The Public Perception of Mental Health Professions: An Empirical Examination

By Fall, Kevin A.; Levitov, Justin E. et al. | Journal of Mental Health Counseling, April 2000 | Go to article overview

The Public Perception of Mental Health Professions: An Empirical Examination


Fall, Kevin A., Levitov, Justin E., Jennings, Maureen, Eberts, Stephanie, Journal of Mental Health Counseling


This study examined the public's confidence in clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, master's-level counselors, doctoral-level counselors, and social workers by ranking confidence levels across five case vignettes of various severity. While the exploration of professional identity is a necessary task for all mental health disciplines, counseling has lagged behind psychology and psychiatry in exploring the issue of professional identity from the prospective of the client-consumer. Results indicated that doctoral-level counselors were perceived similarly to clinical psychologists across all cases and were preferred in every case over master's-level counselors. Overall, the public sampled was confident in LPCs' ability to treat less severe cases and less confident in their ability to treat serious psychiatric disorders.

The search for an identity within any profession is a necessary task, but it is often characterized by confusion, frustration, and ambiguity. The professions falling under the umbrella of mental health providers are a diverse group with a variety of training standards, licenses, specialties, philosophies, and histories. Despite this diversity, there seems to be considerable overlap in the types of clients served and services provided (Hanna & Bemak, 1997). As each mental health profession struggles to find a significant place to ensure financial survival in an economy of shrinking funds for mental health, the need for a unique identity becomes that much more crucial.

Counselors initiated the identity process by attempting to answer the question, "What is a counselor?" through discussion between counselors. A few articles from counselor-related journals focus on the ongoing debate among counselors regarding the issue of professional identity without any conclusive comments on the nature of the identity of a counselor (Hanna & Bemak, 1997; Maples, Altekruse, & Testa, 1993; Peer, 1980; Ritchie, 1990; Seiler & Messina, 1979).

Other mental health professions have dedicated much of the their recent history to research, exploring the nature of their respective professional identities. Psychiatrists and psychologists (counseling and clinical) devoted years of effort to internally define their profession, though they achieved limited success (Bales, 1984; Beitman, 1983; Benjamin, 1986; Bevan, 1976; Fein, 1954; Fishman & Neigher, 1982; Newman, 1957; Zytowski, Casas, Gilbert, Lent, & Simon, 1988). Interestingly, the internal debate among these professions seems to remain at the confusion stage, not unlike recent attempts made by counselors. If the professions themselves are uncertain about identity issues, think of the confusion the public must face when trying to choose among the various disciplines.

Beyond the strategy of attempting to internally define a profession, psychologists have empirically investigated identity by exploring the public's evaluation of mental health professions. By attending to the opinions of the consumer, the results of the research have provided some useful indicators of preferences for and distinctions among mental health professionals as viewed though the eyes of the public. This strategy seems particularly timely as mental health professionals compete for visibility and acceptance by the paying public as insurance benefits for mental health care decrease. Wollersheim and Walsh (1993) succinctly sum up the necessity of the business marketing shift of mental health care, "To reach consumers effectively, it is essential to understand their existing attitudes toward the commodity being marketed" (p. 171).

Early efforts by psychology researchers focused on exploring the public's ability to differentiate between psychologists and psychiatrists. Grossack (1954) interviewed 51 African-Americans in the southern region of the United States and discovered that a large proportion of that sample had difficulty discriminating between a psychologist and a psychiatrist. …

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