Psychiatrist Vs. Therapist: What’s the Difference?

Psychiatrists and Therapists Have One Thing in Common: They Both Help People
Online Therapy Addresses A Lot Of Mental Health Needs


So, you have decided to see someone to talk about the issues you have been having lately, but do you know who to see? There are so many choices: psychiatrist, therapist, psychologist, counselor, which one would be best for you? Well, it helps if you know the difference between them, but there are so many confusing commercials and websites which complicates things and decision making difficult to do. The two options that many people find themselves choosing between include a psychiatrist and a therapist. One of the first things you should know is that a psychiatrist can be a therapist, but a therapist cannot be a psychiatrist. Here are some more facts to help you better understand the two:


A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who has attended four years of medical school, one or two years of internship training, and more than three years of special training as a psychiatrist resident. Not only can a psychiatrist provide therapy, but they can also prescribe medication and 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.



A therapist is an umbrella term that can include counselors, social workers, psychologists, psychotherapists, and psychiatrists. It basically covers all those who practice talking therapy such as family therapists, marriage counseling, school counselor, etc. A therapist is a mental health professional who has at least a master's degree in that field but does not need a Ph.D. or M.D. to practice therapy. However, these individuals do not diagnose patients or write prescriptions unless they also happen to be psychiatrists. Most therapists specialize in a certain field like educational (school counselor), occupational (occupational therapist), or community (family therapist).

Psychiatrists and Therapists Have One Thing in Common: They Both Help People
Online Therapy Addresses A Lot Of Mental Health Needs


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 problem you need help with? Think about whether it is a personal issue affecting only you such as anxiety or depression. A psychiatrist can give you an evaluation and possibly prescribe medication if it is needed.
  • Is it a family issue that involves more than just you? A family therapist would be better equipped to handle that because they focus specifically on family therapy and have had in depth training in that field.
  • Does it involve work or school? In that case, you should probably see an occupational therapist and if that does not seem to be working, they can refer you to a psychiatrist.


Whether you see a therapist or a psychiatrist may be a question for your primary care physician because many insurance companies will not pay for therapy unless you are referred by a doctor. Therefore, it may be best to speak to your doctor before deciding who to see.

Time Factor

Unless your psychiatrist provides psychotherapy, you'll likely only be in their office for 15-minute med checks. This typically happens once every three months, as long as you aren't having problems with your meds and/or experiencing a mental health crisis. In those cases, you would see them as often as they deem necessary for your safety.

Psychiatrists and Therapists Have One Thing in Common: They Both Help People
Online Therapy Addresses A Lot Of Mental Health Needs


Most therapists provide one-hour sessions. You may work out shorter sessions with them if you have an extremely busy schedule or are in a financial crunch. The most common interval is once a week. However, if you are doing well and only want to check in occasionally, you might see your therapist once every two weeks or once a month. During a mental health crisis, you might be able to see your therapist more than once a week for extra support.

Their Role

A therapist is first and foremost a helper. You do the main work of your own therapist and they use their expertise to assist you. Although the therapist may offer guidance, suggestions, and education about your problem, they don't make demands. They may assign you homework, but if you don't do it, they aren't likely going to refuse to help you.

If you're seeing a psychiatrist, you may feel that they're more of an authority figure. Certainly, you can ask questions and present your own ideas about treatment. However, the psychiatrist typically tells you what to do to improve your condition. Unless you are a danger to yourself or others, you can always refuse to take the medication the psychiatrist prescribes. However, when you're dealing with a psychiatrist and tell them you won't take the meds, they may not continue to try treating you. If that happens, you'll either have the difficult job of finding a new psychiatrist your insurance will pay for or you'll choose to stop seeing any psychiatrist.


Having a mental illness is nothing to take lightly. Refusing treatment is almost always a very bad idea and can land you in inpatient care, or even worse, in danger of losing everything you hold dear. It's important to know how doctors and therapists see treatment so you can make choices that benefit your mental health.

Cost of Treatment

Treatment by a psychiatrist is typically higher than treatment by a therapist. However, a therapist's treatment can be just as costly as a psychiatrist's. That depends mostly on the therapist's education and training. Still, choosing the professional that is most equipped to deal with your mental health issues if far more crucial than saving a few dollars.

If you have insurance, however, the cost of a therapist or a psychiatrist may be just a small copay. You may have a deductible to meet first, though. In some cases, you have to pay the full cost of treatment until your deductible, which can be thousands of dollars, is met.



Both psychiatrists and therapists can make referrals for you to see the other type of professional. Suppose you go to a therapist who discovers you have distinct symptoms of a serious mental illness. They can make a referral to a psychiatrist. In most cases, you would see both the therapist and the psychiatrist.

If you see a psychiatrist first, they may determine that therapy is an essential part of your treatment plan. In this case, they may refer you to a therapist you can see in conjunction with your psychiatric treatment.

Because of their ability to make referrals, it's more important to begin treatment with some professional than it is to choose one or the other. At the same time, choosing a psychiatrist when your problem can be handled by a therapist may be a costly and time-consuming mistake.

If you're unsure whether you need a psychiatrist or a therapist, it may be a good idea to speak to a therapist first. Tell them about your symptoms and ask for their opinion about whether psychiatric treatment makes sense. They can't give you a diagnosis, but they might be able to point you in the right direction.

Fortunately, you can speak to a licensed therapist online at BetterHelp with no obligation to stay in therapy with them. By remaining anonymous, you can get helpful input without worry that what you share will ever be revealed to anyone unless you request it. The choice is still up to you, but a therapist's insight might help you have a better understanding both of your own problems and of what a psychiatrist might do for you.

Moving Beyond Indecisiveness

You may still be having a hard time knowing where to turn for help. It's normal to have these feelings, especially if you are new to the mental health community. In addition, some mental disorders contribute to your indecisiveness. People who are depressed often have trouble making choices.


The first thing you need to remember is that you'll probably have the opportunity to change your mind if you realize you've made the wrong choice for you. Second, you may need some therapy to learn decision-making techniques and practice them or to deal with a mild depression.

You may feel frozen and unable to take action. In that case, you may need to talk to a therapist to make plans of what to do next. If what you need is to talk to a psychiatrist, you may only need a limited number of sessions with the therapist. Whichever choice you make is better than doing nothing to improve your mental health.

Psychiatrists and therapists have different ways of helping you. At the same time, either or both of them can work with you in their own unique ways to help you achieve a happier, more fulfilling life. Don't delay in seeking treatment simply because you don't know everything about these two professions. Even they don't know everything! Instead, rely on the knowledge you've gained about therapists and psychiatrists from this and other sources. Choose as wisely as you can and get started soon. Your mental health may depend on it.

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