Psychiatrist Vs. Therapist: What’s the Difference?

By: Julia Thomas

Updated July 09, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Sonya Bruner

If you're reading this article, chances are that you're considering seeking out mental health care. This means you're prioritizing your wellbeing and health, and that deserves recognition. Moving forward, you should decide which kind of professional is most appropriate for your goals. There are a handful of choices such as psychiatrists, therapists, psychologists, and counselors. Most people end up choosing between a psychiatrist and a therapist. This article will cover the main differences between a psychiatrist and a therapist.

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A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who has a lot of very specific experience. A psychiatrist must attend four years of medical school, complete one or two years of internship training, and take on more than three years of special training as a psychiatrist resident. While psychiatrists typically don't provide therapy, they are able to prescribe medication, as well as diagnose medical illnesses like diabetes or high blood pressure. Psychiatrists are also able to determine the effects a mental condition can have on other medical issues such as heart disease, obesity, and alcoholism. This can be particularly helpful if you feel like your mental health issues have taken a toll on your physical health. You may also want to know that it's common for another mental health professional to refer you to a psychiatrist in order to get a prescription for medication.

Therapist, on the other hand, is an umbrella term for occupations that can include counselors, psychologists, and psychotherapists. The term basically covers anyone who practices what's known as talk therapy. A therapist is also a qualified mental health professional who has at least a master's degree, but a Ph.D. or M.D. is not required to practice therapy.

Each U.S. state uses different terms to issue licenses to professionals who are therapists. Depending on state law and licensure rules, therapists can diagnose, assess, and treat mental health disorders. They are not able to write prescriptions for medication the way psychiatrists can, but they frequently collaborate with medical doctors and psychiatrists to ensure your treatment is cohesive. Because of this, it is quite common for someone to see a therapist first on their mental health journey.

Even though they're common starting points, these aren't your only options. Everyone experiences different mental health issues, so everyone's solution is unique to them. If you're reaching out for help, you're not alone. Close to one in five adults in the U.S. live with a mental illness, and people are becoming much more open about mental health. While we can't tell you which path is right for you, we can give you all of the information you need to make an informed decision.

Psychiatrist vs. Therapist: How to Choose

If you are still not sure which one you should see, there are some things to ask yourself that can help.

  • What is the issue you want to talk about or the specific problem you want help with?
  • Do you prefer the idea of medication as a treatment path, or would you prefer to avoid it unless it's deemed necessary? Would you want treatment that incorporates both medication and therapy? You now know that you will eventually need to consult with a psychiatrist or your primary care doctor if you want to consider medication. If you plan to incorporate a type of therapy like cognitive behavioral therapy, talking with a counselor or therapist is a good first step.
  • Does your issue involve other people such as your family or significant other? If you're having family or relationship issues, talking with a specialized family therapist or professional counselor will provide you with detailed and experienced insight into relationship dynamics.

Differences in Appointment Structure

When you visit a psychiatrist, you will likely have a single intake session, and then you'll only be in their office for 15-minute check-ups after your initial visit. Follow-ups typically happen once every three months as long as you aren't having problems with your medication or experiencing a mental health crisis. In those cases, you would visit the psychiatrist as often as they deem necessary for your safety.

Most therapists, on the other hand, offer one-hour sessions. You can often work out shorter sessions with them if you have an extremely busy schedule or are in a financial crunch. The most common interval for these meetings is once a week. However, if you are doing well and prefer to check in occasionally, you might only see your therapist once or twice a month. Alternatively, some people see their therapist more than once a week for extra support during a mental health crisis.

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Comparing Their Roles

A therapist is first and foremost a supportive figure. Although the therapist may offer guidance, suggestions, and education about your problem, they don't make demands. Their main role is to assist you in working through your mental health issues and to provide suggestions on paths that may be helpful. As such, they may suggest homework including a book recommendation or habits to practice in order to help you continue your work between sessions. This homework can speed up progress dramatically.

A psychiatrist will likely make recommendations about medication interventions, check on the helpfulness of the medication, and talk with you about any problems that the medication may present for you. A psychiatrist will not always provide the emotional support that a therapist would provide. However, this approach can be very helpful if you've moved past the therapist stage and are only using medication to manage your issues.

Cost of Treatment

Psychiatrists typically charge more than therapists. Depending on the circumstances, however, a therapist's treatment can be just as costly as treatment with a psychiatrist. (Remember, it's also likely that you'll need to see a therapist more often than a psychiatrist.) The cost of treatment may be determined by your insurance coverage, where you live, and the type of mental health professionals available in your area. Some therapists are very experienced and specialized, for instance, and may cost quite a bit more than others with less experience.

Referrals

Both psychiatrists and therapists will potentially refer you to the other party if they think you could benefit from this. For example, if you visit a therapist who notes your interest in medication, they may refer you to a doctor or psychiatrist for an evaluation to see if medication could ease your symptoms. If you see a psychiatrist first, they may determine that therapy is an essential part of your treatment plan, so they may refer you to a therapist.

If you're still unsure about whether you should choose to see a therapist or a psychiatrist, it's important to remember the most important step is to just make an appointment with either one of them. You can speak with your medical doctor or make an appointment with a therapist or psychiatrist directly. If they feel another avenue might serve you better, they'll let you know.

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Get Help Making a Decision with BetterHelp

The first thing you need to remember is that you'll have the opportunity to change your mind if you realize you've made the wrong choice for you. Second, therapy can help you learn decision-making techniques and give you an opportunity to practice these, which can have a helpful impact in many areas of life. The most important thing on the journey to wellness is to get started, regardless of where or how. With BetterHelp, you can access therapy from the comfort and privacy of your own home (or wherever you have an internet connection). BetterHelp's licensed therapists all possess at least three years and 2,000 hours of hands-on experience. Read below to see some reviews on BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing different issues.

FAQ's (Frequently Asked Questions)

What does a psychiatrist do?

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who can diagnose and treat mental disorders. There are many different types of psychiatrists. They specialize in treating diverse populations and age groups. In Pediatric psychiatry, clinicians work with children.

What are the different types of psychiatrists?

Psychiatrists work with a variety of age groups. People that work with teenagers practice adolescent psychiatry, while those who work with older adults practice geriatric psychiatry. Child and adolescent psychiatry is a fascinating field because you get to see the development of a human being over time. In contrast, if you're working with adults, they are relatively fixed in their issues. Though you can manage medications, there is a lot of room for growth with child and adolescent psychiatry. There is also some psychiatry that focuses on substance abuse. Addiction psychiatry is a field where you can help a person cope with chemical dependency, and it is a fascinating field. There are many different medication options for people who are struggling with these issues. The area of psychiatry is vast and encompasses many diverse populations. There are a lot of genetic components.

Is a psychologist a Dr?

Yes, a psychiatrist is a mental doctor. You can either see an M.D or a D.O. If you want to find the right psychiatrist for your needs, keep in mind who specializes in what disorders and what age groups. It's essential to keep in mind that psychiatric services can be found in different places such as mental health clinics, or private practices.

Do psychiatrists provide counseling?

Some psychiatrists provide counseling, while others exclusively offer medication management. It depends on what type of psychiatric services you need. Some people see a psychiatrist only to manage their medication, while others visit them for therapy as well. There are many different treatment options.

What kind of doctor specializes in mental health?

Psychiatrists are doctors who specialize in mental health. They may practice child and adolescent psychiatry, or work with adults. Regardless of the population that a psychiatrist treats, they have the same purpose - to help diagnose and treat mental disorders.

What is the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist?

Psychiatrists prescribe medication, while psychologists provide therapy with their clients. Another thing to keep in mind is that some psychiatrists provide medication management along with therapy. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychotherapists are different. A psychiatrist offers medication management, and a psychologist practices mental health treatment. If you want to find the right psychiatrist for your needs, it's essential to keep in mind what you're looking for and make sure that you remember you're entitled to quality psychiatric services.

Why do we need psychiatrists?

We need psychiatrists because mental health disorders need to get the right treatment. And remember that there's a significant genetic component to mental disorders. Psychiatric genetics neuroimaging can provide insight into what is happening with our brains and how we can treat these issues. Psychiatric services can help with medication management and a wealth of mental health disorders. Psychiatrists can save lives when a patient is in distress, has suicidal ideation and needs mental health treatment to stay stable. They are so useful in helping to determine what a person's mental illness is, and helping them treat it.

What is difference between a psychiatrist and psychologist?

To a person who is not really accustomed to medical terminologies, the title of a psychiatrist and a psychologist might look similar. Both professionals understand the functions of the brain, the emotions, feelings, and thoughts. Both are also equipped to treat mental illnesses, abnormal health conditions, and psychological problems with psychological treatment using talk therapies.

Nevertheless, these two professionals have distinct roles and responsibilities. Each of these professionals, the psychiatrist and the psychologist have different educations, system of trainings and roles they perform.

 A psychiatrist is a medical doctor with a medical degree and an advanced qualification from residency and a specialty in psychiatry. Psychiatrists being medical doctors have at least 11 years of training which can be more depending on the region and local regulations. A psychiatrist undergoes first a medical degree at the university, then train as a general physician for about 1 year to two years, this might vary across geographical regions. Afterward, a minimum of five years is spent in training on diagnosis and treatment of mental illness.

A psychologist, on the other hand, have at least 6 years of university training in medical school and supervised experience. He can also be a holder of a Master degree or Doctorate advanced level of qualification in Psychology. With a Doctorate degree at hand, a psychologist can be called a “Dr’”. This is quite different from a medical doctor since the title is conferred due to academic qualifications not according to the profession. A clinical psychologist is educated in the branch of psychology called clinical psychology and is specially trained in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness.

Psychiatrist can provide a wide range of treatments depending on what the problem is including the use of interpersonal interactions, medications, general medical care; assessing the physical health and the effect of medication on psychological problems, psychological treatments, brain stimulation therapies such as electroconvulsive therapy and other means for treating individuals with mental health conditions.

Psychiatrists work with a different age group. Psychiatrists who work with teenagers practice child and adolescent psychiatry and are referred to as a child and adolescent psychiatrist, while those who work with older adults’ practice geriatric psychiatry and are referred to as geriatric psychiatrists. There are also forensic psychiatrists who specialize in forensic psychiatry. Child and adolescent psychiatry is quite a fascinating field as forensic psychiatry because you get to study and understand the development of a human being over time. In contrast, when working with older adults, they have relatively fixed issues. But there is a lot of room for growth with child and adolescent psychiatry.

There is also another branch of psychiatry that focuses on substance abuse. Addiction psychiatry is a field of psychiatry where an individual with substance abuse and dependence can be managed, and it is a fascinating field.

The most common method of treatment used by a psychologist is talk therapy which is mostly employed in treating mental health conditions. He can also act as a consultant along with other healthcare professionals during the entire treatment program.

Psychiatrists tend to manage people from different age groups, the child- adolescent in child and adolescent psychiatry, the adults in adult psychiatry, and geriatrics in geriatric psychiatry and substance abuse addicts in addiction psychiatry whose needs are medical, social and psychological. They also attend to individuals with complex needs such as severe depression, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and bipolar disorder. Individuals who have suicidal ideation, suicidal attempts, or self-inflicted harm are also managed by a psychiatrist.

A psychologist will rather attend to an individual whose conditions can be effectively managed through psychological treatment. This may include behavioral problems, learning difficulties, depression, and anxiety.

What do psychiatrists do?

According to the American Psychiatric Association, psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in mental health, and mental disorders including substance use disorders. They are qualified to assess both the mental and physical aspects of psychological problems.

Psychiatrists also tend to manage people from different age groups, the child- adolescent in child and adolescent psychiatry, the adults in adult psychiatry, geriatrics in geriatric psychiatry and substance abuse addicts in addiction psychiatry whose needs are medical, social and psychological. There are also forensic psychiatrists who specialize in forensic psychiatry. They also prescribe medications and attend to individuals with complex needs such as severe depression, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and bipolar disorder. Such an individual’s privacy is secured under the local mental health private policy. Individuals who have suicidal ideation, suicidal attempts, or self-inflicted harm are also managed by a psychiatrist.

Due to the fact that psychiatrists are physicians, psychiatrists can order or perform a full range of medical laboratory and psychological tests which when combined with discussions with patients help provide a picture of a patient's physical and mental state. The specific diagnosis made is based on criteria established in APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which contains descriptions, symptoms, and other criteria for diagnosing mental disorders.

Psychiatrists use a variety of treatments including various forms of psychotherapy, medications, psychosocial interventions, and other treatments (such as electroconvulsive therapy or ECT), depending on the needs of each patient.

What does a psychiatrist do for anxiety?

Psychiatrists assess the mental and physical symptoms of your mental disorders, talk with you about your concerns, make a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder, prescribe medications, work out a way to deal with your anxiety and to recover, interact with people close to you about anxiety if you consent to, due to the local private policy and provide referrals to other health professionals including psychologists.

Why would you see a psychiatrist?

A psychiatrist can be of assistance if your mental disorders are complex or difficult to diagnose, involves suicidal ideas or plans, is severe or happens suddenly, needs a psychiatrist to prescribe medications, and isn’t responding to standard treatment through your General practitioner (family doctor). Your child might also have developmental issues or eating disorders which warrants a visit to a psychiatrist who specializes in child and adolescent psychiatry.

Should I go to a psychologist or a psychiatrist?

Psychiatrist can provide a wide range of treatments depending on what the problem is including the use of interpersonal interactions, medications general medical care; assessing the physical health and the effect of medication psychological treatments, brain stimulation therapies such as electroconvulsive therapy and other means for treating individuals with mental health conditions.

The most common method of treatment of mental health conditions used by a psychologist is talk therapy which is mostly employed in treating mental health conditions. He can also act as a consultant along with other healthcare professionals during the entire treatment program.

Psychiatrists work with different people whose needs may be medical, social, and psychological. They also attend to individuals with complex needs such as severe depression, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and bipolar disorder. Individuals who have suicidal ideation, suicidal attempts, or self-inflicted harm are also managed by a psychiatrist.

A psychologist will rather attend to an individual whose conditions can be effectively managed through psychological treatment. This may include behavioral problems, learning difficulties, depression, and anxiety.

What should I not tell a psychiatrist?

As an individual seeking health care, you have rights reserved to divulge your information only at your discretion as long as you have the qualified statutory age to make an informed decision. Hence, if you are willing to see a psychiatrist and ready to get treatment for your specific needs and issues, you should be ready to let out all you need in terms of information since your privacy, confidentiality and rights reserved is ensured under the mental health private policy. The psychiatrist is obliged under the mental health private policy to keep your information confidential.

What is the fees of a psychiatrist?

The cost of engaging the health services of a psychiatrist will depend on where you live, the kind of insurance you have, your needs, and your treatment requirements. In addition to the basic fees, there are other health services such as tests, laboratory investigations with their different and additional costs. The average psychiatrist’s fee generally resonates between $100 and $300 per appointment depending on your location as earlier stated. You should be expected to pay around $500 for your primary consultation and around $100 an hour during subsequent appointments.

Sometimes, psychiatrists work with you to make your visits and consultations more affordable. Being early as possible to find a psychiatrist will avail you with other possible cost-saving alternatives which might help you save more and spend less.

Do psychiatrists cost money?

If you are willing to find a psychiatrist, and to be given the best available psychiatric management, you should be ready and willing to pay for the service so required. These costs may vary from one location to another depending on the need, insurance, and treatment requirements.

What are the 6 types of anxiety disorders?

According to the American Psychiatric Association, Anxiety disorders differ from normal feelings of nervousness or anxiousness and involve excessive fear or anxiety. Anxiety disorders are the most common of mental disorders and affect nearly 30 percent of adults at some point in their lives. Nonetheless, anxiety disorders are manageable and several effective treatments are available.

There are six major types of anxiety disorders and this include:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder
  • Panic Disorder
  • Phobias, Specific phobia
  • Agoraphobia
  • Social Anxiety Disorder (previously called social phobia)
  • Separation Anxiety Disorder

Generalized Anxiety disorder:  It involves persistent and excessive worry that interferes with daily activities. This continuous worry and tension may be accompanied by physical symptoms, such as restlessness, feeling on the edge or easily fatigued, difficulty concentrating, muscle tension, or problem sleeping.

Panic Disorder:  The major symptom of panic disorder is recurrent panic attacks, an overwhelming combination of physical distress. Panic attacks may be expected such as a response to a fear object, or unexpected, apparently occurring for no reason. The mean age for the onset of panic disorder is 22-23. Panic attacks may occur with other mental disorders such as Post-traumatic stress disorder.

Phobias, specific phobia: A specific phobia is an excessive and persistent fear of a specific object, situation, or activity that is generally not harmful. Patients know their fear is excessive, but they cannot overcome it. These fears cause such distress that some people go to extreme lengths to avoid what they fear. Examples are fear of flying or fear of spiders.

Agoraphobia:  Agoraphobia is the fear of being in situations where escape may be difficult or embarrassing, or help might not be available in the event of panic symptoms. The fear is excessive in proportion to the actual situation, lasts generally six more months, and causes problems in functioning.

 Social Anxiety Disorder: A person with a social anxiety disorder has significant anxiety and discomfort about being embarrassed, humiliated, rejected, or looked down on in social interactions. People with this disorder will try to avoid the situation or endure with great anxiety.

Separation Anxiety Disorder: A person with a separation anxiety disorder is excessively fearful or anxious about separation from those with whom he or she is attached. The feeling is beyond what is appropriate for the person’s age, persists (at least four weeks in children and six months in adults), and causes problem functioning.

What can I expect at a psychiatrist's appointment?

Seeing a psychiatrist for the first time can be challenging, but there is no need to worry. The following list tells you what to expect at a psychiatric appointment.

  • The first visit most times is the longest: Your intake appointment can take one to two hours. You would have to fill out paperwork and assessments to help the psychiatrist determine a diagnosis. After that, you’ll have a conversation with the psychiatrist and a Psychiatrist Assistant may observe. The psychiatrist will get to know you and come to understand why you are seeking treatment. There will be a lot of questions for you to answer.
  • Call a friend: Many psychiatrists understand that on your first visit you may want to have a loved one or close friend with you. If you decide to bring someone with you, they should be someone who knows you well and are able to share information about you.
  • Write it down: Before your psychiatry appointment, you will have to write down why you are seeking help. Highlight critical behaviors that are of concern to you. This act will help you stay on track and lessen the likelihood of you forgetting something.
  • A simple physical assessment: Many psychiatrists will take your vitals on your first visit to establish a baseline. They will take your blood pressure and temperature and many will also weigh you. There is also the possibility of a blood draw. In some cases, your psychiatrist may send you for further testing or scans.
  • Get to know your psychiatrist: You will be working with the psychiatrist, psychiatrist assistant for a while on your health. It is a good idea to prepare questions so you can understand more about their method of treatment. You are expected to ask questions during your sessions.
  • Treatment plan: By the end of your first or second session, the doctor will have a treatment plan for you to begin. He or she will provide you with prescriptions and advise you on how you will move forward. It is imperative to discuss all medications you are taking with your psychiatrist. This step ensures sure your prescriptions don’t negatively interact.
  • Shorter sessions: After the initial intake, future psychiatry appointments will be shorter; on average between 15 and 20 minutes. You’ll discuss how the medicines are working and give a concise overview of how you’re doing. The psychiatrist or psychiatrist assistant will decide whether to adjust your medications or not.

Is anxiety a form of mental illness?

In its purest, primal state, anxiety is an emotion that keeps us alive and unharmed. Our ancestors needed it to avoid being eaten by wild animals. By worrying about threats ahead of time, they became prepared to fight or take flight when necessary. This helped them survive and eventually thrive.

Mild, occasional anxiety is not something to treat or worry about. It is only part of normal neurological functioning. When anxiety reaches a certain level of intensity and frequency, however, it stops being useful. Rather than fueling foresight, it becomes a source of suffering and distraction. This kind of relentless anxiety makes it hard to fully enjoy life. It is often a symptom of an anxiety disorder.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, people with anxiety as a mental illness have feelings of anxiety that do not go away and can interfere with daily activities such as job performance and relationships.

What questions does a psychiatrist ask?

If you have secured an appointment with a psychiatrist, you should be expected to answer some important questions about your medical, personal, social, family, and psychiatric history. So, you should be prepared to bring the following:

  • a complete list of medications, in addition to psychiatric medications
  • a list of any and all psychiatric medications you might have tried in the past, including how long you took them for
  • your medical concerns and any diagnoses
  • family history of psychiatric issues, if there are any

Also, if you’ve seen a psychiatrist in the past, it will be very helpful to bring a copy of those records or ensure your records are sent from the previous office to the new psychiatrist you’ll be seeing.

Even though the psychiatrist leads the session, you should go in with the mentality that you’re meeting your psychiatrist to see if he is right for you as well. However, you must note that the best determinant of successful treatment depends on the quality of the therapeutic relationship.

So, if the connection doesn’t evolve over time and you don’t feel your issues are being addressed, at that point you can search for another psychiatrist and get a second opinion.

How do I prepare for a psychiatrist appointment?

According to Mental Health America, It's essential to prepare for appointments, especially when shared decisions are involved. Time can go by quickly and you may not remember all you meant to tell the doctor. To use your appointment time wisely, download and print out a checklist that will contain your list of medications, social, medical, and family history. Fill it out before your appointment and take it with you. You can show it to your provider, or use it as a reminder of what you want to say.

It's also helpful to keep a notebook for your mental health treatment. Between appointments, write down how you are doing, problems with medication, and questions you want to ask. Take it to your appointment. During the appointment, write down what the doctor recommends, the decisions you make with your doctor, and the time of your next appointment.

 Also, be prepared to communicate what you’ve been experiencing, if you feel comfortable, share the goals you’d like to achieve from being in treatment. You may cry, feel awkward, or experience various kinds of emotions while discussing your concerns, but know that it’s completely normal and fine.

What should I talk to my psychiatrist about?

What you say to your psychiatrist totally depends on your level of distress, the stage you are at in the relationship with your psychiatrist and what you want the outcome to be. It will be helpful to remember what your role is and that of the psychiatrist. You could start by asking your psychiatrist the purpose of the meeting, what is required of you, and tell them what your hopes are for the meeting.  You will be required to talk as much as possible in answer to the questions of the psychiatrist. But note that you will be demanded to say more than the signs and symptoms. You will be demanded to say your personal history, family history, past and present medical and psychiatric history, the onset of the current condition, the features observed, the functioning affected, and many others.

Conclusion

Talking to a therapist can be life changing. No matter what you're experiencing, with the right tools, you can move forward to a truly fulfilling life. Take the first step.


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