Psychotherapy Tips

Difference between psychologist psychotherapist and psychiatrist

Differences between psychology, psychiatry and psychotherapy

This page explains the significant differences between roles in psychology, psychiatry and psychotherapy.

Staff working in these roles tend to deal with different types of problems, although there is also considerable overlap in their work.

Male psychologist with patient

Below is a brief description of each of the different areas.

Psychology is the study of people: how they think, how they act, react and interact. It’s concerned with all aspects of behaviour and the thoughts, feelings and motivation underlying such behaviour.

Psychology is a discipline that is firstly concerned with the normal functioning of the mind and has explored areas such as learning, remembering and the normal psychological development of children. It has been one of the fastest growing university subjects and is increasingly available in schools and colleges.

Psychologists are not usually medically qualified and only a small proportion of people studying psychology degrees will go on to work with patients.

Psychologists can specialise in a number of areas, such as mental health and educational and occupational psychology. In healthcare, psychologists specialise in clinical, counselling, forensic or health psychology.

Psychological therapy roles

There are also roles using psychology for other staff, including assistant psychologists, psychological wellbeing practitioners and high intensity therapists

Psychiatry is the study of mental health problems and their diagnosis, management and prevention. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have qualified in psychiatry. They often combine a broad general caseload alongside an area of special expertise and research.

Psychotherapy is conducted with individuals, groups, couples and families. Psychotherapists help people to overcome stress, emotional and relationship problems or troublesome habits.

There are many different approaches in psychotherapy, or talking therapies, which include:

  • cognitive behavioural therapies
  • psychoanalytic therapies
  • psychodynamic therapies
  • systemic and family psychotherapy
  • arts and play therapies
  • humanistic and integrative psychotherapies
  • hypno-psychotherapy
  • experiential constructivist therapies

A psychotherapist may be a psychiatrist, psychologist or other mental health professional, who has had further specialist training in psychotherapy. Increasingly, there are a number of psychotherapists who do not have backgrounds in the above fields, but who have undertaken in-depth training in this area.

Medical psychotherapists are fully-qualified doctors who have qualified in psychiatry and then undertaken a three or four-year specialist training in psychotherapy. Their role is in the psychotherapeutic treatment of patients with psychiatric illnesses.

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.

Thinking about seeing a therapist but confused about all the different titles? Psychiatrist, psychologist, psychoanalyst, psychopharmacologist, psychotherapist — that’s a lot of psychos! Many people are perplexed by the preponderance of “p-words” in the mental health profession.

So, as Richard Nixon used to say, let me make things perfectly clear. (Admittedly, Richard Nixon was not the best person to turn to on issues of mental health — or clarity.) Here is a (remarkably incomplete) guide to the world of the mind:

Psychotherapist — This is an umbrella term for any professional who is trained to treat people for their emotional problems. Depending upon their academic degree, a psychotherapist can be a psychiatrist, psychologist, or social worker (among others), and work with individuals, couples, groups, or families.

Psychiatrist — This person has a medical degree and, unlike most psychotherapists, can prescribe psychotropic (psychiatric) medication. Many psychiatrists -— referred to as psychopharmacologists — provide only prescriptions and medication management; you would need to see a psychotherapist additionally for talk therapy. Traditional psychiatrists continue to practice psychotherapy.

Psychologist — This person has a Ph.D. in psychology. In addition to performing talk therapy, they have training in psychological testing (i.e., the Rorschach test, among others). They can also perform research protocols. (Psychologists who concentrate on research generally work in academic or research settings.) Some psychologists who are trained specifically to do clinical work (rather than research) have “PsyD” (Psychology Doctorate) as their academic degree, rather than Ph.D.

Social Worker — When people hear “social worker,” they think of professionals who provide social services in hospitals and agencies. However, some social workers also practice psychotherapy. Their education is somewhat similar to that of a psychologist (although they may have only a master’s degree), but they are usually more attuned to the individual in their environment, and they do not provide psychological testing. Depending upon the state in which they are licensed, social workers may be LCSWs (Licensed Clinical Social Worker), LICSWs (Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker), LSWs (Licensed Social Worker), among an alphabet soup of titles.

Psychoanalyst — After receiving a professional degree, some psychotherapists go on to extensive special training in this in-depth therapy modality that helps people get to the root of their problems. Psychoanalysis, as first invented by Sigmund Freud, is the only method that works with the unconscious — motivations and defense mechanisms that are out of our awareness, and therefore cause us to repeat harmful patterns. The couch, free association, dream analysis, and transference (originally defined as the patient transferring his or her feelings toward their parents onto the analyst), are all exclusive tenets of psychoanalysis. The unfortunate stereotype of the silent therapist who only wants to talk about people’s childhoods (rather unfairly) comes out of this model.

Today, many psychoanalysts are drawn to more contemporary models that build on, but also greatly diverge from, Freud’s original thinking. These therapists — sometimes known as “relational analysts” — are more active and interested in people’s current-day problems and how they are influenced by past experience. We look at how people interact with others in ways that only reinforce existing fears and patterns, and we look to create new experiences and ways of seeing oneself, including within the therapeutic relationship. Contrary to the stereotype, psychoanalysts do give advice and opinions, but we also do much more than that.

Traditionally, psychoanalytic patients came to sessions at least three times a week and lay on the couch. Today, many people in psychoanalytic (or psychodynamic) psychotherapy attend only once or twice a week. The couch is optional; some relational analysts never use it at all. Psychoanalysis differs from other forms of psychotherapy (like cognitive-behavioral therapy) in that it is more comprehensive and emphasizes getting to the bottom of problems, rather than simply alleviating symptoms.

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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.

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