Therapist & Psychiatrist: Identifying The Differences

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated March 21, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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If you are considering starting counseling, you might need clarification about the various health professionals available for you to consult, including whether online psychiatry could be a viable option for you. There are often many options, which can make it hard to choose. Understanding the key differences between different types of therapists and a psychiatrist can help you make the right choice.

In general, a psychiatrist is a licensed medical doctor who can prescribe medication. Therapists, on the other hand, are typically licensed mental health professionals who use various treatment methods, such as talk therapy, to help people with mental health conditions. It’s possible to connect with a therapist in-person or online.

It can be simple to find a therapist

Therapist expertise

A therapist often has a wide range of expertise in providing treatment to improve their clients’ lives and mental well-being. Therapists can be social workers, counselors, or clinical psychologists.

In addition, therapists may specialize in behavioral therapy, cognitive therapy, or other therapeutic approaches. They may use a combination of techniques to help their clients.

Professional therapists typically must be licensed in the state where they practice, and there are several different types of licenses a therapist can hold. These include:

  • Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs)

  • Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs)

  • Licensed Mental Health Counselors (LMHCs)

  • Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs)

Some therapists focus on specific mental health conditions, such as treating people with substance use disorders, eating disorders, or conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or bipolar disorder. Others specialize in particular types of therapy, such as child therapy, group therapy, or marriage and family therapy. 

Psychiatrist expertise

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor with an additional degree in psychiatry. Like other medical doctors, psychiatrists must attend medical school and obtain a medical degree before beginning their psychiatry practice. Because psychiatrists are medical doctors, they are licensed to diagnose and treat mental health conditions.

To this end, a psychiatrist may prescribe medication. They may also recommend a number of other treatment methods, including talk therapy or lifestyle changes. 

Psychiatrists typically use The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to aid in their diagnosis and treatment approach. The DSM-5 describes the criteria for various recognized mental illnesses, such as major depressive disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and many others. 

Psychiatry is a specialized field of medicine, and a psychiatrist is not the same as a primary care doctor who practices general medicine. While both a psychiatrist and primary care doctor hold doctoral degrees and are licensed to prescribe medications, psychiatrists focus on treating mental health conditions.

If your primary care doctor suspects you may be experiencing mental health symptoms, they may refer you to a psychiatrist. 

A psychiatrist, as a provider of comprehensive psychological services, may interview patients, run psychological tests to diagnose disorders, and prescribe medications as needed based on their diagnoses.

As a medical doctor, a psychiatrist generally has the training to monitor medications and adjust dosages as a client receives treatment. This medication supervision is essential because medical conditions, side effects, and other factors may affect how a person responds to certain medications. For example, while lithium is commonly prescribed for people with bipolar disorder, it may not be the right fit for everyone.

Often, a psychiatrist wants their patients to attend psychotherapy in addition to using medication, and some psychiatrists may also provide mental health counseling and talk therapy to their patients.

Never start or stop any medication unless under the guidance of a licensed medical professional.

The difference between a therapist vs a psychiatrist

Both psychiatrists and therapists are trained mental health care providers and can help treat mental health disorders. However, the primary difference between a therapist and a psychiatrist is that psychiatrists are medical doctors who hold a doctoral degree in psychiatry. As medical doctors, they can diagnose and treat mental illnesses and prescribe medications. Therapists, on the other hand, may have a master’s degree in psychology, social work, or counseling and typically offer various forms of talk therapy to treat mental health conditions.

Often, those seeking mental health care see both a therapist and a psychiatrist. Their psychiatrist may use the DSM-5 to diagnose the patient by studying and researching their symptoms. They may or may not prescribe medication as part of the patient’s mental health treatment.

With a clear diagnosis, the patient may then seek the services of a therapist to receive some form of psychotherapy to further their progress.

Therapists generally have a master’s degree in psychology, social work, or counseling, and some go on to get a Ph.D. in their field of study. Their education and training typically prepare them to apply for a state-issued license to practice therapy professionally.

They may practice as social workers, or family therapists, or specialize in specific types of psychotherapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), behavior modification, and exposure therapy are some specialized treatments psychologists and therapists can provide to treat mental health conditions. 

Choosing a provider

Here are a few things to consider before starting the process of finding help for mental or behavioral health challenges and researching health services:

  • What kind of mental health benefits does my insurance offer? Do I have to see a particular type of provider for insurance coverage? 

  • What other options are available to me if I do not have insurance? Are there mental health services in my area that are low-cost or free that I might be able to reach?

  • What type of mental health condition or behavior do I need help with, or do I need someone to help me determine this?

  • What am I hoping to gain from therapy? How can I best articulate this to a mental health professional?

  • What would I like to know about the process of treating mental health conditions or types of treatment options before getting started?

  • Would online therapy be a good option for me?

Getty/Vadym Pastukh

The first session

Many people feel nervous about their first session with a mental health provider. However, even though you may feel uncomfortable talking about personal matters with a therapist, this person is usually trained to be an empathetic listener and is highly unlikely to be shocked or judgmental about what you say.

Your first meeting may be called an intake meeting, in which the provider will ask you for background information about yourself and your situation. The mental health provider will likely ask why you are there and what you hope to achieve from therapy. They may discuss what they can offer and what to expect from your meetings.

Sometimes, they might administer a psychological test or refer you to another mental health provider or medical doctor for evaluation. 

Some therapists like to assign homework as part of their treatment approach, asking you to think about a specific topic or take a small action before your next session to discuss when you meet again.

If you have questions about anything, such as what you want to discuss in therapy, the provider's credentials, or the hours when your therapist can be reached, be sure to ask. 

A mental health provider should make you feel comfortable and accepted; it can be essential to feel a sense of rapport with them. It is okay if you decide after a few sessions that you and your provider are not a good match.

 A therapy relationship can be a type of personal relationship; sometimes, people don't connect for various reasons. However, don’t give up if a therapist is not the right person for you. Instead, you might ask for a referral to someone else, or look for someone who may be better suited to you.

It can be simple to find a therapist

Consider online therapy

If you are looking for an individual, couples, or family therapist, online therapy platforms may be one option worth considering. Numerous studies have confirmed that online therapy platforms can be as effective as in-person sessions for providing treatment such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to address anxiety and depression, two of the most common mental health conditions.

You can quickly and conveniently connect with a licensed professional therapist via an online platform using video chat, phone calls, emails, or text messaging.

Psychiatrists usually do not work on these platforms. However, some psychiatrists use other means to provide online consultations.


Differences between therapists and psychiatrists are generally that psychiatrists have medical degrees and can prescribe medications, whereas therapists typically do not have these credentials and do not prescribe drugs. Therapists often work directly with clients using various treatment methods to help people manage and heal from conditions such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, and substance use disorder.
Many therapists also work with families, couples, and groups. Some psychiatrists may engage in talk therapy with clients, but often, they refer clients to a psychotherapist for counseling while they monitor medications and physical health.

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