Therapist Vs Psychologist : Which One To Choose

By: Marie Miguel

Updated July 29, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Kimberly L Brownridge , LPC, NCC, BCPC Counsel The Mind, LLC

Choosing to seek mental health care like individual counseling and family therapy sessions (with family therapists) means you're finally prioritizing your own health and well-being. Mustering up the courage to find a therapist and get therapy is no easy task. Taking part in talk therapy sessions with licensed psychologists and therapists is something everyone can benefit from. Talk therapy and behavioral therapy are excellent tools to use since it is already a large 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 a therapist who can achieve the best results for you. For example, if you're having family issues, a family therapist or group therapy may be the best option for you. This article will cover the main differences between therapists and psychologists. After reading, you should be able to spot the differences between a psychologist and a therapist, understand the benefits of behavioral therapy and talk therapy, and finally, identify how to find a therapist that best suits your needs.

What Is a Psychologist?

A psychologist is an umbrella term for an individual with a Ph.D. or a Psy.D in the field of psychology. A Ph.D. that clinical psychologists normally specialize in the practices of talk therapy and behavioral therapy. General psychologists focus on a range of general psychology-related issues including providing individual therapy, group therapy, or marriage and family therapy. (Psychologists and other licensed clinicians can act in the role of an individual group or family therapist.) Psychiatrists and psychologists practice either as clinicians, researchers, or both. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and medical doctors often work hand-in-in to provide holistic care solutions that treat the entire patient.

Board-certified psychologists are certified to practice therapy and counseling within their state of residence and by the American Psychological Association. A Psy.D. practices only as a clinician and normally specializes in the practice of clinical psychology. A psychologist is a social scientist who is trained to study human behavior including cognitive behavioral therapy and mental processes. Both psychiatrists and psychologists hold undergraduate psychology degrees combined with advanced degrees obtained in graduate school, such as a master’s degree.

Psychiatrists take their psychology degrees a few steps further by adding another kind of therapy that includes clinical practice and primary medical care for psychiatry. Psychiatrists who practice this kind of therapy are also licensed to prescribe medication as a treatment measure and are effectively a medical doctor because they hold M.D. degrees..

Psychiatrists and psychologists can diagnose and treat mental health disorders, administer and interpret psychological assessments, and will often work with a medical provider for certain disorders that manifest with physical or neurological symptoms. In some states, psychologists are licensed by the American Psychological Association and their state licensing board to prescribe medications. (In states where a psychologist cannot prescribe medication, the psychiatrist assigned to the case does the prescribing.)

One of the main differences in psychiatry and psychology is the ability of the clinician to prescribe medications. It is important to understand this difference when you're seeking therapy. This is especially true if you're seeking therapy for an ongoing mental health condition that requires you to find a doctor for medical case management.

Based on psychological testing, psychiatry and psychology professionals share the care of clients who are using medication management as a means of treatment therapy. Once mental health medications reach the desired therapeutic dosage, a psychiatrist may refer the patient to a psychologist or therapist to continue therapy.

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What Is a Therapist?

One difference between a therapist and a psychologist is the amount of practice that each has had after receiving a Master's Degree or higher. A therapist generally has a master's degree in psychology, counseling psychology, or social work. Degreed therapists focus on providing marriage and family therapy, group therapy, and individual therapy for resolving clinical-social issues.

Therapists do not ordinarily conduct research like clinical psychologists; however they do conduct psychological testing and focus on providing support and guidance for their clients. Therapy and counseling professionals may also write for research-based publications like psychologists and psychiatrists related to their clinical social experiences. Their primary role of psychotherapy counseling specialists is to evaluate, diagnose, and treat people with emotional and mental disorders who are seeking therapy while providing professional support and guidance. The services they provide are related to marriage and family therapy, individual therapy, group therapy, and counseling.

Psychotherapy counseling professionals certified by the American Psychological Association (and their local psychological association) can assist in helping people find a therapist in an effort to resolve their clinical-social issues. The difference between a therapist and a psychiatrist is that when it comes to providing clinical-social treatments -- a therapist focuses on treating behaviors that are harmful or "maladaptive" using cognitive-behavioral strategies. Psychiatrists treat the same clinical social conditions and prescribe medication treatments (based on observable symptoms) to mitigate symptoms of severe mental illness.

Clinical psychologists, counseling psychologists (and other kinds of psychologists including human service workers) use the same methods applied in cognitive therapy. Clinical psychologists certified by their local psychological association also teach their cognitive therapy clients coping mechanisms like altering thinking patterns and stress management techniques. Using general psychology and cognitive therapy, therapists give non-directive advice regarding clinical social issues. This means that the direction of the treatment relies on the client's evolving needs (rather than a predetermined treatment plan).

The difference between a therapist and a psychiatrist is while both provide support and guidance, psychiatrists focus on treating medical issues related to mental illness as licensed medical professionals like primary care physicians. Therapists on the other hand, focus on providing mental health and emotional support for marriage family issues which can include substance abuse counseling and family counseling sessions. Psychologists often work as a bridge between the clinical social workers, marriage family therapists, medical doctors including psychiatrists and other human services workers.

Therapists and psychologists can work in private offices and other professional clinical settings like mental health facilities, hospitals, treatment programs, colleges, and a variety of different behavioral psychology and therapy organizations. You'll find today's mental health professionals working in public and private school systems as school psychologists and beyond. A therapist may act in more than one role. You may find during the course of therapy that a licensed counselor may also be a clinical social worker. Licensed counselors also frequently work as life coaches who provide one-on-one support and guidance.

Life coaches aren't typically required to hold any formal license or certification to practice at this time. Licensed psychologists and all other kinds of psychologists including forensic psychologists are required to hold a valid license within their state of residence to provide psychotherapy services. Psychologists include a group of psychotherapy professionals who may also be licensed to practice by the American Psychology Association in addition to earning state licensure.

Today's therapists are licensed to provide general psychology services including individual behavioral therapy, marriage and family therapy, group therapy, and basic psychological testing and assessment. Family therapists specialize in providing therapy and support for families in crisis. Marriage and family therapists are licensed to provide family therapy services that help families build stronger and longer-lasting bonds.

Therapists and psychologists are also licensed to practice therapy that involves complex individual and family therapy (as family therapists.) Therapists may also work closely with social workers. Social workers are degreed professionals who provide important links to local community services. A social worker is a member of your treatment team that can help get you connected with local resources for food, shelter, housing, and mental health services like substance abuse counseling.

A clinical social worker can also provide therapy as a licensed counselor for marriage, family, and individual therapy within their state of residence. In order to become eligible to provide psychotherapy services, a social worker must abide by the rules and laws of their resident state. Once social workers complete relevant training and certification, they become licensed counselors.

Along with practicing social work, It's not uncommon to find a general psychologist practicing as a family therapist or counselor since psychology, counseling, and therapy are overlapping professions. There are many professional routes to becoming a licensed therapy provider. In some cases, it may be difficult to tell the difference between a therapist, a psychologist, and someone who practices social work as the requirements for each role are similar. Keep in mind that someone who practices social work, marriage, family therapy, and individual counseling is often one and the same.

The key to understanding the differences between a therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist, and counselor are to look at their credentials. Psychologists include a group of professionals who are able to provide social work services, psychotherapy services, marriage family therapy, and individual counseling -- including substance abuse. Psychologists may be licensed to prescribe medication (in a few states) and can provide psychological assessment and testing. Psychologists in most states hold a master's degree and have two years of hands-on clinical practice.

Psychology providers who can provide counseling services like marriage family therapy and social work-based interventions are counselors and professionals who earned a master’s degree in social work from a graduate school. Mental health professionals in this category have earned the equivalent of a master’s degree and have some supervised hands-on clinical practice in social work, human services, and other related fields. You may find professionals in this group specializing in providing social work, substance abuse interventions or marriage, family therapy.

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Psychiatrists are licensed medical doctors and mental health professionals that have completed medical school and earned a medical degree. Board-certified psychiatrists rarely deal with issues that relate to social work unless they are a member of a treatment team for a patient who has social work-related needs. These medical doctors who specialize in providing medical treatments -- including mental health medications, also rarely engage in therapy sessions for individual, group, or marriage family concerns. The majority of psychiatrists are occupied with assessment and diagnosis for serious or severe mental health disorders that also require medical treatment. As a result, you may often find that psychiatrists make many referrals to psychologists and therapists for managing marriage, family, and individual psychotherapy issues.

Conditions Most Receptive to Therapeutic Interventions

According to psychiatrists and psychologists -- the relationship between the therapist and the client is often called a therapeutic alliance. The relationship that you have with your therapist and psychologist is one of the most important relationships that you'll choose in your life. In that case, it's important to find a therapist that you feel comfortable with long term. When it's time to find a therapist, choose a therapist that you feel comfortable sharing your personal information with. When you take advantage of therapy subscription services (like those provided by you have the option to find a therapist at any time if your current therapist isn't meeting your needs.

Your therapist and psychologist provide a safe space, a listening ear, and practical life advice. The success of therapy also depends on the client's willingness to engage with the therapist. Licensed therapists are able to provide clinical psychology services using therapy modalities like cognitive behavioral therapy, forensic psychology, and family therapy. Your licensed therapist or clinical psychologist is trained to conduct psychological testing and assessment services.

Clinical psychologists focus on the results of psychological testing to determine if mental illness is present. Following is a list of common mental illness disorders that may require a medical provider (like a psychiatrist) to prescribe medication and psychotherapy as a means of treatment.

- Clinical depression

- Schizophrenia

- Panic disorders

- Bipolar disorders

- Personality disorders

- Anxiety disorders

- Panic disorders

- Post-traumatic stress disorders

Most, if not all, of the above clinical-social disorders, are often treated with a combination of medication that is prescribed when you find a psychiatrist, psychotherapy, and counseling programs. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) are examples of two types of behavior therapy that may be used in mental health and substance abuse treatments.

Why Therapy?

Overall, four in ten American adults have seen a counselor at some point in their lives in an effort to improve their mental health. The benefits of talk therapy and mental health counseling for mental health and substance abuse are numerous. People who take part in individual mental health counseling, family counseling report increased happiness and the ability to cope with life's challenges in a healthy and productive way. After sessions with a reliable and professional mental health provider, people also report an increased sense of relief from emotional and psychological symptoms like anxiety.

When it comes to ongoing issues with your mental health or substance abuse disorders, there usually comes a time when you realize that you can't heal yourself on your own. Finding a therapist who specializes in mental health and substance abuse treatment may be just the thing you need to help turn your life around. Human services professionals have made it their life's work to help people with clinical-social issues like mental health disorders and substance abuse to live a better life.

A therapist and psychologist can provide people in crisis with a full spectrum of human services related to mental health and substance abuse disorders. Therapists use psychotherapy techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy, clinical psychology, forensic psychology, and many more to diagnose, treat, and support members of the community who are suffering.

When it comes to choosing your therapy treatment, there can be more than one approach to therapy. Your therapy team will decide on the best approach to therapy for you (from one of the many available types of mental health treatments) based on your individual circumstances and your initial consultation with a therapist and psychologist.

Some of the cases that therapists see have to do with temporary or situational disorders, 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 is 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 therapist and psychologist  will assist you in making decisions about your approach to therapy. 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. This includes deciding what types of therapy are likely to work best for your situation. A key difference between a psychologist and a therapist is that when it comes to decisions like these -- you are less involved in these decisions than you would be with a therapist.

Another difference between a therapist and a psychologist is that a therapist encourages you to think of answers to your own problems. Both psychologists and therapists 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 with your therapist. 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 with psychologists and therapists 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 there to help you. But you may find a noticeable difference in the way you are treated between your psychologists and therapists. A psychologist has the tasks of overseeing your mental condition and being responsible for your improvement. They may also be able to help you find a doctor or psychiatrist who can provide medication, if they are within your health network.

The therapist/client relationship is slanted in a way that gives the client more power than the therapist, but when working with a therapist, you may feel your status is nearly equal to the therapist. 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 and psychology as a field is a social science.

They have learned about the science of the human mind by studying and/or conducting research on mental processes. 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 psychiatrists 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 a 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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Frequently Asked Questions

What Does A Therapist Do?

Therapists help people address and overcome a variety of mental health concerns that people face, no matter how severe. Therapists rely on different psychotherapy techniques to assist their clients and help them reach their goals, and while therapists do not prescribe medication, many of the most popular and effective methods are evidence-based, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Do I Need A Psychologist, Psychiatrist, or a Therapist?

While psychologists and therapists are very similar professions and utilize the same techniques to help people, psychiatrists have a different role in helping people through mental health issues.

Unlike psychologists and therapists, a psychiatrist is a medical doctor who prescribes medication to their patients specifically to treatmental disorders. Some can provide psychotherapy too, but not always; it depends on the practitioner.

Most people benefit from having help from therapy and medication, and therefore, work with someone who practices psychotherapy along with having a psychiatrist who manages their medication and their doses.

However, the skills you learn in psychotherapy will be most effective in the long-term treatment, and people can see tremendous results just with counseling and therapy, whereas people who take medication alone won’t learn how to cope and address the underlying issues that make them think and feel the way that they do.

Should You Tell A Therapist Everything?

In order to best serve you, you should be as open and truthful as you can be towards your therapist. They are bound by confidentiality and won’t break it unless you pose a threat or danger towards yourself or someone else.

Can A Therapist Tell The Police?

If you tell your therapist that you’ve abused, hurt, or killed someone, or you mention someone else who has, or you plan on harming yourself, a therapist can break confidentiality and file a report with law enforcement. It depends on the circumstances, and therapists will also require very specific information as well.

Can Therapists Tell If You’re Lying?

Although therapists aren’t mind-readers, they can tell if you are being untruthful or deceptive through your body language as well as how you communicate verbally. However, even though they might not confront you about it, you should always strive to be truthful with your therapist, even if your thoughts and feelings are uncomfortable, as this is information will be useful to your therapists to help you improve.

Why Do Therapists Mirror You?

Mirroring provides a way to provide comfort and support through presence. Mirroring allows the client to reflect based on what is happening at the moment and it can give them more insight to what they are thinking and feeling.

While mirroring, therapists may also ask for clarification, which can also let the client know that they are being heard which can then strengthen the therapeutic relationship.

Can You Be Friends With Your Therapist?

Even though therapistswon’t spend time with their clients outside of therapy sessions, in many ways, therapists are your friends.

Therapists are there with your best interests in mind and genuinely want to see you improve, and you should feel open enough to confide in them, just like your friends in your personal life should.

Do Therapists Miss Their Clients?

Therapists are people with thoughts and feelings too, and because they also have a strong sense of empathy, it’s possible for them to miss their clients after spending time getting to know them and helping them succeed.

It’s very similar to how teachers feel towards their students who move on, and while they might never see them again, they can still have fond memories of these individuals.

Do Psychologists Really Help?

It has been shown time and time again that human services provided by mental health professionals such as psychologists, counselors, therapists, and life coaches can have a significant positive impact on the well-being of individuals who struggle with various types of mental health concerns.

Whether you are having a hard time coping with stress, or you have mental disorders, such as depression or anxiety, or evenaeating disorder, to name a few examples, a therapist can treat mental health problems like these with techniques and mental health counseling strategies that are evidence-based.

Therefore, by reaching out to a licensed and professional mental health professional, you can be reassured that you will be in good hands.

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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