Mental health is just as important as physical health to a child's well-being.

Mental health is just as important as physical health to a child's well-being.

What are the differences between different types of therapists – psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, family therapists, nurses and counselors?

There are many types of professionals that provide mental health services to children. When choosing a therapist it is best to seek the services of a licensed mental health professional or accredited clinic or agency. Ideally, you may seek services from someone who has been trained to work with children or families. Children have their own special needs and should be treated differently than adults. Most mental health professionals specialize either by training or experience that focus on children.

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have all gone to medical school and completed residency training and fellowships to specialize in psychiatry. Psychiatrists must pass a state-licensing exam. Child psychiatrists have completed more specialized training (usually in the form of a fellowship) in working with children. Psychiatrists can provide evaluation, diagnosis, psychotherapy and also can prescribe and monitor medication. Conducting a medical evaluation and prescribing medication are two important ways that set psychiatrists apart from other mental health professionals. Because there are not many child psychiatrists in CT or throughout the United States, they often work as part of a team or are asked to be involved when there are more serious psychiatric concerns, especially the need for medication. At times, your pediatrician can prescribe some medication to treat mental health issues (often for milder concerns such as ADHD, anxiety or depression), but if your child has more intense mental health issues, it is recommended that you get more help from a qualified child psychiatrist. To learn more about psychiatrists, you can visit the American Psychiatric Association website.

Psychologists are doctoral level, trained behavioral health specialists that have expertise in providing services (psychotherapy), conducting assessments (including psychological testing), evaluation, diagnosis and research. Psychologists all complete a doctoral degree in psychology and perform years of training in providing psychotherapy and assessment. Psychologists must pass a state-licensing exam. As part of their training, psychologists complete two years of pre-doctoral and post-doctoral training in clinical psychology. Child psychologists focus that training on working with children and families. Psychologists do not prescribe medication, but often have advanced training in assessment and behavioral treatment for children and families. To learn more about psychologists, you can visit the American Psychological Association website.

Social workers are mental health workers who have been trained to work with adults, children and/or families in a variety of settings. These include; home-based settings, school-based, hospital-based, agency based and office-based locations. Social Workers often have a two-year graduate degree followed by a one to two-year training for clinical licensure. Social Workers also must get “continuing-education” on a yearly basis. If choosing a Social Worker as your child’s therapist, it is important that they have specific training and experience working with children and families. To learn more see the National Association of Social Workers website.

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs) – These are clinicians that have graduate school training, working specifically with families and/or children. LMFTs approach their work by looking at family systems and how they work. Often, LMFTs do two years of graduate education and are licensed after two years of a supervised internship. To learn more visit the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.

Licensed Mental Health Counselors – (or Licensed professional counselors-LPC)-Mental health counselors typically receive a two to three year training in counseling to work with adults, families or children. A licensed mental health counselor must earn a master’s degree in counseling or a closely related mental health discipline; complete a minimum of two years post master’s clinical work under the supervision of a licensed or certified mental health professional; and pass a state-developed or national licensure or certification examination. Like Social Workers, it is important if working with a mental health counselor, you identify a professional who has specific training and/or experience working with families and children. To learn more go to the American Counseling Association website.

Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRN) – These are registered nurses with a post graduate level degree and advanced, clinical education, knowledge skills and scope of practice. APRNs work closely with patients to achieve optimal outcomes through critical analysis, problem solving and evidenced-based decision-making. To find out more consult the American Nurses Association website.

Psychiatric Mental Health Nurses (PMHN) – The clinical practice of psychiatric-mental health nursing occurs at two levels, basic and advanced. At the basic level, registered nurses work with individuals, families, groups and communities, assessing mental health needs, and developing a nursing diagnosis and a plan of nursing care, implementing the plan and finally evaluating the nursing care.

Advanced practice registered nurses (APRN) earn master’s degrees in psychiatric-mental health nursing and assume the role of either Clinical Nurse Specialist or Nurse Practitioner.  Psychiatric-mental health nursing (PMHN) is considered a “specialty” in nursing. In addition to the functions performed at the basic level, APRNs assess, diagnose, and treat individuals or families with psychiatric problems/disorders or the potential for such disorders. APRNs also earn doctoral degrees (PhD, DNSc, and EdD) and they are often professors, researchers or hospital, agency or graduate program administrators. To learn more visit the American Psychiatric Nurses Association website.

Therapists/Para-Professionals – In many health settings, Bachelor’s degree level professionals also provide services to children and families, usually under the supervision of a licensed professional and usually give support to the child or family.

Non-degree/Indigenous Support Providers – In some cases, parents, advocates and other concerned adults can provide services and supports to children and families based on their needs. In many cases, these people have a special talent or skill such as speaking a specific language, coaching or mentoring. It is important that they are supervised by a licensed mental health professional or an established agency or provider who works with children and families.

Other Supports – It is important to note that many children and families benefit from services and supports other than traditional providers. Often, these services are provided with other forms of services. It is well researched that many children benefit from after-school activities, athletics and community-based and faith-based activities.

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Visit our Evidence-Based Practice Directory

KidsMentalHealthInfo.com has an evidence-based practice directory that lists mental health providers trained in popular evidence-based practices available in Connecticut for children and families with behavioral health needs. Evidence-based practices are those supported by research showing that they work for most children.