Content Warning: Please be advised that this article mentions substance use and other potentially triggering subjects. Read with discretion.
When seeking advice and support for life's challenges, many individuals turn to licensed mental health professionals, including therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists. However, understanding the differences in these terms can support you in finding the most suitable professional for you.
Understanding The Differences Between Various Professional Titles
When seeking support for a mental health condition, it can be beneficial to first reach out to those in the mental health profession most qualified to support you. This can help you find the right therapist to meet your needs.
Many different disciplines fall under the category of therapy, including but not limited to the following types of therapy:
- Guidance counseling
- Educational therapy
- Art therapy
- Occupational therapy
- Physical therapy
- Music therapy
- Dance therapy
- Rehabilitation counseling
- Substance use counseling
- Career counseling
- Couples therapy
In addition, other therapists may have various licensure titles, including the following:
- 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 Do Mental Health 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 be licensed within their state to practice therapy. Each one may have their own specialty in human behavior, regardless of their official designation. Typical areas of concern addressed by a therapist or psychologist include:
- Eating disorders
- 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
Participating in therapy with a licensed professional can help you mitigate the symptoms associated with the mental health disorders above. 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 changes in your life. Finding a suitable therapist can be critical to learning techniques to manage your thoughts and feelings while finding resources, tips, and advice to address day-to-day challenges.
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.
What Is The Difference Between A Therapist And Psychologist?
The most significant difference between a therapist and a psychologist involves the career options for each individual. The word "therapist" is often used as an umbrella term to discuss any mental health professional that 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, one can focus on research, practice, or a combination of the two. Some 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 for medication, as they are medical doctors trained to offer this service. In general, your therapist will not be able to prescribe medication.
Except for the instances in which psychiatrists provide psychotherapy, visits with a psychiatrist may be short check-ins on medication management. A psychologist or counselor can work with a client in a therapeutic setting between these meetings to offer regular talk therapy sessions. You may also choose to try online therapy for these sessions if attending them in person isn’t convenient.
Do Therapists And Psychologists Cost The Same?
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.
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, including social work, marriage and family therapy, mental illness, and substance use counseling. However, not all psychologists work in clinical psychology or with clients.
Marriage And Family Therapists
Family therapy is a type of counseling for families and couples. Marriage and family therapists (LMFT or MFCC) have specific training and licensing in supporting these individuals with topics from conflict to divorce. They might also provide resources and specific family therapy modalities not practiced in individual sessions. Often, these providers have a master's or doctorate.
Couples counselors, like licensed marriage and family therapists (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. These professionals 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 couples therapy.
Substance Use Counselors
A counselor specializing in substance use disorders can help clients struggling with substance use and dependency. 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 help clients cope with the unique impacts of grief and loss. They 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 therapy.
Child And Adolescent Therapists
A child or adolescent therapist 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 unique to their age group. Both counseling psychologists or school psychologists can be valuable for adolescents feeling anxious about growing pains, what comes after high school, getting a job, managing relationships, and coping with bullying. They may also be able to treat eating disorders in children and adolescents. At times, these providers offer family therapy to involve the entire family in the child's treatment, such as going to occupational therapy to treat physical, mental, developmental, emotional, and behavioral struggles that interfere with a patient's ability to complete everyday chores. These therapists are often part of a larger treatment plan.
Another professional one may talk to is a divorce counselor. Licensed mental health professionals specializing in divorce counseling can offer divorcing couples advice and support, helping them navigate the challenges of separation and divorce.
Divorce counselors may use the 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. The collaborative process is designed to help divorcing couples reach an amicable agreement and find clarity.
In group therapy, a licensed mental health professional may lead a session with multiple clients living with similar mental disorders or mental health concerns. Group therapy can help participants feel free to discuss their challenges with like-minded individuals and feel less alone in their experiences. There are various types of group sessions, some focusing on behavioral concerns and others focusing on a specific therapy modality, like dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).
A licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) has a master's degree in clinical social work. They may work with communities, humanitarian causes, or as counselors offering advice and support. Licensed clinical social workers provide services for varied populations, helping clients from many different walks of life cope with areas of concern like depression, substance abuse, and anxiety. A social worker can work in a clinic, non-profit organization, or on their own as a contractor.
If you are hoping to find a therapist, there are many counselors to choose from in the field of psychology. However, the professional you choose may depend on your budget, location, and needs. First, consider the challenges or emotional problems that you'd like to address. Then, seek out the potential therapists or psychologists in your area specializing in these issues. Consider the cost of treatment, whether you'd like to meet in an office or online, and reviews from other clients before pursuing the initial consultation.
Planning to see someone in your community can take research and time. 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 the internet 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. They also possess at least three years and 1,000 hours of hands-on experience.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
For questions that might be beneficial to explore in therapy, please see below.
Should I see a therapist vs psychiatrist?
Can a therapist diagnose?
Is a psychologist basically a therapist?
Is it harder to become a therapist or psychologist?
Is a psychotherapist just a therapist?
What does a therapist do?
Can a psychologist diagnose mental illness?
Can a therapist treat someone they know?
When should you see a psychologist?
Why choose a psychologist over a psychiatrist?
Can a therapist refer you to a psychiatrist?
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