Psychologists & Therapists: The Differences

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated June 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

When seeking advice and support for life changes and challenges, many individuals turn to licensed mental health professionals, including therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists. However, understanding the differences in these terms can help you in finding the most suitable professional for you. 

Getty/Halfpoint Images
Need someone to talk to?

The differences between various professional titles 

While each of these studies human behaviors and mental processes, the different mental health professionals have different licensures and degrees and they work with different mental health topics and conditions. Certain types of therapists may achieve a master's, while others may go on to receive a doctorate.

When seeking support for a mental health condition, it can be beneficial to first reach out to those in the mental health profession who may be the most qualified to support you. This can help you find the right therapist to meet your needs.

There are many different disciplines that fall under the category of therapy, including but not limited to the following: 

  • Guidance counseling
  • Educational therapy 
  • Art therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Physical therapy
  • Music therapy
  • Dance therapy
  • Hypnotherapy
  • Rehabilitation counseling
  • Substance use counseling
  • Career counseling
  • Couples therapy

In addition, other therapists may have various licensure titles, including:

  • LCPC: Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor
  • MD: Medical Doctor
  • Ph.D.: Doctor of Philosophy
  • PsyD: Doctor of Psychology
  • MSW: Master of Social Work
  • LMHC: Licensed Mental Health Counselor
  • LCMHC: Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor
  • MFCC: Marriage, Family, and Child Counselor
  • CADC: Certified Alcohol And Drug Counselor
  • CAC: Certified Addiction Counselor 

What conditions do these providers treat? 

Regardless of the discipline a counselor, therapist, or psychologist works in, whether they have an undergraduate degree or a doctoral degree, they must all have passed their state licensure exam to be licensed within their state to practice therapy. Each one of these may have their own specialty in human behavior, regardless of their official designation. The typical areas of concern addressed by a therapist or psychologist include:

  • Anger
  • Eating disorders
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts or actions
  • Stress
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Personality disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 
  • Substance use disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Relationship challenges
  • Trauma, such as death, abuse, or sexual assault
  • Life transitions, such as moving
  • Pre-marital concerns 

If you or a loved one is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7.

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

Participating in therapy with a licensed therapist or other mental health professional can help you mitigate symptoms associated with some mental health disorders. However, you do not need a mental health diagnosis or severe concern to reach out for support. Counseling can be used as a tool to achieve self-growth, learn new skills, and make positive changes in your life. Finding a suitable counselor can be critical to learning techniques to manage your thoughts and feelings while finding resources, tips, and advice to address the day-to-day challenges you may face. 

A quick note: life coaches offer support for a number of life challenges, but they are not licensed therapists. While some people find their services useful, this profession does not have the same educational and professional requirements as therapy or counseling. A licensed therapist may offer life coaching but be careful to check the qualifications of anyone using this title. 

iStock/jeffbergen

Therapists vs. psychologists 

The most significant difference between a therapist and a psychologist involves the career options for each. The word "therapist" is often used as an umbrella term to discuss any mental health professional who works in a therapeutic counseling setting, such as counselors, clinical social workers, and marriage and family therapists. Psychologists can also work as therapists in clinical practice. 

However, the educational requirements for each job can differ, and someone who calls themselves a psychologist may not be a therapist. Psychologists have a PsyD or a Ph.D. In these programs, they can focus on research, practice, or a combination of the two. Some of these psychologists may work in research, go on to be professors at a university, become authors, or work in a hospital setting. Therapists without this educational background may not have the same career possibilities, although both must undergo similar training and clinical supervision to practice psychotherapy. 

As a further distinction, an individual with a PsyD degree may not do as much research training as a person in a psychology Ph.D. program. Someone studying in a Ph.D. program in psychology will often have training in both research and practice. 
Social workers can teach at college level, many professors in both undergraduate and graduate programs only have MSW (without another Ph.D) or they may have a DSW (may also be true for counselors). However, they can provide therapy and counseling services in various environments. A psychologist may also be involved with the American Psychological Association (APA), the most prominent psychological association in the US. The American Psychological Association also provides an ethics code and various resources for mental health professionals. Counselors may be involved in the American Counselors Association (ACA) as opposed to the American Psychological Association.
Can a therapist or psychologist prescribe medication?

Most psychologists, therapists, and counselors cannot prescribe medications. However, in certain states, they have the right to do so if they are appropriately trained in mental health pharmacology. However, most individuals go to psychiatrists or a primary care physician for medication, as they are medical doctors trained to offer this service. In general, your therapist will not be able to prescribe medication.

Session costs 

Cost is often on many clients' minds when seeking therapy. Often, the cost of sessions depends on a therapist or psychologist's location, specialty, practice type, experience in specific mental disorders, and educational level. A therapist with a master's degree may earn less than a psychologist with a Ph.D. in psychology who is affiliated with the American Psychological Association. 

Types of mental health professionals

There are many types of therapists, all of which cover various areas of mental health. Understanding the difference between each can further guide you in choosing your provider and finding a therapist who can meet your specific needs.

Psychologists
Many psychologists only have master's degrees, they may, for example, perform psychological testing in schools, or a related field and have often completed advanced studies. Clinical psychologists may also research topics that interest them, independently or as faculty for higher education facilities. They work with clients and determine treatments based on their observations. 

Counseling psychology practitioners provide support and guidance and can help clients make decisions, find support, and clarify their feelings. They often work as part of a team when tackling a client's concerns. For example, they might work alongside a psychiatrist to refer clients requiring medication. A psychologist can work in many practice areas; however, not all psychologists work in clinical psychology or with clients. 

Marriage and family counselors

Family therapy is a type of therapy for families and couples. Marriage and family therapists (LMFT or MFCC) have specific therapeutic training and licensing in supporting individuals with topics from conflict to divorce. They might also provide resources and specific family therapy modalities not practiced in their individual sessions. Often, these providers have a master's or doctorate. 

Couples’ therapists

Couples’ therapists, like LMFTs, could be grouped under the family counseling umbrella. However, they might not have specific licensing in family or marriage concerns and instead support any couple. Couples' therapists meet with couples to help them set goals, learn coping mechanisms, and improve their relationships. These providers may have a master's or doctorate that qualifies them to practice.

Substance use counselors

A counselor specializing in substance use disorders can help clients struggling with substance use and dependency in their lives. Also known as addiction therapists, these providers often have a master's degree or higher in psychology or social work. In some states, individuals may be able to work as a chemical dependency counselor or support worker with a bachelor's degree and education in the impacts of substance use through an accredited university. 

Grief counselors
Grief counselors help clients cope with unique impacts of grief and loss. Grief counselors can support those who have experienced the death of a loved one, a traumatic experience surrounding loss, or a breakup or divorce. Those experiencing depressive disorders, grief, and related concerns due to loss may turn to this type of professional. Grief counselors often have a master's degree and specific training in the impact of grief. They may work in grief counseling centers, grief camps, or provide individual counseling.
Child and adolescent counselors

A child or adolescent counselor is a licensed mental health professional who works with those under 18 and young adults up to 25. A counselor with this specialty may support children and their families as they cope with mental health challenges. Both counseling psychologists or school psychologists can be valuable for adolescents when they are feeling anxious about growing pains, managing what comes after they finish high school, getting a job, managing their relationships, and coping with bullying they may face. At times, these providers offer family therapy to involve the entire family in the child's therapeutic treatment, such as going to occupational therapy to treat physical, mental, developmental, emotional, and behavioral struggles that interfere with the patient's ability to complete everyday chores.  

Divorce counselors
Another professional one may talk to is a divorce counselor. Licensed mental health professionals specializing in divorce counseling can offer these divorcing couples advice and support, helping these couples navigate the challenges of separation and divorce.

Divorce counselors may use a collaborative process. The collaborative process is a divorce method that involves working as a team to reach an agreement. Settling assets and discussing custody in court can be expensive and emotionally exhausting. This process is designed to help the divorcing couples reach an amicable agreement and find clarity. 
Group therapists

In group therapy, a licensed mental health professional may lead a session with multiple clients living with similar mental disorders or mental health concerns. It can help these participants feel free to discuss challenges with like-minded individuals and feel less alone in shared experiences. There are various types of group sessions, some focusing on behavioral concerns and others focusing on a specific modality, like dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). 

Social workers
A licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) has a master's degree in clinical social work. LCSWs may work with communities, humanitarian causes, or as counselors offering advice and support. Licensed clinical social workers provide services for varied populations, helping their clients from many different walks of life cope with areas of concern like depression, substance abuse, and anxiety.

iStock/Galina Zhigalova
Need someone to talk to?

Therapy options 

If you are hoping to find a therapist, there are many counselors to choose from. First, consider any challenges or emotional problems that you'd like to address. Next, seek out potential therapists or psychologists in your area specializing in particular issues. Consider treatment costs, whether you'd like to meet in an office or online, and reviews from other clients before pursuing an initial consultation.

Planning to see someone in your community can take research and time. It is generally easier to find in-person therapy in popular cities; if you live outside of populated areas, online therapy options are also available. The information you may need to compile to choose between all your options can be scattered across the internet. However, if you decide to participate in talk therapy through a platform like BetterHelp, you can view a provider's biography to see their education, license, experience, interests, and specialty areas.

If you're unsure about the effectiveness of internet-based counseling, note that one study found that over 53% of participants found it preferable to in-person therapy due to its personalized nature and the comfort of meeting a therapist through an internet connection from home. 

Online therapists can be trained and accredited psychologists (Ph.D./PsyD), licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFT), licensed clinical social workers (LCSW/LMSW), or licensed professional counselors (LPC). They have a master's degree or a doctorate in their field. 

Takeaway

Whether you choose online therapy or in-person thrapy, look for a provider that meets your needs. Both psychologists and therapists can offer high-quality mental health services and guidance. Consider contacting a professional for further information and to set up a consultation.

Explore mental health options online
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