The Main Differences Between A Psychologist And A Therapist
By Nadia Khan
Updated June 02, 2020
Reviewer Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC
The terms psychologist and therapist are often used interchangeably when discussing matters relating to mental health. Indeed, both professions exist for the same purpose: to help people better themselves, however, there are notable differences between the two roles. Finding what type of mental health support you require can be difficult, so understanding the main differences between a psychologist and therapist can help you choose which one would suit your needs and situation more.
Psychology is the study of the cognitive processes in our brains. It deals with the way we think, behave, and interact with our fellow man. A psychologist is someone who has undertaken psychology-based academic studies and has obtained notable qualifications in the field. Most professional psychologists will hold advanced degrees in the subject, usually a Ph.D. or Psy.D. The title of psychologist serves as an indicator of professional recognition.
Psychologists are trained to evaluate an individual's mental health by using clinical assessments, evaluations, and psychological testing. The knowledge possessed by these individuals can then be applied to all manner of life; mental health, economics, education, etc. The role of the psychologist is to understand the why of circumstances and then offer guidance to improve matters. Psychologists also often specialize in particular fields of study such as educational, health, occupational, forensic, or clinical. Furthermore, psychologists may obtain specialized training in a specific therapy technique (e.g., cognitive-behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, etc.).
Furthermore, psychologists may have specialized experience with certain clinical issues or demographic populations. While psychologists can provide diagnostic evaluation and testing, note that they are typically unable to prescribe medication. Psychotropic medication is often prescribed by psychiatrists, who are medical doctors.
A clinical psychologist is doctoral-level practitioners who are specially trained to diagnose clinical disorders as well as provide psychological testing, assessment, and evaluation. Clinical psychologists can also provide individual, group, and family counseling. Clinical psychologists may specialize in a specific form of therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, or behavior techniques.
While clinical psychologists focus especially on testing and evaluation in their professional training, counseling psychologists are more 'applied' psychologists who work directly with individual clients to diagnose their mental health issues. Counseling psychologists are also doctoral-level practitioners, but instead of focusing on training in assessment and evaluation like clinical psychologists, they spend extra time in applied therapy techniques. The problems which they may address are often dependent on the psychologist's area of expertise and experience. Counseling psychologists apply the scientific understandings of their chosen field to a person's circumstances to offer them the therapeutic guidance they need to improve their lives. Like clinical psychologists, they can provide individual and group therapy.
School psychologists work primarily within a school setting and receive specialized training to provide diagnoses and counseling as well as work with families, students, teachers, and staff to promote a healthy school environment. They may work with a child study team and provide individualized education plans (IEP) to improve the school experience for youth with learning and behavioral needs.
Counseling psychologists are more 'applied' psychologists who work directly with individual clients to diagnose their mental health issues. The problems which they may address are often dependent on the psychologist's area of expertise and experience. Counseling psychologists apply the scientific understandings of their chosen field to a person's circumstances to offer them the therapeutic guidance they need to improve their lives.
Like psychologists, counselors also assist individuals, groups, and families with developing life skills and improving relationships. While psychologists and counselors both provide therapy services to those with mental health needs, counselors have different educational backgrounds, tiles, and professional orientations. Like psychologists, counselors can provide diagnoses but do not prescribe psychotropic medication. Furthermore, like psychologists, counselors may have specialized experience with certain clinical issues or demographic populations. As mentioned previously, psychotropic medication is often prescribed by psychiatrists, who are medical doctors.
Clinical Social Workers
Clinical social workers (LCSW) are master's-leveled practitioners with a degree in social work. They make diagnoses and provide individual, group, and family therapy. In addition to counseling services, they may provide additional services such as case management and advocacy.
Counselors are also master's leveled practitioners who make diagnoses and provide individual, family, and group counseling, but specialize in different areas. Counselors may have the following titles: Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC), Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), and Licensed Certified Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor (LCADC). The actual distinction of each title is dependent upon the counselor's professional orientation as well as the licensure standards of the state(s) they practice in.
Differences Between A Counseling Psychologist And Therapist
The term 'therapist' is an umbrella term for a multitude of different approaches to treating mental health. This can include counselors, marriage and family therapists, psychotherapists, or social workers. The role of the therapist is to meet directly with patients, usually once a week, while implementing specific treatments with patients to achieve goals.
There is a distinct overlap between counseling psychologists and therapists; even to the point of people using the terms interchangeably. As noted above, one main difference is the educational level of each respective mental health provider. Psychologists are doctoral-level practitioners while counselors are often masters level. Another important difference is the professional orientation of each provider; some psychologists specialize in the assessment and psychological evaluation, others specialize in individual, group, and family counseling. Some counselors specialize in drug and alcohol abuse treatment, and others in marriage and family therapy.
In choosing either a counseling psychologist or therapist for your treatment, ensure that you take into consideration the credentials of the individual as opposed to their title. Familiarize yourself with their educational background, licensing, and years of experience in their chosen field. It is also important to take into consideration their professional expertise in dealing with situations similar to your own in their prior experience and use these factors as the basis of your decision. It is always your right as a client to inquire about their educational background and clinical expertise. While educational training is an important aspect of choosing a mental health practitioner, it is also important to remember that therapeutic rapport and personal "fit" is equally important. Even if a practitioner has extensive experience and education in their particular field, if you do not feel comfortable with their style or do not feel comfortable working with them, therapy may be unsuccessful.
Such decisions can be very difficult to make, particularly to someone who is unsure of exactly what they're struggling with. Seeking professional help, however, is often necessary for self-improvement, so simply deciding to seek treatment is a step in the right direction. Despite how overwhelming the number of choices one has in selecting a mental health practitioner, it is important to note that the variety in specialties in the service providers available should help you as a client get matched to your best needs. Should you choose a professional you dislike working with or feel isn't helpful to you, you can always go a different route!