Searching for recovery professionals who treat substance use disorders (SUDs) can be confusing. There are so many types of physicians, counselors, social workers, and coaches. Learn who does what and who can help with mental illness and substance use, as well as recovery for family members and other loved ones.

Finding The Right Recovery Professional

It’s really important to know who does what. All professionals have had some type of education, from Bachelor’s degrees to Medical degrees. However, many professionals have general practices. In other words, they don’t specialize in addiction or co-occurring mental illness and substance use.

You want to get assessed for treatment by a professional who has addiction training because these professionals can advise the best course of action.

Always ask the provider if she or he has a specialty in addiction before signing on for assessment or treatment.

Who Are The Professionals And What Do They Do?


Addictionologists are medical doctors such as M.D.’s, D.O’s, or  Psychiatrists (medical doctors who have extra, specific training in psychiatric issues such as depression and anxiety), and who are specifically trained as addiction medical doctors. Addiction Physicians are another name for them.

Art Therapists

These recovery professionals have Master’s degrees in art therapy. Art therapists use a variety of mediums (painting, sculpting, etc.) to help clients to connect to their feelings, their core issues, and their recovery needs. Creativity is associated with healing and art therapy helps to get into a space of utilizing the right brain/creative brain.

Assessment Specialists

Various professionals may conduct assessments for the initial psychosocial history. These are most likely to be conducted by a social worker or counseling psychologist. However, various specialists also do their own assessments such as a physician doing a history and physical examination or an occupational therapist doing an assessment about the:

  • Social
  • Occupational
  • Recreational
  • Physical needs of an individual.

Counseling Psychologists

These counselors are specifically trained in working with the client’s emotional and mental functioning. They usually have a Master’s degree or a PH.D. They can conduct a psychosocial assessment to learn about one’s history which includes:

  • Biological history
  • Psychological history
  • Social functioning

They are also trained in utilizing a variety of testing tools such as:

  • The MMPI or Millon (psychiatric assessments)
  • IQ testing

Testing for

  • ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder)
  • Depression
  • Other mental health issues

They may provide individual, group, and family therapy.

Grief Therapists

May include any of the other therapists but training is focused more specifically on grief and loss and death and dying. There is no specific degree for a grief therapist but there are specialized trainings for a certification as a grief therapist.

Intervention Specialists

These specialists focus on helping families and friends of the person who has an addiction to intervene through a group process to aid the person to get into recovery. These recovery professionals are usually already trained in counseling or social work.

Marriage and Family Therapist

MFT’s may be trained in counseling psychology, social work, or trained specifically as a marriage and family therapist. The latter have Master’s or Doctoral degrees in Marriage and Family therapy.

Music Therapists

Music therapists may have either a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in music therapy. They use music for healing and recovery and for helping people to connect to their feelings and to communicate. Like art therapists, they help clients to connect to their right brain/creative brains for transformation.


Nurses provide a lot of work in inpatient and outpatient services. They may help with detox and medication needs, ongoing client health services, and for psychiatric nurses, they may also provide other treatment to aid the doctors and clients with providing therapy or medication and medical-related psychoeducational groups. On a medical unit, they provide the majority of daily services. They usually have a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in nursing.

Occupational Therapists

These therapists have a Master’s or Doctoral degree in occupational therapy where they have a variety of skills related to helping people with work-related issues, doing physical/manual assessments and therapy, and focusing on rehabilitation for activities of daily living.


As note earlier, psychiatrists are medical doctors specializing in mental health and substance use issues. They provide medical treatment such as medications and other treatments. They may also provide therapy for individuals or groups.

Social Workers

Social workers are the providers of the majority of services in mental health and substance use programs. They can have a Bachelors’ degree where they can help with case management needs (helping you to coordinate such things as your medical, work, childcare, and family situations) or they may be providing psychoeducational groups where you learn about your:

  • Addiction
  • Mental health
  • Coping skills
  • Relapse prevention
  • Other educational needs

A Master’s of Social Work or a doctoral degree such as a PhD or Doctor of Social Work allows the professional to do all of the above duties, but he/she can also provide counseling. They may be the person who does your psychosocial assessment as social workers are trained to examine all of the issues related to the person, not just counseling needs.

Social workers examine you in your environment and take into consideration all aspects of your life such as work, housing, family influences, life stressors such as poverty and unemployment, etc. They provide individual, group, and family therapy.

Spiritual Leaders

Spiritual leaders such as ministers, priests, spiritual directors, and others are often utilized in treatment, especially inpatient and intensive outpatient services or at medical facilities such as hospitals. They may have degrees in a certain religious practice or broader training regarding all religions. They may have a Bachelor’s, Master’s degree such as a Master’s of Divinity, or a Doctoral degree such as a PhD or Doctor of Ministry.

Substance Abuse Counselors

These are counselors that may have professional degrees such as counseling psychology or social work, and/or they may have specialized training and professional certification regarding this specialty area. In the past, a lot of recovering people became counselors without professional training, but for many years, they have been required to get professional education. There can be national certifications and/or state certifications for these counselors.


Therapist is a broad term used to cover those who work providing some type of mental health and substance abuse counseling such as counselors and social workers. As you’ve seen above, there are numerous types of therapists and therapy. There are other providers who have specialties that can help with recovery, like:

  • Equine and wolf therapy
  • Biofeedback
  • Yoga
  • Pain management.

In addition, there is plenty of overlap in what the above professionals offer. Recovery is a life-changing experience that makes people better than they were before, unlike any other disease outcome. Recovery also lasts a lifetime, so you made need many different kinds of professionals to insure successful long term recovery.

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Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson, D.Min., ACSW, LMSW, is a licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience in the fields of mental health, addictions, and co-occurring disorders. Her other specialties include grief and trauma, women’s issues, chronic pain management, holistic healing, GLBTQ concerns, and spirituality and transpersonal psychology. Dr. Anderson has been educated and trained in the fields of education, social work, and spirituality, and she holds a Doctor of Ministry degree (non-denominational/interfaith) specializing in spirituality.

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