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Introduction to Mental Health Professions

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Many people confronting mental illness for the first time fall back on (often quite inaccurate) preconceptions about what mental illness is, what sort of treatment is available, and who does the treating. The most common scenario I've encountered is one in which people think that mental illness involves hallucinations and delusions (e.g., that mental illness reduces to schizophrenia), and that it is treated primarily by medical doctors in corduroy coats (with leather arm patches, beards and pipes) who offer some variation on Freudian analysis as treatment. This scenario was actually a little accurate thirty years ago, but it resembles little having to do with reality today.

Mental Health treatment in the 21st century generally involves a coordination amongst several healthcare professionals drawn from different disciplines. While medical doctors still run the show (in the form of Psychiatrists), their role has typically diminished to that of diagnostician and prescriber of medication (and the occasional assessment and/or ECT). Clinical Psychologists are often called upon to handle assessment work (psychological and cognitive testing), as well as psychotherapy. Social workers increasingly offer psychotherapy services as well. A host of related professionals, (licensed counselors specializing in substance abuse, marital and family therapy, etc.) now exist as well and handle many psychotherapy tasks. And lest we forget, psychiatric nurses are still around too, handling much of the hands-on work involved in inpatient hospital care. All in all there are many fields now involved in mental health treatment.

We've created this Mental Health Professionals topic area to help you learn about the different mental health professions we've touched on above. Whether you are looking to understand your therapists' credentials better, or are wondering about a career in mental health treatment, this information is helpful to know about.