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A Beginners Guide to Mental Health

I often have clients who come to their first counseling appointment trying to understand what specific help I provide and questions related to the terms and titles that make up our mental health lingo. Does a counselor prescribe medications? Who is able to give a diagnosis and if a diagnosis is given what happens next? How do you know what kind of therapy is best for your situation? Most people rarely have experience navigating the world of mental health until a crisis hits and then figuring out how to proceed can be daunting.  Here are five of the most common terms that people ask about when starting therapy:

1. Counselor/Therapist

This term is used interchangeably to describe someone who has professional training in diagnosing and treating psychological conditions with an emphasis on consistent weekly interactions. The purpose of the frequent appointments is to provide education, training, and guidance that will help a person understand why they are struggling and what they can do to feel better. Meeting with a licensed counselor is a good place to start when trying to determine if medication or testing is necessary and they can often provide referrals if needed.

2. Psychiatrist 

The primary reason someone will schedule with a psychiatrist is to get a prescription for medications. A psychiatrist has the equivalent of a medical doctor degree with a specialty in the treatment of psychological conditions. They collect information to give a diagnosis and then decide on the appropriate medication to address problem symptoms. Just as you would see your primary doctor only when needing to start a medication or monitor effectiveness, most people only meet with a psychiatrist to get an evaluation for a prescription and check-ups to evaluate if medication changes are needed.


If you have ever been told that you or a loved one need to get further “testing” to help understand an issue, you will most likely see a psychologist. A psychologist has advanced training in administering specialized testing that is more in-depth than what a counselor or psychiatrist uses to diagnose. After completing testing, a psychologist will meet with you to explain the results and give recommendations for treatment. Some psychologists meet for one-to-one counseling sessions on a weekly basis and offer therapy in addition to testing.


A diagnosis is simply a grouping of symptoms that direct what kind of treatment will help. For instance if someone describes feeling hopeless and having trouble with motivation to get out of bed (depression symptoms), they will need a different kind of treatment than someone who is constantly worried and struggles with perfectionism (anxiety symptoms). A diagnosis is given in order to classify symptoms a person is having which directs what kind of therapy or medication will likely work best.


There are different ways to help a person who is struggling with a mental health condition. Meeting consistently with a trained professional to talk about problems is part of therapy, but there is also specialized training that counselors have to know how to guide that process.  If someone says they use “evidence-based” therapy this means that they follow steps that have been researched and proven to help with a specific diagnosis. There is no “magic bullet” therapy! A counselor has training to guide the process but a client’s motivation is the highest predictor of success.


Sonia Combs is a licensed mental health counselor in Spokane, Washington where she offers individual counseling and runs a thriving group practice. She incorporates her journey of parenthood, partnership, and faith to help others grow in their relationships. You can learn more about Sonia and read other blogs at

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