Have you always wondered what the differences are between a psychiatrist vs. psychologist vs. therapist? These titles are typically always used interchangeably but did you know there are actually major differences between the three?
While yes, all of these professions are considered mental health professionals that improve the mental health of children, adults, couples, families, or groups, their specific duties and responsibilities are actually quite different.
But why is it important that you know what these titles actually mean? Well, by knowing the specialties of these professionals, it will be more efficient to seek the proper help you need for your specific condition.
It’s just like having an injury, and you go to an orthopedist instead of an ophthalmologist. By knowing who to turn to for help, you can get the proper support you need to address your specific mental health issue.
The Similarities Between a Psychiatrist, Psychologist, and Therapist
Before we talk about the differences between these three professions, let’s first discuss their similarities, which can explain why a lot of people use these terms interchangeably.
First, these three professionals work in the mental health industry. They deal with clients and patients of all ages, as long as it has something to do with mental health.
These three professionals also often work together to prevent, diagnose, and provide treatment for patients with mental health issues. They all deal with the workings of the mind, emotions, and behaviors, and how these aspects affect day to day life, relationships, interactions with other people, and careers.
All three professions have one similar goal, and that’s to improve the mental health of patients so they can improve their lives in all aspects, whether it’s in their personal life, relationships, and their careers.
A patient may work with a therapist only, or with a psychologist and therapist, or with a psychiatrist only. But most often, when the mental health issue is serious, all of these three professionals work together to create a treatment plan that best serves the needs of the patient.
Psychiatrist vs. Psychologist vs. Therapist
Let’s understand the differences between these three professions by defining what each of these titles mean.
A psychiatrist is a medical doctor that can study, diagnose, prevent, and treat mental, emotional, behavioral, and developmental issues. In other words, a psychiatrist is a medical doctor with a specialization in mental health.
Most of the duties of a psychiatrist is prescribing and managing medication for mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and every kind of mental health condition there is.
While a psychiatrist mostly prescribes and manages medication for mental health patients, most of them are also trained in different treatment modalities, such as Psychotherapy, Exposure Therapy, Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), or Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), among many others.
A psychiatrist may only provide prescription medication or will also combine medication with other treatment approaches.
Other roles of a psychiatrist include diagnosing mental disorders and assessing the physical health of the patient. When they diagnose a mental disorder, they usually focus on the chemical imbalances in the brain, and use drugs to treat the physical problems that may cause mental health issues.
When you work with a psychiatrist, you will only see him or her when you need to manage your medication, which would likely be once a month.
A psychologist can only be called such when he or she is a licensed psychologist or clinical psychologist. He or she specializes in the study of mental, cognitive, behavioral, and emotional processes, and how these affect a person’s interaction with his environment and with other people.
A psychologist can choose to focus on research or practice therapy and counseling, or a combination of the two. They can diagnose mental health problems and provide treatments, but they cannot prescribe medication, only a psychiatrist can.
In some states in the US, some psychologists can be licensed to prescribe medication, but typically, a psychologist can only provide counseling or therapy. If medications are needed, a psychologist would have to work with a psychiatrist to provide a combination of treatments for the patient.
The usual mental health concerns of patients who get treatment from psychologists include anxiety, depression, relationship problems such as marital or family, phobias, and developmental issues in children. They are very adept at diagnosing mental health conditions and can offer effective interventions.
Psychologists also specialize in psychological testing and assessment, inlcuding those that are used in forensic criminal evaluations. Their advanced skills in assessment make them efficient in differentiating psychological conditions which tend to overlap.
Having the right diagnosis means you get to have the right treatment for your situation, and this is what a psychologist does best.
Therapists can encompass a wide range of mental health professionals. A psychiatrist can be a therapist, as well as a psychologist, and there are also social workers who can be considered therapists, as well as stand alone licensed therapists.
It is an umbrella term for professionals who provide a range of services that include treatment, interventions, and rehabilitation for patients. The main goal of therapists is to provide guidance and support, helping patients make better decisions, improve coping styles, and greatly improve their lives through their renewed perceptions, thoughts, and behaviors.
A therapist is someone who can provide advice, counsel, and help patients manage emotions and thoughts. Some of the treatments a psychiatrist and psychologist offer is psychotherapy, which is also known as talk therapy, with a goal of helping a patient manage his or her thoughts, perceptions, emotions and behavior.
If you are not a psychiatrist or a psychologist, you can still become a therapist. There are Licensed Master’s Level Therapists, Licensed Mental Health Counselors, and Licensed Clinical Social Workers, as well as other licensed therapists who can provide therapy services to clients based on different needs and concerns.
Therapists who are not psychologists or psychiatrists can assess a mental health condition but they can’t diagnose. They can apply intervention techniques but diagnosis can only be done by a psychologist and a psychiatrist. They cannot do any psychological diagnosis, but only direct intervention or professional counseling services.
Education and Training For : Psychiatrist, Psychologist & Therapist
The duties and responsibilities of these mental health professionals differ and overlap, but when we take a look at the educational requirements and training involved in achieving these titles, we can really see the major differences.
In my case, I was training to become a counselor when I studied for my Masters in Counseling Psychology. I finished a four-year BA Psychology degree before proceeding to two years of graduate school, and had plans to proceed with Clinical Psychology for my Ph.D., which I decided not to pursue along the way.
The differences in the education and training requirements for a psychiatrist, psychologist, and therapist greatly vary and by knowing these qualifications, you will get a clearer vision about what makes each title different from the other.
Since a psychiatrist is a medical doctor, he or she would need to finish a 4-year undergraduate degree, followed by 4 years of medical school, and after that, a 1-year internship in a hospital. After, he or she would need to have 3 years of specialized training as a psychiatric resident.
Because of these educational and training requirements, a psychiatrist is highly skilled in differentiating mental health problems from other medical conditions that may cause the psychological symptoms.
A licensed or clinical psychologist would need to finish a 4-year Psychology degree, such as BA or BS in Psychology, proceed to a 2-year Master’s degree, and another 2 years of graduate school to attain a doctoral degree.
Aside from completing the educational requirements, aspiring psychologists also spend 2 to 3 years administering psychological tests that determine intellectual and personality traits, train in treatment methods, behavioral therapy, and other forms of therapy before they can apply for licensure. In the US, different requirements are needed by different states for licensure eligibility.
For Licensed Master’s Level Therapist, he or she must complete a 4-year undergraduate degree and proceed to another 2 years of graduate school, earn a Master’s degree in a specialized field such as Counseling Psychology, Clinical Psychology, School Psychology, Marriage and Family Therapy, and the like.
Because aspiring therapists do not receive specialized training in psychological diagnosis, they can only assess and offer interventions, but not diagnosing psychological conditions.
Mental Health and Seeking The Help You Need
Before entering college, I, too, did not know the differences between a psychiatrist vs. psychologist vs. therapist. It was only during my very first Psychology class when I understood.
And I wondered, what about those who haven’t taken General Psychology as a course, how would they know who to seek help from if they didn’t know the difference between the three?
Time is crucial when you are going through a mental health crisis. Every minute you don’t seek help can mean the difference between life and death.
Mental health is still a taboo topic in many parts of the world. Many people have massive misconceptions about seeking help from mental health professionals. There’s a stigma about seeking help from a therapist or a psychologist because mental health crises are not given as much priority as a physical emergency. When the problem is invisible, when it’s something that they can’t see, it’s hard for people to take you seriously.
When you get an injury, say, a broken bone, you immediately go to the ER to have it treated and fixed. When you have a heart attack, you go to the hospital right away. But when you have suicidal thoughts, when you can’t cope because of a breakup or you’re being bullied, where do you go?
Is there an emergency room we can go to? Unfortunately, there’s not. Well, you can actually go to the ER to seek immediate psychological help, but not a lot of people actually know that. And not all hospitals have a psychiatric ward or department.
The next best thing you can do is reach out to a mental health professional who can help you. Seeking help from a psychologist, psychiatrist, or therapist should be as natural as seeking medical help for a broken bone or a fever. Millions of people suffer all over the world because they can’t get the support and help they desperately need.
In fact, if we take a look at the statistics in the US, 1 in every 5 adults in the country actually experience mental illness every year. And 1 in every 20 people experience serious mental illness, with 17% of that being adolescents from ages 6 to 17.
And guess what? When we have a broken bone, we seek immediate medical treatment right away, right? Well, for most people who suffer from symptoms of a mental health problem, the average time they seek help is 11 years after the first onset of symptoms. That’s 11 years of broken relationships, missed opportunities, and years of living life in pain.
And what’s worse, many people never get the help they need. In the US, suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 34, and it’s the 10th leading cause of death in the US. It’s in the same top 10 list as heart disease, cancer, accidents, diabetes, and stroke.
And society still thinks mental health is not an emergency? The perception of people towards mental health must change and when you’re suffering from any mental health issue, you must seek help now. Do not wait another day as your very life depends on it.
Is It Time to Seek Help?
Because we are not taught to seek help when we are going through a mental health problem, we may not know that mental health professionals are more than ready to give us the guidance and support we need.
Some people would tell us to forget about it, let it go, go out and move on, and just deal with it. But if you suffered from a traumatic event, loss, stress, and many of life’s challenges, you know how hard it can be to cope and manage your thoughts and emotions on your own.
There comes a time when seeking help is the best thing you can do for yourself. And it’s completely okay and even necessary to do so.
And so, here are some things to consider when you’re unsure whether or not seeking help from a mental health professional is the help that you need.
When You Suffered a Loss and Can’t Cope
A loss could be the death of a loved one, loss of a job, end of a business, and any kind of loss. Grief is something that many people can cope with but for others, their thoughts and emotions can be so overwhelming that it can affect their day to day lives.
If you can’t sleep, can’t eat, can’t work, and the emotions are too much to bear, it’s time for you to seek help. A psychiatrist can help you with easing anxiety symptoms with medication, while a psychologist or therapist can help you manage your thoughts and emotions.
If you think your reaction to grief and loss is a pattern you’ve been suffering from for many years, then a psychologist can help assess whether you have other underlying psychological issues that make it hard for you to cope.
When You Have Addictions
An addiction or unhealthy habits can include smoking, overeating, substance abuse problems, gambling, excessive alcohol consumption and more. If your addictions and unhealthy habits are causing problems in your relationships, in your physical health, and in your job, then it’s time to seek help from a professional who can address the causes of your addictions and create a treatment plan so you can live a healthy and balanced life.
Family and Relationship Conflicts
Conflicts with family and other relationships can be solved on your own but when it has reached a point where all efforts at reconciliation have been exhausted and you still can’t solve the probems you have, a therapist or psychologist can provide the proper interventions to help.
When relationships at home, in a marriage, or at work are difficult to resolve by yourselves, then seeking professional help is the answer.
Whether overwhelming emotions are brought about by stress, anxiety, phobias, fears, and trauma, when you can’t manage them, you need to seek help. When you can no longer get a good night’s sleep because your mind is racing, when your anxiety becomes too much that you can’t function well anymore, reaching out to a mental health professional can help you handle and manage your emotions through therapy or interventions.
When You Need Support
You don’t have to have a mental crisis, overwhelming emotions, or have relationship conflicts to reach out to a therapist or psychologist. Even if you want to have support and guidance, you can also seek the services of a mental health professional if you want to have mental clarity, if you want to improve your life, and if you simply want to get advice and support.
Should You Seek Help from a Psychiatrist, Psychologist, or Therapist?
Most people delay getting help because they don’t know where to start. Admitting and accepting that you need help is the first step to getting well but it can be hard to know where to go.
If you are unsure, you can talk to a general practitioner, i.e. a medical doctor about your symptoms and concerns, and the physician will be the one to recommend a mental health professional for your case.
But if you would like to go straight to a psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist, here are some tips:
- If your problems are relationship-focused, you can seek the help of a therapist.
- If you want to pursue medication for symptom relief, you can seek the help of a psychiatrist.
- If you think you may have a mental health disorder due to patterns of behaviors that have been affecting your life, then you can seek the help of a psychologist.
Tips To Finding a Mental Health Practitioner
Now that you know who to go to when you have certain psychological issues, how and where do you find a mental health practitioner? Here are some tips:
— Your Health Insurance Company
You can ask your health insurance company for a list of covered providers.
— NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness)
The Alliance has a list of local and national mental health practitioners based on specific locations. You can also check other organizations, such as the American Psychological Association for a list of psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists with specific specialities.
— Referral from a General Practitioner
Your primary care physician will know who and where to refer you for any of your mental health issues.
— Ask Trusted Friends for Referrals
You can ask trusted friends for referrals, especially friends who may have studied Psychology, as most Psychology professors also practice and offer therapy services.
Psychotherapy is one of the most effective treatment modalities offered by mental health professionals. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists can offer psychotherapy, which is also known as talk therapy.
It focuses on a broad range of issues, with the underlying principle based on how a person’s patterns of thinking and behavior affect the way that person deals with the world, as well as his or her interactions with others.
The goal of psychotherapy is to help patients create better coping strategies to manage stress, understand their behaviors, and create better thought and behavioral patterns that will help them achieve satisfying relationships, help them regulate their emotions, and improve their overall quality of life through better mental health management.
Research has shown that 75% of patients who undergo psychotherapy show improved emotions and behaviors and are associated with positive changes in the brain and body.
To maximize the benefits of therapy and treatments, the patient and mental health professional need to be actively involved. A patient must trust his or her therapist to be able to effectively benefit from psychotherapy, medications, and other treatment modalities.
The differences between a psychiatrist vs. psychologist vs. therapist are not always clear because their duties and responsibility often overlap.
To summarize, a psychiatrist is a physician who specializes in mental health. He or she can diagnose psychological conditions, as well as provide treatment and interventions. The bulk of a psychiatrist’s job is prescribing medication while also being able to provide psychotherapy and other treatment modalities.
A psychologist, on the other hand, is not a medical doctor but has a doctorate degree such as a Ph.D. (Doctor of philosophy) or a Psy.D. (Doctor of psychology). A psychologist can diagnose and treat psychological disorders through interventions such as psychotherapy but they cannot prescribe medication.
A therapist is an umbrella term that covers all licensed mental health professionals who are trained in offering different therapy modalities, such as psychotherapy, Marriage and Family Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and more. And even though you’re not a psychiatrist or a psychologist, you can still become a therapist if you meet certain requirements for licensures, such as being a Master’s Level Therapist, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and other types of licensed therapists.
The importance of knowing the differences between these three professions is crucial for people who may be going through some form of mental health crisis, or may be suffering from a psychological condition. Because one of the major reasons why people fail to seek help is not knowing how to get started, understanding who and where to go can improve and hasten both diagnosis and treatments.
If you’re seeking a career in mental health, you can also use the information found in this article to determine which profession you’d want to go after.
For me, I wanted to become a Clinical Psychologist to be able to help those who are struggling with any emotional and behavioral challenges, but also to earn well, since psychological testing and assessment are quite expensive, and an appearance in court proceedings for forensic criminal evaluations actually pay really well.
Though I never completed this goal because my fashion design career took off, I do still have plans on pursuing something close in the future, but maybe only until Master’s level, as a doctorate in Clinical Psychology will take majority, if not all, of my time.
If you are currently experiencing overwhelming emotions, you can’t cope with a recent life transition, or if you think you have an unhealthy habit or addiction, please do not hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional.
If you don’t know where to go or who to run to for now, please go to a general practitioner who can refer you to someone who can give you the guidance and support you need.