Psychologist vs Psychiatrist vs Therapist: What’s the Difference?
You might hear someone mention they’re seeing a therapist, or think you could benefit from seeing one yourself – but what is a therapist, exactly? Searching for mental health care providers online will return many different types of professionals who provide psychotherapy services. Are they all therapists?
“Psychotherapy can feel like a mysterious, alchemical process, especially for the uninitiated. When I started therapy, I chose a clinician based on her Psychology Today profile and a good hunch during our consultation. I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best,” writes Laura Newberry in the Los Angeles Times. “But because I had nothing to compare it to, I sometimes wondered whether my therapist was the right ‘fit’ for me. What did a good fit even look and feel like in this relationship that is so unlike any other?”
If you’re thinking about therapy, it’s helpful to learn more about the different kinds of mental health professionals who might be able to support your needs.
Talking about therapy
“Psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, is a term for a variety of treatment techniques that aim to help a person identify and change unhealthy emotions, thoughts and behaviors,” according to the Cleveland Clinic website.
Talk therapy can allow people to redirect patterns of behavior and may be helpful if you are having trouble dealing with a loved one, have lost a significant person or pet in your life, or have a life change with which you aren’t coping well. Talk therapy may also be helpful when you are diagnosed with a mental health condition like depression, anxiety, bipolar or other psychiatric conditions.
Talk therapy is provided by a qualified mental health professional and may be used along with medication or other therapeutic strategies, according to the Cleveland Clinic website. Professionals may include psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists.
What is a psychologist?
Typically, a psychologist is a mental health professional who often specializes in talk therapy, but does not prescribe mental health medications. However, the American Psychological Association website indicates that psychologists licensed in states including Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, and New Mexico may be able to prescribe medication.
In every state, psychologists must go through rigorous schooling and training in order to become licensed.
“After years of graduate school and supervised training, they become licensed by their states to provide a number of services, including evaluations and psychotherapy,” according to the American Psychological Association website. “Psychologists help by using a variety of techniques based on the best available research and consider someone’s unique values, characteristics, goals, and circumstances.”
A psychologist’s training focuses on the science, theory and practice of psychology and human behavior, according to the Psychology Today website.
“A psychologist has a doctoral degree, such as a doctorate in philosophy, a Ph.D., or a doctorate in psychology, a Psy.D.,” according to the website. “A psychologist’s training may delve more deeply into the science, theory, and practice of psychology and human behavior. They may be more likely to treat severe mental illnesses such as psychosis or personality disorders. They can conduct psychological and neuropsychological testing. Outside of a clinical context, a psychologist may also be a researcher in an academic or institutional setting.”
According to the Cleveland Clinic website, there are a number of specialty areas for psychologists, including:
- “Child psychology
- Clinical psychology
- Counseling psychology
- Brain science and cognitive psychology
- Developmental psychology
- Experimental psychology
- Forensic and public service psychology
- Health psychology
- Rehabilitation psychology
- Sport and performance psychology”
What is a psychiatrist?
Unlike a psychologist, a psychiatrist is a medical doctor who can prescribe medicines. Similar to psychologists, they spend significant time training and studying human behaviors, treatment and diagnosis of mental, emotional and behavioral diseases.
“To become a psychiatrist, a person must complete medical school and take a written examination for a state license to practice medicine, and then complete four years of psychiatry residency. In other words, it typically takes 12 years of education after high school to become a general adult psychiatrist, and up to 14 years to become a child and adolescent psychiatrist,” according to the American Psychiatry Association website.
According to the website, psychiatrists’ “education and clinical training equip them to understand the complex relationship between emotional and other medical illnesses and the relationships with genetics and family history, to evaluate medical and psychological data, to make a diagnosis, and to work with patients to develop treatment plans.”
What is a therapist?
The term therapist may refer to a psychologist, a psychiatrist, or another type of professional with a master’s degree in mental health.
“A ‘therapist’ is an overarching term for a clinician who treats mental health concerns. It often applies, and is colloquially used, as a label for each of these three categories. For example, therapists often have a master’s degree, but a psychologist with a doctorate degree may also be called a therapist,” according to the Psychology Today website.
Therapists have titles to reflect their specialized training and licensing in their field of interest, which can include, according to the Psych Central website:
- “Mental health counselor: has several years’ experience in clinical work
- Licensed professional counselor (LPC): master’s degrees in counseling, psychology, or a similar field
- Certified alcohol and drug abuse counselor: training in alcohol and drug use
- Nurse psychotherapist: registered nurses with specialized training in the psychiatric and mental health field
- Licensed marital and family therapist (LMFT): trained in marital and family therapy”
Psychologists vs psychiatrists vs therapists
Psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists all have similar goals: to ensure their patients’ mental health and well-being are the best they can be. When you’re going through a hard time personally, they may be able to help you understand the issues at hand and work to resolve them to ensure you are living your best life.
Since the goals of many of these professionals are similar, your personal needs may help you decide which one is right for you. There are a lot of factors that you may consider when determining which kind of professional is right for you.
A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that the percentage of psychiatrists practicing psychotherapy is declining.
“While a small group of psychiatrists (11%−15%) continued to provide psychotherapy in all [out]patient visits, in the 2010s, about half of psychiatrists did not provide psychotherapy at all, and those who provided psychotherapy in some [out]patient visits came to do so more and more rarely,” according to the study. “The decline in psychotherapy provision by U.S. psychiatrists may be related to changing economic pressures, as well as to the specialization in prescription of new psychotropic medications.”
This means that if you are looking for talk therapy, it may be difficult to find a psychiatrist for this treatment.
Differences in treatment methods
A key difference among providers is that since psychiatrists are trained as medical doctors, they are also able to prescribe medications or other medical treatments that may be appropriate for their patients.
In addition to talk therapy and mental health medication, psychiatrists may also use other forms of treatment to help their patients. According to the Mayo Clinic, brain stimulation treatment may help when other treatments have failed. Some of these treatments may include “electroconvulsive therapy, repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, deep brain stimulation and vagus nerve stimulation.”
Psychologist vs psychiatrist vs therapist: Who is right for you?
Learning the differences among these professionals’ backgrounds may be the first step in helping you meet your mental health goals. However, credentials might not be everything when it comes to finding the right fit in a provider.
When determining what kind of therapist to see, according to the ADAA, there are both practical and emotional issues to consider.
From a practical standpoint, there are questions to consider about insurance coverage and payment. A new patient should also ask about areas of expertise, the kind of training the mental health professional has and what kinds of therapy they practice.
Matching schedules is very important. If a professional doesn’t offer evening hours, and you work 9-5, it might not work for you. Additionally, if you prefer seeing someone from the comfort of your home, you may want to see if the provider offers telehealth sessions.
There are also emotional issues to consider. These have to do as much with what you want, as what the provider offers. For example, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), some questions you should consider about working together may include (but are not limited to): “How will you help me overcome my problem?” or “How long will it take before I can expect to feel better?”
Finally, and most importantly, you need to find someone who you “click” with. Therapy only works if you have a trusting relationship with your therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist. Following through on therapy – whether that’s taking your medicine, practicing the techniques learned in talk therapy or redirecting your thoughts and emotions – only works if you adhere to it.
“… what tends to matter most is the commitment to change and the connection you forge with a therapist,” Psychology Today. “It’s important to find someone with whom you feel comfortable and with whom you can build a working relationship – this is what makes therapy healing and transformative.”
If you’re searching for mental health services, Psychology Today maintains a Find a Therapist tool. You may also want to talk with your primary care provider about your local options.
For more information about this topic, please read our other blog posts:
- Psychologist vs. Psychiatrist: How to Choose for Depression and Anxiety?
- How to Talk to Your Doctor about Anxiety Medication
- Better Understanding Therapy: What’s It Like and What Really Happens in a Therapy Session?
Our articles are for informational purposes only and are reviewed by our Medical Information team, which includes PharmDs, MDs, and PhDs. Do not make any changes to your current medications or dosing without consulting your healthcare provider.
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