When your child sees a mental health provider at Cincinnati Children’s, they might have an appointment with a psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor or social worker. Or kids sometimes meet with one of our play therapists, music therapists or in-school therapists.
With all of those titles being tossed around, it might have you wondering who does what in these roles. And what does it mean for you and your child?
I’m both a clinical counselor and a lead social worker at Cincinnati Children’s. Hopefully by the time you finish reading this, you’ll have a better understanding of what those titles mean.
Clearing Up Mental Health Provider Roles
While mental health provider roles are many, and the therapies we use vary from provider to provider, I’d like to highlight the providers you’re most likely to come in contact with at Cincinnati Children’s.
Psychologists evaluate and treat a person’s mental health using clinical interviews, psychological evaluations, tests and “talk therapy” (psychotherapy/therapeutic counseling). A psychologist has earned an advanced degree such as a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) in Psychology or a PsyD (Doctor of Psychology). They sometimes will both see patients and also do research. They generally cannot prescribe medication since they are not medical doctors.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors who are trained to diagnose and treat psychiatric disorders. They mainly focus on the physical brain and issues that occur in the brain medically. They have gone through medical school to earn either an MD (Doctor of Medicine) or DO (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine) degree. They often see patients with complicated disorders, and are able to prescribe medication. Some psychiatrists offer talk therapy in addition to medication, although this is not their specialty.
Social Workers and Counselors
Social workers advocate for children and families in a variety of ways. Some are in a role where they connect families with needed resources within the hospital or in the community. But they are also trained in mental health, and many of them do one-on-one therapy work with patients to treat mental illnesses and promote emotional well-being.
Likewise, counselors also are trained in treating mental illnesses and provide therapy services to address mental health challenges, life stress, and other obstacles that interfere in kids’ lives. You may hear them called licensed counselors, clinical counselors or professional counselors.
Social workers and clinical counselors have similar roles when it comes to providing mental health therapy services for children.
This is a general term that is often used in place of a specific title, and is often interchanged with “counselor.”
But there are also mental health providers who use this term in their professional titles, including art therapists, play therapists, music therapists, substance abuse therapists and others. These providers have taken additional training and specialize in a specific type of therapy that they use in their practice.
Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) or Nurse Practitioner (NP)
These individuals can provide medication management services and diagnosis and treat mental health conditions for your child. Many APRNs also have experience with talk therapy.
You might also work with a registered nurse (RA) or medical assistant (MA). Many pediatrician offices have on staff these providers who specialize in mental health treatment. This is often the first mental health provider you may work with depending on your child’s needs.
Mental Health Providers in Schools
You or your child may work with any of the following individuals in a school setting:
- School-based therapist or in-school therapist – These individuals function much in the same way as the counselors and social workers described above. However, instead of working out of a Cincinnati Children’s location, they work in a school as Cincinnati Children’s employees. Their role is to provide therapy services for the students in that particular school.
- School counselor – Also sometimes called guidance counselors. They help students in a variety of ways, including with scheduling classes and working on college applications. They are also trained in mental health and often help students work through challenging times on a short-term basis. A student needing longer-term counseling might be referred to an in-school therapist by the school counselor.
- School psychologist – These individuals provide direct support and interventions to students and families and coordinate care for needed services, such as assessing for an individualized education plan (IEP) or 504 plan and organizing support accordingly.
When your child has mental health needs, they might see one provider for medication, and another for therapy.
Using Certain Therapy Methods
It’s important to note here that many of us have studied types of therapy, even if we haven’t specialized in them. I have a colleague here who’s a certified play therapist. She’s taken additional, in-depth training in that specific therapy. She relies heavily on those principles when meeting with her patients.
But even though I’m not certified in play therapy, I have learned some of the principles of that therapy and sometimes use it with my patients.
The mental health provider you see can depend on how your child was referred to us, what symptoms your child is experiencing, or who was available at the time of your appointment. Your child will be seen by someone who has the experience to address your child’s specific needs.
Much of mental health treatment involves a good fit between the patient and therapist. If a provider looks great on paper, but your child isn’t warming up to them at appointments, it could be that a different therapist might be a better fit. Talk to your mental health provider about this if needed. We understand that sometimes trying out another provider is necessary.
Alphabet Soup – The Letters Behind Our Names
If you’re interested in the letters behind our names, those depend on our schooling, additional training some of us choose to go through, testing we’ve passed, as well as what state we’re licensed in. It would take a lot more time to explain all of that. And to be honest, it’s complicated.
So, I’ll end with this: If you’re interested in knowing more about your mental health provider’s qualifications, education or credentials, just ask! We know it can be confusing if you’re not familiar with our line of work.
The bottom line is, we’re all here to help your family work through whatever challenges you’re facing and are committed to helping your child thrive again.
The Psychiatric Intake Response Center (PIRC) is the admission and evaluation center for all psychiatric services at Cincinnati Children’s. If you have mental health questions about your child, contact PIRC at 513-636-4124 or firstname.lastname@example.org. PIRC is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year-round.
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