Mental Health Professionals: Who They Are?

By Wasim Kakroo and Aamir Bashir

MENTAL health importance is gaining momentum now-a-days owing to the awareness and importance of   it’s maintenance to live a healthy life. However there are certain things that need immediate attention. There are still some problems related to labelling, misconceptions about mental illnesses and so on. One of the important question that most people ask is whom to approach when mental health gets deteriorated as most people are very much confused about the roles and responsibilities of various mental health professionals, therefore it is important to clear the misconceptions and to understand who are involved in mental health services and what is the role of various mental health professionals in the alleviation of various mental health issues and in the maintenance of sound mental health.

A mental health professional is a health care practitioner or social and human services provider who offers services for the purpose of improving an individual's mental health or to treat mental health disorders and/or researches in the field of mental health. There are many types of mental health professionals varying in education, experience, certifications, and specialties. The public needs to know the roles and responsibilities of various mental health professionals so that they remain educated and informed about whom to approach for the various problems they face personally or they face with respect to their family and children. In order to understand it in a better way let's draw an analogy. When we develop some issues with the health of our heart, whom do we approach? Certainly a cardiologist. In case we get some problem in the functioning of our kidney, we prefer nephrologists who are trained for looking into kidney issues. Both are doctors (be it cardiologist or nephrologist) as both have obtained MBBS degree, although their specialization is different (they have M.D. in separate branches of medicine). Similarly, although mental health professionals work in areas of mental health, they differ with each other on certain grounds like education, experience, training, specialization and certification.

There are different kinds of experts who specialize in different areas of mental health. Each of them plays a key role in identifying and treating psychological and psychiatric health issues. There are a number of professionals associated with mental health like psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, mental health counselors, psychiatric social workers, remedial educationists, special educators, speech therapists, occupational therapists , psychiatric nurses and the list is endless and exhaustive. Let’s know them for our own benefit, so that we remain informed about their roles and responsibilities towards the public.

Psychiatrists

Before knowing a psychiatrist, let's understand what psychiatry is about? Psychiatry is the branch of medicine that deals with assessing, diagnosing, treating, and managing various mental health disorders which influence emotion, cognition, and behavior. Psychiatrists are doctors who specialize in psychiatry; they have completed an MD (Doctor of Medicine) in psychiatry after an MBBS (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) course. They focus more on the medical aspect of the various psychopathologies.

Who is a Psychiatrist?

A psychiatrist is a person who has completed an MBBS and proceeds further to study psychiatric medicine. They specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues. During their specialized training, psychiatrists study the brain's functions and the complex relationship between the body and brain. They are qualified to distinguish between physical and psychological causes of mental and physical distress. They are also the only type of mental health professionals who are licensed to prescribe and monitor medication.

Psychologist

Let's understand psychology first. Psychology is the scientific study of the human mind and behavior. All aspects of thoughts, feelings and emotions that motivate our actions are scientifically evaluated through various assessments and tests. Psychological knowledge is applied to understanding and solving problems in different spheres of human activity, and is also used in the assessment and treatment of mental health issues.

Who is a Clinical Psychologist?

Clinical psychologists have a degree in psychology and are experts in human behavior. They use scientific methods to study the factors that influence people's thoughts, perceptions, emotions, and actions. They use evidence-based strategies and interventions to help people overcome challenges and cope with life issues such as various mental illnesses, relationship problems, parenting issues, challenges in adolescence, lifestyle effects on health etc. Clinical psychologists use their clinical skills to work with people who have mental health issues like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, panic disorder and substance abuse. A clinical psychologist is a mental health professional with highly specialized training in the diagnosis and psychological treatment of mental, behavioral and emotional illnesses. A practicing clinical psychologist must have atleast a professional (not academic) m.phil degree in clinical psychology according to Rehabilitation council of India and must be certified by the same agency. Clinical psychologists do not prescribe medications to treat mental illness. Rather, they are specialized and trained in psychotherapies and use psychological techniques to treat mental health disorders. Clinical psychologists usually work in close collaboration with psychiatrists and other mental health professionals.

Counselor

What is Counseling?

Counseling is a type of applied psychology that focuses on helping people resolve emotional, behavioral or social problems arising from various life situations. This could include issues at the workplace, school or college, and conflict within the family. Counseling uses various structured processes⁠—either through directive or non-directive guidance⁠—for the person to make rational decisions. Counseling work is completely confidential. Counseling focuses on the following aspects: Resolving normal or moderate issues arising due to life events and other stressors rather than serious mental health issues.

Who is a counselor?

Counselors can have very varied lengths of training, from a year long intensive training to a few months by correspondence. A counselor is trained in the art of listening and has skills to help a person analyze their problems and find a solution. Counselors deal with various issues that are as broad and varied as those undertaken by psychologists, psychiatrists and psychotherapists. The education for counselor is Masters in psychology (at least in India). If the counselor observes that counseling isn't addressing the person's needs because the underlying condition is severe and may need other interventions, they refer the person to a more qualified mental health expert  like clinical psychologists for diagnosis, treatment, therapy, or  psychiatrists for medication, as the case may be.

Psychiatric Nurse

A psychiatric nurse is a mental health professional qualified to assess, diagnose, and treat individuals with psychiatric disorders. They work with individuals, families, groups, and communities, and assess their mental health needs. They also help families understand the challenges of the mental illness and help them offer the appropriate care their loved one needs. Psychiatric nurse has bachelors in nursing and then masters in Psychiatric nursing in a hospital based setting.

Psychiatric Social Worker

Psychiatric social workers are mental health professionals trained to help patients find solutions to many life and social issues that come with mental illness. A patient's relationships, career, and quality of life are significantly affected due to the illness; and this can be a very difficult situation to navigate. Psychiatric social workers help patients cope with these aspects of their lives. Education level for social workers is masters in social work and for psychiatric social workers, the qualification as per RCI is m.phil in psychiatric social work from RCI recognized institutions.

Occupational Therapists (OTs)

OTs are health care professionals specialized in occupational therapy and occupational science. OTs and occupational therapy assistants (OTAs) use scientific bases, and a holistic perspective to promote a person's ability to fulfill their daily routines and roles. OTs have immense training in the physical, psychological, and social aspects of human functioning deriving from an education grounded in anatomical and physiological concepts, and psychological perspectives. They enable individuals across the lifespan by optimizing their abilities to perform activities that are meaningful to them ("occupations"). Human occupations include activities of daily living, work/ vocation, play, education, leisure, rest and sleep, and social participation. OTs work in a variety of fields, including pediatrics, orthopedics, neurology, low vision therapy, physical rehabilitation, mental health, assistive technology, oncological rehabilitation, and geriatrics. Education level for OT is masters in the same field.

Special Educators

A special educator is a mental health professional who works with students who have need for special attention and care because of problems with the functioning of their brain. They deal with students who are differently abled in areas of learning, mental and physical abilities. A special educator identifies the needs of students who require special care and assistance and plans and develops individualized educational program for every student with special needs. They also supervise and record each of their activities to make assessments of their progress and discuss the student’s improvement with teachers and parents. In order to become a special educator, one has to do bachelors in special education and then masters in the same field.

Besides there are other mental health professionals like speech therapists, remedial educationists, and so on, the list is exhaustive and endless.

Importance of Knowing about Mental Health Professionals

It is of immense importance to get to know mental health in general and mental health professionals in particular. Different mental health professionals have different roles to play in mental health promotion. To ensure that the treatment is guided in right direction, it is important to know about the key roles, specializations, education and training of different mental health professionals because now a days the boundaries are so porous that people are interfering in one another's spheres which not only degrades the quality of treatment but also led common people to suffer in many ways. It is the responsibility of the mental health professionals as well as the public to work in close collaboration with each other so that the people who are in need of such services can reach different professionals at earliest so that the issues are resolved before they turn into something unmanageable or at least more difficult to treat.


Aamir Bashir is a Mental Health Counselor at IMHANS and Wasim Kakroo is a consutant clinical psychologist at IMHANS. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected]

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