Psychiatrist vs. therapist: Important differences and how they can help you

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant
Updated February 13, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Therapy can be an effective tool to help you improve your mental health and well-being, learn effective coping mechanisms, and better your mood. It may empower you to live the life you want and meet your mental health goals with the help of a licensed mental health professional. However, many people are unsure whether to meet with a psychiatrist or therapist when seeking support. Just like how there's a difference between psychologist and therapist, there's also a difference between psychiatrists and therapists.

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Psychiatrist or therapist, which is right for you?

Therapists are often trained to support clients in working through mental health challenges and conditions, while a psychiatrist may be an option for medication management in addition to therapy. Ensuring you understand the difference between a therapist and a psychiatrist can be the first step in finding a provider.

The difference: Psychiatrist vs. therapist

Many people wonder about the difference between a psychiatrist and therapist, and a licensed mental health counselor. Often, when making an appointment to see a mental health professional, costs and time may go into the process, but exploring online psychiatry could potentially offer a more convenient and affordable alternative. For this reason, understanding how a professional can support you before you commit to a session can be beneficial. 

Psychiatrist: Mental health professional and medical doctor

Psychiatrists are medical doctors and mental health professionals who are required to attend medical school and obtain medical degrees, learning how to professionally treat and diagnose mental health disorders and prescribe medication. Many attend four years of medical school, complete one or two years of internship training, and take on three or more years of special training as a resident to become familiar with medical conditions and mental health medications.  

While they might not always provide mental health therapy, because of their medical training psychiatrists can prescribe medications and diagnose mental health conditions. Their focus on medicine can be due to their credentials as medical doctors. They can take a medical history, and determine the effects of a mental condition and other medical treatments. This process can be beneficial if you feel your mental health issues have affected your physical health but seek an accurate diagnosis of the root of your symptoms.

Please note that psychiatrists and psychologists are not the same. A psychologist typically cannot prescribe medication, but they can still treat mental health disorders through various therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or other types of cognitive therapy.

Therapist: Mental health professional through therapy

The term "therapist" is an umbrella term for mental health care providers that treat mental health concerns, including counselors, psychologists, social workers, and psychotherapists offering talk therapy. These professionals are qualified mental health counselors with at least a master's degree. A Ph.D. or MD is not required to work as a therapist. However, some therapists have a doctoral degree. In many cases, therapists are mental health professionals who can diagnose and treat mental illnesses (now called mental health conditions) like depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. They may have specialized training in specific areas to meet the needs of different individuals, or to support specific mental illnesses. 

Therapists cannot prescribe medication like psychiatrists, as they do not have medical or doctoral degrees. However, they may collaborate with psychiatrists to ensure the plan to treat the unique mental health conditions is sufficient. Due to this factor, clients may meet with a therapist to discuss a mental illness treatment plan before seeing a psychiatrist.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, close to one in five adults in the US live with a mental health condition, and millions of people see a therapist each year. While online articles might not tell you which path or treatment methods are right for you, they might give you the information you seek to make an informed decision regarding the mental health professionals you may choose to work with.

How to choose the appropriate professional for your needs

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If you are still trying to decide which mental health services or profession you should seek for services, ask yourself the following questions: 

  • What symptoms, behaviors, or diagnoses do I want to discuss with a provider? 
  • What type of treatment am I looking for? 
  • Do I prefer the idea of medication over talk therapy? 
  • Do I need someone who can write prescriptions? Would I prefer a combination of medication and therapy?
  • What type of provider can I afford to see? 
  • Is there a particular type of therapy I want to try (for example, group therapy or exposure therapy)? 

After deciding on the answers to these questions, consider reaching out to a few providers in your area to make a pros and cons chart of the pricing, value, and experience of each one before making a decision. Before starting, stopping, or changing any medication, speak to a psychiatrist, primary care physician, or medical doctor.

Some other mental health professionals that you may want to consider include:

  • Licensed clinical social workers
  • Psychiatric nurse practitioners
  • Licensed marriage and family counselors

Differences to note

Appointment structure differences

What is the process of making appointments with a psychiatrist near me? You might have a single intake session when you visit one after being referred by your primary care doctor. Subsequent appointments may only last about 15 minutes. They are medical doctors, so follow-ups might happen once every three months if you aren't having problems with your medication or experiencing a mental health crisis. In those cases, you may visit them as often as they deem necessary for your safety and symptoms. Think of it as seeing a specialist…like a specialist in osteopathic medicine that you see while your broken leg is healing. 

Many therapists offer 30-minute to one-hour sessions. You can often work out shorter psychotherapy sessions if you have a hectic schedule or are in a financial crunch. Often, these meetings may occur once a week. However, if you are feeling well and prefer to check in occasionally, you might only see your professional once or twice a month. Some people might also see marriage and family therapists more than once a week for extra support during a difficult period. 

Roles in treatment 

A therapist’s focus is often on the role of a professional, supportive figure. Although psychiatrists offer talk therapy occasionally and may offer guidance, suggestions, and education about mental health symptoms and conditions, they may not offer therapy. A clinical psychologist’s primary role is often assisting you in working through your symptoms. They might provide mental health care and treatment options to improve your well-being. As such, they can suggest homework like a book recommendation or habits to practice for you to continue your work between sessions. This homework might speed up progress in your sessions. 

Both a therapist and a psychiatrist who provide talk therapy can treat many mental health conditions, such as substance use disorder (formerly known as substance abuse disorder), bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, and major depressive disorder, or help manage stress levels. They can also help more than one individual at a time via marriage and family therapy. They may not have a medical degree, but many therapists are highly skilled in treating mental health conditions. A psychiatrist may make medication recommendations, check on the effectiveness of your medication, and talk with you about any side effects that medications may present. They might not always provide the emotional support that therapy often provides. However, some may offer both therapy and medication. Additionally, many offer diagnostic testing for mental health conditions. 

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.

Cost of treatment

Cost is one of the key differences in the psychiatrist and therapist head-to-head comparison. Psychiatrists may charge more than therapists, often reaching over $200 per session. Depending on the factors at play, a therapist's treatment can be as costly. Forbes found that the average cost of therapy in the US is $100-$200 per session. The cost of either may be determined by your insurance coverage, where you live and the type of professional available in your area. 

When visiting a psychiatrist, you may have to factor in medication costs if your insurance plan does not cover it. Some therapists are experienced and specialized and may cost more than others with less experience. Some platforms online may also offer therapy or psychiatry services for a lower cost. 

Referrals for treatment

Psychologists and therapists may refer you to one another to treat mental health conditions if they think you could benefit. For example, suppose you visit a psychologist who notes your interest in medication. In that case, they may direct you to a psychiatrist to evaluate if medication could ease your symptoms since psychiatrists are medical doctors. If appropriate, then prescribe medication. If you see one first, they could determine that therapy is essential to your treatment plan and refer you to therapy.

If you're still unsure about which provider to seek support from, consider making an appointment with either one to ask about your treatment options. You can speak with your medical doctor or make an appointment with a counselor or psychiatrist. They can let you know if another avenue might serve you better.

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Psychiatrist or therapist, which is right for you?

Some of your counseling options

Therapy can help you learn and practice decision-making techniques, which may positively impact many areas of life. However, counseling psychologists can also be costly, especially in person. If you face barriers to treatment due to cost, distance, or another issue, you might consider meeting with a counselor online. 

With internet-based therapy, you may not have to worry about commuting to an office or sitting on a waiting list. You can often begin treatment within 24 to 48 hours with an online platform. Additionally, one review on online therapy effectiveness found that online treatment led to a 50% reduction in symptoms of social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and compulsive gambling disorder, significantly decreasing the impact of chronic fatigue and stress. If you're ready to start, consider taking the next step with a platform like BetterHelp, which offers a growing network of licensed professional counselors and therapists. 

Takeaway

Both a psychiatrist and a therapist can help you develop a treatment plan for a mental health condition, discuss your symptoms, and find relief from distress. No matter which provider you choose, talking to a professional may get you on the road to mental well-being or growing as an individual. If you're interested in getting started, consider reaching out to a therapist for further guidance and compassionate support.

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