A guide to mental health professionals in Canada

March 23, 2023

For business owners, plan sponsors and administrators

This guide was created in partnership with Manulife’s Medical Director, Cleveland Clinic Canada.

Which provider is the right provider?

The mental health care system in Canada is complex. There are different types of experts who provide different kinds of treatment. Each type of provider also has different levels of education and qualifications.

The mental health providers your members might work with include:

  • Family physicians
  • Psychiatrists
  • Psychologists
  • Psychotherapists
  • Social workers
  • Marriage counsellors and Family therapists
  • Clinical counsellors
  • Occupational therapists
  • Registered psychiatric nurses

Some mental health services are paid for by the provincial health plan, such as care delivered by physicians (family doctors and psychiatrists), care provided through hospitals, or care delivered via other specific mental health programs. Certain local agencies or organizations may also provide no-cost or low-cost options for mental health supports. Other services may be covered through your organization’s group benefits plan*.

Title Description Education Types of treatment provided Can prescribe medication?
Family physician As a first step, people often (but not always) discuss their mental health concerns with their family doctor. A doctor might refer the patient to a psychiatrist. After a referral is initiated, wait times to see a psychiatrist may be longer than expected – from several months to a year or longer.
  • Bachelor’s degree
  • Medical School
  • Multi-year residency
Primary care giver. Can provide treatment through psychotherapy or medications. Though some family physicians specialize in providing psychotherapy, many will refer to other providers for therapy services. Family physicians can also connect individuals with social supports or other resources, or they may refer to funded programs or services through their clinics for psychotherapy. Yes.
Psychiatrist A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who has received specialized training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions.
  • Bachelor’s degree
  • Medical school
  • Multi-year residency in mental health
  • May specialize in treating certain conditions or age ranges (i.e., schizophrenia, adolescents, etc.)
Provides treatment through psychotherapy, medication, psychosocial intervention, and other treatments (depending on the needs of each patient). Psychiatrists usually offer assessments and short-term follow-up, but do not provide ongoing therapy or care beyond the initial assessment period. Yes
Psychologist A psychologist is trained to assess, diagnose, treat, and reduce the impact of behavioural and mental conditions.
  • PhD in clinical or experimental psychology (at a minimum)
Most offer a range of different types of psychotherapy to address common mental health concerns as well as more complex concerns such as addiction, trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, personality disorders, phobias, and grief. No
Psychotherapist A psychotherapist helps treat mild to severe dysfunction related to short-term mental health concerns as well as long-term mental health disorders.
  • Master’s degree in counselling or a related professional field
Note – psychotherapy may also be delivered by family physicians, psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses, social workers, and other care providers.
Psychotherapy involves verbal and non-verbal communication, as well as exercises to do outside of the session, to help people address and change negative thought patterns, feelings, and behaviours. No
Social worker A social worker provides counselling to individuals and families suffering from a variety of issues, including marital breakdown, parenting challenges, adverse childhood events, chronic disease, substance use and/or other issues that may take place in schools or in the workplace. Social workers will often refer people to social service agencies in their communities. Note – not all social workers provide mental health care, and in other instances, mental health care is only part of the work a social worker may conduct.
  • Bachelor’s degree (at a minimum)
  • Master’s degree in social work (for more advanced work)
Provides counselling or psychotherapy in various forms. Some social workers specialize in areas like grief counselling, couples counselling, childhood trauma, or phobias. No
Marriage counsellor/Family therapist Marriage counsellors focus on the needs of a couple. Family counsellors can provide care for anyone within a family including parents, co-parents, children, grandparents, and others.
  • Master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, social work, psychology, or another related discipline (at a minimum)
Treats a wide range of clinical issues where the focus of distress and dysfunction involves the family or couple. No
Clinical counsellor A clinical counsellor focuses on emotional wellness and coping with various discrete stressors in life such as financial concerns, relationship issues, and occupational challenges (as opposed to diagnosing and treating mental health disorders).
  • Usually requires a master's degree in the field of counselling, mental health, or a related social service discipline
Focuses primarily on particular stressors and/or broader emotional wellness. Tends to be shorter in duration. No
Occupational therapist An occupational therapist works with people affected by emotional or psychological problems to maintain, restore, or increase their ability to care for themselves and to engage in work, school, or leisure. Note – some occupational therapists specialize in mental health, however, mental health care is only a subset of the work an occupational therapist may conduct, and many occupational therapists do not provide mental health care.
  • Master’s degree in occupational therapy
Works with clients to explore abilities, needs and goals, and support how behavioural changes or accommodations to a person’s environment or workplace can help them meet their goals. No
Registered psychiatric nurse A registered psychiatric nurse has specialized training to help assess, address, and monitor mental health and behavioural conditions. Note – this type of professional may not be available in every province and territory.
  • Registered psychiatric nursing program at a university or college
Focused on rehabilitation, and recovery related to mental health conditions, and may also engage in activities to promote mental well-being. Yes. Registered psychiatric nurses may prescribe certain medications for specific patient conditions (e.g., for the treatment of opioid use disorder).