Therapist Vs Psychologist : Which One To Choose

By Marie Miguel

Updated November 07, 2019

Reviewer Kimberly L Brownridge , LPC, NCC, BCPC Counsel The Mind, LLC

Choosing to seek mental health care means you're prioritizing your health and well-being, and that is both important and something everyone can benefit from. It is part of human nature to want to talk to others. Different counselors have different approaches and areas of expertise, so it's important to find the right person who can achieve the best results for you. This article will cover the main differences between therapists and psychologists.

What Is a Psychologist?

A psychologist is a doctor with a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. A Ph.D. practices either as a clinician, researcher, or both. A Psy.D. practices only as a clinician. A psychologist is a social scientist who is trained to study human behavior and mental processes, can diagnose and treat mental health disorders, administer and interpret psychological assessments, and will often work with a psychiatrist for certain disorders that manifest with physical or neurological symptoms. In some states, psychologists can also prescribe medications. In states where a psychologist cannot prescribe medication, the psychiatrist assigned to the case does the prescribing. For certain conditions, once treatment has reached a prescribed level, the psychologist may refer the client to a therapist who will then provide a series of therapeutic strategies. However, not all mental health conditions are appropriate for therapist referral.

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What Is a Therapist?

A therapist generally has a master's degree in psychology, counseling psychology, or social work. Therapists do not ordinarily conduct research; however, they may write for research-based publications. Their primary job is to evaluate, diagnose, and treat people with emotional and mental disorders. They assist in treating behaviors that may be harmful or maladaptive using cognitive behavioral strategies. They also teach their clients coping mechanisms, altering thinking patterns, and stress management techniques. Therapists give non-directive advice, which means that the direction of the treatment relies on the client's evolving needs (rather than a predetermined treatment plan). Therapists primarily work in private offices, in settings such as mental health facilities, hospitals, treatment programs, colleges, and a variety of different organizations.

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Conditions Most Receptive to Therapeutic Interventions

The relationship between the therapist and the client is often called a therapeutic alliance, and positive outcomes are dependent upon this relationship. The success of therapy also depends on the client's willingness to engage with the therapist. Several types of mental illnesses are good candidates for therapy, with or without medication, or with the oversight of a psychologist or a psychiatrist. Some of these conditions are:

- Clinical depression
- Schizophrenia
- Panic disorders
- Bipolar disorders
- Personality disorders
- Anxiety disorders
- Panic disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorders

Most, if not all, of the above are often treated with a combination of prescription medications and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT).

Why Therapy?

Overall, four in ten American adults have seen a counselor at some point in their lives. The benefits of talk therapy include increased happiness, the ability to cope with life's challenges in a healthy and productive way, a reliable and professional support system, and increased relief from emotional or psychological symptoms such as anxiety. Some of the cases that therapists see have to do with a temporary or situational disorder, such as mild or nonspecific depression, anxiety, grief, or marital or family conflict. Any of these could co-exist with a serious mental illness, and they are generally more receptive to the therapeutic relationship. People with situational disorders are likely to participate in the sessions and perform any coping or mood management tools assigned by the therapist.

Often, work with a psychiatrist or psychologist is passive in comparison, since the prescribing of medications are involved. Psychologists and therapists are professionals who use cognitive-behavioral strategies to engage their clients and help them to achieve positive treatment outcomes.

Most individuals who seek therapy are those who want to talk about their lives, and in doing so, they may experience insight. In therapy, people are not bystanders of their lives, but active participants in their own happiness.

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When an individual works with a therapist and is able to come to a realization about their needs or their ability to function in a healthy and productive manner, it is empowering.

Learning to Describe Your Feelings

When you see a psychologist, it is most important for the psychologist to understand your feelings. It's their job is to identify and clarify the nature of your emotions. Then, they use passive treatments and/or medications to bring your emotions under control.

However, when you see a therapist, their job is to guide you and support you as you examine your own feelings. They may prompt you to think about how you feel or help you to describe your emotions, but you are the one who gets in touch with your own feelings. Your therapist may suggest ways for you to understand and improve sad or angry feelings, but you are the one who makes the choice of whether to do anything and if so, what that is.

Practice Making Decisions

A psychologist assists you in making decisions about treatments to use. However, you are still ultimately in charge of your own life unless you are a danger to yourself or others. The psychologist is like a psychiatrist or other medical doctor in that they determine what you need to do to improve your mental health. You are less involved in these decisions than you would be with a therapist.

A therapist encourages you to think of answers to your own problems. They may offer ideas, but you are more clearly in charge of coming up with possible solutions and considering which treatment options you want to try. Because some problems discussed with a therapist are short-term or mild, you have more leeway to choose the course you think is best.


After you have been in therapy for a while, you might notice that making decisions becomes easier. This may happen because the therapeutic process gives you ample opportunity to practice exploring options, thinking out whether they will be helpful, making your own decisions, acting on them, and learning from the experience.

What Is Your Emotional Status?

Psychologists and therapists are both there to help you. But you may find a difference in the way you are treated. A psychologist has the tasks of overseeing your mental condition, prescribing treatments and/or medications, and being responsible for your improvement. The therapist/client relationship is slanted in a way that gives the client more power than the therapist.

When working with a therapist, you may feel your status is nearly equal to the therapists. You work together to identify problems, describe feelings, and find solutions. The therapist is there to help you, but you may get a sense that you are more in control, particularly in interpersonal therapy or client-centered therapy. Many people feel more comfortable with a therapist because the relationship does not seem so lopsided.

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The Art and Science of Therapy

In nearly every occupation, there is both an art and a science. The same is true with both psychologists and therapists. A psychologist, however, is first and foremost a scientist. They have learned about the science of the human mind by studying and/or conducting research. They focus on the scientific method more than they do on the more intuitive, artistic side of therapy. Like a medical doctor, they rely on what the research has shown works for clients with similar conditions to yours.

A licensed therapist may also use the results of scientific studies as a basis for much of their work. However, the therapist may take a more artistic approach to therapy. A human's mind is a very complex system, which cannot always be understood by a study examining a limited number of variables. The therapist sees the person as a whole human being. No study can account for every factor in the human psyche and many people find that this intuitive approach makes more sense to them. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing a variety of life's challenges.

Counselor Reviews

"Jacques is a very good listener and he has a lot of knowledge and experience about psychology and empathy. Unlike most of the therapists, he is more focused on the solutions than the reasons from the past. He understands me even when I can't express myself very well and after every session, I was told by my friends that I look happier and more positive."

"In the past I have gone to at least five different therapy centers and therapists. I feel very grateful to have been connected to Audra by BetterHelp because she is the first therapist that has actually made me feel progress toward getting through past traumatic experiences. She is clearly very skilled and knows exactly what she is doing. Not only is she talented in her field but she also has a strong sense of empathy that makes you feel that she actually cares. I am grateful to be able to seek guidance from her and will continue to do so because it has without a doubt helped me grow and heal. Immediately you start seeing results while working with Audra on your mental health goals. Thank you, Audra! I look forward to continue working with you."

What If I Choose the Wrong Specialist?

So, you made your best guess of whether to see a therapist or a psychologist. What would happen if you are not satisfied with your treatment? Because both specialties are helping professions, the psychologist or therapist you chose might simply refer you to someone in the other category.

Therapists are most likely to refer clients to psychologists if they are dealing with serious mental conditions that do not respond to therapeutic treatments, and may need medication. Psychologists sometimes refer clients to therapists after the initial session if they believe the problem would be best handled through talk therapy. They may also send clients to a therapist if they show willingness to work on improving their own mental health. Another reason a psychologist might refer someone to a therapist is if their mental health has improved dramatically and they are ready to be more self-directed.

In the end, you always have the option of choosing a therapist. Your ability to opt for a psychologist may be limited by your insurance coverage and your mental condition. A reputable, licensed therapist can effectively get the ball rolling no matter what your condition is, and make sure you're seen by an appropriate professional if you need to make a change. Although the majority of BetterHelp's counselor-client pairings have been successful, if you feel like the counselor isn't a good fit, you always have the option of matching with a different one.

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Always Check Credentials

Whether you decide to see a psychologist or a therapist, it is extremely important to make sure they are qualified to do their job. Although your insurance company will likely determine whether a psychologist meets the proper criteria, you also need to be sure that they have the education, training, and certification required by your state - for your own peace of mind if nothing else.

It is even more important to check on the credentials of a therapist. The reason is that the term "therapist," depending on the state you are in, can be used for everything from a licensed mental health counselor to a life coach with no education. Find out about their education and experience. Look for someone who specializes in the type of problem you're dealing with or the type of therapy you want to have. Be sure that they are licensed so that you know they have the knowledge to give adequate therapy.

Whether you put your care in the hands of a psychologist or therapist, you are on the path to a more fulfilling and happier life. BetterHelp has a network of licensed, experienced therapists to help you through their online counseling platform. If you're curious, take the first step today. You can cancel your online membership at any time, no hassle. For more information about how online therapy can benefit you, visit BetterHelp.

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