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What’s the Difference Between a Psychiatrist and a Therapist?

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What’s the Difference Between a Psychiatrist and a Therapist?

writtenByWritten by: Ryan Quinn
Ryan Quinn

Ryan Quinn

Ryan has a background in geochemical research and enjoys writing on technical subjects like health and science. He lives in Salt Lake City, UT and can be found recreating in the local mountains.

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reviewBy Reviewed by: Amy Kaplan, LCSW
Reviewer

Amy Kaplan, LCSW

Amy Kaplan is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, specializing in the treatment of depression, anxiety and trauma. Ms. Kaplan earned a BA with Distinction in Psychology from Penn State University and a Masters Degree in Social Work from California State University, Long Beach. Her extensive experience in the mental health field since 1997 includes inpatient and outpatient settings as a psychotherapy provider, clinical supervisor and mental health consultant. With the use evidenced-based treatment, Ms. Kaplan helps those she works with learn how to use their inner strengths and lead a more balanced life.

August 3, 2021 Read Time - 6 minutes

When it comes to choosing a behavioral and mental health care provider, terminology can get confusing. So, what is the difference between a Therapist and a Psychiatrist? 

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a therapist is “a practitioner of psychotherapy.”

By that definition, a psychiatrist is a therapist, but a therapist is not necessarily a psychiatrist. Generally, “therapist” refers to a professional, licensed mental health counselor, who can diagnose and treat mental health disorders, with a specific title gained through education, experience, and state board certification.

To further add to the confusion, a therapist’s title varies by location and specialty. Many people use the terms “counselor” and “therapist” interchangeably, although they have different connotations, and adding Psychologists and Psychiatrists into the mix brings additional questions.

Psychologists, licensed therapists, and Psychiatrists all have training in psychotherapy (also called talk-therapy), but each title is unique and says something about their education, experience, and approach. Let’s take a closer look.

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Counselors

The terms “counseling” and “counselor” are the most general. A counselor is simply “a person who gives advice or counseling.” In that sense, anybody can be a counselor and can provide counsel in any area of life and it does not require any special certification!

The word “counseling” frequently describes individuals with training in psychotherapy, but true to the definition, it also applies to contexts outside of mental health. When “counseling” refers to therapy and mental health, it usually indicates the treatment of mental health symptoms.

What Is a Therapist?

“Therapy” is also a general term used in many contexts (art therapy, chemotherapy, physical therapy, pet therapy, etc.). The word “Psychotherapy,” on the other hand, usually refers to someone who provides talk-therapy in the field of mental health. In mental health, ‘therapy’ is associated with short term or long-term treatment of broad issues such as depression.

Professional counselors and therapists earn a professional license through an advanced education degree such as a Masters or PhD, post degree work experience in the field, and then the passing of a licensing exam by their state’s licensing board in that field. Each state typically has their own licensing board with unique requirements. . 

The most common types of professional therapists are Licensed Professional Counselors, Licensed Marriage and Family Counselors, and Licensed Clinical Social Workers. These professions require a master’s degree in counseling marriage and family therapy, or Social Work.

Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)

Licensed Professional Counselors provide mental health counseling with a particular focus. They focus on a collaborative approach, which means they work together with a patient to make goals, strive towards behavioral change, and improve mental health.

Different states have different regulations, laws, and licensure procedures to become a Licensed Professional Counselor. Because of this, the title of an LPC varies from state-to-state. Some common titles for the same role include:

  • Licensed Professional Counselor (LPCs)
  • Licensed Mental Health Counselors (LMHCs)
  • Licensed Clinical Professional Counselors (LCPCs)
  • Licensed Professional Clinical Counselors (LPCCs)
  • And others

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists are similar in practice to a Licensed Professional Counselor, but the educational requirements and coursework is different, and there are different licensing requirements for therapists who specialize in marriage and family compared to LPCs in many states. Despite their specialization, LMFTs can also provide therapy for individuals, and LPCs can offer counseling to married couples and families.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

Licensed Clinical Social Workers specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders, and their educational background also focuses on case management and external factors like society, economy, career, home, and community. LCSWs are often used in hospitals, outpatient settings and private practice.

A Licensed Clinical Social Worker not only treats mental illness, but also can help a patient connect with external resources. A Licensed Clinical Social Worker’s specialties might include public health, family counseling, substance abuse, criminal justice, in addition to mental health and more.

What Is a Psychiatrist?

A Psychiatrist is a medical doctor (MD or DO) specializing in mental health treatment through medication and psychotherapy. A few characteristics make psychiatrists unique.

  • They are the only type of therapist who can prescribe medications.
  • They have completed four years of medical school, a one-year internship, and a three-year residency program.
  • They are interested in the relationship between physiology and mental health. This interest is what causes psychiatrists to treat mental illness by using medication to treat physical stimuli. A psychiatrist might measure blood pressure, weight, blood sugar, or other physical signals to gauge mental health conditions.

Psychiatrists focus on medication management, but they can also provide psychotherapy or counseling.

Even though they are qualified to offer psychotherapy, some psychiatrists refer their patients who need psychotherapy to a therapist or psychologist.

  • Browse our network of top therapist to find one that matches your needs.

  • Get private and secure emotional support weekly from your dedicated therapist.

  • Experience comprehensive care with unlimited access to your care team and primary care physician.

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What Is a Psychologist?

A Psychologist is also a doctor, but they have a Ph.D. or PsyD instead of an MD or DO. Psychologists specialize in behaviors, mental health, psychology research and how these influence each other.

  • Psychologists cannot prescribe medication.
  • Typically only Psychologists can perform testing.
  • Psychologists as well as LCSWs and MFTs have usually completed a one to two-year internship after completing their degree.
  • Psychologists are often interested in behavioral patterns such as sleeping, eating, and thinking.

Please Note: PlushCare does not have online psychiatrists at this time. That said, our primary care physicians are able to prescribe mental health medications such as antidepressants, and if necessary can provide you with a referral to a psychiatrist.

Should I See a Psychiatrist or Therapist?

If you’re looking for help, knowing where to start can be tricky. Online therapy and Psychiatry can be helpful resources for those who aren’t sure what they need. The convenience and ease of online appointments make getting help easy, and an online Psychiatrist can provide necessary medication just as an in-person psychiatrist might.  

PlushCare offers online therapy services. Our online therapists can provide high-quality support for anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns.

While PlushCare does not have online Psychiatrists available directly to patients at this time, currently our primary care doctors can prescribe mental health medications and, if necessary, consult can provide you with a referral to a psychiatrist.

If you want to learn more about online mental health care, check out our article about how to speak to an online psychiatrist

To find a therapist at PlushCare and get started, book an online therapy appointment here.


Read More About Online Psychiatry


Sources:

PlushCare is dedicated to providing you with accurate and trustworthy health information.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Learn About Mental Health. Accessed January 26, 2018 at https://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/learn/index.htm 

National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Psychotherapies. Accessed July 16th, 2021 at  https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/psychotherapies/index.shtml 

Medical Associates of Northwest Arkansas. Therapist vs. Psychologist vs. Psychiatrist: What’s the Difference? Accessed January 21, 2021 at https://www.mana.md/psychologist-psychiatrist-or-therapist/ 

Most PlushCare articles are reviewed by M.D.s, Ph.Ds, N.P.s, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. Click here to learn more and meet some of the professionals behind our blog. The PlushCare blog, or any linked materials are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment. For more information click here.

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