Therapist Vs. Psychologist: What's The Difference?

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated June 24, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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Choosing to seek mental health services through individual, group, couples or family therapy with a licensed psychologist can be a brave choice to prioritize your well-being. Whether you see a mental health counselor, therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist, these professionals have the expertise to assist you in various areas of mental health. Finding an individual with the credentials to treat your specific concerns and meet your unique goals can be essential when looking for a counseling provider.  

Psychologists and therapists across the American psychological landscape often have similar roles but different education levels. In addition to an undergraduate degree, psychologists often have advanced degrees, such as a Ph.D. or PsyD, whereas therapists may have master's degrees. In addition, psychologists don't all work as therapists; many study human behavior as researchers, professors and authors. Knowing the difference between a therapist, psychologist, and other types of mental health professionals available to you may help you find the most effective patient care for any mental health disorders or concerns. 

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Finding the right provider can get you the most effective care

What is a psychologist? 

According to the American Psychological Association, a psychologist has an advanced degree, such as a Ph.D. in psychology or a PsyD in clinical psychology. A PsyD is generally regarded as a type of Ph.D. issued to clinical psychologists who work directly with clients, helping them with their mental health conditions through talk therapy, psychological testing, assessment, and diagnosis of mental disorders and illnesses. 

Additionally, per the American Psychological Association, clinical psychologists may treat mental illnesses by providing individual therapy, marriage and family therapy, or group therapy. Ph.D. psychologists can work as clinicians, researchers, or in various settings, such as universities, corporations, and industries, doing non-clinical work involving an in-depth understanding of human behavior. This understanding generally ranges from why people act the way they do to behavioral struggles to severe mental health conditions. However, they can also work as counseling psychologists to offer therapy if they choose to. 

Not all people with an advanced psychology degree (such as psychologists) are medical doctors, despite having a doctorate. An individual must have an MD title to be a doctor who can offer formal diagnosis and prescription-related support. While therapists cannot prescribe medication, they can offer treatment suggestions within the realm of talk therapy. 

Doctors in psychology and the mental health profession generally include psychiatrists, neuropsychologists, and general medical doctors with a specialty in psychiatry or psychology. If you seek prescription medications, psychiatrists or other medical doctors are the only professionals able to write the prescription or offer medication management in most states.

However, psychologists can provide testing and diagnoses of mental illnesses such as:

  • Major depressive disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Panic disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Personality disorders
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Substance use disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 

Some clients have a complete mental healthcare team consisting of a psychiatrist, psychologist, and, sometimes, case management (such as social work support from licensed clinical social workers on your case). To know what type of professional you seek, you can meet with a therapist for an initial consultation. Some providers offer referrals if their services don't fit your goals.

The BetterHelp platform is not intended for any information regarding which drugs, medication, or medical treatment may be appropriate for you. The content provides generalized information that is not specific to one individual. You should not take any action without consulting a qualified medical professional.

What is a therapist?

therapist has a master's degree in counseling, psychology, or social work. Therapists provide master’s degree-level mental and emotional support to their clients through individual, couples, group, and family therapy sessions. In addition, therapists often specialize in a specific area, such as substance use disorders, family dynamics, stress management, or grief counseling. A therapist's work frequently involves talking to their client, exploring areas of concern in the client's emotional life behaviors and mental processes, and seeking resolution by helping the person learn new coping and communication skills. 

Psychologists, therapists, and counselors often have different state licenses and different types of professional counselors types, and experts may also work closely with each other. A licensed clinical social worker could also work as a counselor or therapist in some cases and can provide links to and expertise on local community services or groups. For example, they may connect clients to food resources, emergency shelters, and government benefit programs. "Therapist" is often used as an umbrella term for all counselors, clinical social workers, and clinical psychologists. 

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Is a counselor the same as a therapist?

Counselors and therapists often have similarities; some use these job titles interchangeably. However, there can be differences. Licensure, certification, and requirements based on degree programs can be a few of the differences between a counselor and a therapist. Counselors and therapists both help people with life challenges. However, counselors may offer more short-term, focused, or general therapy methods, whereas therapists may provide long-term treatment, diagnosis, and testing.

In addition, some counselors work in school settings as school psychologists or to provide career counseling. Some may provide family counseling services, where they may work on problem-solving with their clients and refer clients to therapists or psychologists for more in-depth mental health treatment. For instance, someone seeking mental health counselors for marriage or family-related issues may be referred to a licensed marriage and family therapist to work on underlying mental health conditions. 

Main differences between therapists, psychologists, and counselors 

Professional counselors and therapists often offer the same support and treatment for mental illness and life challenges. However, if you're looking for support with a specific area, like planning for marriage, school or a career, you might benefit from seeing a counselor. Therapists might often focus more on mental illness and mental health than specific life advice. In addition, in some states, therapists have different credentials than counselors and social workers.  

Psychologists may have additional education leading to a Ph.D. that may allow them to work with those with a severe mental illness or mental disorder. In addition, psychologists may administer psychological tests and diagnose mental illnesses. Psychiatrists have medical degrees and can prescribe medications, although some may also engage in psychotherapy with clients. Some psychologists and psychiatrists only work in hospitals, mental health clinics or inpatient facilities to support those treated there.  

Professional relationship between mental health professional and client

Relationships between a mental health professional and a client are often called therapeutic alliances. A sense of personal rapport can be vital to a successful therapeutic alliance

Finding a therapist, counselor, or clinical psychologist you trust and who makes you comfortable may make therapy more effective. Look for a provider offering a safe space, a listening ear, and practical advice. The success of counseling can also depend on the client's willingness to engage with the mental health professional, so be open to trying the suggestions your therapist offers. 

Licensed mental health professionals can provide clinical services using therapeutic modalities such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), eye movement desensitization and reintegration therapy (EMDR), and many others. In addition, licensed psychologists generally have the additional training to conduct psychological testing and assess and diagnose mental illnesses. 

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Finding the right provider can get you the most effective care

How to find a provider

There are many ways to find a counselor, psychologist or therapist. In recent years, online mental health platforms have also become a popular method for clients to get support. Numerous studies have found that online therapy can be as effective as seeing a professional in person. 

The benefits of online therapy can go beyond its effectiveness. This option may also be convenient and cost-effective for those with a demanding lifestyle. Using an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can communicate with your therapist via video, phone, or live chat messaging. In addition, you may find more flexibility regarding appointment scheduling online than seeing someone in person at their office.

Takeaway

One difference between licensed therapists and psychologists is their educational degrees. Therapists generally have master's degrees and clinical training that can prepare them to work with clients to overcome the challenges of a mental health disorder, a difficult life transition or an unwanted behavior like substance use. 

Contrarily, psychologists often have a Ph.D or PsyD degree that can train them to administer psychological tests to diagnose mental illnesses and support clients with complex psychological conditions. You may connect with licensed mental health professionals in person or online.
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