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What Does a Mental Health Specialist Do?

Marriage family therapists are mental health specialists.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 15 July 2014
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Mental health specialist is a term with several definitions. Often, it refers to people who have advanced training to work with those with mental illnesses and psychological issues. These include psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, like licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) and marriage family therapists (MFTs), and psychiatric nurses. The profession is also a defined career in some military branches, where it does not imply as much training and where work is typically supportive of the goals of the professionals listed above.

In this last definition, the mental health specialist in places like the army tends to work at any military health installations dedicated to treating those with mental illness, and especially those suffering from conditions like post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Specialists receive some training for their position and might perform jobs like intake of patients and interviews. Their goal is to sensitively support the work of other mental health professionals and help to provide the best and safest care possible for people who are being treated. Parts of their job could include more than patient care and might require secretarial or administrative work.

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Psychiatrist falls under the more standard definition of mental health specialist, and these professionals may have many job responsibilities. They are licensed doctors, and as such, they are able to diagnose mental conditions and suggest various forms of treatment, including drug treatment or things such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). In private practice or in hospital settings, they may follow up with patients after suggesting medical intervention. Some psychiatrists also perform talk therapy, or they work in collaboration with people’s therapists to provide optimum care.

A mental health specialist who is a psychologist is likely dedicated to patient care too. As with psychiatry, psychologists might work in different areas: private practice, hospital or other settings where mental health treatment is required. Specialist in mental health implies working most with those people requiring treatment for mental health conditions, and so it is likely the psychologist would focus on diagnosis and therapy treatment for mental illness or issues causing mental distress. Such treatment typically takes the form of therapy with patients.

Similarly, the LCSW and MFT are most likely to be offering therapy to clients, with possible initial diagnostics. Therapy could last a year or more or might be conducted on a short-term basis. Such therapy could be for individuals or groups. Some of these counselors work privately, but others might work for community agencies that offer mental health care or for hospitals or programs that treat the mentally ill.

Another mental health specialist is the psychiatric nurse, and these are usually at least registered nurses with additional specialization in the field of psychiatric care. They frequently work at mental hospitals, though some also are employed by private practice psychiatrists. In hospital settings, they care for the patient’s physical needs, watch for their safety, assess health, and dispense medication. Employed privately they might answer basic patient questions, educate patients on medications required, and determine when the psychiatrist should be contacted about a patient’s medical status.

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