Understanding The Difference Between A Therapist And Psychiatrist

By Sarah Fader

Updated January 30, 2019

Reviewer Audrey Kelly, LMFT

Thinking about starting counseling but not sure what type of mental health professional you should see? There are many different types of providers, for instance, therapists and psychiatrists are both mental health professionals, but they have very different job descriptions. Understanding the difference between a therapist and a psychiatrist is important when making decisions about you or a loved one's mental health needs. There is a vast array of mental health conditions, and they range in symptoms and severity. Before you make a mental health care decision for yourself or someone you love, it is important to know the difference between a therapist and a psychiatrist, as well as other types of mental health providers, and the type of care they can provide.

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What Type of Care Does a Therapist Provide?

A therapist has a wide range of expertise in providing therapy to improve the life and mental well-being of their clients. Anyone who provides mental health care to others using a therapeutic approach and is licensed to practice is considered a therapist. Therapists can be social workers, counselors, or clinicians. A therapist may specialize in psychotherapy, talk therapy, or use a combination of different approaches and techniques for providing mental health care for clients.

Therapists are licensed but the requirements for the licensing depends on where they are working. Some therapists focus on specific mental disorders, while others specialize in a specific type of therapy such as child therapy, group therapy, marriage and family therapy, or individual therapy.

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What Type of Care Does a Psychiatrist Provide?

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor of psychiatry. Psychiatrists can prescribe medications used to treat specific mental disorders as defined in the DSM-V. The DSM-V is a diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders that is used to diagnose mental disorders. Psychiatrists use a scientific approach to understanding psychiatric conditions such as depression or schizophrenia, and can prescribe medication to help deal with the condition.

Psychiatry is a specialized field of medicine. A psychiatrist can treat mental disorders that may not respond to counseling. Some mental health issues improve with therapy but they may also require specific medications for the best outcomes as well. A psychiatrist will interview patients and prescribe medications based on their diagnosis. Medications are closely monitored and can be adjusted as a client moves through therapy. Most often, a psychiatrist will want a client to be in therapy as well as be on medication, as opposed to just using medication as a treatment option.

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Understanding the Difference Between a Therapist and a Psychiatrist

The main difference between a therapist and psychiatrist is a medical degree in psychiatry. A psychiatrist is licensed to prescribe medications for mental disorders whereas a therapist does not have that ability. Psychiatrists use the DSM-V to diagnose patients by studying and researching the symptoms. Once a diagnosis is achieved, the psychiatrist's patients may now seek a therapist to help them cope and achieve progress.

Most therapists have a degree and are licensed to practice therapy professionally but they do not have the same specialized degree that psychiatrists have. Any licensed mental health care provider that delivers therapy to a patient is considered a therapist, but only a doctor of psychiatry can prescribe medication and therapy.

Some therapists specialize in specific areas of the mental health field. Psychotherapy, behavior modification, and exposure therapy are just a few of the specialized therapies provided by therapists. Many times, a psychiatrist will recommend therapy with a licensed professional after they diagnose and prescribe medication if it is needed.

Understanding the Difference Between a Psychologist and a Psychiatrist

A psychologist has a doctoral degree in psychology. (Social workers, counselors, and clinicians typically have master's level degrees.) Psychologists provide therapy, but often provide clinical evaluations and testing to their clients as well. Unlike psychiatrists, psychologists are not medical doctors. They may suggest that a client would benefit from taking medications, but they cannot prescribe them.

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What to look for when choosing a mental health provider

If you have decided to look into counseling, good for you! This is a big decision for most people and you should feel good about taking this first step. Here are a few things to consider before starting the process:

  • What kind of mental health benefits does my insurance offer? Do I have to see a certain type of provider in order to get services covered? Would online therapy be a good option for me?
  • If I don't have insurance, what other options are available to me? Are there mental health services in my area that are low cost or free that I might be able to access?
  • Can I find a mental health provider that has experience working with the issues I want to focus on? (For example, eating disorders, substance abuse, couples therapy, etc.)
  • What am I hoping to gain from therapy? How can I best articulate this to the person I will work with?

What to expect with your first session

Many people feel a bit nervous about their first meeting with a mental health provider. Rest assured that although you may feel uncomfortable talking about personal matters with a "stranger," this person is trained to be an empathetic listener and will not be shocked or judgmental about what you have to say. Your first meeting may be called an "intake meeting" in which you will be asked to provide some basic background information about yourself and your situation. The mental health provider will ask why you are there and what you hope to achieve from therapy. He or she will talk about they can offer and what to expect from your meetings together. Some therapists like to give "homework" asking you to think about a certain topic or take a small action before your next session that you can discuss when you meet again. If you have questions about anything - from what you want to cover in therapy to the provider's credentials to the office hours of when your therapist can be reached - don't hesitate to ask. You should feel confident that any concern or question you have is addressed.

Hopefully the mental health provider you meet with makes you feel comfortable and accepted. It's important that you feel that a sense of rapport can develop between the two of you. Be open to this person and willing to share what's on your mind. The more honest you can be in the process, the more your therapist can help you.

If after a few sessions you feel that you and your provider are not "clicking" that's okay. After all, this is a very personal relationship and sometimes people just don't connect, through no fault of their own. The important thing is not to give up on therapy all together. Find someone else who may better suited to you. The right person can help you make the progress that you're hoping for. It may take some time, but don't give up. You're worth the effort.

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