Mental Health Professionals
There are many different types of mental health professionals. Below you can find information about the mental health professionals you are most likely to come into contact with, although the list is not exhaustive.
GP – first point of contact
A GP will know what, and how, mental health services are provided locally and can make a referral to the appropriate specialists. People who have been give a diagnosis and treatment by specialist mental health professionals may be discharged back into the care of their GP.
Counsellors are trained to help people to cope better with distressing events in their life, and with their mental health problem. Many GP surgeries employ a counsellor as part of their practice team.
Counselling can also be carried out informally by GPs, or any mental health professional – psychiatrists or community psychiatric nurses, for example. There are no legal minimum qualifications needed to practise as a counsellor in the UK, but the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy has set up a voluntary register that is approved by the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care.
Psychiatrists are qualified medical doctors who have decided to specialise in psychiatry and have gone on to complete specialist training. To practise psychiatry, people have to pass an exam to qualify for membership of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Psychiatrists also have to be licensed and registered by the General Medical Council, the organisation that sets standards for professional conduct for doctors.
Psychiatrists work in hospitals, specialist outpatient clinics and in community-based teams supporting people with mental health problems. Some psychiatrists specialise in working with particular groups of people: there are child and adolescent psychiatrists, for example, psychiatrists who work exclusively with older people, and psychiatrists who specialise in working with people who have a learning disability.
Because psychiatrists are qualified doctors, they can prescribe medication.
People sometimes get confused between a psychiatrist and a psychologist:
A psychiatrist = a qualified medical doctor
A psychologist= not a medical doctor (and cannot therefore prescribe medication)
Psychologists study the mind and behaviour of people, and clinical psychologists offer psychological (‘talking’) therapies – like cognitive behaviour therapy or family therapy – to help reduce people’s distress.
Clinical psychologists need to be registered with the Health and Care Professions Council, a regulatory organisation that sets standards of professional training and conduct.
Psychologists are based in hospitals, outpatient clinics and work in community-based teams offering support to people with mental health problems.
Psychotherapists are mental health professionals who are trained to listen to a person’s problems to try to find out what’s causing them and help them find a solution.
As well as listening and discussing important issues with you, a psychotherapist can suggest strategies for resolving problems and, if necessary, help you change your attitudes and behaviour. In psychotherapy you may often be asked to talk about your childhood.
Mental health nurse
Mental health nurses are nurses who specialise in mental health during their training. All nurses have to be registered with the Nursing and Midwifery Council, an organisation that sets standards of education, training and conduct.
Mental health nurses work in community-based teams, in psychiatric wards, day hospitals and outpatient departments. When they work as part of a team offering support in the community, they are called community psychiatric nurses or community mental health nurses. You may see or hear these specialist nurses referred to as CPNs or CMHNs.
Some mental health nurses have had special training that means they can prescribe medication. Others undertake training to be able to offer talking therapies such as cognitive behaviour therapy.
Mental health social worker
Mental health social workers support people with mental health problems and their families. They are usually employed by local authority social services departments, but may work within a community-based team run by an NHS mental health trust.
Mental health social workers can help with practical issues such as benefits, social care, housing and respite care. Mental health social workers may also assess the needs of family members of someone who has a serious mental health problem and offer them support to help them in their caring role.
Social workers have to study for a degree in social work and then a Post Qualifying Award in mental health. In England, all social workers have to be registered with the Health and Care Professions Council, the organisation that regulates training and professional conduct. In Wales, they are registered with or the Care Council for Wales.
Occupational therapists offer support to people with mental health problems to get on with their daily lives, helping them live independently and safely. They help people feel more self-confident and can support employment, social and leisure activities. Occupational therapists have an important role in the process of recovery, helping people to learn skills that mean they can look after themselves. They work in community-based teams and in hospitals.
Occupational therapy training programmes are university-based degrees. Occupational therapists have to be registered with the Health and Care Professions Council in order to practise in the UK.
Vocational specialists (also known as vocational practitioners) work within community-based mental health teams, helping people return to employment or keep their jobs. They are often based in early intervention teams when people are experiencing symptoms that could potentially lead to a first episode of psychosis and may be particularly worried about losing their job.
Peer support worker
Some mental health trusts train and employ peer support workers (also called peer support specialists or peer workers). These are people who have personal experience of mental health problems and using mental health services. They will usually have received training on peer support related work but will not have an official qualification related to mental health.
Graduate mental health workers/associate mental health worker
New graduates, or people who have graduated previously and have relevant work experience, are employed in some GP surgeries and mental health services (both in the community and in hospitals) to work with people who have mental health problems and to promote good mental health.