental Health Professionals

Feeling emotionally stuck but not sure who to reach out to? Maybe you’re finding it difficult to connect socially with others; maybe you’re struggling in your relationship or with drug or alcohol abuse. You may be experiencing anxiety or depression. Or maybe you simply want to be proactive about your upcoming wedding and hope that premarital work will help you start the next chapter off strong.

Wherever you are, there is help. In fact, there is a world of professional helpers out there so you don’t have to go it alone. But as some clients have shared with me, it can be hard to know what all the letters behind someone’s name mean and whether they can really help. There are psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, social workers, marriage and family therapists, career coaches, executive coaches … the list goes on!

As a licensed clinical professional counselor and career coach, I’d like to break a few things down for you to consider when looking for help to help make finding the right fit a little easier.

First, let’s get a bit more clarity on the types of helping professional out there.

Talk therapy

A licensed counselor (LCPC), social worker (LCSW), marriage and family therapist (LMFT), or psychologist (PsyD) are all qualified to provide talk therapy. Talk therapy is also synonymous with psychotherapy or counseling, where the client expresses their thoughts and feelings to a therapist who can guide them in gaining more insight, self-awareness, and coping strategies to reach the client’s goals around well-being. (The American Psychological Association has helpful information in this article about some of the basic differences between these professions.)


A psychologist has a masters degree as well as a doctoral degree. You may see M.A., PhD, PsyD, or EdD behind their name. A psychologist is able to prescribe medication in certain states but primarily does talk therapy.

Social worker

A social worker will have a two-year masters degree focused on human behavior, psychotherapy, and community resources, plus two to three years of supervised clinical work. You will see the letters MSW or LCSW behind their name (or something similar, depending on the state). Social workers do not prescribe medication.

Licensed counselor

A licensed clinical professional counselor is similar to a social worker in that they also have a two-year masters degree focused on human behavior, psychotherapy, and community resources. You will see the letters LCPC behind their name, depending on the state. Licensed mental health counselors do not prescribe medication.

Marriage and family therapist

A licensed marriage and family therapist is also similar to a social worker and licensed counselor in education with a two-year masters degree. You will see the letters MFT behind their name, and they too provide talk therapy. They do not prescribe medication.

All of these licensures fall under the umbrella of therapy, and each may have a subspecialty. You will want to check a provider’s background, education, and training to determine what they treat and what client populations they serve. Some therapists only work with individuals, some only work with couples, and some work with families and groups. Some therapists may have a specialty in trauma, grief and loss, eating disorders, mood disorders, or other areas. Most providers offer a free consultation call to determine if working together is a good fit, so this may be a first step in your research.

To find a therapist, you can ask for a referral from your doctor, family, and friends, or you can go through your insurance company’s website for providers for whose services you can get reimbursement. (If you decide to use an out-of-network provider, you can usually submit a statement for partial reimbursement. Check with your insurance company to see what they cover.) Psychology Today is another great resource for providers in your area.

Medication evaluation

When talk therapy isn’t enough, medication may be necessary as part of your treatment plan. Medication coupled with psychotherapy can make for very effective care. For a medication evaluation, you can ask your therapist for a referral to a psychiatrist or look through your insurance company to find a list of names.


A psychiatrist goes to medical school and focuses on biological functioning, mental illness, and medications. A psychiatrist primarily prescribes medications. A primary care doctor or nurse practitioner can also prescribe medication for mental health. When possible, it is best to have an evaluation by a psychiatrist who can do a thorough evaluation of mental health and guide medication management.


If what you have read so far doesn’t feel like what you need, or you are looking for more specific guidance related to your career, leadership, or life skills, consider working with a coach.

Life coach

A life coach is different from a therapist as they may coach on more specific topics like business or career and act more as a cheerleader as you move forward. Coaching is regulated by the International Coaching Federation, and coaches have varying levels of education. Life coaches do not guide emotional processing of past experiences or mental health issues, so when in doubt, consult a therapist first.

Career coach

A career coach is trained to collaborate with you in reaching your career goals. You may want to pivot to a new career and work with a career coach around self-exploration, job search strategy, and interview preparation. A career coach may have training from various programs that are aligned with the National Career Development Association.

Executive coach

An executive coach works with leaders and emerging leaders to help them gain new leadership insights and strategies. While therapy may be beneficial in gaining new insight and enhancing emotional intelligence in the process, coaches focus on solutions and help to empower the client towards action. Executive coaches will also have training from various programs, so check into their background before working with them.

Now that you know what kind of helpers are out there, you can begin looking for the right person to help you move forward with more confidence. While there are many options, it’s important to reach out to a few people for a consultation call to see if they’re a good fit. Consider on your call a few questions:

  1. Do they treat your issue?

  2. Do you feel heard on the call?

  3. Does the therapist or coach ask you questions to understand if it’s a good fit?

  4. Does the therapist or coach seem present without distractions?

Once you have chosen a helping professional, consider how you feel in the first few sessions. It can take time to build trust with someone you don’t know, so ask yourself if you feel you are in a warm and inviting space. If it’s not a fit, then find someone else and don’t give up. Keep going until you find someone with whom you feel heard and understood.

Therapy or coaching is an investment of resources and energy. You don’t have all the answers when you start. But if you stay open to the process and show up over time, you will begin to feel differently and see transformation over time. You’re worth investing in, so start reaching out to a couple of professionals, ask questions, and get the support that will help you reach your goals.

Originally published in Verily Mag

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