What Are The Differences Between A Psychiatrist & Therapist?

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

For many, choosing a mental health provider can be a significant step in their mental health journey. With over 41.7 million US adults in therapy, mental health care has become more popularized and destigmatized, allowing more individuals to gain support from mental health care providers. However, there are various types of mental health professionals and mental health counselors, so understanding the difference between a therapist and a psychologist may be the first step in finding a suitable provider to offer all the services you seek.

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Wondering what’s the difference between a psychiatrist and a therapist?

What’s the difference between a psychiatrist and a therapist?

There are several key differences between a therapist and a psychiatrist. For example, one distinct difference is that psychiatrists are medical doctors with a medical degree who can prescribe medications just as a primary care doctor can, while therapists, also called psychologists, cannot write prescriptions and are not medical doctors. Psychiatrists attend medical school and can often partake in medical diagnosing, clinical trials, and medical research. They may or may not offer therapy.

A psychologist is a licensed professional who has a doctorate in psychology or a related field along with a four-year residency. They can offer therapy, testing, research, clinical work, and teaching in the psychological field. These providers do not necessarily work as therapists. However, many do. Often, psychologists and psychiatrists work together to refer clients to one another and share observations. With an absolute biological and mental picture, both professionals may have greater insight into their clients' needs.

The term "psychotherapist" is often used as an all-encompassing term to refer to multiple categories of professionals specializing in treating emotional challenges. This category may also include social workers, psychoanalysts, and other specialties. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor and may not refer to themselves as psychotherapists unless they offer therapy as a primary service. Below are some of the details of the history surrounding psychotherapy and psychiatry. 

The history of psychotherapy and psychiatry

Sigmund Freud is often considered the father of modern psychoanalysis therapy. Although the contemporary psychiatric community has its own model which has changed since Freud's way of thinking may still show through in how doctors and therapists approach work. 

Eventually, there was a rift between psychiatry, biological solutions, and psychotherapy as treatments evolved, and psychologists started to understand that there was a mind-body connection.

One of the most significant changes in the medical profession was the invention of powerful new prescription medications in the 50s and 60s, which aimed to treat symptoms of depression, anxiety, and psychosis. These medications allowed some individuals experiencing distressing symptoms to live outside mental health institutions.

In the 1950s, the cognitive-behavioral therapy model was designed, which has since been considered the "gold standard" of modern treatment. The practice aims to treat mental health conditions or alleviate clients' symptoms, sometimes without medications and sometimes in addition to medication.

Although psychiatry has been a medical specialty since the 1800s, it was not separated from therapeutic treatment and philosophy as much until the invention of many popular medications. In the 60s and 70s, psychiatrists participated much more in clinical and hospital work and were slowly separated from psychologists in their careers. 

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Psychiatry in modern day 

With a vast pharmaceutical presence today, psychiatrists are often sought-after professionals. Many offer diagnostic testing for mental health conditions, assessments, medication management, and medical advice. Often, clients make an appointment with a psychiatrist for medical support, such as sleeping aids or medication to reduce nightmares. 

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor and may focus more on the biological, genetic, and medical factors of mental health, while therapists focus on thought patterns, communication, and discussion to impact mental health. These professionals go through general medical school, learning the same techniques and lessons as other doctors. In their final year of medical school, they may take on an apprenticeship to a psychiatrist. After medical school, they must have a residency period, just like other medical students. 

If you are struggling with severe mental health conditions such as substance abuse disorder, bipolor disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder, and are seeking a medical-based approach to treatment, a psychiatrist may be the most suitable fit. A psychiatrist has specific medical training and medical treatments to manage these medical conditions, they can prescribe medication, like anti-anxiety medication or anti-depressants and offer other medical treatment. 

If you are experiencing life challenges, family conflict, distressing mental health symptoms, or looking to manage stress, you may benefit from meeting with a therapist, psychologist, social worker, marriage and family therapist, or counselor. These professionals have expertise in treating mental health conditions and they have different treatment methods for managing mental health disorders. While a therapist doesn’t have a doctoral degree, they are required to have a master’s degree and they can provide you with an accurate diagnosis and treatment options without medication. 

Counseling options

There are many options for mental healthcare within the US, and thousands of mental health professionals work in the field. If you're seeking a psychiatrist or therapist, consider contacting those in your area to set up a consultation. If you find the price too steep or can't find a therapist in your area, you can also consider online therapy. 

Although many online providers are not psychiatrists and cannot prescribe medication or perform intensive diagnostic testing, online therapy can be as effective as in-person options. For example, in one study, 95% of participants preferred the online model to in-person models and reported an increased long-term quality of life. 

You can choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions with your provider and receive worksheets, journal prompts, and other resources through an online platform. If you want to sign up, consider a platform like BetterHelp, which offers a database of over 30,000 licensed therapists and counselors. 

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Wondering what’s the difference between a psychiatrist and a therapist?

Takeaway

There are several significant differences between the fields of psychiatry and psychology. If you want to learn more about how each type of professional can support you, consider contacting a therapist or psychiatrist in your area or online for guidance.

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