Differences between Psychologist, Psychiatrists, Counsellors, and Social workers

Published on August 4, 2011

A mental health provider is a professional who has received training and credentials to provide services to either ameliorate mental distress or to improve mental health and prevent mental disorders. Although there are a variety of mental health providers, the four main kinds are social workers, counsellors, clinical psychologists, and psychiatrists. Because of this variety of professional help available, it is reasonable to ask yourself which one is best for you. The answer to this question is that, in most situations, which type of professional you consult is not critically important. The reason is that there is considerable overlap among the types of mental health professions with respect to training, types of problems handled, and treatment approaches utilized. Hence all four kinds of mental health professions are competent to recognize and treat the most common mental problems e.g. mild depression.

Nevertheless, there are some circumstances in which one profession may be advantageous. The purpose of this article is to provide information to help you recognize if your mental health problem is one that requires a particular type of mental health provider. For a fuller comparison you can read the book “The Role of the Professional Counselor in the 21st Century” (Altekruse et al, 2001) or the Wikipedia entry .

A comparison of the main characteristics of the four kinds of mental health providers: psychiatrists, psychologists, counsellors and social workers.


A psychiatrist is a mental health professional who has been trained first as a medical practitioner but has then gone on to receive specialized training in treating mental disorders, including the more serious ones such as schizophrenia and severe depression They are trained and licensed to use biomedical approaches such as medications and in Asia they alone among mental health professionals can do so. Psychiatrists being physicians can arrange hospital admissions ( e.g. to a psychiatric ward) and carry out physical examinations and various other types of investigative procedures such a electroencephalographs (EEGs) and brain imaging procedure scans(e.g. computer assisted tomography (CAT)). It should be noted that the use of these procedures, in the vast majority of cases, is not necessary. Because of their long training and medical status, the fees of psychiatrists are generally higher than the other mental health professions.

Clinical Psychologists

Clinical psychologists have studied psychology with the aim at understanding, treating and preventing mental problems and disorders.. The usual educational path in Asia is a bachelor degree with emphasis on courses related to mental health followed by a master level degree program specializing in clinical psychology which usually is two years in duration. The master level education and a suitable period of internship is the usual standard for licensing (registration) for clinical psychologists in Asia. Clinical psychologists, particularly if those with doctorate level education are able to carry out research studies e.g. of the effectiveness of various mental health treatments.


Counsellors generally have received training similar to clinical psychologists but with emphasis on helping people cope with more normal life problems. For example, counsellors may help individuals cope with stressful life situations arising out of normal developmental changes e.g. helping individuals make educational and career decisions. However there is a trend towards counsellors becoming more involved in helping individuals with more serious mental health problems including the same conditions addressed by clinical psychologists e.g. depression, anxiety. In Malaysia, the government has made counsellors the mainstay of mental health delivery services.

Social workers

The education of social workers differs significantly from that of other mental health professionals in that there is much greater emphasis on the role of social factors and interventions at the social level. Otherwise social workers receive similar education with regards to recognizing and treating mental health problems. The standard for licensing can be either at the bachelor or the master level. Social workers are especially knowledgeable of what mental health services are available in the community and help empower their clients to obtain such services. Generally, they are employed at government run and subsidized community centres. In this way social workers can deliver mental health services at a low cost to make it affordable by all members of the community. The number of social workers generally greatly outnumbers that of psychologists by a factor of three to fifteen depending on the country in Asia (Maramis et al, 2011). Because of their low fees and greater availability, social workers provide the bulk of mental health services throughout the world.

Some specific situations in which a particular kind of mental health provider may be more appropriate

Listed below are a few specific situations where a particular kind of mental health professional may be advantageous. However it is important that you carefully consider your particular situation and use the information already supplied to choose an appropriate mental health worker.

• If you are in a serious emotional crisis, say severely depressed with suicidal wishes or actual attempts, it is best to consult a psychiatrist for possible medication or even hospitalization

• If financial considerations are important, then it may be more appropriate to consult a social worker employed by a local community. Also if your mental health problem necessitates cooperation by others in the community e.g. school, hospital, or work place a social worker may be the most appropriate professional to consult.

• If your problem involves a long standing behavioural or personality issue such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder a clinical psychologist may be the best choice.

• If your problem involves adjustment to a new job or problems at school then a counsellor may be the most appropriate mental health professional.

Concluding remarks and recommendations

All four of the mental health professions described above routinely provide assistance to those with mental health problems and in most but not all cases, it matters little which type of mental health professional you consult. However, whichever one you select be sure to check that person is properly trained, experienced, and appropriately licensed by their professional society. Do not hesitate to ask about their qualifications; a professional will be happy to answer your questions. You can also check with the local society for the particular profession e.g. the Hong Kong Psychological Society and they will provide a list of registered professionals. This will assure you that the person has had appropriate academic and practical experience and will be following professional ethics.

It is hoped that the descriptions of the various mental health providers will help you obtain the right effective treatment.


Altekruse, M. K., Harris, H., & Brandt, M. (2001). The role of the professional counselor in the 21st century. Love Publishing. Denver, CO.
Maramis, A., Nguyen, V. T., & Minas, H. (2011). Mental health in Southeast Asia. The Lancet, 377(9767), 700-702. (See their table.)

Category(s):Mental Health Professions

Written by:

Psych Mat Asia Editor

Psychology Matters Asia Editor

Mental Health News