Evolution of Mental Health Professions: Counseling, Therapy and Beyond Video

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  • 0:07 Mental Heaalth Professionals
  • 1:53 Confidentiality
  • 2:53 Duty to Warn
  • 4:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

There are many types of mental health professionals, but all of them have certain duties and legal responsibilities. In this lesson, we'll look at the most common careers in mental health, as well as how some of the legal duties of mental health professionals have evolved over time.

Mental Health Professions

Abnormal psychology is the study of abnormal thoughts, behaviors, and feelings. More commonly, people who study abnormal psychology are studying mental illness, the effect it has on people, and how best to treat it.

There are many career options in the mental health arena. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in mental illness. They are the only type of mental health professionals who have a medical degree and the only type that are allowed to prescribe medication. They are also the only medical doctors who have extensive specialized training in mental health issues.

Psychologists have a Ph.D or Psy.D, and they work in research, academia, or in a clinical setting. Those who choose clinical work counsel patients and help them deal with mental illness without prescribing medication, though they may work closely with a psychiatrist or another type of medical doctor who does prescribe medication.

Clinical social workers generally have a master's degree in social work and have extensive practice in both counseling and in social work.

Counselors or family therapists often have a master's degree, though in some states it is not required. They counsel individuals, groups, or families. Some counselors specialize in a specific area, such as addiction counselors who work with people suffering from drug, alcohol, food, or other types of addiction.

Psychiatric nurses are usually trained first as a registered nurse and then specialize in mental health issues. They typically have extensive practice in treating patients with mental illness and often work closely with psychiatrists and/or psychologists.


Regardless of the certification or educational level, all mental health professionals have legal duties that they are required to uphold. One of the most important of these is that of confidentiality, or not disclosing patient information to other people.

The legal duty of confidentiality is covered in the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, also called HIPAA, which is the first federal law signed into effect to protect the privacy of patients.

Under HIPAA, mental health care providers cannot share any information about their patients except under specific circumstances, such as with a court order or with permission of the patient. If a mental health professional does break confidentiality, they might have to pay large fines or even go to jail.

Confidentiality was not always the norm in mental health, even though therapists recognized the importance of building trust in therapy. However, the legal system did not always require confidentiality, and some unethical mental health professionals did not keep client information confidential until it was required by law.

Duty to Warn

One large area where confidentiality is superseded by another duty is that of the duty to protect the patient and the public from the patient. In other words, if a patient makes a threat to himself or others, the mental health professional is obligated to warn the authorities or the person threatened.

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