Expert answers from
Mental health professionals
- GP – first point of contact
- Clinical psychologist
- Mental health nurse
- Mental health social worker
- Occupational therapist
- Vocational specialist
- Support, time and recovery worker
- Peer support worker
- Arts therapist
- Graduate mental health workers/associate mental health worker
- High intensity therapist
- Psychological wellbeing practitioner
- Approved mental health professional
If you think your relative needs specialist help, your GP will help him or her access relevant services. A GP will know what, and how, mental health services are provided locally and can make a referral to the appropriate specialists. People who have been give a diagnosis and treatment by specialist mental health professionals may be discharged back into the care of their GP.
Psychiatrists are qualified medical doctors who have decided to specialise in psychiatry and have gone on to complete specialist training. To practise psychiatry, people have to pass an exam to qualify for membership of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Psychiatrists also have to be licensed and registered by the General Medical Council, the organisation that sets standards for professional conduct for doctors.
Psychiatrists work in hospitals, specialist outpatient clinics and in community-based teams supporting people with mental health problems. Some psychiatrists specialise in working with particular groups of people: there are child and adolescent psychiatrists, for example, psychiatrists who work exclusively with older people, and psychiatrists who specialise in working with people who have a learning disability. Some choose to specialise in a particular area of mental ill health – such as psychosis. Psychiatrists who work in general hospitals (you might meet them in an accident and emergency department, for example) are called 'liaison' psychiatrists. Those who work with women who are mentally unwell during pregnancy and around the time of birth are called 'perinatal' psychiatrists.
Because psychiatrists are qualified doctors, they can prescribe medication.
Often your relative will see a junior psychiatrist who is still in training and being supervised by a consultant. Because of the way specialist training is organised, junior psychiatrists move on to another job after a certain period of time. This means your relative will often see different psychiatrists at an outpatient clinic or community-based team.
People sometimes get confused between a psychiatrist and a psychologist. A psychiatrist is a qualified medical doctor, while a psychologist is not (and cannot therefore prescribe medication).
Psychologists study the mind and behaviour of people, and clinical psychologists offer psychological ('talking') therapies – like cognitive behaviour therapy or family therapy – to help reduce people’s distress. After a first degree, psychologists have to train for a doctorate in clinical psychology (DClinPsych) before they can become registered as a chartered clinical psychologist.
Clinical psychologists need to be registered with the Health and Care Professions Council, a regulatory organisation that sets standards of professional training and conduct for a number of different health professions.
Psychologists are based in hospitals, outpatient clinics and work in community-based teams offering support to people with mental health problems. Some specialise in working with people who have been given a diagnosis of a serious mental illness like schizophrenia.
Some psychologists specialise in working with children and young people, helping to treat mental health problems or come to terms with traumatic events. Educational psychologists also work with children and young people, and sometimes with adults too, helping those who have difficulties learning because of psychological or emotional problems.
Mental health nurses are nurses who specialise in mental health during their training. From 2013, everyone who wants to train as a nurse will study for a degree.
All nurses have to be registered with the Nursing and Midwifery Council, an organisation that sets standards of education, training and conduct.
Mental health nurses work in community-based teams, in psychiatrist wards, day hospitals and outpatient departments. When they work as part of a team offering support in the community, they are called community psychiatric nurses or community mental health nurses. You may see or hear these specialist nurses referred to as CPNs or CMHNs.
Some mental health nurses have had special training that means they can prescribe medication. Others undertake training to be able to offer talking therapies such as cognitive behaviour therapy.
Mental health social workers support people with mental health problems and their families. They are usually employed by local authority social services departments, but may work within a community-based team run by an NHS mental health trust.
Mental health social workers can help with practical issues such as benefits, social care, housing and respite care. Mental health social workers may also assess the needs of family members of someone who has a serious mental health problem and offer them support to help them in their caring role.
Social workers have to study for a degree in social work and then a Post Qualifying Award in mental health. In England, all social workers have to be registered with the Health and Care Professions Council, the organisation that regulates training and professional conduct. In Wales, they are registered with or the Care Council for Wales.
Pharmacists are experts in medicines and work alongside specialist mental health professionals in psychiatric hospitals and outpatient clinics.
When pharmacists have completed their training (after they have studied for a degree), they have to register with the General Pharmaceutical Council, which is also responsible for setting standards and regulating the profession.
Occupational therapists offer support to people with mental health problems to get on with their daily lives, helping them live independently and safely. They help people feel more self-confident and can support employment, social and leisure activities. Occupational therapists have an important role in the process of recovery, helping people to learn skills that mean they can look after themselves. They work in community-based teams and in hospitals.
Occupational therapy training programmes are university-based degrees. Occupational therapists have to be registered with the Health and Care Professions Council in order to practise in the UK.
Vocational specialists (also known as vocational practitioners) work within community-based mental health teams, helping people return to employment or keep their jobs. They are often based in early intervention teams when people are experiencing symptoms that could potentially lead to a first episode of psychosis and may be particularly worried about losing their job.
Staff who help people find jobs and support people in employment are also sometimes called employment specialists, employment consultants or job coaches.
Some community-based mental health teams include a support, time and recovery worker (STR worker). A STR worker promotes people’s recovery by doing what their title suggests – offering support and time to people who have mental health problems. They offer practical support to help people get on with the lives they want to lead. A STR worker is often someone who has experience of mental health problems themselves. STRs are trained through a nationally agreed induction programme and then work towards a vocational qualification.
Some mental health trusts train and employ peer support workers (also called peer support specialists or peer workers). These are people who have personal experience of mental health problems and using mental health services. The peer support worker is a new sort of worker, being introduced as part of the move to make mental health services more orientated towards supporting personal recovery. They are working in various roles in different services, both on wards and in community-based teams.
Arts therapists are trained psychotherapists who use a creative medium – such as art, music, drama or dance – to help people express their feelings and emotions. Arts therapists are based in psychiatric hospitals and also run community-based groups for people with psychosis. Arts therapists in the UK are specially trained in psychotherapy and the use of their chosen ‘art’ during a Masters degree, and are registered and regulated by the Health and Care Professions Council.
Counsellors are trained to help people to cope better with distressing events in their life, and with their mental health problem. Many GP surgeries employ a counsellor as part of their practice team.
Counselling can also be carried out informally by GPs, or any mental health professional – psychiatrists or community psychiatric nurses, for example. There are no legal minimum qualifications needed to practise as a counsellor in the UK, but the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy has set up a voluntary register that is approved by the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care. Counsellors on BACP's register can display an Accredited Voluntary Register quality mark if they meet certain standards, including ongoing professional development.
New graduates, or people who have graduated previously and have relevant work experience, are employed in some GP surgeries and mental health services (both in the community and in hospitals) to work with people who have mental health problems and to promote good mental health. They are normally graduates in psychology or another relevant subject, and are offered postgraduate training while they work which allows them to gain a ‘Postgraduate Certificate.’
The Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) service employs high intensity therapists to work with people who have depression or anxiety and offer them cognitive behaviour therapy. The IAPT service also employs ‘psychological wellbeing practitioners’ who offer people referred to the service less intensive support. High intensity therapists are qualified nurses, clinical psychologists, social workers or occupational therapists, or graduate primary care mental health workers who have been specifically trained to work in this service. The service is available nationally but is run by different organisations locally – an NHS mental health trust or voluntary organisation, for example. The IAPT service was originally not designed to offer support to people who had experience of psychosis but the service is being developed: the plan is that in future, it will offer talking therapies to people who have a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia.
Psychological wellbeing practitioners work within the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) service and support people with mild to moderate depression or anxiety. They are either graduates or people with relevant experience who are specially trained by the IAPT service. The service also employs ‘high intensity therapists’ to work with people who need more support. The service is available nationally but is run by different organisations locally – an NHS mental health trust, for example. The service is available nationally but is run by different organisations locally – an NHS mental health trust or voluntary organisation, for example. The IAPT service was originally not designed to offer support to people who had experience of psychosis but the service is being developed: the plan is that in future, it will offer talking therapies to people who have a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia.
An approved mental health professional is a social worker, mental health nurse, occupational therapist or psychologist who has received special training and is approved by a local authority social services department to carry out duties under the Mental Health Act. These duties involve assessing, in collaboration with other mental health professionals, whether someone should be compulsorily treated under the Act. People are approved for a period of five years. The majority of approved mental health professionals are social workers.
The training for approved mental health professionals is regulated and accredited by the Health and Care Professions Council.
This page was last updated on 22 April 2013
Links checked 7 July 2016
Other useful websites
The GMC makes sure all doctors are up to date and fit to practise. All doctors in the UK are required by law to be registered with the GMC and hold a licence to practise. Only doctors who are registered with a licence to practise can work as a doctor in the NHS and write prescriptions. Psychiatrists are on the GMC Specialist Register.
The website contains information about the role of a psychologist and training.
Clinical (and other types of) psychologists, occupational therapists, social workers and arts therapists need to be registered with the Health and Care Professions Council. The organisation regulates their activities.
All nurses have to be registered with the Nursing and Midwifery Council, an organisation that sets standards of education, training and conduct in the UK.
Other useful websites
The organisation that registers social workers in Wales and regulates their training and conduct.
is the regulatory body for pharmacists, pharmacy technicians and pharmacy premises in England, Scotland and Wales.
The website contains information about the role of an occupational therapist and training.
Other useful websites
The organisation runs a voluntary register for counsellors and psychotherapists.
Other useful websites
There is information about the role and training of the IAPT workforce on this site (including information about pscyholoigical wellbeing practitioners and high intensity therapists).