The Difference Between A Therapist, Psychologist And Psychiatrist

What type of mental health expert is best suited for your needs? Start with this brief guide.

At this point, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t experienced extreme stress or fear in the last few months. Our mental health is at risk, between police brutality and racial trauma and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

According to recent data, about one-third of Americans are exhibiting clinical signs of depression, anxiety or both. And managing that may require help from a professional.

“Now that telehealth is being so widely adopted, I hope that more people will turn to mental health providers sooner rather than later. This is what we’re trained for and we’re here to help,” said Ariana Mufson, a licensed independent clinical social worker in Brookline, Massachusetts.

However, seeking out mental health help is no easy task. It takes work to find a match who meets your needs, and that starts with discerning which type of expert will work best for you. Do you need a psychiatrist? A therapist? A psychologist? A licensed clinical social worker? What is even the difference?

While some of these professionals provide similar services, stark variations exist among them. Here’s a breakdown of what each one does so you can better determine what kind of mental health professional may be the most suited for you:

Psychologist: The expert who mainly focuses on mental health issues and management.

Psychologists are doctoral-level mental health providers who have typically earned a doctor of philosophy or doctor of psychology degree.

What distinguishes psychologists from other mental health providers is their knowledge of and treatment ability for a wide range of mental health issues. People see psychologists for a mental health disorder, but they can also go if they need help with everyday issues and stressors ― like overwhelming anger or sadness, panic attacks, headaches, sleep disturbances, etc. ― have become difficult to manage.

A psychologist is often the go-to provider when a patient thinks they might need an evaluation for unexplainable mood symptoms and/or ineffective interpersonal functioning. It is also a standard practice for family medical practitioners to refer to a psychologist before prescribing psychiatric medication or referring them to someone who can, said QuaVaundra Perry, a psychologist with Perry Psychological & Consultation Services in Rockwall, Texas.

“A psychologist is skilled at clinical interviews and comprehensive psychological evaluations to confirm and rule out mental illness diagnoses.”

- QuaVaundra Perry

“A psychologist is skilled at clinical interviews and comprehensive psychological evaluations to confirm and rule out mental illness diagnoses,” Perry said. “These sessions are useful because they illuminate and help people make sense of their symptoms, since most people’s experience is not as clear as a textbook description.”

Once a formulation is made about symptoms and a comprehensive treatment plan is developed, the psychologist will then typically hop into utilizing an evidence-based treatment, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, Perry said. She described CBT as “a treatment that helps you focus less on what happens to you but rather better understand the connection between how your perception of the event negatively impacts your behavior and emotions.”

Joy Lere, a psychologist practicing in Napa, California, noted that psychologists are credentialed and licensed by the state. Those who have completed their doctorate studies “are required to complete a specific number of supervised hours and pass state licensure examinations following graduation in order to practice as a psychologist,” she said.

Aimee Daramus, a psychologist in Chicago, also noted that in a few states, including Illinois, New Mexico, Iowa, Idaho and Louisiana, psychologists can prescribe a limited range of mental health medications if they have an additional masters degree in psychopharmacology. But typically this practice is rare.

Psychiatrist: The doctor who will likely prescribe any medication you may need.

A psychiatrist is a licensed medical doctor who has completed psychiatric training. This professional is licensed to diagnose mental health conditions and can also prescribe and monitor medications, such as antidepressants.

“Many psychiatrists are also trained to do talk therapy,” said Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills, California-based family and relationship psychotherapist and author of “The Self-Aware Parent.”

However, most psychiatrists will focus on the condition and subsequent treatment from a physiological standpoint. This often means analyzing the symptoms, then prescribing medication to help manage a mental health disorder.

In plenty of cases, a psychiatrist will also talk about your relationships, especially parental ones, starting with analyzing your early childhood. But many psychiatrists will refer a patient to a psychologist or another therapist for more in-depth, talk-therapy-based treatments.

These mental health professionals will typically have a doctor of medicine or doctor of osteopathic medicine degree. It is also required that they complete a residency in psychiatry and that they are licensed in the state wherever they are practicing. Psychiatrists may also be credentialed as “board certified” by the Board of Neurology and Psychiatry.

Finding the right type of mental health professional is the first step to getting help.
Finding the right type of mental health professional is the first step to getting help.

Therapists: The professional (and term) most commonly associated with regular talk therapy.

“Therapist” is basically a catch-all term for master-level mental health professionals who can help treat mental health struggles. And the term “counselor” and “therapist” are often used interchangeably.

This group, outside of psychologists and psychiatrists, can include social workers (LCSWs), marriage and family therapists (MFTs), and licensed professional clinical counselors (LPCC). These experts typically will have attended a two-year graduate school program after obtaining their undergraduate degree, said Emin Gharibian, a psychologist with Verdugo Psychological Associates In Los Angeles.

“There are some minor differences between these degrees, but for the most part, (therapists) will do individual and group therapy in a variety of settings, including private practice, schools, hospitals, clinics, community mental health centers, jails and prisons,” he said.

Ted Chan, CEO of the health care directory CareDash, noted that those with just this level of training and certification cannot prescribe medication.

“For patients that require therapy to manage more defined day-to-day issues, counselors are typically easier to schedule, more responsive and less expensive,” he said.

“I don’t give up fighting for what is right and just for my clients, and I help them discover their best interests, their self-respect, their empowerment, and their ability to evolve and grow.”

- Lynn Zaker

The differences between the different practitioners within this group vary depending on the treatment setting. For example, Amy Rollo, owner of Heights Family Counseling in Houston, explained that “a marriage and family therapist’s training is heavily focused on relationships and systems, as well treating couples and families.”

When a licensed MFT “is working with an individual, they seek to understand the impact relationships have on an individual’s life and mood,” she said.

Licensed clinical social workers provide therapy and diagnostic evaluations to help with emotional support and mental health issues.

“Many social workers specialize in working with vulnerable and marginalized populations, as well as help treat systemic racial trauma,” Rollo said. “Using case management skills, social workers are able to provide therapy, as well as coordinate and manage the care of additional resources to meet the client’s needs.”

They can also work in various settings. Lynn Zakeri, a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in Skokie, Illinois, previously worked with foster families and as a school social worker.

“I don’t give up fighting for what is right and just for my clients, and I help them discover their best interests, their self-respect, their empowerment, and their ability to evolve and grow,” she said.

Other types of therapists can include substance abuse or behavioral disorder-focused counselors, like for eating disorders, alcohol abuse and more.

Pastoral counselors offer similar services to that of a therapist or clinical counselor, but will also incorporate theological, religious or spiritual teachings alongside psychotherapy. Pastoral counselors often help clients deal with faith, marriage, family and other personal issues.

These professionals are typically clergy members with clinical pastoral education training and often hold an educational background in counseling and/or a postgraduate university degree. They are accredited by a local religious community and are members of the Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC).

Figuring out which type of mental health professional to see can be daunting, but pairing yourself with the right type can go a long way to ensuring you get the care you are seeking out.