Understanding The Difference Between A Therapist And Psychiatrist

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated March 15, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

If you are considering starting counseling, you might need clarification about what type of mental health professional to see. 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. Meanwhile, a therapist is typically a licensed mental health professional who uses various treatment methods, such as talk therapy, to help people with mental health conditions. It can be possible to connect with a therapist in person or online. 

It Can Be Simple To Find A Therapist.

What Type Of Care Does A Therapist Provide?

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 be mental health professionals who specialize in behavioral therapy, cognitive therapy, or other therapeutic approaches. They may also use a combination of techniques to help their clients.

Professional therapists usually must be licensed in the state where they practice, but there may be several different 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 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.

What Type Of Care Does A Psychiatrist Provide?

A psychiatrist is generally a medical doctor with an additional degree in psychiatry. Psychiatrists usually attend medical school to prescribe medications used to treat specific mental illnesses as defined in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This book can describe 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 typically not the same as a primary care doctor who practices general medicine. A psychiatrist can diagnose and treat mental illnesses that may not respond to counseling alone. Some mental health issues may improve with therapy, but others may benefit from specific medications. A psychiatrist frequently interviews patients, runs psychological tests to diagnose disorders, and prescribes medications to treat mental health disorders 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 can be 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 the people they treat. Never start or stop any medication unless under the guidance of a licensed medical professional.

Understanding The Difference Between A Therapist And A Psychiatrist

A primary difference between a therapist and a psychiatrist is often a medical degree in psychiatry. A psychiatrist is usually licensed to prescribe medications for mental disorders, whereas a therapist does not generally have that ability. In addition, psychiatrists often use the DSM-5 to diagnose patients by studying and researching their symptoms. Once they determine a diagnosis, the psychiatrist's patients may seek a therapist to provide some form of psychotherapy to help them cope and achieve progress.

Therapists generally have a master’s degree in psychology, social work, or counseling, and some therapists 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. 

Some therapists and mental health counselors specialize in specific types of psychotherapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), behavior modification, family therapy, and exposure therapy are some specialized treatments psychologists and therapists can provide to treat mental health conditions. 

What To Look For When Choosing A Mental Health Provider

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

  • 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?

What to Expect In Your 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 of 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.

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