The Difference Between A Psychiatrist And Therapist: What History Shows Us

By Nadia Khan|Updated August 2, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Lynne Healey, LMHC, QS, CAP, MPS

The difference between a psychiatrist and therapist is usually illustrated with the simple idea that psychiatrists are medical doctors who can prescribe prescription pills while a psychologist or psychoanalyst cannot. However, they can refer patients to a psychiatrist if necessary. Only the psychiatrist has a medical degree and thus can legally work as a psychopharmacologist, prescribing mind-altering substances for a patient's therapy. Understanding this difference between a psychiatrist vs therapist is the first step in getting treatment.

A psychologist is a doctor in psychology, which involves therapy, testing, research, and sometimes clinical work. Psychiatrists can practice psychotherapy, but most will refer you to a psychotherapist or psychologist for talk therapy.

Psychiatrist and Therapist Differences

Wondering What's The Difference Between A Psychiatrist And A Therapist?

That brings us specifically to the psychotherapist. This is an all-encompassing term referring to multiple categories of professionals who specialize in the treatment of emotional problems. This category may also include social workers and psychoanalysts, who do specialize in-depth analytical work.

What History Shows Us

Sigmund Freud was the father of modern psychoanalysis, and though the psychiatric community has their own 2000-era model to work from, his original way of thinking is still honored in the way doctors and therapists approach work. According to PsychologyToday, psychoanalysis was a term referring to treatment for psychiatric patients under the care of Freud and his company.

Eventually, there was a rift between psychiatry, biological solutions, and psychotherapy, characterized by a Freudian way of communicating with and reprogramming patients.

What Really Changed the Scope

What changed the medical profession the most had to be the invention of powerful new prescription medications in the 50s and 60s, which aimed to help the depressed, antisocial, and anxious. This allowed "psychiatric level patients" the chance to leave an institution and be treated as outpatients.

As psychiatry went on being influenced by pharmaceutical companies, psychology and talk therapy created the model of cognitive behavioral therapy, a model still used today in online counseling and other forms of talk therapy. The practice aims to treat mental health conditions or alleviate the mental health symptoms of patients, sometimes without medication or sometimes in addition to medication, depending on the severity of the condition.

How Do Psychiarists Help People In Modern Times

Now that we have medication to help in treating mental health disorders, psychiatrists have an important role to play. They are the best mental health professional to talk to for an accurate diagnosis of a mental health condition or to get an assessment. Furthermore, a psychiatrist can prescribe medications if they feel it is the best for of treatment for the condition.

Always keep in mind that psychiatrists are medical doctors and therefore will focus primarily on medical means to treat your medical conditions. Training psychiatrists includes having them attend medical school to learn general medicine and obtain a medical degree. After that, they receive training in a psychiatry residency to treat psychiatric patients. 

Therefore, if you are struggling with a severe mental health condition (such as substance abuse, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or other severe conditions) and need a medical based approach to treatment, then a psychiatrist is your best bet. If you are experiencing life challenges, family problems, or need help to manage stress, you are best to see a therapists, psychologists, or similar mental health professionals, such as social workers and family therapists.

It just goes to show that you always have options when you seek professional help; in the way of medication, talk therapy or psychotherapy, and CBT-guided discussion. We at BetterHelp use the CBT model as a way to help patients suffering from major mental health symptoms, in a way that will help them quickly and strategically, even if they are facing a critical time in their life.

Don't just wonder…find out for yourself how easy and helpful it can be. An online counselor is standing by, ready to talk about whatever is on your mind.

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