What’s the difference among a therapist, psychologist, and psychiatrist? For many people these three terms are used interchangeably — but they shouldn’t be. While therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists often work together closely to improve a patient’s mental health, they are distinct professions. Here is some information to help you understand these different medical professions, and help you determine which one is right for your health needs.
What is a psychologist?
A psychologist specializes in the study of behaviors and mental processes. This includes emotional and cognitive processes, how people interact with their environments, and how they interact with other people.
Psychologists help people learn to understand and handle different life problems and mental health issues.
A psychologist diagnoses and treats mental disorders, learning disabilities, and behavioral problems. They may provide treatment for chronic problems or acute problems, and they can do so in an individual, family, or group setting. The most common type of treatment used by psychologists is psychotherapy, or talk therapy.
Psychologists help patients handle stressful events, beat addictions, or manage illnesses. People may seek counseling or treatments from psychologists for things such as traumatic experiences, a death in the family, or long-term anxiety.
One of the most notable difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist is that psychologists are not medical doctors. They do not have a medical degree and are not trained in general medicine or in prescribing medications.
Practicing psychologists must earn an undergraduate major, a masters, and a doctorate in psychology. Additionally, most states require a two-year internship. Practicing psychologists may earn a PhD or PsyD.
What is a psychiatrist?
Like psychologists, psychiatrists specialize in the study, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of emotional, mental, behavioral, and developmental issues. Psychiatrists diagnose mental disorders and focus on chemical imbalances in the brain. They can assess both the mental and physical effects of a disorder.
However, unlike psychologists, psychiatrists are medical doctors, or physicians, with a degree in medicine. Psychiatrists must complete an undergraduate and medical degree, plus a four-year residency in psychiatry. They may then choose to complete a fellowship in a sub-specialty.
As medical doctors psychiatrists can prescribe medication, and while they may provide some counseling, a psychiatrist might refer a patient to a psychologist or therapist for additional counseling or therapy.
What Is a Therapist?
A therapist is a broad designation that refers to professionals who are trained to provide treatment and rehabilitation. The term is often applied to psychologists, but it can include others who provide a variety of services, including social workers, counselors, life coaches, and many others.
The term therapist is not a protected occupational title, but there are many types of therapists who do need to be licensed in order to practice. This includes occupational therapists and marriage and family therapists.
Your therapist, sometimes known as a psychotherapist or counselor, is an important part of your treatment team to overcome your mental health issue.
What Is Therapy?
Psychotherapy, also called talk therapy or usually just “therapy,” is a form of treatment aimed at relieving emotional distress and mental health problems. Provided by any of a variety of trained professionals—psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, or licensed counselors—it involves examining and gaining insight into life choices and difficulties faced by individuals, couples, or families. Therapy sessions refer to structured meetings between a licensed provider and a client with a goal of improving some aspect of their life. Psychotherapy encompasses many types of treatment and is practiced by a range of clinicians using a variety of strategies. The critical aspect is that the client or patient works collaboratively with the therapist and can identify improvement and positive change over time.
Most therapies in wide use have been well-tested and deemed effective. Though it may at first feel difficult to seek out therapy—especially for those of low-income or without comprehensive insurance—the benefits of successful therapy are literally life-changing.
Should I go to therapy?
Most people, regardless of their specific challenges, can benefit from having an impartial observer listen and offer guidance. Because of therapy’s cost and time investment, however—as well as lingering stigma surrounding mental health—the decision to begin therapy isn’t always an easy one.
To determine whether therapy is the right choice for a particular individual, they should consider whether they feel sad, anxious, overwhelmed, or irritable more often than not; if yes, therapy would likely offer emotional support and help them develop the tools to manage their mental health. But strong negative emotions aren’t the only reason someone should seek therapy. If they are struggling with relationship challenges, feel stuck in their career, find themselves turning to drugs, alcohol, or food to cope with unpleasant events, or feel disconnected from the people around them, they may find therapy to be immensely helpful.
What type of therapy is right for me?
Many types of therapy have been shown to be effective at treating common mental health challenges, and determining which approach is “best” for a particular person often comes down to their particular concerns, the alliance they’re able to form with their therapist, and their personal preferences. Clients who are coming to therapy with specific mental health concerns—such as obsessive compulsive disorder or post-traumatic stress—may benefit most from a clinician who specializes in the area or who employs a type of therapy specifically designed to treat it, while those seeking help with relationship or family problems may benefit from marriage and family therapy.
Will I receive medication if I go to therapy?
Mwdication is often used in conjunction with psychotherapy—particularly for cases of severe depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder—but it’s not a given for every client. If a therapist thinks a particular client could benefit from medication, he or she will discuss it with the client before referring him or her to a prescribing professional such as a psychiatrist or nurse practitioner. While the client will likely need to attend periodic meetings with the prescribing professional to discuss any side effects and dosage adjustments, they will also continue to see the therapist to build coping skills and strategies to further support their mental health.
When does therapy end?
Therapy typically ends when the client feels they have achieved their goals or when they feel they are no longer making progress; in some cases, logistical issues, such as changing insurance coverage, necessitate the end of therapy. Alternatively, it is possible for a therapist to determine that they are not the best practitioner to aid a particular client. When this occurs, the therapist will typically refer the client to another provider, where they can continue work if they so choose.