When it comes to seeking treatment for a mental health illness, the research can feel wildly overwhelming. With numerous titles like therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists, you may wonder who you actually need to see. What’s the difference between what a psychiatrist does and what therapists do? Is there a difference?
When it comes to deciding psychiatrist vs psychologist vs therapist, there is a difference; and while they all promise to offer professional mental health treatment services, the specific services they offer differ from one another in a way that will impact the type of care you receive.
What is a mental health professional?
Think of a mental health professional as a medical professional who looks after your mental health. While a medical doctor — like a pediatrician or ophthalmologist — takes care of the physical body, mental health professionals are trained to identify, diagnose and treat mental health conditions like depression, anxiety and ADHD.
As with medical doctors, there are also different kinds of mental health providers in the field. These can range from general therapists (of which many are familiar) to more specialized psychiatrists (like those trained specifically in addiction therapies). Mental health professionals can be found working in schools, hospitals or specific treatment facilities.
Types of mental health professionals
The different types of mental health professionals, while all working to improve mental health, do so in varying capacities depending on their level of education and/or certifications.
A therapist is a general term that can apply to a variety of professionals, including social workers and licensed counselors. Most therapists have a master’s degree in a related field such as psychology or social work.
The terms “counselor” and “psychotherapist” generally mean the same thing as “therapist” in everyday usage. However, “counselor” is a broader term that could refer to someone without the licensing and advanced education that therapists possess. Look for letters after a counselor’s name to determine what type of licensing they have, such as LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor) or LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker).
You may also come across more specific terms such as “marriage and family counselor” which identify the field in which the therapist specialized. This is helpful if you’re seeking therapy for a particular condition or situation, like grief or family conflicts.
Psychologists have a doctorate degree in psychology or a similar specialty and are trained in both therapeutic and research techniques. Although some states allow psychologists to write prescriptions, most require further educational certifications to do so.
In a clinical setting, psychologists provide therapy and administer testing. You could see a psychologist only once for a psychological evaluation, or they may become a part of your regular treatment team.
Although therapists and psychologists share similar roles, psychologists have more extensive training since they hold a doctorate degree. For complex mental health conditions, you may want to see a psychologist who is experienced in your condition, rather than a therapist who provides general counseling.
Psychiatrists obtain a medical degree, so they are actually medical doctors specializing in mental health. Unlike psychologists and therapists, psychiatrists are actually able to prescribe medicine to treat symptoms of a mental health condition or addiction. When medication is necessary, you will be referred to a psychiatrist by your primary care doctor or other mental health professional.
Since they study the human body extensively in medical school, psychiatrists have a better understanding of the relationships between physical and mental health. Because of their medical degree, they can diagnose mental health conditions and prescribe medications, in addition to offering therapy.
Which specialist should I see?
Which professional you should see depends on the reasons you are seeking treatment. Psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists are all trained in a variety of therapeutic techniques but may choose to specialize in certain areas.
The best thing to do is contact a mental health center with a variety of treatment professionals. At your first appointment, you will be matched with a specialist who can best address your needs. Later on, you may decide to switch to a different therapist or psychologist or be referred to another psychiatrist.
Could therapy be right for me?
If you are currently facing challenges in your life, or just feel that you need to talk to someone, therapy may benefit you. Contact The Light Program by calling (610) 644-6464 to schedule an appointment.