The Differences Between Different Kinds of Prescribers

Conversationally, we tend to refer to mental health providers who prescribe psychiatric medication as “psychiatrists.” In reality, there are a lot of different kinds of providers who can prescribe psych meds.

Knowing the differences between these providers is important if you think you might need medication to manage your mental health concerns. It’s helpful to know what to expect from each type of prescriber so you can make the best choice for your situation.

Primary Care Physicians

Required Education

Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO)

What Kind of Care They Can Provide

Primary care physicians can prescribe psychiatric medication, but they may not have specialization in mental health or in prescribing those medications. Because of this, you may want to consider seeing a prescriber who specializes in mental health care to monitor your medications long-term. The best-case scenario is generally having your primary care and mental health professionals who can collaborate if needed.

However, if you already have a good relationship with your primary care doctor and they know your medical history, this can be a good place to start. You probably know how to make an appointment with your primary care doctor, have a rapport with them, and they can refer you to a prescriber with more specialized mental health training if needed.

Family Nurse Practitioners 

Required Education

Master of Science (MS) or Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in nursing, plus a nursing license in the state where they practice

What Kind of Care They Can Provide

Based on state laws, family nurse practitioners generally operate similarly to a primary care doctor. Like a primary care doctor, they can prescribe medications, but you may want to see someone with more specialization in mental health care.

Physician Assistants

Required Education

Master’s degree and certification

What Kind of Care They Can Provide

Physician assistants can provide medical and psychiatric services under the supervision of a psychiatrist or primary care doctor. Like primary care doctors, they may not have specialized mental health training.

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners

Required Education

Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) degree 

What Kind of Care They Can Provide

Psychiatric nurse practitioners provide similar care to a traditional nurse practitioner, but they focus specifically on mental health. They often operate similarly to psychiatrists, but have differences in education and scope of practice. They can assess, diagnose, and treat patients with behavioral and mental health conditions.

Some states limit psychiatric NPs’ duties, so be sure to clarify early on what kind of care you can expect from your psych NP. They often work with a family nurse practitioner to provide holistic care. So if you already see a nurse practitioner, they may be able to recommend a psychiatric nurse practitioner who can collaborate with them.


Required Education

Doctor of Medicine (MD) and a residency program specializing in psychiatry

What Kind of Care They Can Provide

Psychiatrists can diagnose and treat medication conditions, which includes providing medication. They tend to focus on diagnosing, treating, and preventing mental health disorders. Some psychiatrists focus on treating children, adolescents, or the elderly, while others will treat any patient.

Psychiatrists are qualified to provide talk therapy and prescribe medications, but most psychiatrists only manage medications.

If you have a good existing relationship with your primary care provider, that can be a good place to start. But if your mental health journey ends up involving ongoing medication management, you may want to consider seeing a psychiatrist or a psychiatric nurse practitioner – especially if that medication management becomes complex or you end up needing to seek treatment for a complicated condition.

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