A Lesson in What Mental Health Professionals Do

Article excerpt

Sometimes you can almost have too much of a good thing.

That seems to be the case when it comes to mental health professionals. There are so many different disciplines involved, with so many different approaches and with such a variety of titles and credentials, that it almost takes a graduate degree to sort it all out.

Even as a mental health professional myself, I must confess I'm not always totally sure who is doing what and how. Yet, if we're going to get the help we need when we need it, we'll want at least some understanding of the who, what and how of such programs.

With that in mind, this week I'd like to try to sort things out a bit. Following are some very brief descriptions of a number of the mental health disciplines and titles that you'll find in the field (they're arranged alphabetically).

* Chaplain -- usually a minister (or a trained lay worker) who has specialized in providing mental health services to individuals and families in a hospital setting. Most have at least one graduate degree and have extensive training in Clinical Pastoral Education. They are normally certified by the College of Chaplains, which has very rigorous standards.

* Counselor -- a frequently used, but almost meaningless, term. Anyway, all kinds of people call themselves counselors. In fact, I recently heard a carpet company call their sales staff "counselors" in their advertising. There are also a number of less-than-reputable people who offer mental health services as counselors, yet have little if any training to deliver what they offer.

On the other hand, there are people who use this title who have graduate degrees in counseling and are well qualified to provide mental health services.

So, when you see the title "counselor," check for other, more specific, credentials. In Illinois, a state license -- Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor -- is required to provide mental health services using the title "counselor."

* Marriage and family therapist -- a professional who has specialized training in understanding and helping troubled relationships.

Such people are usually trained to work with individuals as well. The largest national certifying body is the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, which requires that its clinical members have earned at least one specialized graduate degree in marriage and family therapy.

Members also must have received extensive supervision of their work for a number of years. Illinois also requires such practitioners be licensed as Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists.

* Pastoral counselor -- a minister who has specialized in mental health. At least one graduate degree is required; many have two (in both a theological and psychological discipline).

The largest national certifying organization is the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, which grants membership only after exhaustive training and supervision.

* Psychiatric nurse -- a registered nurse who has specialized in mental health. Psychiatric nurses generally have a bachelor's degree in nursing and additional training and experience working with troubled individuals and families. Many have also gone on to earn an additional graduate degree in one of the mental health disciplines.

Psychiatric nurses work in both hospital and outpatient settings. Those with advanced training often provide psychotherapy. Certification for psychiatric nurses is granted by The American Nurses Association. …