Within mental health services, there are several different professional bodies, all of whom will most likely, at some stage in a patient’s ‘journey’, be involved in their care. Today I will be looking at five of these professionals, describing what role each of them plays within the mental health sector…
When asked to think about mental health services, therapists are most likely to come to mind, for, therapists have long been the ‘face’ of mental health care, particularly in media portrayals of what ‘reaching out’ for help looks like.
In terms of what the actual definition of a therapist is, according to the Cambridge English Dictionary, it is ‘someone whose job is to treat a particular type of mental or physical illness or disability, usually with a particular type of therapy.’ Unsurprisingly then, the role of a therapist is to provide such therapy to those individuals who require it.
The exact role of a therapist will, of course, vary depending on the specific type of therapy they have been trained in, of which, there are many. Despite what can seem like an overwhelmingly large number of therapies out there, these therapies can, however, be split into two ‘sub-sections:’ ‘talking’ therapy, and ‘alternative’ therapy.
The former- talking therapy- comprises of all the traditional therapies on offer: Psychotherapy, Cognitive behavioural therapy, Counselling, Behavioural activation, Interpersonal therapy, Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing, and Couple therapy. Talking therapies such as these are characterised by the high involvement of a therapist, as they tend to be the one’s asking all the questions and, ultimately, ‘holding up’ the conversation.
In contrast, the latter- alternative therapy- largely consists of mindfulness techniques, including things such as meditation and breathing exercises. It can also consist of different types of therapy, e.g., hypnotherapy and reflexology, for example. These types of therapies tend to see the therapist having less involvement compared to that of talking therapies, with the therapist being there as a ‘guide’ rather than as a ‘leader.’
To ensure that the correct therapy is offered, a diagnostic assessment must first take place, something which the therapist is expected to do.
It should be noted, however, that in any type of therapy, whether that be the more ‘traditional’ type, or the more ‘alternative’ type, it is the therapist’s role to help their patient understand and cope with the problems they’re having. This, ‘in practice’, can see therapists teaching their patients problem solving skills for when such problems arise in their life, whilst also instilling in their patients the motivation to make positive changes in their life, to reduce the amount of ‘problems’ which they experience (i.e., to reduce their symptoms.)
Unlike therapists who tend to ‘symbolise’ mental health care, GPs are symbolised in such a way to a much lesser extent, if at all. This is because, when we think of going to our GP, we tend to think of going for the treatment of a physical illness, not a mental one. The reality is, however, that GPs should in fact be one’s ‘first port of call’ when they are struggling with their mental health and are seeking support.
In terms of what happens when someone does visit their GP with a mental health concern, they will, much like they would in talking therapy, discuss what problems they have been experiencing with their GP. Following what they disclose in their appointment, their GP might give them a diagnosis, and recommend that they start taking medication to help them manage the symptoms of their mental illness (e.g., anti-depressants or anti-psychotics.) They might also recommend that their patient attends a more ‘specialist’ service. If either of these things are deemed necessary, it would be the GPs role to progress them (i.e., it is their role to write up prescriptions for patients, and to refer patients to additional, more specialist mental health services.)
A psychiatrist, by definition, is ‘a medical practitioner specialising in the diagnosis and treatment of a mental illness.’ What makes psychiatrists different from GPs, is that, whilst yes, they are both medically qualified doctors, psychiatrists have chosen to specialise in one area, with that area being psychiatry. It can therefore be said that, due to a psychiatrist’s extra knowledge and expertise in treating mental health problems, someone who is struggling with their mental health would be ‘better off’ being referred to a psychiatrist as opposed to solely going to their GP, particularly if they are presenting with a more complex mental health problem.
Psychiatrists are capable of, not only diagnosing mental health conditions, but also of working with patients to develop a management plan for their ongoing treatment and long-term recovery, something which a GP wouldn’t be able to do as effectively due to their short appointment times and lack of expertise in mental health posing barriers to care.
Where necessary, psychiatrists also have the power to admit patients to hospital.
Lots of people get confused between the role of a psychiatrist and the role of a psychologist, mainly because of their incredibly similar sounding names, if for nothing else. There are, however, major differences between the two, with the biggest difference being that, whereas psychiatrists are medical doctors, psychologists are not. Another big difference is that, unlike psychiatrists who can prescribe medication and diagnose illnesses, psychologists cannot.
So, what exactly can psychologists do? Well, it is the role of a psychologist to ‘study the human mind and human emotions and behaviour, and how different situations influence people’, as the Cambridge Dictionary states. They will achieve this through, first completing a psychological assessment that will assess the needs of their patients, and then, depending on the outcome of the assessment, offering them the opportunity to engage in talking therapy, something which will help them (their patients) to address and manage their challenging thoughts. Through this, they aim to, not only improve the present, day to day life of their patients, but also to reduce the risk of them relapsing in the future.
An Advocate’s role is not to treat mental health conditions in the way that the other professional bodies discussed do (therapists, GPs, psychiatrists, and psychologists), but to ensure that the treatment they are provided with is fair and upholds their basic human rights.
In the context of mental health services, advocates are more important than ever because, the very nature of some mental illnesses means that those receiving treatment will not be taken seriously by those in authority, especially if they are deemed to be lacking capacity and are sectioned under the mental health act as a result. If this does happen (if someone is sectioned), they will automatically be issued with an Independent Mental Health Advocate who can; help them to understand what they are being told, speak on their behalf, and most importantly, ensure that their rights are upheld. Other ways in which an advocate can help someone as they receive treatment for their mental health is by; helping them to explore their options, providing them with information to help them make informed decisions, helping them to contact relevant people, and accompanying/supporting them to meetings and/or appointments.
Whilst Advocates are typically professionals, they can also, though much less commonly, be an individual’s family member, friend, or carer, with the role of an ‘informal’ advocate such as this being the same as that of a professional, as outlined above.
As I have discussed in this post, there are a wide range of professionals involved in the care of people who are struggling with their mental health, with these people being involved right the way through one’s recovery process, from diagnosis, to discharge. Although they all have a slightly different role to play in one’s recovery journey, the interpersonal approach that is applied within mental health services means that, the roles they do play, different or not, are all equally as important, and should be treated as such.