Mental health professionals


Mental health services use a multidisciplinary approach, where a number of professionals offer their particular skills in a co-ordinated and complementary way.

Family doctor (GP)

Your GP is often the first person you will seek help from. He/she will assess the problem and may either provide medication and monitor your condition or may refer you to a specialist, for example, psychiatrist, psychologist or counsellor, if necessary.


A psychiatrist is a medical doctor that specialises in mental health. Psychiatrists are responsible for the medical care of psychiatric patients (medication, physical symptoms, etc.) and are also involved in counselling. A psychiatrist usually works in a psychiatric hospital or unit or as part of a community care team but can also be part of a private practice. In most cases, your GP will refer you to a psychiatrist if he or she considers it necessary or if you request a referral. A psychiatrist will assess you to decide on the best treatment. This may involve treatment with medication or referral to a member of the mental health team. If a psychiatrist thinks it necessary, he or she may suggest that a patient be admitted to hospital.


A psychologist is trained in the study of human behaviour and tries to explain feelings, thoughts and behaviour. Psychologists can provide assessment and treatment of a wide range of psychological problems. They can also help patients examine the effects their illness is having on their lives and methods of coping with those effects. Bringing a patient closer to an understanding of his or her illness is a key aim of a psychologist. When involved in the area of mental health, the psychologist usually works as a clinical, community or counselling psychologist, and unless also medically qualified, does not prescribe medication.

Clinical psychologist

The clinical psychologist has a specialist qualification in mental health and works as part of the mental health team in a unit or hospital and is involved in assessment and counselling therapy. Family therapy may be provided where appropriate and a particular approach may be used for specific problems, such as a cognitive-behavioural approach for phobias. Referral is often through a GP or psychiatrist, but self-referral is possible.

Community psychologist

The community psychologist has a clinical qualification and works as part of a community-based team with individuals such as social workers, speech therapists and community welfare officers. The community psychologist is involved in assessing and working with those with a wide range of problems, including children with behavioural, educational and other difficulties.

Counselling psychologist

Counselling psychology, as a specialist area, encompasses a broad range of practices that help people improve their well being, alleviate distress and maladjustment, resolve crises, and increase their ability to live more highly functioning lives. Counselling psychologists can be found working in diverse areas such as schools and colleges, industrial workplaces and health services.

Behavioural therapist

Behavioural therapy works on the premise that you can change what people do by teaching them to respond to things in a different way. Behavioural therapy aims to help the patient control undesirable habits or irrational fears and can be used in the treatment of behavioural conditions like eating disorders and phobias. In many cases, behaviours can be learned or unlearned through basic conditioning techniques. Behavioural therapy uses such techniques as aversive conditioning, where unwanted habits are paired with unpleasant stimuli, and systematic desensitisation, where a stimulus that causes anxiety is paired with a pleasant one. Some behavioural therapists may also be psychiatrists or psychologists but this is not necessarily the case. They may be people like psychiatric nurses or social workers who have received the relevant training to work in this area. While this kind of therapy is frequently used in the treatment of behaviour disorders, it may not be available in all regions.

Cognitive behavioural therapist

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) aims to reduce dysfunctional emotions and behaviour by changing behaviour and thinking patterns. Professionals who specialise in this kind of therapy believe that a change in symptoms and behaviour follows a change in thinking. This change can be brought about in a number of ways, including the practice of new behaviours and analysis of faulty thinking patterns. The purpose of CBT is to reduce distress or unwanted behaviour by undoing this learning or by providing new, more adaptive learning. Again, cognitive behavioural therapists may not all be psychologists or psychiatrists and you should check with your Health Service Executive (HSE) Area to see if the service is available in your area.


There are many forms of counselling available for a wide range of problems and many counsellors specialise in particular areas such as addiction or bereavement. All approaches emphasise non-judgemental, attentive listening and respect for the client. Counselling aims to enable people to take control of their own lives. Self-referral is the usual route to counselling, although a GP, psychiatrist or trusted friend may be able to recommend someone suitable. Some counsellors are qualified psychologists, but many are not. Those who are not may have a basic degree or training in other areas and/or relevant work experience (for example, teaching, nursing, etc.) plus a counselling qualification. These qualifications can vary from Masters degrees to short-term courses. It is important to make sure you are happy with the training and qualifications of any counsellor that you choose. Counselling is often one session per week and tends to be short-term rather than longer-term, although this can vary.

Addiction counsellor

Addiction counsellors provide assessment, counselling, information and treatment services for people suffering from alcohol, drugs and gambling addictions. Before receiving counselling for addiction, a patient must go through a detoxification programme, if necessary. The patient is then referred to the community-based addiction treatment service. Individual and group counselling is often used with an emphasis on the consequences of the addict's behaviour. The main aspect of treatment examines the triggering factors that lead to the development of the addiction. Target goals are set to try and establish new patterns of healthy behaviour. An important part of the treatment is the involvement of a family member, which can help to achieve these targets. The programme lasts for an average of six to eight weeks and is followed by an after care service.


Psychotherapy tends to be more in-depth than counselling. It is based on the idea that the less aware we are of our motives, feelings and actions, the more they control us and the more we stay stuck in old patterns that may be harmful to us. A psychotherapist can help patients to examine their subconscious mind. By bringing any unconscious motives, fears and feelings to light and dealing with them, patients can often get relief from their symptoms. Psychotherapists usually undertake a long postgraduate training that requires trainees to undergo therapy.

Psychiatric nurse

The psychiatric nurse plays a central role in the care of the psychiatric patient, both in a hospital setting and in the community. He or she works within a psychiatric service as part of a health care team. Nurses provide both physical and psychological care to their patients and can also provide essential support and encouragement to the patients' families. The nurse's activities are varied but can include:

  • Day patient care
  • Detoxification programmes
  • Education of student nurses and community groups
  • Family education and support
  • Group therapies, individual counselling
  • Acting as a liaison with in-patient services, GPs, strategy and voluntary organisations
  • Organisation of admissions to hospital and reception
  • Initial assessment of referrals from GPs

The community psychiatric nurse usually follows up patients on discharge from hospital, calling to their homes and attending out-patients' clinics and day care centres.

Mental health social worker

Mental health social workers work as part of a team to provide counselling, information and coping strategies. Mental health social workers help to coordinate different services. In addition to health services, this could include housing, social welfare and employment services.

Occupational therapist

Occupational therapists provide services to people whose ability to cope with everyday activities is affected by physical, psychological or developmental problems. Occupational therapy aims to enable the person to be as independent as possible. Treatment can include self care, personal development, mobility and access, skills and training, home management, work preparation and stress management.

Vocational supports trainer

Vocational training provides skills, knowledge and attitudes to help you enter employment, further training, education and self-employment. Referral is usually through a professional such as a psychiatrist, but self-referral is also possible. While some trainers are mental health professionals, such as psychiatric nurses, others may not have specific medical training.


You do not have to pay to use the services of mental health professionals who work in the public health system. If you decide to use private mental health professional services, the cost will vary. You should check with the health professional for more details.

How to apply

Contact your GP to access to mental health professionals, both public and private. Some private counsellors, psychologists, etc., can be approached directly.

Page edited: 10 December 2019