If you are considering a career as a mental health professional, it can be exciting (and potentially overwhelming) to learn of the many job titles and career paths available to pursue. While the variety of jobs increases your chances of aligning your career and interests, understanding the differences among available roles can make choosing the “right” path a daunting task.
Three of the most common job titles in the mental health industry are counselor, therapist, and psychologist. But what is the difference between these job titles? Are counselors, therapists, and psychologists really that different from one another, or are they more similar than different?
While there is overlap between these three careers, there are specific differences which you should understand before embarking on a career in the field. Here, we explore those differences.
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What is a counselor?
The term counselor is used to broadly refer to a professional trained in the fields of psychology, counseling, social work, or a range of medical fields such as nursing. Mental health counselors, specifically, are those professionals working in a mental health capacity.
Mental health counselors perform many functions and responsibilities. Their duties include conducting patient evaluations, providing education and informational resources to their clients, and making suggestions that the client or patient can use to solve the problem they are seeking counseling to address. Often, mental health counselors will specialize in addressing a particular issue, such as substance abuse, sexual abuse, marriage and relationships, or family counseling, among others.
What is a therapist?
A therapist is an individual that has been professionally trained to provide some form of therapy to a patient or client that addresses either mental or physical disorder. Examples of therapy used in the context of physical medicine can include physical therapists and occupational therapists. In the context of mental health, the terms mental health therapist and psychotherapist are common.
As with counselors, therapists will often specialize in addressing particular client issues, such as marriage and family issues, substance abuse, etc.
The Difference Between Therapists and Counselors
If the two definitions above sound very similar, it’s because they are. Mental health counselors and therapists occupy the same professional space, treating the same issues within the same patient populations. Even within the industry, you can find the terms used interchangeably in some contexts.
However, the key difference between counselors and therapists lies in the approach to treatment that they take.
As a practice, counseling often addresses specific problems, challenges, or behaviors in a patient’s life in a very practical way. A counselor working with a patient who suffers from anxiety might, for example, provide the patient with different tactics that they can use to ward off a pending panic attack. Or they might give an alcoholic patient a set series of steps to follow when they feel a craving coming on. In this regard, there is a certain problem-solving approach inherent in counseling.
Therapists work to help their patients address similar issues, and often provide the same advice that counselors might. However, a key difference is that therapists often seek to go deeper by helping the patient understand the how and why behind a challenge. For example, what scenarios tend to bring on an alcoholic craving and why; what situations are more likely to trigger a panic attack and why? What is the root of these issues? They seek to identify the source of these issues through a combination of talk therapy and other frameworks.
As such, counseling is often (though not always) a short-term approach, arming the patient with tools they can put into action immediately to begin living a more healthy life. Therapy, on the other hand, is often a longer-term process that can last months or even years as the therapist and client seek out the root of the issues being addressed to make lasting change.
Despite these differences, there is significant overlap between therapists and counselors, and they will often borrow from each other’s playbook. Additionally, both therapists and counselors will typically be master’s level clinicians licensed by the state in which they practice. A Master of Science in Counseling Psychology is a commonly held degree, and common licenses include Licenced Mental Health Counselors (LHMCs) and Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs). Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs) may also hold the title of counselor or therapist.
What is a psychologist?
Another common job title within mental health counseling is that of a psychologist. Whereas therapists and counselors may be considered more alike than different, the difference is more pronounced for psychologists.
A psychologist is similar to mental health counselors and therapists in that they also work to improve their patients’ mental and emotional health. The techniques and frameworks that they use tend to differ, however. Additionally, psychologists are more likely than counselors to treat patients with severe mental disorders. With this in mind, becoming a counseling psychologist will typically require a higher level of education, such as earning a PhD in Counseling Psychology.
Choosing The Right Career For Your Future
If you’re considering entering the mental health field, it’s important to understand the various available job functions so you can choose a career path that aligns with your interests and goals. While there are many different variations of the titles discussed above, the most common will be counselor, therapist, and psychologist. Though these are related in many ways, the differences are also significant and can substantially change the trajectory of your career.
Jumpstart your career today by learning more about the skills and experience needed to succeed in counseling psychology.
Or does it have to be a joined effort with all of them?
My issue: my current physical health issues are destroying my life, I’ve lost everything and I lost the motivation to keep my health up. I do not have good insurance so I can’t exactly splurge here.
Medications scare me as the last time I tried ssris I ended up in the ER paralyzed so I’m not sure how much a psychiatrist can help. Friends that see psychiatrists say that all they do is ask you how you’re feeling on the meds then increase, decrease, change, or keep it as it is. That’s it.
Therapy seems awkward. If all we do is talk I don’t think it will help much as I’m already in support groups of people that completely understand my condition but they’re unfortunately just as depressed.
Psychology may help? I’m not sure what that profession entails. Just diagnosis? To save money I could find ways to improve on my own if I just knew what’s exactly wrong with me.
On one hand I do need help. On the other hand I’m also trying to save money because I’m close to losing my job and I’m sure homelessness isn’t going to help my mental health.
TLDR; Psychologist vs Therapist vs Psychiatrist
A psychiatrist is a medical doctor specializing in mental health who has the ability to provide both counseling services and prescription treatment.
A psychologist is a mental health professional with a PhD or PsyD who can provide several types of therapy and can diagnose specific mental health conditions.
A therapist is a mental health professional with at least a master’s degree and who is specialized in a certain field. They can provide therapeutic tactics and help you set healthy mental health goals.
Mental Health Doctors: Who Should You See?
The truth is, you have quite a few options when seeking help for mental health disorders. From therapists or mental health counselors to psychologists and psychiatrists, not all are considered medical doctors, but you can get the mental health services you deserve.
What is a Psychiatrist?
A psychiatrist is a medical doctor that specializes in mental health. Psychiatrists hold medical degrees and are experts in diagnosing, assessing, treating and preventing mental health disorders — and have the ability to prescribe medications when necessary, for treatment.
Psychiatrists can also assess patients’ physical and mental health and how they might relate.
Starting with a psychiatrist allows you to begin therapy immediately, voicing your concerns and problems and introducing yourself with a focus on what you want to address.
This initial assessment may include a psychological test and will set you up for what your therapy sessions will look like in the future, whether you meet once a week or more or less often, depending on your needs.
And while a healthcare professional may only spend a few minutes on your mental health during a checkup, a psychiatrist will give you the entire session of between 30 and 50 minutes.
And therapy may also be a good way to work on your relationships. Other people can join the session with you, giving you and your partner the space to talk with a therapist about any relationship issues.
Read more about how to find a psychiatrist, how to choose a psychiatrist, and what to expect when seeing a psychiatrist in these blog.
What is a Psychologist?
A psychologist is a mental health professional who helps support people with a myriad of mental health conditions, according to the American Psychological Association.
This includes diagnosing and treating specific mental health issues or mental health conditions, helping people cope with stressful situations, and managing addictive behavior or chronic illness.
A psychologist may also educate clients on psychological theories to help them learn about how they think, feel and behave.
Psychologists are often counselors and employ talk therapy.
While similar in practice to a psychiatrist, a psychologist is different in that they typically are not medical doctors. Technically, a psychologist will obtain a PhD (doctor of philosophy) or a PsyD (doctor of psychology).
This means that they can provide you with the counseling aspect of a mental health treatment plan that you need, but because they did not attend medical school, they cannot provide a prescription for your depression.
Like a psychiatrist, a psychologist will employ different types of therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, to help pinpoint your personal causes of depression.
Psychologists also can address different mental health disorders and mood disorders (such as anxiety disorder or bipolar disorder) and help you implement lifestyle changes and self-care tactics to help you get on the path toward a healthier life.
What is a Therapist?
While therapists are not considered doctors, they are also a great option if you are looking to talk to someone about your mental health.
Therapists will also help you set your own goals based on what you’ve asked for help with.
The term ‘therapist’ (or psychotherapist) doesn’t refer to any one specialty profession in particular — it is an umbrella term used to describe a healthcare professional who is trained to help individuals identify and change troubling thoughts, emotions and behaviors.
Therapists can be counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers etc, and these professionals usually have specializations in their respective fields.
A therapist may be recommended after dealing with a long-term situation that has acted as a persistent stressor e.g a difficult job, a loss in the family, relationship trouble etc.
You might begin seeing a therapist following a referral by a healthcare professional. This can happen in instances where your healthcare provider diagnoses you, or suspects that you are dealing with a mental health condition like depression or PTSD.
In carrying out their roles, psychotherapists use talk therapy, which consists of a variety of techniques to help identify and treat disturbances in mental health.
Similarities Between Psychologists, Psychiatrists and Therapists
Given that both professions are in the mental health field, there are some similarities such as outcome goals and research abilities. Here’s more on what’s similar between the two types of mental health professionals:
Psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists work to help people with their mental health. Both types of healthcare professionals can support clients through different mental health illnesses, and provide mental health treatment.
Regardless of the title, these professionals are set up to care for people. Many people think of the psychologist and psychiatrist profession as a ‘doctor for the mind.’
The goals for all are usually to have the client improve their mental health and state.
To have a career in psychology or psychiatry (and mental healthcare in general) one must go through intensive and specific education and training.
There are differences, however, especially in terms of the education needed for each profession. We’ll get into that more, below.
Research Mental Health
Specific psychologists and psychiatrists may choose to do mental health research. These professionals then research specific mental health topics and conditions to help inform treatment and future research.
your mental health journey starts here
The Differences Between Psychologists and Psychiatrists and Therapists
There are some key differences between psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists — which mostly relate to education and mental illness treatments.
The specific educational backgrounds and paths are different for psychologists and psychiatrists, such as the following:
Psychologists attend graduate school during which they typically pursue a doctorate level degree in psychology, such as a Ph.D. (doctor of philosophy), PsyD (doctor of psychology), or EdD (doctor of education). Practicing psychologists have a doctoral degree in one of these fields.
These programs typically take four to six years to complete, with one to two years of supervised work with patients and licensing exams. Some psychologists will specialize in specific fields and have additional training for areas such as couples therapy or child therapy.
Psychiatrists attend medical school during which they pursue a medical degree — either an MD (doctor of medicine), or a DO (doctor of osteopathic medicine). After medical school, they pursue psychiatric-specific residencies, fellowships and further training.
Psychiatrists spend more time in school and have full medical training. Often this means four years of medical school, followed by three to four years in a specific, psychiatry residency training program.
Many psychiatrists may also sub-specialize in a specific area, like adolescent psychiatry or adult psychiatry.
While a therapist will not obtain a doctoral degree, they should have a minimum master’s degree, following which students are to choose a field of specialty. These fields include clinical psychology, family therapy, substance abuse, and more. They will also obtain a state license in order to practice.
Read more about the types of therapy a therapist may practice in this blog.
Another contrast between psychiatrists and psychologists is the type of treatment provided, and the philosophy behind treatment methods. Although there is often overlap in treatment, psychiatrists are the only discipline able to prescribe medication.
How a Psychologist will Talk it Out with You
Psychologists will typically use talk therapy as a form of treatment, but the method of talk therapy may depend on you and your psychologist. Some forms of talk therapy include:
This approach takes into account behaviors, feelings and thoughts to discover their meanings and motivations. (Psychiatrists may employ psychoanalysis, too.)
This is an approach that focuses on learning more about behavior (much how it sounds).
Your counselor may observe your conditioning and try to help you desensitize toward specific behavior.
Talk therapy commonly includes both a behavioral approach and a cognitive approach (see below).
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
This approach focuses on what you think rather than what you do. In this way, cognitive therapy is meant to highlight dysfunctional thinking that might be leading to dysfunctional emotions or behavior.
This approach focuses on helping you discover your ability to make choices and develop your maximum potential.
Medication — In Certain States
Most practicing psychologists cannot prescribe medication. However, New Mexico, Louisiana, Illinois, Iowa and Idaho laws allow licensed psychologists to prescribe medication. So in those states, medication may be a part of the treatment plan.
What a Psychiatrist Can Do for You
Like a psychologist, psychiatrists will often use talk therapy such as the various talk therapy methods above.
However, because a psychiatrist is a physician, they can provide treatment based on mental and physical health — which sometimes includes other interventions or medication.
Some psychiatrists will use talk therapy as a part of their treatment plan. They also may use psychological testing in talk therapy to determine and diagnose different mental health conditions.
Want to try talk therapy online? Check out what hers offers here.
Brain Stimulation Therapy
In extreme cases, when patients don’t respond to medication or talk therapy, sometimes a psychiatrist will use brain stimulation therapy.
For example, electroconvulsive therapy is one procedure in which electric currents pass through the brain while you’re under anesthesia. However, this is typically only used to treat severe depression or resistant bipolar disorder.
Medication for Mental Health
Unlike most psychologists, as mentioned above, psychiatrists have the ability to prescribe medication as part of a treatment plan.
The different types of medications that psychiatrists typically prescribe include:
Antidepressants are medications designed to change brain chemicals that are involved in regulating moods, according to the book, StatPearls. These chemicals are primarily serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine.
Antidepressants may be prescribed for depression, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder or borderline personality disorder.
Learn more about antidepressants in this guide.
Anxiolytics are also medications that are designed to affect brain chemicals that help regulate moods, according to an article published in the journal, StatPearls. The most common type of medication in this category would be benzodiazepines, according to an article published in The Ochsner Journal.
Benzodiazepines can be prescribed to treat patients with panic disorders and generalized anxiety, but are not generally the first line of treatment due to their addictive potential.
Hypnotics work sort of how they sound: They’re medications used to treat sleep disorders and to help patients maintain sleep.
Antipsychotic medications are the primary medication treatment for those with schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders, according to an article published in the Official Journal of the World Psychiatric Association. For some, antipsychotics can provide relief from hallucinations and delusions, too.
Mood stabilizers are also much how they sound: They’re a class of medications used to stabilize mood in patients with bipolar disorder.
Different types of stabilizers target different chemicals in the brain to treat bipolar disorder.
Stimulants are medications used to enhance specific actions within the brain. According to an article published in the journal, Translational Pediatrics, these stimulants are typically prescribed to help treat patients diagnosed with ADHD.
How a Therapist Will Improve Mental Health
There are many roles a therapist can play in assessing and improving a patient’s mental health and wellness.
Should you visit a therapist, depending on the purpose for employing their services — you can expect them to practice one of the following forms of psychotherapy:
Psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapies
Behavior therapy (including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy)
Integrative or holistic therapy
psychiatrist-backed care, all from your couch
Final Thoughts: The Right Mental Healthcare Provider
Deciding which mental health care provider is right for you is ultimately in your hands. Depending on your needs, any one of these options may be a good idea. Either way, you are making the right first steps toward getting better by getting help, no matter what option you choose.
If you’re looking to talk to someone immediately, you have the option to explore our online psychiatry options for virtual support in your healing journey.
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