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Difference between psychologist and psychiatrist therapist

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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?

In Arkansas, Licensed Professional Counselors, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists, and Licensed Clinical Social Workers provide mental health services. Therapists require master degrees and approval of their licensing boards to practice in the mental health field. Therapists provide mental health diagnosis and develop a treatment plan. Therapists work in offices, hospitals, treatment centers, and group homes. There are many different types of therapy such as play therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, animal-assisted therapy, dialectal behavioral therapy, and many others. Therapists cannot recommend or order medications, but they can refer you for evaluation for medication or other treatments.

When you begin therapy your therapist may ask what brings you to therapy, your concerns, and any symptoms you experience. Your therapist may ask you to complete some questionnaires and learn about your childhood, education, work history, current relationships, and long-term goals. Your therapist will then set goals with you and work to help you achieve them. Therapy can be short or long term depending on the problem/diagnosis and its severity. Therapy can be done in an individual, family, couple, or group setting.  

Northwest Arkansas Psychiatry

Psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists aren’t one and the same, but they often work together closely to help diagnose and treat mental disorders. Together, these mental health professionals can provide the best possible care for mental health or behavioral issues.

A psychiatric evaluation helps determine which mental healthcare professional is right for your specific health needs. Sometimes medication is the best treatment, and sometimes therapy services or counseling will be your best option.

Northwest Arkansas Psychiatry offers compassionate and comprehensive mental health care for children, adolescents, and adults in Northwest Arkansas. The NWA Psychiatry team includes two psychiatrists and a mental health nurse practitioner.

Northwest Arkansas Psychiatry is currently accepting new patients. A referral from your primary care provider is not necessary unless required by your insurance. Call 479-571-6363 to request an appointment with a mental health professional in Northwest Arkansas, or learn more about NWA Psychiatry.

Psychologist

(AKA: Licensed Psychologist, Clinical Psychologist)

A psychologist is someone who has an advanced degree (Ph.D. or Psy.D.) in psychology, specifically, a doctoral degree in Clinical, Counseling, or School Psychology. This advanced degree typically consists of 6-7 additional years of formal education (graduate school), after a bachelor’s degree is completed. Most psychologists receive their degree from a school accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA), because such accreditation is a requisite for a state license. Many psychologist conduct research and/or provide psychotherapy. They can diagnose disorders or problems independently in their clients, and the additional years of education and training often result in more experience with advanced, top of the line interventions for clients.

Psychologists are also known for their specialized training in assessment and psychological testing. This is one of the hallmark features that differentiates them from master-level clinicians as well as psychiatrists. Psychologists spend several years learning and administering different psychological tests that assess intellectual and personality functioning, before they are eligible for licensure. Due to psychologist’s advanced skills in assessment, they tend to be very adept at differentiating one psychiatric condition from another, which is important because many clinical disorders can look alike or overlap. The right diagnosis is important for informing treatment planning both for psychotherapy and medication, in case the client decides to seek out medication as part of their treatment.

Psychiatrist

A psychiatrist is someone who also has an advanced degree (M.D. or D.O.). But, they went to medical school for their degree to learn how to prescribe medications for psychiatric conditions. While psychiatrists are not expected to provide psychotherapy, due to their scope of practice, many are able to provide very brief, supportive psychotherapy to their clients, depending upon their training history.

Typically, clients see their psychiatrist less frequently than their psychologist or master’s-level therapist, because the psychiatrist helps to manage their medications on a monthly or less frequent basis. Psychologists, master’s level therapist, and psychiatrists often work together to collaborate on client care. Because the provider doing therapy with the client will see them longer and more frequently than the medication prescriber, they can often be a helpful source of data regarding symptoms and overall functioning.

Licensed Master’s Level Therapist

(Types: Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC), Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW))

A licensed master’s level therapist is someone who also has an advanced degree in psychology, and typically, they spend about two additional years in graduate school to earn their Master’s degree (M.A. or M.S.), once their undergraduate degree is complete.  The advanced degrees can include such specialties as a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology, Counseling Psychology, Marriage and Family Therapy, School Psychology, etc.

They learn about assessment and intervention techniques for dealing with psychological issues. However, they do not typically receive specialized education and training in psychological testing. Many master’s level therapist do not make psychological disorder diagnoses, and several provide only supportive counseling, versus direct intervention. Due to the differences in educational requirements, master’s degree programs are not accredited by the American Psychological Association, rather, they have their own, varying accrediting institutions.

Psychiatry and psychology are overlapping professions. Practitioners in both — psychiatrists and psychologists — are mental health professionals. Their area of expertise is the mind — and the way it affects behavior and well-being. They often work together to prevent, diagnose, and treat mental illness. And both are committed to helping people stay mentally well.

But there are differences between psychiatry and psychology. And people sometimes find those differences confusing, especially when they are looking for help. To make matters even more confusing, psychiatrists and psychologists aren’t the only mental health professionals you can choose from. There are mental health counselors, social workers, nurses and nurse practitioners, and others who deal with issues of mental health. And if you consider the multiple approaches to treatment, ranging from counseling to various forms of psychotherapy, the whole mental health system begins to look like a maze that’s nearly impossible to navigate.

But here’s a guide you can use to help you make your way through that maze.

Therapists vs. Psychiatrists

Therapists and psychiatrists both focus on treating mental health disorders and the associated symptoms, but they go about it in different ways. The most distinct difference is that psychiatrists have a medical degree and can prescribe medications and medical treatments. Because of the difference in education and training, psychiatrists also command a higher salary than therapists.

Table of Contents

The Difference Between Therapists and Psychiatrists

Therapists

A therapist can be a counselor, psychologist or other professional licensed to provide mental health care. “Therapist” is an umbrella term for professionals who are educated, trained and licensed to provide talk therapy or psychotherapy. During therapy, they can assess, diagnose and treat mental health disorders.

Most professionals who can call themselves therapists cannot prescribe medications that might be useful in treating mental health conditions. However in some states, psychologists with training in clinical psychopharmacology can prescribe certain medications to treat mental health conditions, according to the American Psychological Association.

Psychiatrists

A psychiatrist has a medical degree  that allows them to not only diagnose medical conditions but also prescribe medication. A psychiatrist focuses on diagnosing, treating and preventing mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, sleep disorders, eating disorders and substance abuse.

Psychiatrists use several treatment methods, including psychotherapy (talk therapy) and medications, such as antidepressants, sedatives, anxiolytics, antipsychotic medications, hypnotics, mood stabilizers and stimulants.

Is a psychiatrist a therapist?

Most psychiatrists only manage patients’ prescriptions and other medical treatments and do not offer talk therapy. Patients often work with both a therapist and a psychiatrist to best treat their mental health disorders. However, some psychiatrists offer talk therapy and other clinical treatments to patients.

Types of Therapists

A therapist can be a licensed counselor, social worker, psychotherapist, psychoanalyst or psychologist. All these individuals have different education tracks, training and licenses.

What a therapist can call themselves may differ depending on state law. The services they offer and the structure of their services also often differ.

Licensed counselors

There are many types of counseling careers, including:

  • Marriage and family counselors.
  • Mental health counselors.
  • Substance abuse and behavioral disorders counselors.
  • Rehabilitation counselors.
  • School guidance counselors.

Many states require licensed counselors to have master’s degrees and obtain certification through the National Board for Certified Counselors . Counselors might be required to pass the National Counselor Examination , the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination or both to obtain a license.

States offer different types of counselor licenses.

Most marriage and family counselors complete a master’s degree in family therapy. States might require marital and family therapists to pass the licensing exam by the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards.

Clinical social workers

Clinical social workers must earn a Master of Social Work degree, complete two years of post-degree direct clinical experience and pass the Association of Social Work Boards’ Social Work Licensing Exam.

Psychologists

A psychologist must earn a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or Doctor of Psychology (PsyD). Some programs require Ph.D. or PsyD applicants to have a master’s in psychology, as well. Psychologists have a significant amount of clinical and research training.

Each state has licensing requirements, including passing an exam, which can be reviewed through the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards.

Should I See a Therapist or a Psychiatrist?

Who you should see for mental health care depends on your problems and goals. Talk therapy with a counselor or psychologist can be helpful if you are having trouble dealing with stress, family or marriage difficulties, school, work or social situations. However, if you are experiencing more severe or disturbing symptoms, such as hearing or seeing things that are not there, having violent thoughts toward others, or having thoughts of self-harm or suicide, you may consider seeing a psychiatrist. If you are not sure which type of health care professional to talk to, you may want to consult with your primary care doctor.

If you are interested in talk therapy, know that there are differences between psychologists and other therapists. Counseling psychologists can assess, diagnose and treat severe psychological issues. They will address your emotional, social and other health concerns, which can help you struggle less in school, at work, as part of a family or in social settings. A psychologist also will focus on helping you make decisions to treat and improve your mental health.

A therapist, depending on their training and license, will use talk therapy, which is a common tactic to encourage you to reach your own answers and conclusions about your problems. Therapists can give you coping strategies, help you alter negative thinking patterns and manage stress. Depending on the therapist’s background, they might not have the same ability to diagnose and treat mental health conditions as a psychologist.

You might prefer to look for a therapist who specializes in certain issues. For example, if you are struggling with alcohol or drug abuse, you might benefit from finding a therapist who is a licensed substance abuse counselor. The first step is to review the types of counselors your state licenses and look for an experienced, licensed professional.

Differences in Education

Depending on the type of therapist, the professional will likely have a master’s or doctoral degree. Therapists’ education and training differ depending on state requirements and the services they offer. Many hold a master’s degree in counseling or social work or a doctoral degree in psychology. It is important to note that supervised clinical training is required before passing a licensing exam.

Psychiatrists are doctors who attend medical school, complete a psychiatric residency, pass written and oral exams, and usually become board certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. Unlike the various types of therapists, a psychiatrist is either a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO).

Differences in Training

Most states require licensed counselors, social workers and psychologists to complete a certain amount of supervised clinical experience before they can practice independently.

Psychiatrists have the most direct medical training through medical school and a four-year psychiatric residency. They have education and training regarding the body and the brain and nervous system (neurology).

Therapist vs. Psychiatrist Salaries

Salaries for therapists vary depending on the professional’s license, position, location and years of experience. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), median salaries in 2021 were:

Because psychiatrists are doctors, they have higher salaries. The average annual wage for psychiatrists in 2021 was $249,760, according to the BLS.

Therapist vs. Psychiatrist Checklist

Two Different Professions With the Same Goal

Therapists and psychiatrists both work with individuals to improve mental health symptoms. They talk with patients, uncover what is wrong and help patients improve their thoughts and behaviors to live happier, healthier and more productive lives. The difference is how these two professions go about it. While therapists focus on psychotherapy and behavioral changes, psychiatrists use medical treatments, including prescription drugs, to treat mental health disorders.

FAQs

What is the difference between a therapist and a psychiatrist?

A therapist is a licensed counselor or psychologist who can use talk therapy to help you treat mental health symptoms and improve how you manage stress and relationships. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who can diagnose and prescribe medication to treat mental health disorders.

What is the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?

A psychologist has a master’s or doctoral degree and uses various psychotherapy methods to improve patients’ symptoms. A psychiatrist has a medical degree and can utilize many treatment options, including medications, to treat mental health conditions.

Which profession takes the most time?

Becoming a psychiatrist requires the greatest time commitment. Psychiatrists must complete an undergrad degree, medical school and a four-year residency. Many therapists complete bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and some go through a year or two of supervised clinical training.

Does a psychiatrist or therapist get paid more?

A psychiatrist’s salary is much higher than a psychologist or licensed counselor’s salary. Therapists’ salaries vary significantly depending on their training and area of expertise.

Last Updated: May 2022

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