Psychologist vs Psychiatrist vs Therapist: What’s the Difference?

When you’re seeking out mental health help for yourself or a loved one, it’s easy to get overwhelmed at all of your choices.

A doctor can refer you where they think you can get the most help, but when you’re doing preliminary research (or if you’re not looking for a referral) how can you know where you’re supposed to go?

You might be noticing that there are a lot of words swirling around regarding different types of mental health professionals. What’s the difference between a psychologist vs a psychiatrist vs a therapist?

While these are all experienced mental health workers, the terms aren’t interchangeable. Each one serves a different purpose in your healing journey. People may also serve more than one of those purposes.

So what’s the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist? What about a therapist? Keep reading to learn what you need to know.

What Is a Psychologist?

Many people try to lump all mental health workers under the “psychologist” umbrella, but this is inaccurate. Psychologists have their own skillsets and responsibilities.

Some of the clearest differences are obvious in the ways in which they practice and the education and experience that they receive prior to starting their careers.

Required Education

All psychologists have advanced degrees in psychology. Almost all psychiatrists have a doctorate degree, though some only have a master’s. You can’t be a psychologist if you’ve only completed a bachelor’s degree if you plan on interacting with patients or completing serious research.

Psychologists have two primary career paths. They can stay on the research route, or they can practice therapy.

How They Practice and Work

For psychologists who choose the research route, they may work in universities or in lab settings to advance research in the mental health field. While working in universities, they can also become educators.

When they’re working in the field, they often work as therapists or counselors. They help to guide patients during their mental health struggles. They can diagnose mental health conditions and create treatment plans. They can also specialize in specific subsets of mental health.

They can not prescribe medication.

What Is a Psychiatrist?

While many mental health professionals have a doctorate degree, psychiatrists are the only ones who are considered medical doctors. Psychiatrists often work with other medical professionals (like therapists or a patient’s general practitioner), or they can work alone.

But what sets them apart from therapists and psychologists?

Required Education

As we mentioned, all psychiatrists need a doctorate. Unlike psychologists, the degree is a degree in medicine. This is what allows them to prescribe medication.

Like other doctors, they need to complete a fellowship in their field. They can then pursue further education if they’re interested in a specific area of mental healthcare (like childhood mental health, rare mental health conditions, trauma disorders, or whatever else interests them).

How They Practice

Psychiatrists have several functions. They often work in hospitals or inpatient mental health centers, but they can also work in clinics or in their own independent practice settings. Psychiatrists are unique because they can prescribe.

No other mental health workers are allowed to prescribe psychiatric medication. Psychiatrists are also the most qualified to diagnose mental health conditions.

Psychiatrists are able to provide counseling to their patients, but they’re more likely to refer patients to a qualified therapist or counselor than they are to provide this service themselves.

More often than not, a therapist will refer the patient to the psychiatrist rather than the other way around because therapy is often a first-line treatment method.

What Is a Therapist?

So with both of these in mind, what is a therapist? What distinguishes a therapist from a psychologist or a psychiatrist? Is there any overlap?

There’s a reason that it may seem like “therapist” is the umbrella term for mental health professionals. Both psychologists and psychiatrists are able to act as therapists, though it’s less likely for psychiatrists to do so.

Here are a few other things to know about therapists.

Required Education

Generally speaking, therapists need advanced degrees. These degrees come in a lot of varieties, though.

Therapists can come from degree programs in social work, clinical psychology, psychiatry, substance abuse counseling, and any other number of backgrounds. This is why there’s such a huge variety of therapists in the field.

How They Practice

Because there are so many different kinds of therapists, their roles are diverse. The most common type of therapist is a “talk therapist” that helps patients work out their feelings and make plans to work through them, but there are also therapists who work to conquer trauma, eating disorders, substance abuse, and debilitating mental health conditions.

Not all therapists are qualified for every type of therapy. Many therapists will seek out further education to get certificates in specific areas so they can better serve their patients. These include:

  • EMDR
  • CBT
  • DBT
  • Childhood therapy
  • Specific types of counseling (such as marriage counseling)

Once you start seeing your therapist, they’ll be able to create a treatment plan for you that includes the right kind of therapy (even if they’re not the right therapist to offer it to you).

If your therapist isn’t also a psychiatrist, they’ll often work in tandem with a psychiatrist so there’s an easy way to manage your medication while you’re working on counseling.

Psychologist vs Psychiatrist vs Therapist: Which Is Right?

There are a lot of crossovers when it comes to mental health workers. When it comes to choosing a psychologist vs a psychiatrist vs a therapist, the right choice might be using them all at once.

When you’re in need of help with your mental health, you don’t have to choose. Let them work together to help you on your path towards healing.

If you’re ready to start conquering your mental health struggles, we want to help you. Our compassionate staff members understand how hard it can be to take the first step in seeking help, so we’ve created a simple and streamlined admissions process.

Contact us with any questions or to get started. We can’t wait to hear from you.