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How to choose a therapist? Part 5

Definitions of Mental Health Practitioners

General Medical Practitioner (GP) A general medical practitioner (GP) has completed comprehensive medical training that focused on providing a thorough understanding of the body, the ability to diagnose disease, and the effective use of medical interventions. General practitioners have been introduced to a broad range of medical fields (e.g. gynecology, psychiatry, etc.). Their knowledge of mental health varies depending on their interests and post-qualification training; however, they are a good first port of call. General practitioners can provide physical examinations, conduct basic mental health assessments, offer primary counselling, prescribe psychiatric medication and refer to other specialists where necessary.  Psychiatrist A psychiatrist has all the medical training of a general medical practitioner plus several years of dedicated training in the diagnosis and treatment of psychiatric conditions, e.g. depression, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia, etc. Working within the medical model, psychiatrists classify experience and behaviour into symptom categories which inform their diagnosis and prescribed medical treatment. Psychiatrists are qualified to offer counselling, and some provide talk therapies. However, their exposure, experience and attitudes towards psychotherapy vary. Many limit their role to diagnosis and medication management, and will refer their patients on for psychotherapy. Psychiatry regularly forms a useful adjunct to psychotherapy, and it is indispensable in instances where a person can't be reached through dialogue, or is unable to engage in self-reflection. Examples include being detached from reality, manic, catatonic, severely agitated, depressed, actively suicidal, delusional or profoundly anxious. Psychologist Psychologists differ from medical doctors as a psychologist's training focuses on the study of human behaviour and development, not the diagnosis and treatment of physical diseases. During training, a psychologist will cover a broad range of areas including psychological testing and assessment, research methods, human development, psychopathology, counselling skills and a variety of methods of intervention. As a discipline, psychology is divided into several subspecialties; examples include clinical, educational/school, and counselling. Clinical psychologists are experts in understanding, diagnosing and treating mental illness using psychological interventions. Educational/school psychologists are well equipped to assess children (and parents), and to work with their emotional and educational difficulties. Counselling psychologists are experts in working with developmental stages and the challenges of daily living, e.g. professional development, family conflict, divorce, retrenchment, ageing, retirement, etc.  Psychologists don't prescribe medication and intervene using a variety of talk therapies, e.g. cognitive behavioural (CBT), interpersonal or psychodynamic therapy. Psychoanalyst Psychoanalysts dedicate themselves to working deeply, have completed an intensive training lasting several years and including personal analysis, closely supervised clinical work and extensive theoretical study. This experience provides psychoanalysts with a rich, personal understanding of the mind and its dynamics, and equips them to work with both the conscious and unconscious aspects of being human. Psychoanalysts are trained to work intensively (several times weekly) and over the long term. They are less interested in establishing which psychiatric category best describes someone's behaviour, and instead collaborate with a person to achieve an intricate, tailored, nuanced and experientially derived understanding of what drives their behaviour, outlook and experience. This approach has grown out of the recognition that the same reaction (or symptom) in two people can have very different underlying causes, meanings and dynamics. Bringing these into consciousness through an intensive psychoanalytic relationship can bring about relief and permanent personal and relational growth.  Psychotherapist The title psychotherapist is used to two ways. It can either be applied as an umbrella term referring to any professional that treats mental health conditions, or to professionals who dedicate themselves solely to the practice of psychotherapy (as opposed to counselling, psychological testing, research, diagnosis, case management, psychoeducation, etc.). The latter type of psychotherapist may have completed many years of advanced training in psychotherapy and might be a member of an association that confirms they meet a minimum standard. The kind of therapeutic approach they use will differ depending on the training they have undertaken, e.g. cognitive behavioural (CBT), existential or psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Because of the variation in how this title is applied, it is important to ask about training, professional memberships and approach.  Clinical Social Worker Clinical social workers have much in common with clinical psychologists, in that they both study human behaviour and diagnose and provide therapy to specific populations. Unlike psychologists, who emphasise the individual, clinical social workers engage more with whole families, communities and social systems. Clinical social workers are more likely than psychologists to work with the state and so are often also a great resource to help people with limited means gain access to services like child protection, healthcare, housing and employment. Registered/Licensed Counsellor Not to be confused with counselling psychologists (who have studied for longer), counsellors are trained to provide guidance and support on personal and mental health matters. They differ from therapists in that their function is more preventative than curative. They aren't necessarily qualified to diagnose or treat mental health conditions (see the scope of practice details that apply in your area) but they are a valuable resource and offer high-quality education, guidance and short-term supportive work during difficult times. 

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