Doctors Who Treat Mental Illness

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Casarella, MD on August 28, 2022
3 min read

A number of different types of counselors, therapists, and doctors can treat mental illness. Finding the right one is an important step toward getting proper treatment.

Start by choosing the kind that's best for your mental health needs.

In many cases, your primary care doctor may diagnose and treat your mental illness. They'll refer you to a specialist when needed.

They usually have doctoral degrees (PhD or PsyD) and are trained to provide professional counseling on psychological and emotional issues. They may specialize in areas such as marriage counseling, relaxation therapy, stress management, or sex therapy.

Psychologists don't have medical training, so they're not allowed to prescribe medications -- except in certain states where the legislature has given them prescribing privileges.

These professionals are medical doctors who specialize in the treatment of mental, emotional, or behavioral problems.

A psychiatrist can prescribe medications. They may hold therapy sessions or work with non-medical therapists to treat you.

They can be psychiatrists, psychologists, or social workers by training. These professionals follow Sigmund Freud's theories and other more modern theories that are based on the idea that painful childhood memories in your unconscious mind are the cause of emotional troubles.

Psychoanalysts use talk therapy and may recommend medications, too. These can be prescribed by the therapist if they're a psychiatrist or by another doctor.

The goal of treatment is to make you aware of unconscious things so you can recognize patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving that are no longer related to or useful for what's going on in your life now. Psychoanalysis is usually best for people who are struggling with problems around life satisfaction, relationships, and conflicts in pursuing personal or professional goals.

Doctors like naturopaths (NDs) are specialists in complementary and alternative medicines, holistic medicine, nutritional medicine, and herbal medicine treatments. They may be able to prescribe standard medications but often choose different approaches that combine natural medicines with mental health therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

As part of a wellness plan or treatment, they may recommend other mental health therapists such as life coaches, psychologists, or other kinds of psychotherapists.

Besides finding someone who is well qualified, you also want a mental health professional who specializes in treating problems similar to those that you have. You should trust them, even when what they're saying is uncomfortable for you.

While you'll usually go for psychotherapy weekly or monthly, psychoanalytic sessions could be several times a week for a while.

Before you schedule that first appointment, you may want to research and ask about a potential therapist's:

  • Treatment approach and philosophy
  • Specialization by age group or particular disorder
  • Education, years in practice, licenses, and professional associations
  • Fees, lengths of sessions, insurance coverage, policies around missed appointments, and office hours
  • Availability in case of an emergency

Talk to trusted friends, family, or clergy about professionals they may have seen or know of.

Ask another health care provider for a recommendation. Ask your health insurance company for a provider list, especially if you're planning on having insurance pay for your therapy.

Search websites, or call a local or national medical society or mental health organization. Some professional organizations have referral services to help you find someone in your area. Check with social service organizations for counselors, too.