Psychiatrist vs Therapist: Definition, Meaning, & What Is the Difference?

By Julia Thomas|Updated June 1, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Dr. Sonya Bruner, PsyD

Therapy can be a powerful ally to help you improve your well-being, whether in-person or through online therapy services. With or without a mental health symptoms, therapy with a therapist can help empower you to live the life you want. A psychiatrist can also be a great option for medication management in addition to therapy with a therapist. When it comes to mental health treatment, there are a handful of choices such as psychiatrists, therapists, and counselors for your mental health care.

Psychiatrist Or Therapist, Which Is Right For You? We Can Help

Psychiatry Compared To Therapy: The Difference & How It Differs

So, what's the big difference between a psychiatrist vs counselor vs therapist? When looking to speak to a mental health professional, you should decide which kind of professional is most appropriate for your goals. There are many kinds of mental health professionals, such as social workers, practicing psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists.

When considering the difference between mental health care providers, you should know that psychiatrists are medical doctors who have attended medical school in order to treat and diagnose mental health issues and can prescribe medication. Most psychiatrists 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 resident to become acutely familiar with medical conditions and general medicine. While psychiatrists don't always provide therapy, they prescribe medications as well as diagnose medical illnesses; this focus on medication is due to their credentials as medical doctors with a medical degree. They can also determine the effects a mental condition can have on other medical issues. This can be particularly helpful if you feel like your mental health issues have taken a toll on your physical health, but you want an accurate diagnosis of the root of your symptoms. You may also want to know that it's common for another mental health professional, such as a licensed counselor to refer you to a psychiatrist to prescribe medication.

Therapist, on the other hand, is an umbrella term for mental health professionals that can include counselors, psychologists, and psychotherapists offering talk therapy. A therapist meaning basically covers anyone who practices what's known as talk therapy. These people are also qualified mental health counselors who have at least a master's degree, but a Ph.D. or M.D. is not required to practice therapy. In most cases, therapists are a mental health professional who can diagnose and treat mental health conditions. This is helpful to keep in mind when deciding who the best professional is to treat mental disorders, for you.

Each U.S. state uses different terms to issue licenses to psychologists. Psychologists are a catch-all term for any mental health professional, such as social workers or a therapist. Depending on state law and licensure rules, therapists can:

Diagnose

Assess

Treat

A variety of mental health disorders. Therapists can not write prescriptions for medication the way psychiatrists can due to their lack of a doctoral degree, but they frequently collaborate with psychiatrists to ensure your treatment is cohesive. Because of this, it is quite common for someone to see a therapist for their mental disorders before seeing a psychiatrist.

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 treating mental health disorders with the help of psychologists. While we can't tell you which path or treatment methods are right for you, we can give you the information you need to make an informed decision.

Psychiatrist Vs Therapist: How to Choose A Right Profession For Your Needs

If you are still not sure which mental health services or psychology profession you should seek out, there are some things to ask yourself that can help determine the key differences that matter when researching types of psychologists.
  • What is the issue you want to talk about or the specific problem you want help with? How do you want to treat mental conditions?
  • Do you prefer the idea of medication as a treatment path? Would you want a treatment that incorporates both medication and psychotherapy? 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, therapy is a good first step. Instead of considering one or the other, you may want both.
  • If you're having family or relationship issues, attending specialized family therapy will provide you with detailed and experienced insight into relationship dynamics. Family therapists are extremely effective at providing group therapy to patients struggling with familial communication or internal conflict.

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. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor, so 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 psychiatrists as often as they deem necessary for your safety and symptoms.

Most therapists, on the other hand, offer one-hour sessions. You can often work out shorter psychotherapy 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 professional once or twice a month. Alternatively, some people see their professional more than once a week for extra support during a mental health crisis.

Comparing Their Roles

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

However, therapists who provide talk therapy can treat a significant amount of mental health conditions, such as substance use disorder (formerly known as substance abuse disorder), bipolar disorder, depression, or just helping to manage stress levels of their patients. Don't be fooled by their lack of a medical degree and education, most family therapists are extremely skilled in treating new patients with a variety of mental health conditions. 

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

Cost of Treatment

Psychiatrists typically charge more than therapists. Depending on the biological factors at play, however, a therapist's treatment can be just as costly depending on the frequency. (Remember, it's likely that you'll need to see a counselor more often than a psychiatrist.) The cost of psychiatry or therapy may be determined by your insurance coverage, where you live, and the type of professional available in your area. Psychiatrists also tend to have added costs, like the cost of medication, while a therapist has a set price per session. Some therapists are very experienced and specialized, for instance, and may cost quite a bit more than others with less experience.

Referrals For Treatment

Both psychologists will potentially refer you to the other party if they think you could benefit from this. For example, if you visit a psychologist who notes your interest in medication, they may refer you to a doctor 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 therapy.

If you're still unsure about which you should choose to see when seeking support, 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 counselor or psychiatrist directly. If they feel another avenue might serve you better, they'll let you know.

Online Therapy With BetterHelp - See A Therapist

a man (seen from behind) sitting at a wooden desk topped with a lamp, notebooks, a plant, and over-the-ear headphones using a computer to access online therapy.

Therapy can help you learn decision-making techniques and allow you 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.

Conclusion - How Psychiatrists Differentiate from Mental Health Professionals

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 with therapy today.

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