The Main Differences Between A Psychologist And A Therapist

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated March 14, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

People often use the terms "psychologist" and "therapist" interchangeably when discussing mental and emotional health matters. Indeed, both professions help people find mental health support. 

However, there can be a notable difference between a psychologist and a therapist. Discovering what type of mental health professional you are best matched with can be challenging. The critical differences between a therapist and a psychologist can help you choose which one might suit your situation more.

There Are Many Different Types Of Mental Health Providers

What Is A Psychologist? 

Psychology is the study of the cognitive processes within the brain as well as mental health disorders. It deals with human behavior and how they interact with one another. Psychologists are mental health professionals that have undertaken psychology-based academic studies and other related educational programs and obtained notable qualifications in the field. Professional psychologists hold advanced degrees in the subject, including a Ph.D. or PsyD degree. The title of psychologist serves as an indicator of professional recognition.

Psychologists train to evaluate an individual's mental health using clinical assessments and psychological testing based on different psychological principles. This knowledge can then be applied to all matters of life, including mental health, economics, education, and more. The role of the psychologist is to understand the "why" of circumstances and offer guidance to improve them.  

Psychologists offer important mental health services and often specialize in fields of study such as educational programs, health careers, occupational therapy, forensic science, neuropsychology, or clinical support. They may obtain specialized training in a specific therapy technique, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), or another. Other examples of specialization include occupational therapists helping children with developmental disabilities.

Furthermore, psychologists may have specialized experience with specific clinical issues or demographic populations. While psychologists can provide diagnostic evaluation and testing, they may be unable to prescribe medication and provide medication management. Psychotropic medication is often prescribed by psychiatrists, who are medical doctors.

What Is A Clinical Psychologist? 

Clinical psychologists are doctoral degree-level practitioners specially trained to diagnose clinical mental health disorders and emotional disorders and provide psychological testing, assessment, and evaluation. They will often work from a private practice.

Clinical psychologists can provide individual, group, and family counseling and mental health services. They may specialize in a specific form of therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, or behavioral techniques. They also consider more in-depth factors that could be contributing, such as a physical illness and your lifestyle.

What Are Counseling Psychologists? 

While clinical psychologists may focus on testing and evaluation in their professional training, counseling psychology works directly with clients to diagnose their mental health issues and provide support. Counseling psychologists are also doctoral degree-level practitioners.  

The problems counseling psychologists may address often depend on the psychologist's area of expertise and experience. Counseling psychologists apply the scientific understanding of their chosen field to a person's circumstances to offer them therapeutic guidance. Like clinical psychologists, they can provide individual and group therapy.

What Are School Psychologists?

School psychologists work within a school setting and receive specialized training to provide diagnoses and counseling and 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. 

They may also offer educational programs for groups or individuals and parents. If they have licensing and experience in occupational therapy, school psychologists may also support children with developmental disabilities.

What Is A Counselor? 

Like psychologists, counselors and licensed professional counselors assist individuals, groups, and families with developing life skills improving relationships, and addressing mental illness. While counseling psychologists and counselors provide therapy services to those with mental health needs, counselors have different educational backgrounds, titles, and professional orientations. 

Like counseling psychologists, counselors might provide diagnoses but not prescribe psychotropic medication. Furthermore, counselors may have specialized experience with certain clinical issues or demographic populations like psychologists. As mentioned previously, psychotropic medication is often prescribed by psychiatrists, who are medical doctors that are often referred by a primary care doctor. 

Counselors do not have a Ph.D. or PsyD degree. They often have a master's degree in a field such as clinical psychology, counseling, or social work.

What Is A Clinical Social Worker?

Clinical social workers (LCSW) are master's degree-leveled practitioners with a degree in social work. They diagnose mental health conditions and provide therapy for individuals, groups, families, couples, and marriages. In addition to counseling services, they may provide additional services such as case management and advocacy.

Other Types Of Counselors 

Counselors are master's degree-leveled practitioners who make diagnoses and provide individual, family, and group counseling. However, they may specialize in different areas, such as substance abuse, family therapy, crisis intervention, and more. Counselors may have the following titles: 

  • Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)

  • Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC)

  • Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC)

  • Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)

  • Crisis Intervention Specialist (CIS)

  • Licensed Certified Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor (LCADC) 

Some nurse practitioners can also become licensed to provide professional talk therapy. The actual distinction of each title depends upon the counselor's professional orientation and the licensure standards of the state(s) in which they practice.  

You can find licensing information by state on the American Counseling Association (APA) website. To find support in understanding the nuances of these various licensures and their requirements, the American Counseling Association has also provided a list of licensing FAQs.

Therapist vs Counseling Psychologist

The term “therapist” is an umbrella term for many different approaches to treating mental processes. This term may include licensed professional counselors, marriage and family therapists, psychotherapists, or social workers. The therapist's role is often to meet with patients to implement specific treatments. 


There is a distinct overlap between counselors and psychologists, even to the point of people using the terms interchangeably. As noted above, one key difference is the educational level of each respective mental health provider. Psychologists are doctorate degree-level practitioners, while licensed mental health counselors often hold master's degrees. There can also be some differentiation based on the specific doctorate or master's program they attended. 

Job Duties

Another difference is the professional orientation of each provider. Some psychologists specialize in the assessment and psychological evaluation of patients, while others specialize in individual, group, and family counseling. Some counselors specialize in substance use treatment, and others focus on marriage and family therapy.

How To Choose A Provider 

When choosing a counseling psychologist or therapist, consider the individual's credentials instead of their title. Familiarize yourself with the differences between counselors and psychologists, including their educational background, licensing, the scope of practice, and years of experience in their chosen field. Consider their professional expertise in dealing with situations similar to your own.

While educational training can be vital in choosing a mental health practitioner, therapeutic rapport and personal "fit" may be equally beneficial. Even if a practitioner has extensive experience and education in their field, therapy may only be successful if you feel comfortable with their approach or personality.

Such decisions can be challenging. Seeking professional help, however, is often rewarding in self-improvement. Deciding to seek treatment may be a step toward finding support and learning new techniques. 

There Are Many Different Types Of Mental Health Providers

Therapy Options

People considering mental health services from a psychologist or therapist may struggle to leave home or seek support in person. If you are considering counseling, you may be experiencing fatigue, sadness, social withdrawal, or any symptoms that could make leaving home difficult. In this case, online counseling may be a viable alternative to in-person therapy.  

With internet-based counseling, you can meet with a mental health professional from the comfort of your home. This type of therapy can also be more convenient since appointments are often available outside business hours. If you're interested in getting started with an online provider, you can sign up today with a counselor through a platform like BetterHelp. BetterHelp offers over 30,000 licensed providers, including psychologists, counselors, and social workers. 

Scholarly research in the field of mental health has confirmed its effectiveness. A comprehensive meta-analysis suggests that internet-based therapy is as effective as in-person counseling for various mental health conditions like depression or an anxiety disorder. 


Despite the number of choices in selecting a mental health practitioner, having variety may help you find a provider that best fits your needs. If you're interested in reaching out for support, consider contacting a counselor or therapist for further guidance. 

For additional help & support with your concerns

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet Started