Therapist Vs Psychologist : Which One To Choose

By Marie Miguel

Updated July 10, 2019

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

The decision to seek mental health treatment is often left up to an individual's medical insurance, and that is likely to mean the least expensive way to pay for treatment. The choices for treatment are with a psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist. Most often the choices are between a psychologist vs therapist. However, the decision should not be made based on expense, but rather the nature of the problem.

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 social scientist who is trained to study human behavior and mental processes, can diagnose, treat mental health disorders, administer and interpret psychological assessments, and will often work with a psychiatrist for certain disorders that manifests with physical or neurological symptoms. In some states, psychologist can also prescribe medications, but in those states that do not, 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.

What is a Therapist?

A therapist generally has a Master's degree in counseling psychology, psychology, or social work. Therapists do not ordinarily conduct research; however, they may write for research-based publications. Their primary job is to evaluate, diagnoses, and treats people with emotional and mental disorders. They assist in behaviors that may be harmful or maladaptive using cognitive behavioral strategies. They also teach their clients coping mechanisms, altering thinking patterns, stress management techniques, and give non-directive advice. Therapists primarily work in a private office in settings such as mental health facilities, hospitals, treatment programs, colleges, and a variety of different organizations.

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Conditions Most Resistant to Therapeutic Interventions

The success of therapy is dependent upon the client and the client's willingness to become an active participant in the sessions. The relationship between the therapist and the client is often called a therapeutic alliance, and positive outcomes are dependent upon this relationship. Several types of mental illnesses are good candidates for therapy; with or without medication with the oversight of a psychologist or a psychiatrist. Some of the 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?

Some of cases that therapist see have to do with a temporary or situational disorder, such as mild or nonspecific depression, anxiety, grief, marital or family conflict. Any of these could co-exist with a serious mental illness and both are generally more receptive to the therapeutic relationship. They are likely to participate in the sessions and perform any "homework" 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 need to talk about their problems, and that in doing so, they may experience insight into those problems.

When an individual works with a therapist and is able to come to realizations about how he or she is creating conflict or discord in their life, or at least contributing to the problem that is interfering with their ability to function in a healthy and productive manner, it is empowering.


Learning to Describe Your Feelings

When you see a psychologist, it's 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.

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Practice Making Decisions

A psychologist assists in making the decisions about treatments to be used. 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're 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've 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's 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 task of overseeing your mental condition, prescribing treatments and/or medications, and being responsible for your improvement; whereas 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 of the relationship doesn't seem so lop-sided.

The Art and Science of Therapy

In nearly every occupation, there are 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've 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, artistic approach makes more sense to them.

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? Because both specialties are helping professions, the psychologist or therapist you chose might simply refer you to someone in the other category.

Therapists are particularly attuned to the need for people with serious mental illness to be treated by a psychologist and/or psychiatrist. 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 you to a therapist if you show willingness to work diligently on improving your own mental health. Another reason a psychologist might refer to a therapist is if your mental health has improved dramatically and you 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.


Always Check Credentials

Whether you decide to see a psychologist or a therapist, it's extremely important to make sure they're 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's even more important to check on the credentials of a therapist. The reason is that the term "therapist," depending on the state you're 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're 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 need to know which one they are. Better Help has licensed online therapists to help you through their online counseling platform. If you're ready to begin therapy, there's no reason to wait!

For more information about how online therapy can benefit you, visit BetterHelp.

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