What are the different types of mental health professionals and the differences between these?

There are many different types of mental health professionals working in Aotearoa New Zealand. When looking for help it can be hard to know which type of provider is best for you and what the differences between them are. Each of the providers listed below has undergone different education and training, and can offer different forms of treatment and therapy. The right provider for you will depend on your specific needs. 


Psychiatrists are medical doctors who can assess, diagnose and treat mental illness and emotional and behavioural disorders. They tend to help those with more serious mental illness. Psychiatrists can prescribe medication and are trained in talk therapy (also called psychological therapy). However, they may refer clients onto psychologists or counsellors for talk therapy.

A psychiatrist has completed a 5 year Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery (MBChB) and has then completed 5 to 7 years of specialised training in mental illness, talk therapy, and the use of psychiatric medications.


Psychologists assess, diagnose, and provide treatment for psychological disorders and other psychological issues impacting an individuals’ emotions, thoughts, and behaviours. A psychologist will form a diagnosis based on assessment and psychological testing, and then formulate a treatment plan. Psychologists are trained in the use of a range of scientifically based short-term therapies which aim to address the symptoms of mental health problems to improve the clients’ quality of life. For example, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a common form of talk therapy used by psychologists.

A psychologist has completed a master’s or higher degree in psychology, 1500 hours of supervised practice, and is registered with the New Zealand Psychologists Board. Clinical psychologists complete a master’s or higher degree in psychology and have completed two years practical training as part of a Postgraduate Diploma in Clinical Psychology or a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. Clinical psychologists have studied and trained at university for between 6 to 8 years.


Counsellors provide talk therapy to those experiencing psychological or emotional difficulties to improve their overall mental health and wellbeing. Counsellors can assist clients in dealing with challenges they may be facing, help them find ways to cope with these challenges, and help clients learn to manage their emotions and behaviour. Counsellors cannot diagnose mental illness. Instead, their role is to provide talk therapy to those struggling with a range of issues such as stress or relationship difficulties.

A counsellor has a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in counselling and is registered with a professional organisation for counsellors. Typically, counsellors specialise in an area of counselling, such as addictions or couples counselling.


Psychotherapists use psychotherapy to improve mental health and wellbeing. Psychotherapy is a more in depth and longer term form of talk therapy than counselling which focuses on past experiences, trauma, childhood experiences, and relationships. The aim is to understand how these factors contribute to the clients' issues and to build a better understanding of the individuals’ emotions and behaviour.

Psychotherapists have a qualification in psychotherapy and are registered with the Psychotherapists Board of Aotearoa. 

Mental Health Nurse:

A mental health nurse is a registered nurse who is specialised in the care of those experiencing mental illness or emotional or psychological difficulties. Mental health nurses may work in inpatient or community settings and work to assist individuals and their family in recovery from mental illness. Their role may include assessing patients, providing therapy, ensuring correct medication administration, conducting risk assessment, monitoring patient progress, providing education, and coordinating services and care.

A mental health nurse has a Bachelor of Nursing (or equivalent qualification) and is registered with the Nursing Council of New Zealand. They have then completed further postgraduate study and specialisation in mental health and have gained experience in relevant treatment settings.

Social Worker:

Social workers provide support and advice to people experiencing social or personal issues. A social worker can act as a facilitator between clients and community services, assist clients in accessing resources (such as health, housing and employment), assess and identify issues facing an individual, and provide information and education. Support offered by a social worker will differ based on individual needs. Social workers can also help with addressing wider social and community issues.

A social worker has a recognised qualification, such as a bachelor’s or master’s of social work, and is registered with the Social Workers Registration Board. 

Life Coach:

A life coach works with clients to help them achieve their goals and reach their full potential. Life coaches do not provide counselling, but rather help the individual by teaching them skills to reach their goals, identify challenges, and work towards improving overall wellbeing. They can also assist with career advice, relationship coaching, building self confidence, and identifying strengths and weaknesses.

Some life coaches are trained counsellors, some have completed specific life coach training, and others do not have formal training and instead base their work on life experience. Life coaches do not require a formal qualification or registration to practice.