What Is the Difference Between Psychiatrists, Psychologists and Therapists?

December 8, 2023   •  Posted in: 

When it comes to mental health professions, it can be confusing to decipher the various titles. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists all work in a similar field and with similar objectives – helping people with their problems. However, anyone looking for help may need to learn how to decide which type of practitioner is best placed to provide the proper support for them – a psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist.

Likewise, anyone considering a career in psychiatry, psychology, or therapy must know the differences to follow the right education pathway that will take them toward their chosen profession.

This article will explain psychiatry, psychology, and therapy in easy-to-understand language, outlining what each profession is, which qualifications are required to practice each profession, and who may be best placed to help with various mental health concerns.

1. Psychiatry

What is psychiatry?

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor (i.e., one who has completed medical school and residency) with training in psychiatry who specializes in preventing, diagnosing, and treating mental health disorders.

The American Psychiatric Association defines psychiatry as the medical specialty concerned with the study, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental, behavioral, and personality disorders. As a medical specialty, psychiatry is based on the premise that biological causes are at the root of mental and emotional problems. However, some psychiatrists do not adhere exclusively to the biological model and additionally treat issues through a social and behavioral lens.

There are around 4,500 psychiatrists in the United States. About half of these maintain private practices, and many psychiatrists work in multiple settings, including clinics, general and psychiatric hospitals, academic health centers, community agencies, courts and prisons, nursing homes, industry, government, military settings, rehabilitation programs, emergency rooms, hospice programs, and more.

What types of treatment do psychiatrists use?

It is important to note that psychiatrists differ from psychologists in that they hold a medical degree and are authorized to prescribe medication to alleviate symptoms of mental illness. Psychiatrists are qualified to diagnose and treat emotional, behavioral, and mental health conditions.

In addition to medication, psychiatrists also use psychotherapy and other forms of therapy (see below) as a means of helping people manage their mental health.

How do you become a psychiatrist?

Becoming a psychiatrist involves completing medical school, passing a state medical license exam, and finishing a four-year residency program in psychiatry.

Training for psychiatry includes the study of psychopathology, biochemistry, genetics, psychopharmacology, neurology, neuropathology, psychology, psychoanalysis, social science, and community mental health, as well as the many theories and approaches advanced in the field.

General adult psychiatrists typically require 12 years of education after high school, while child and adolescent psychiatrists may require up to 14 years of education. The first year of residency typically involves working with patients suffering from various medical illnesses in a hospital setting.

Following this, trainees spend at least three more years learning about the diagnosis and treatment of mental health, including the use of psychiatric medication and various forms of psychotherapy. This training occurs in multiple settings, such as offices, hospitals, emergency rooms, and primary care clinics.

Upon completion of the residency program, most psychiatrists take a voluntary written and oral examination administered by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. Completing this exam leads to board certification as a psychiatrist, which must be renewed every ten years.

2. Psychology

What is psychology?

The American Psychological Association defines psychology as:

The study of the mind and behavior. Historically, psychology was an area within philosophy and emerged from it. It is now a diverse scientific discipline comprising several significant branches of research (e.g., experimental, biological, cognitive, lifespan developmental, personality, social), as well as several subareas of research and applied psychology (e.g., clinical, industrial/organizational, school and educational, human factors, health, neuropsychology, cross-cultural). The practice of psychology involves the use of psychological knowledge for any of several purposes: to understand and treat mental, emotional, physical, and social dysfunction; to understand and enhance behavior in various settings of human activity (e.g., school, workplace, courtroom, sports arena, battlefield); and to improve machine and building design for human use.

Typically, a psychologist possesses a higher-level degree, often in clinical psychology, and may have undergone significant training in research or clinical practice. Psychotherapy is the primary treatment method used by psychologists to address mental illnesses, although some psychologists specialize in psychological testing and evaluation.

Many psychologists work as health care providers, assessing behavioral and mental function and well-being. Research has established the relationship between physical and psychological health. Consequently, integrated healthcare teams comprising clinical psychologists and health psychologists offer a patient-centered approach to healthcare, often called ‘whole person healthcare.’

What types of treatment do psychologists use?

Psychologists differ from psychiatrists as they do not hold a medical degree and are not authorized to prescribe medication. Instead, treatment programs used by psychologists might include different forms of therapy.

Psychotherapists typically utilize one or more theories of psychotherapy, which serve as guides to help them understand their client’s issues and develop solutions.

How do you become a psychologist?

Psychology degrees are available at most colleges and universities, typically requiring four years of study to obtain a Bachelor’s degree. Graduates with a Bachelor’s in psychology can pursue careers in public affairs, education, business, sales, service industries, health, the biological sciences, and computer programming. Employment options include roles as employment counselors, interviewers, personnel analysts, probation officers, and writers.

A Master’s degree in psychology typically requires two years of graduate-level coursework and a thesis. Graduates can continue their education with a doctoral degree or find employment in consulting, market research, government, universities, or the private sector as counselors, researchers, data collectors, or analysts. Most Master’s degrees in psychology specialize in clinical, counseling, or industrial and organizational psychology.

Doctoral degrees in psychology include the Ph.D., EdD, and PsyD, each requiring five to seven years of study. Accreditation is necessary for those pursuing a career in health services. A PhD is typically research-focused, while a PsyD is designed for clinical work. Graduates can pursue various careers in research, justice, space and aeronautics, sports, and other fields.

Each state performs licensing and regulation for mental health practitioners, and presenting oneself as licensed without holding such a license is illegal. Practitioners who need a license cannot bill insurance companies, for example. The American Psychological Association provides information on state licensure requirements.

In addition to state laws, the American Psychological Association also mandates its members to abide by its published Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. Furthermore, the American Board of Professional Psychology certifies psychologists who demonstrate competency in approved specialty areas of professional psychology.

3. Therapy

What is therapy?

The term ‘therapy’ is a broad one that can be applied to a range of different treatments, but in the context of mental health, it is often used to refer specifically to psychotherapy.

Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, psychological therapy, or talking therapy, utilizes psychological methods, typically through personal interaction, to assist individuals in modifying behavior, increasing happiness, and overcoming problems.

Therapy aims to improve mental health and well-being, alleviate challenging behaviors, beliefs, compulsions, thoughts, or emotions, and enhance social skills and relationships.

Hundreds of psychotherapy techniques are available, some minor variations and others grounded in completely different psychological concepts. With such a broad range of therapies available, there are multiple options to suit various client types, including individual adults, families, or children and adolescents. Many are supported by extensive scientific research and evidence for treating specific diagnosed mental disorders.

Most psychotherapy sessions are one-on-one between the client and therapist, while some occur in groups, including families.

What are the main types of psychotherapy?

There are five main categories of psychotherapy approaches.

  1. The first is psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapies, which involve uncovering unconscious meanings and motivations to address problematic behaviors, thoughts, and emotions.
  2. Another approach is behavior therapy, which focuses on the aspects of learning and conditioning that shape behaviors. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most popular types of behavioral therapy. It involves looking at the interaction between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to do something differently.
  3. Relatedly, cognitive therapy emphasizes changing dysfunctional thinking to improve emotions and behaviors. This approach emphasizes individuals’ ability to make rational choices and reach their full potential while emphasizing respect and concern for others.
  4. Humanistic therapy emphasizes personal growth and choice. This includes person-centered therapy, which highlights the patient as an expert in their own life. Gestalt therapy stresses the importance of being present in the moment and taking responsibility for oneself. Existential therapy focuses on free will, self-determination, and the quest for significance.
  5. Finally, integrative or holistic therapy blends elements from various approaches to customize treatment for each client’s unique needs.

How do you become a therapist?

As therapy is a type of treatment, therapists may come from various backgrounds. Typically, therapists are qualified mental health professionals, including psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, clinical social workers, mental health nurses, marriage and family therapists, or professional counselors.

Aside from the above professions, therapists may come from diverse backgrounds. Other mental health practitioners, such as social workers, counselors, pastoral counselors, and nurses with mental health specializations, also commonly provide psychotherapy.

Psychotherapy training programs and institutional settings often involve a multi-professional approach. Postgraduate psychotherapy training typically takes four years, with supervised practice and clinical placements at the master’s or doctoral level. Mental health professionals specializing in psychotherapy require continuing education following their basic professional training.

Therapists and their regulation may vary depending on jurisdiction, with some being legally regulated, voluntarily regulated, or unregulated, and the term itself being protected or unprotected.

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Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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