Psychiatrist Vs. Therapist: What’s the Difference?
By: Julia Thomas
Updated March 08, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Sonya Bruner
Everyone experiences mental health issues, and can use the support of others. Whatever you’re going through, therapy can be a powerful ally to help you improve your well-being. With or without a mental health issue, it can help empower you to live the life you want, foster better habits, and even improve your quality of sleep.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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