Psychologists, Psychiatrists, Therapists: Could you explain the difference?
18 October 2023 at 09:29 · 6 min read
In the world of therapy today there is a myriad of different terms to keep up with.
The differences between these can seem slight, if not almost trivial. But what do they mean in practical terms? How could they be affecting your treatment options?
It’s entirely understandable that, for many people, the terms around mental health and its treatment options can feel opaque. In our everyday lives, it is not usually necessary for those of us outside the psychological and medical profession to know the technical differences between a psychologist and a therapist. That is until we are ourselves faced with having to deal with a mental health issue.
In such cases, when our mental health or that of a loved one is at stake, it’s essential to be as informed as possible about the thinking processes involved before treatment is undertaken
Exact specifics of qualifications and educational requirements can vary significantly from country to country, or even from state to state, but in general, the following can be seen as an approximate guide to help get one’s bearings:
A psychologist is usually a specialised mental health professional that has been required to complete a doctorate level education (either a PhD or a PsyD). This typically requires around 5 to 7 years to complete by itself and is ordinarily followed by an additional few years of supervised practise before they can become fully qualified.
When treating patients, a psychologist will commonly ask behavioural questions and investigate mood patterns in patients. Treatment usually takes the form of various types of psychotherapy; cognitive behavioural therapy for example.
As a general rule, this means that the focus is often on spurring patients to try to elicit insights in themselves and treatment plans are tailored to enable patients to take back greater control of their own lives.
Psychiatrists can also develop treatment plans and may use many of the same techniques with their patients. A key difference, however, is the ability to prescribe medication – which most psychologists cannot – and use this in combination with more talking-based therapies. As such, more physically invasive testing may be required, for instance; blood work.
Like psychologists, psychiatrists must complete four years of medical schooling and an additional residency, which can take up to a further four years. In fact, it is quite common for psychologists and psychiatrists to work alongside each other.
Other – Counsellors, Therapists, Support Workers…
Typically, other types of mental healthcare workers are also required to pass strenuous training tests. For example, Social or Support Workers are frequently required to have Masters’ degrees in their chosen fields and may certainly specialise further beyond this: for instance, Support Workers can sometimes provide case management and even advocate on behalf of their clients.
Counsellors are also often qualified to a Master’s level. Counselling technically relates to more specific problems that a person may be facing, such as grief counselling or drug addiction assistance.
Although used interchangeably by many, counselling is different to therapy as practised by a psychologist or psychiatrist, whose aim is to treat a mental health condition more generally as opposed to the specific issues that may arise from it.
A Therapist on the other hand is a much more general term, which can have a variety of meanings. Whilst many therapists might well be highly trained, some can have as little as a few weeks or even days worth of training in a given field.
Specific legal requirements for the title are generally less common, and there is oftentimes significantly less consensus as to the level of qualification required for a given position. In some contexts, “therapist” can sometimes be considered as more of a kind of catch-all term for someone working in any therapeutic capacity that could include all or none of the aforementioned positions.
Again, the differences between the professions and the relevant qualifications can vary widely between jurisdictions so the above is meant to function only as an approximate guide. It is not unusual to see a significant degree of overlap in responsibilities and common working practices.
Whilst it’s easy to be blasé about the differences between professions, they can have real-world consequences that are worth considering. For instance, whilst the title ‘Fire Marshall might sound impressive, when your home is ablaze, knowing the difference between them and a Fireman might suddenly become very important.