The Key Differences Between Mental Health Nurses and Other Mental Health Professionals

Mental health is an extremely wide field, resulting in all sorts of professionals who have undergone different types of training and education. Although mental health nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists and other professionals may seem similar, there are a few key differences that set each profession apart from the rest. We break down those differences, as well as how each professional helps your teen during recovery or therapy.

Mental Health Nurses

Mental health nurses are responsible for providing medical attention and caring for mentally ill patients, who either stay in the hospital or require extra support at home. This type of nurse holds a master’s or doctoral degree from a specialist mental health nursing program that has been accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN).

They usually work in inpatient units, where they will supervise and support patients, administer medication and work with psychiatrists to create a medical plan. In other cases, mental health nurses visit the homes of people who don’t need full-time hospital care but will benefit from an occasional check-in. In some states, mental health nurses can prescribe medication.

Psychiatrists and Psychologists

Psychiatrists and psychologists are two different types of medical professionals who help patients with mental health issues. However, there are some key differences between the two roles.


  • Has a medical degree
  • Completed a residency program assessing and treating mental illnesses
  • Can legally prescribe medication


  • Has a bachelor’s degree in psychology
  • Cannot prescribe medication

Both positions are trained in psychotherapy—talking to patients about the problems they have. However, they each take a slightly different approach. Psychiatrists will consider biological and neurochemical factors before making a diagnosis, such as checking for a vitamin deficiency before diagnosing an individual with depression. On the other hand, psychologists take a close look at behavior and see how patterns like sleeping, eating and negative thoughts may be contributing to the problem. You may want to consider enlisting the help of a psychologist if your teen struggles with a phobia, but if your teen suffers from a mental condition that may require medication, reaching out to a psychiatrist may be a better choice.


Like psychologists, counselors do not have a medical degree so they’re not legally allowed to provide prescriptions. Instead, counselors hold a master’s degree in counseling, and they focus on providing therapy to individuals and groups. Their area of expertise is common life issues such as stress or relationship problems. They’re not licensed to treat severe mental illnesses.

It can be hard to keep track of what each mental health professional does and how they can help your teen, but it’s important to remember they work together to help patients recover. If you’re worried that your teen may be struggling with a mental illness, visit your family physician first. They’ll be able to direct you toward the appropriate mental health professional who can discuss the next steps in your teen’s treatment plan with you and your teen.

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